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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Has the right hon. Gentleman discussed the possibilities with the president of the British Veterinary Association? I was speaking to him at lunchtime and got the distinct impression that no such discussions had taken place and that the private sector could probably help a great deal if it was asked to do so.
Mr. Brown: The private sector has been asked to help. The communications take place between the chief vet and the president of the association, so the chief vet, not I myself, would conduct those discussions. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House earlier today, the rates of pay offered for the work have been increased, and I hope that the new rates will be attractive to some vets in the private sector.
Many of this country's approximately 22,000 vets are in private practice, especially in small animal practices that they have built up themselves over many years, and it is not easy for them to put their private work to one side and suddenly work temporarily for the Government and then return to private practice. I appeal to those vets who can help to do so. We have upped the rates of pay to try to make the work more attractive, and I hope that that helps.
The Leader of the Opposition's fourth suggestion was to make more use of burial to dispose of carcases. We already use burial, but, admittedly, in a small number of cases. We are in favour of using burial where appropriate, but I should tell the House about the constraints on doing so. There are geological factors, such as the risk of contaminating water sources and, especially in the Cumbrian hills--as those who know the area will readily accept--there is shallow top soil with granite underneath, which makes burial not such an attractive option. Herds and flocks are much larger compared with 1967, so much larger burial sites would be needed. We are working closely with the Environment Agency to identify and use suitable landfill sites for the burial of carcases.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is it true that the divisional veterinary officer for Cumbria has sought for weeks to assure Ministers that everything was under control and that resources were available when, in fact, it now turns out that what he was saying was simply untrue and was misleading Ministers?
Mr. Brown: That is not a fair picture of events. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall spell out what we are doing to reinforce the normal state veterinary service presence in Cumbria, so that we have a veterinary and a non-veterinary team sufficient to tackle the growing task there.
Burning and burial are not the only disposal routes; we are also using rendering plants. Four plants are already operating, and we intend to have six in use by the end of the week. We also plan to use dedicated slaughterhouses and rendering for at-risk animals that do not have the clinical symptoms of foot and mouth, but those abattoirs will, of course, have to be specifically dedicated to the task.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for all that he is doing to deal with the situation, but can he assure the House that he is now able to make an order to ban the spreading of liquid condensate, which relates to rendering plants? I understand that the consultation period finished on 5 March, and that nothing now prevents him from making that order.
Mr. Brown: That is a slightly separate issue. My hon. Friend has long and tirelessly pressed Ministers on that matter. I am not certain about the condensate issue because I have been fully engaged in the disease control
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister has described the problem of finding enough vets, and we appreciate the efforts that he is making, but earlier this afternoon the Prime Minister said that there was no shortage of slaughtermen. I assume that the Minister endorses that statement, so can he explain why the list of animals awaiting slaughter is increasing? By virtue of the fact that they are on that list, a vet has already seen them and diagnosed the disease. If there are sufficient slaughtermen, why cannot they go in almost straight behind the vet?
Mr Brown: That is a fair question; I intend to deal with it once I have finished with the points made by the Leader of the Opposition. This is at the heart of the debate: how can we provide a better service, get the affected animals killed quickly, proceed with the proactive culling of animals that are at risk, and remove the carcases expeditiously?
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the rendering plant at Halton means that transport travelling south to north and from north Wales comes close to my constituency. Is he satisfied that the vehicles used are sealed properly, or is another urban myth going around given the stories in the local press suggesting that animals legs are sticking out of the trucks?
Mr. Brown: If anyone sees an arrangement that he believes to be unauthorised or wrong, he should note it and note the licence plate of the vehicle involved. I promise that I will have the matter checked. The whole disease control situation is now awash with urban legends. I understand how they arise, but they do not help. I am satisfied that the transport protocols are sufficiently robust to keep the risk of spreading the disease to an absolute minimum.
The real risks of spreading the disease are the movements of people and vehicles from sites of infectivity and the unauthorised movement of animals. Even if people think that no risks are involved because the animals look healthy, they may not be. If they are incubating the virus, moving them will cause it to spread. I urge people not to do that.
Sir Michael Spicer: Does the Minister accept that the facilities for rendering are quite inadequate? I know about the position in Worcestershire--the nearest rendering plant is in Exeter, which is three to four hours away. Two lorries are trying to deal with thousands of carcases, but it will take several weeks to clear the area. The Minister must give an absolute assurance that he will take a specific decision within 24 hours to deal with the problem by burial. Rendering is simply not sufficient to cope with the problems in Worcestershire.
Mr. Brown: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about disposal routes. A range of alternatives is available, and when burial can be used, it will be. However, I shall say a little more later in my speech about how we intend to manage the intensified outbreak in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents and the areas linked to it. I might have something new to say to him.
I wish to deal with the point that the Leader of the Opposition perfectly properly raised about bringing in soldiers to help with the slaughter of animals and the disposal of carcases. As of yesterday, Army logistic support teams have been deployed at MAFF's request in Cumbria and Devon. More than 70 members of the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales Own Regiment have been deployed to Carlisle and up to 130 members of the Royal Military Police, contributing logistical expertise, will be available to deploy to Exeter. Their role is to enhance command and control and to provide supervision of the disposal process. They will get it better organised and that will free up veterinary time.
The soldiers will supplement MAFF's regional staff in the co-ordination of contractor teams already involved in disposing of carcases. That will speed up the disposal process and release vets to tackle the spread of the disease. We are keeping the position under review, and I must stress again that any Government resource that can help will be used.
I also wish to deal with the Leader of the Opposition's proposal for a business rate holiday for rural businesses. I am pleased, as I know that most Members are, that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was able to announce a preliminary package of measures--I stress that it is a preliminary package--to help affected rural businesses, including three months relief from business rates.
We are taking further action to speed up the Government's response to the disease. Incidentally, I take no personal affront at the hon. Member for South Suffolk chiding me on these matters. Yes, we need to do better, and that is what we are setting out to do. We are doing all that we can to free up vets so that they can concentrate solely on veterinary matters; we are looking to take on more veterinary surgeons as temporary veterinary inspectors; and revised remuneration arrangements have now been finalised and are being announced later today.
We have put in place two senior officials as directors of operations--one in Cumbria and the other in Devon--and they are able officials drawn from the heart of the Ministry. I can also tell the House that the permanent secretary agreed this morning to appoint a director of operations for the west of England. We are creating the post with immediate effect and it will be located at the Worcester office. The role will be exactly the same as that carried out in Cumbria and in Exeter, and it will be at grade 5 level. We will keep under review the need to reproduce that arrangement elsewhere.
To contain the problem in areas other than Devon and Cumbria, we are acting on a recommendation of the chief vet and negotiating with the Ministry of Defence to secure Army support in Gloucester, Worcester and Stafford. With our colleagues in the devolved authority, we are urgently considering the need to do that in Dumfries and Lanarkshire. Follow-up action is being taken with the Ministry of Defence. That is the latest position.
Some hon. Members will know that I was in the Agriculture Committee all morning, so I am not as fully briefed as usual. However, I knew that the House would want to know that the new logistical structures are being put in place where the permanent secretary believes that to be necessary. I wholeheartedly support what he is doing. The reason for the new arrangements is to ensure that the slaughtermen, of whom we believe we have
We have taken measures to ensure that the valuation of animals before they are slaughtered does not cause unnecessary delay. Again, later today I plan to introduce arrangements to make it possible for animals that are subject to compulsory slaughter to be valued according to a standard valuation tariff. As it is a generous tariff, people will be tempted to accept it rather than go to valuation and arbitration. That will speed up the system and, frankly, put more cash in hard-hit sheep farmers' pockets. That is my intention.