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Mr. Brown: I am trying to be courteous to the House. If I sense that the mood is that I should now make progress with my speech, no one would be happier than me, except possibly the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery).
I should like to deal with the question of vaccination of animals. I have arranged for a presentation for journalists who are covering the issue on 10 o'clock on Friday. Again, I extend an invitation to hon. Members to come to that presentation in my Ministry; they are all welcome. However, I will repeat the presentation and mount another on the epidemiology next week or later, depending on when the epidemiology is available for presentation. I believe that many hon. Members have an interest in that.
Of course vaccination remains an option, but the current veterinary advice to me is that that is not the way that we should proceed at the moment. I must not rule it out, but I do not intend to use it in the near future. My position has the full support of the Agriculture Council, to which I gave a report in Brussels on Monday. The other member states are in agreement with our disease control measures. Commissioner Byrne is planning to write to all European Union Agriculture Ministers, setting out the Commission's approach to vaccination. When I receive his letter, I shall put it in the Library so that all Members can see what the Commission is telling member states.
I have been keeping everyone informed, not just the Council of Ministers. In addition to my statements to the House and my appearance before the Select Committee on Agriculture this morning, all Members of Parliament have been written to with advice on relevant sources of information, including the helpline and website. A daily update on the disease situation is being placed in the Libraries of the House and a mechanism has been put in place to ensure that Members are informed directly as soon as a case is confirmed in their constituencies.
The disease is a tragedy for all those affected, whether directly or indirectly. I am enormously grateful for the work of the state veterinary service and local authorities, and for the support of the farming organisations, many other organisations and the general public. I appeal to everyone to continue to work together. I am grateful for the consensual bipartisan approach that the House has taken so far. Working together, we can succeed in bearing down on the disease, which should not divide us. In so doing, we can achieve the Government's objective of regaining our disease-free status and, once we have done so, keeping it.
During the unfolding tragedy of foot and mouth disease, which has had incalculable effects on the agriculture industry and so many other rural businesses, we must bear in mind that dissention, whether it occurs on political grounds, within the farming industry or among those trying to deal with the outbreak, is the enemy of effective progress. We must not fall into that trap. Equally, however, it is right for all hon. Members to express our constituents' concerns. We often speak in the House about fear of crime being as bad as crime itself. In this instance, fear of the disease is almost as bad as the disease itself, because of its effects on members of the rural community. They feel that the sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads and are not sure whether, the next day or week, their business will be for ever ruined by the disease.
The Government should have four clear objectives in dealing with the crisis. First, the obvious primary objective is containment and eradication of the disease. I hope that nothing is done in any sphere of central or local government to jeopardise that objective. Secondly, we must deal with the welfare not only of livestock, but of people who are involved in rural industries, which is equally important and concerns all of us. Thirdly, we must in the short term establish the viability of as many businesses as possible, whether or not they are farm businesses. Effective short-term measures are needed to improve cash flow and to provide security. Finally, we must work on reconstruction, about which the Minister made some significant points. I do not believe that this is the right time to speak in detail about the reconstructive measures that are needed within the agriculture industry, but we must realise that that is our next port of call.
May I express yet again my support for some of the difficult decisions that the Minister has made during the past few weeks? I should like also to express gratitude and recognition--I hope that I do so on behalf of all hon. Members--in respect of the extraordinary efforts that are being made by so many MAFF officials and veterinary surgeons, as well as by people in the farming community and elsewhere who are trying to deal with the situation.
Mr. Burnett: While the Minister of Agriculture is in the House, I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware of how marvellous a job is being done by MAFF's vets and other employees on the ground. I heard this morning from a constituent whose animals have been slaughtered and to whom the vet and MAFF officials were very helpful. The vet, a Mr. Bud Boyd, came from Texas. He was not only incredibly sympathetic, but was immensely supportive of the farming family, who were enormously grateful to him.
Having expressed our support for what local people and the ministerial team are doing, we must now turn to the deficiencies in the arrangements. Although we support the objectives and, to a large extent, the strategy, we are aware that there have been holes in the implementation.
A substantial amount of evidence suggests that the contingency planning was not equal to the task. That is a criticism not of those who are trying to implement the plans, but of long-term emergency planning arrangements between MAFF, other Departments and non-governmental departments. Ample evidence shows that those arrangements were inadequate or not in place.
Mr. Nick Brown: That is not unfair criticism. I had hoped to have new directors in place in Government regional offices to improve co-ordination between the Ministry and other departments in the regions. Without the outbreak of the disease, we could have moved seamlessly to establish the arrangements. We had recognised the problem, and we are acting to put it right.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful for that intervention, and for the Minister's recognition that my criticism was not unfair; I never make unfair criticisms. I am trying to make constructive criticisms to improve matters for the future.
Elements of the basic planning give slight cause for concern, for example, the difficulty of sourcing disinfectant in the first week of the outbreak, and the sudden realisation of the existence of a wider range of appropriate disinfectant products than the original list contained. The annual updating of contingency plans might have avoided the problem. There was a failure to use community pharmacies as a potential source of disinfectant. Pharmacological authorities brought to the Government's attention the fact that, when the agricultural suppliers had run out of advice and materials, other sources existed in many rural areas.
Hauliers reported to me that, in the first week of the outbreak, they drove to and from the continent and there were no disinfectant wheel baths at Folkestone or Dover. We therefore had the potential to export the disease to continental Europe.
For a long time, local authorities were unclear about their powers to close rights of way, bridleways and open areas. There is a further anxiety, which I would put to the Minister for the Environment if he were present. During consideration of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, I tabled amendments that would have allowed closure to deal with zoonoses. The Government rejected them and substituted an amendment that covered only human health. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that provision before the next epidemic so that we do not suddenly find that we have no means of closing areas that are open under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I make no apology for heaping praise on local government officers again. Trading standards officers as well as those in charge of rights of way have borne much of the pressure. If my county is typical, those officers have met almost daily to
Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that he agrees that there are great differences between local authorities in the extent of emergency planning and the environmental health advice that they are offered. Relatively few county councils have a scientific department, which could provide the sort of advice that elected representatives need to deal with such a crisis.
We are trying to deal with a veterinary crisis without many of the Government vets who should be in place. That is a criticism not of the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister, but of decisions that were taken earlier to halve the number of vets in the Government service. That has greatly weakened our ability to respond to this crisis.