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Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. It is in the second context that he describes that the Government are considering a vaccination policy, but we have not yet decided whether such a policy would help us with our disease eradication proposal. The Government have no intention whatever of generally vaccinating livestock in Great Britain. I cannot envisage our undertaking such a policy.
My understanding of the outbreak in Heddon- on-the-Wall and in my hon. Friend's constituency in Newcastle is the same as his: that his constituents were affected by the plume that rose from the intensively farmed pigs that had the disease, we now know, for two, perhaps three, weeks.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If the Minister is so convinced that the outbreak did not begin before 19 February, how come the sheep that left Great Britain on 31 January, shipped by Mr. Hugues Inizan, arrived in France and were tested positive by the French authorities?
Mr. Brown: It is perfectly possible that those sheep lay over in a lairage with, or after, sheep carrying the virus, or at least the antibodies, when they arrived in France. In other words, there are explanations as to the route by which the infectivity was brought there, other than the conspiracy theory that it was in our country before the beginning of February. I have looked quite hard at this question and I must tell the hon. Gentleman and others that there is not a shred of evidence that the first outbreak was the result of anything other than events at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): I strongly support my right hon. Friend's decision to appoint Brigadier Birtwhistle to take control of part of this exercise, in Cumbria. He is doing a first-class job, along with his 118 troops, and he is inspiring confidence in the population.
There is growing support for ring vaccination in Cumbria. Can my right hon. Friend ensure the future of the Herdwick sheep, the future of which worries us because they play such an important part in land management in the county?
Mr. Brown: I understand the very special points about Herdwick sheep, and I tried to refer to them, and the principles more generally, in an earlier answer. Yes, we will do what we can to preserve the Herdwick sheep, but that action must be compatible with the rest of the disease containment strategy. That is a reason, although I have to tell my hon. Friend that it is a subsidiary one, why we might consider a vaccination strategy in the localised circumstances in Cumbria, but I emphasise that we are not there yet and any decision will be made in discussion
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister recall that the first revelation appears to have been in Essex, not in Northumberland, so there is something of a question mark about the extent to which sufficient analysis was done, by officials or others and/or by Northumberland county council, in respect of the Heddon incident? That matter needs to be properly investigated. No doubt the Minister is giving the best answers that he can on the basis of the best evidence that he has at the moment, but will he give a guarantee to the House that a public inquiry will be held in due course, so that everyone can be fully satisfied that the statements made so far can be verified?
Mr. Brown: There has already been an inquiry into the matter. The farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall was farm No. 4 in the order of infected premises. It was discovered as a suspect on a Thursday and confirmed on the Friday morning, when Parliament was in recess. In fact, I telephoned the Prime Minister that day--he was in the United States--and we had the movement restrictions imposed, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, by 5.30 that afternoon, so we acted pretty promptly. The issue is that disease was incubating on those premises for a fortnight, perhaps three weeks. In other words, it had been present; it had not been reported to the Ministry; it had formed a plume and we now know that other animals had been infected, including those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and in that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to Carlisle yesterday, meeting the MAFF staff and seeing the excellent work that they have done, together with the vets and the Army. I understand that Brigadier Birtwhistle is due to retire in a week's time, so I hope that good offices will prevail and that he will be kept there for a little longer. There is dispute in Cumbria about vaccination, but people want clarity. Although we must take the right decision on vaccination, will my right hon. Friend try to take that decision as speedily as possible, so the options become available to Cumbrian farmers?
Mr. Brown: I give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I also promise to return to his constituency to discuss the issue personally with farmers' leaders before any decision is taken. It is an important decision; it affects the livelihoods of those in my hon. Friend's constituency, as well as those in neighbouring constituencies. I will return to Carlisle, and I will discuss the issue very carefully with farmers before any decision is made. I will also make it abundantly clear precisely what the decision is; in which circumstances, if at all, vaccination would be used; and what the exit strategy would be for the animals.
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I am sure that the Minister will agree that one of the most important things for farmers is to have information. Much of my constituency is now in an exclusion zone. Pig farmers and other livestock farmers need to know when and if they can move their animals to slaughter, or whether there will be welfare slaughter schemes. In fairness, they are getting no information at all. They cannot get any information from MAFF. They asked the NFU, but the NFU local secretary tells me that he cannot get any information. When I have tabled parliamentary questions to Ministers on their behalf, I have received the reply:
Mr. Brown: We have been quite successful in getting a fair bit of the domestic livestock industry back to some form of movement. I accept that it is not taking place under normal conditions; the licensing requirements are tight, severe and bureaucratic. However--believe me--if unlicensed movements of livestock were taking place throughout the country, the chances of eliminating the disease would be dramatically diminished. I know that people find the licensing regime burdensome, but I assure the House that it is necessary.
There is a whole, separate set of questions about the welfare disposal scheme which is designed to help farmers in circumstances in which the animals cannot move through the trade and cannot be managed locally. I agree that there have been teething troubles, but we are trying to resolve them. Potentially, the scheme will be very popular.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My right hon. Friend will know that we have a major outbreak in the Berkeley area of my constituency where seven farms have already been infected. We are now about to embark on the proactive cull. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend define what is meant exactly by contiguous holdings, because the issue is causing concern? Will he also tell us how the chain of information goes to such holdings, because there have been difficulties in the way in which that has taken place? Will he consider the issue of disposal, because we must get on top of that problem very quickly--and will he also consider the role of slaughterhouses in areas of infectivity, because they have a major influence on what animals can move and where?
Infected premises will be slaughtered out within 24 hours; that is the target that we have set and, as I have said before, it is the single most important intervention that we can make. There is a target of 48 hours for the contiguous premises, but clearly veterinary resources have to be prioritised. Infected premises--including any that might exist in other parts of my hon. Friend's county--
My hon. Friend asked about the definition of contiguous premises. It covers those that border the infected farm holding, but it is possible to make a case in exceptional circumstance. However, the circumstances must be exceptional--the general rule is that the animals are to be culled out.