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5.26 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on holding this afternoon's debate. It is the first chance that the House has had to consider foot and mouth disease after a two and a half week gap, part of which was the Easter recess. It is disappointing that in the nine weeks since the crisis started, there has not yet been a single debate in the House in Government time. There have been two full days of debate provided by the Conservative Opposition, and now half a day provided by the Liberal Democrats. Whether, contrary to what the Minister of State said, that reflects some reluctance on the Government's part to deal with the issues in Parliament and to be accountable to Parliament, others will judge.

I warmly welcome the more hopeful signs that have emerged in the past few days in relation to the scale of the crisis. Any progress that is being made towards getting control of the outbreak is very good news. I shall examine in a moment the extent of that progress and the reasons why it may have taken place.

In the two and a half weeks since the House last debated foot and mouth disease, there have continued to be a great many heart-rending stories of its tragic effects. I am sure that the entire House will want to join me in sending a clear message of sympathy and support to every family in the land who have suffered as a result of the disease or who may still face a threat from foot and mouth disease as it approaches their farm. That support must also extend, as the right hon. Lady said, to those who are working to contain the outbreak and clear up the terrible backlog of animals awaiting slaughter and of carcases awaiting disposal.

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That backlog results directly from the Government's failure to act more promptly and effectively in the early stages of the crisis. It results from their refusal to bring in the Army at the time when we suggested it, and their refusal then to give the Army full control of operations on the ground, which seems to be happening belatedly and by stealth. The efforts made by service personnel, as well as by vets, slaughtermen and many others at the sharp end, are very much appreciated.

This week's news that a human case of foot and mouth disease may have occurred is, however, a worrying new development. The risks to personnel who are dealing with carcase disposal, and in particular with carcases that may explode, cannot be ignored. I hope that the Government will review the procedures that are being followed in order to minimise the risk of further human cases of foot and mouth disease.

I need hardly say that the confirmation that foot and mouth disease can affect humans, which contrasts with some earlier official statements and assurances, risks undermining some of the efforts that have been made in the past couple of weeks to boost the fortunes of our flagging tourism industry.

Ms Quin: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's comment is justified. He will know that there is on record a case of foot and mouth that occurred in a human in the 1967 outbreak. Thus, although such an occurrence is extremely rare, it is not impossible, and I do not think that anyone has said otherwise.

Mr. Yeo: I am afraid that one of the mistakes that the Government have made almost throughout the crisis is to sound too optimistic and complacent about what is happening. Those of us who genuinely have the long-term interests of the tourism industry and rural businesses at heart know that nothing causes more damage than raising false expectations, which especially affect the tourism market, whether in north America or elsewhere. It was claimed frequently that the disease was under control when the number of cases was a tiny fraction of that which was reached at the end of March, but the fact that those claims were so patently unfounded at the time when they were made has reduced the effectiveness of the efforts of Ministers and other officials to try to rebuild confidence. Ignoring problems that are occurring, such as the one to which I have just referred, does nothing whatever to stimulate demand for visits to this country in places such as north America.

At the start of April, I set out the four criteria that should be used to judge whether the crisis has been resolved. First, the number of confirmed cases that arise daily should be on a clear downward trend. Secondly, the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target time for infected animals should be met. Thirdly, the geographical spread of the disease should be reversed. Fourthly, the movement restrictions on healthy animals should be lifted. When all four criteria have been achieved, farming can be said to have returned to normal. [Interruption.] I hear someone on the Labour Benches saying that all those conditions have been met. I can only say that that is an extraordinarily ignorant comment, and exactly the sort of remark about which I complained earlier. Anyone who has travelled in the countryside, especially in the west country, will know such a view is very far from correct.

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Let us examine each criterion. First, as the Minister of State pointed out, progress has now been made on the number of cases that are confirmed daily. That is good news. However, will she or the Minister for the Environment tell us whether the presentation of today's figures is consistent with that of earlier ones? On Monday, Baroness Hayman wrote to my noble Friend Baroness Byford. Her letter stated that, although there had been 1,435 confirmed cases, there were 5,385 affected farms, so the number of farmers whose animals are being slaughtered is obviously substantially greater than the number of confirmed cases. On the same day, the chief veterinary officer was giving different figures to the Agriculture Committee. In view of that discrepancy, will the Minister of State confirm that no change has been made to the basis on which the figures are calculated?

On the second of my four criteria--the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target for infected animals--progress has again clearly been made, but it is hard to judge precisely how much, as the daily data for the past few days do not appear entirely credible. After several weeks when the daily reports suggested that approximately 30,000 to 40,000 animals a day were being slaughtered, Government figures appeared to claim that 700,000 animals were slaughtered in four days. That is approximately five times the rate that had been achieved previously.

After weeks of carcase disposals at a maximum rate of 40,000 a day, Government figures suggested that more than 1 million carcases were disposed of in five days. I assume that the figures involved some catching up, and that under-recording in the earlier period has led to bunching. However, that reduces the value of the figures, at least for the time being. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could confirm that the basis for the calculations has not been changed. I hope that that is case. If so, perhaps the Government could publish backdated daily figures that incorporate the revisions so that we can judge the trend. We cannot do that at the moment because of the bunching. If the data have been revised, it should be possible to produce more accurate daily figures. That would enable us to judge the trend more confidently.

The daily figures are relevant to assessing whether the target of 24 hours from report to slaughter is being met. I hope that information will continue to be given to hon. Members. On three occasions during the last three days before the Easter recess, I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for an assurance that daily statistics would be published throughout the recess. We received no answer to those requests, and the daily figures were discontinued in the first week. After several days of widely reported protests from the Conservative party and others who were worried about the matter, the Government relented and began publishing the daily totals again. Discontinuing the information makes it hard to judge what the current pattern shows. Figures should be published on the same basis as in the early period.

It would also be helpful if the Government broke down the confirmed cases by constituency. I appreciate that individual Members of Parliament are notified, but if we are approaching a general election campaign, it is important to provide public information about the constituencies where cases are confirmed. Thus all the candidates can be informed in the same way as Members of Parliament are currently notified.

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The third criterion is the reversal of the geographical spread. Again, I acknowledge that some progress has been made and that the Government have published a list of areas that can be declared free of infection. However, some setbacks have occurred, for example, in Glamorgan, which was previously free of infection. The overall picture is therefore mixed. Matters are improving, but the trend is not all one way.

The fourth criterion covers the movement restrictions on healthy animals. Again, I welcome the steps that have been taken to reduce them, but the Minister of State knows that curbs remain in place in many areas. They are needed and it is right to maintain them. I agree that there is a risk of premature relaxation, for understandable reasons, and that there is much pressure to lift the restrictions. No one wants to make the mistake that was made in the previous outbreak, when restrictions were relaxed too quickly in some places. The disease might begin to spread again as a consequence. We therefore support the retention of controls until it is clearly safe to lift them.

However, until the restrictions are lifted, it cannot be said that farming has returned to normal. Many farmers are finding it difficult to run their businesses as they would like, taking account of the seasonal factors.

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