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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Leader of the House should be aware that we are now halfway through the Committee stage of the International Criminal Court Bill, which she has listed for completion on 9 May. The Committee is considering an 80-something clause Bill, but we are now debating clause 2 stand part. Before she says that our progress is the result of an Opposition filibuster, I point out that we are discussing immensely important matters. I made a speech during which 41 interventions were made, mostly by Labour Members. We were discussing the operation of the statute of Rome and its important consequences. We must have further debates about universal jurisdiction and diplomatic immunity, and provide an opportunity for the Government to explain to Amnesty International and others why there is no such provision. It is immensely important that the crucial issues that are involved continue to be fully and properly debated. Will she reconsider the timetabling of the final stages of the Bill for 9 May, so that we can extend the Committee stage and have a proper debate on them? That may also create an opportunity to discuss the office costs allowance and other matters.
Mrs. Beckett: I have not been following closely the progress of the Bill in Committee, but I shall make some inquiries about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Sadly, there is often difference of opinion among hon. Members about the time that is required to consider different aspects of proposed legislation, and I cannot undertake to take the decision that he suggests. Indeed, the House is bound by the programme motion that it carried. I shall, however, draw his remarks to the attention of the Minister who is in charge of the Bill.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Saturday 28 April is workers' memorial day, which draws attention to the fact that 335,000 workers worldwide lose their lives each year as a result of their work. Will she give some thought to the possibility of erecting a plaque to commemorate the
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the lives that are lost every year as a result of accidents and errors in the workplace. It is not for me to decide whether the House considers erecting a plaque, but he is right to draw our attention to the extent to which the issue should be of concern to hon. Members from all parties, as I am sure that it is.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Will the right hon. Lady consider with her ministerial colleagues the problem of unannounced visits by Ministers to other hon. Members' constituencies, which I fear might be a growing practice? She will remember our correspondence on the fact that she found herself at the canal museum in my constituency just before Easter without having let me know of her visit. I am sure that she inadvertently failed to do so, and when I remonstrated with her about the visit, I received a full and sufficient apology. Of course, I am not trying to pursue that. However, the incident gave rise to concern because the press and local councillors knew of the visit, but the Member of Parliament did not. My secretary tells me that it is possible for hon. Members to find out the postcode of any place on the parliamentary database in seconds or minutes. It is essential that Ministers take the point seriously.
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right, and Ministers take the point seriously. He said that he was sure that I visited his constituency without notifying him inadvertently. He knows that that is the case because that formed part of the explanation that I sent him. Unfortunately, my office, which is most assiduous and conscientious about such matters, was misinformed.
However, I fear that the hon. Gentleman's secretary is not wholly correct. I know from experience--not of the visit that we are considering--correspondence and advice given to constituents by advice bureaux that the postcode is not always an adequate identifier of constituencies. All Ministers' private offices always take steps to ensure that local Members of Parliament are notified of visits. I hope that the offices of Opposition Front-Bench Members take the same steps; I am not sure whether that is always the case. We shall continue to pursue the policy.
Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): I ask my right hon. Friend to seek assurances from Opposition Members about holding sensible debate on asylum issues, including during a pending general election campaign. In a council by-election that took place in my constituency last week, we retained a seat on a 4 per cent. swing to us. The Conservative candidate, whose name is Richard, but he likes to be called Dick, put out literature, which states:
As I did on eight occasions before the Easter break, and have done once already this week in a session with the Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I wish to update the House on the latest position on the disease, set out the measures that the Government are taking and give hon. Members the opportunity to raise points with me. I also wish to inform the House about the outcome of the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg this week and of my bilateral discussions there with the Dutch Agriculture Minister.
As of 11 am today, there had been 1,481 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease. For ease of reference, the House will wish to know that I am putting details of the number of cases in each constituency in the Library today. They will be updated daily. I am also making available to individual Members full details of the cases in their own constituencies, to supplement the early warning system that has been in place for some weeks.
More than 2 million animals have now been slaughtered for disease control purposes. Around three quarters are sheep, 20 per cent. are cattle and 5 per cent. are pigs. A further 475,000 animals have been slaughtered under the welfare slaughter scheme.
The latest figures show that 152,000 animals await slaughter and 218,000 carcases await disposal in Great Britain. The backlog of data not entered on the database that holds those figures has been greatly reduced. None the less, the figures still tend to overstate the position. There is a disposal backlog in Devon of around 85,000 animals and we are addressing that as a top priority. There are no significant disposal backlogs in other areas of the country.
We continue to work closely with the Department of Health on the public health issues surrounding the various disposal routes. There are no completely risk-free options. Updated and consolidated guidelines were published on Tuesday. The method of disposal in each case is the safest and most effective in the circumstances. The House will be aware that the numbers of confirmed cases continue to fall, week on week. From the highest point of 43 cases a day, on average, in the week ending 1 April, the average number of cases has fallen to 16 in the week to 22 April.
We have been able to lift restrictions in nine different areas where there have been no new cases for 30 days and thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. As a result, the tighter movement restrictions associated with infected areas have been lifted from some 5,000 sq km--l.25 million acres--of the country, affecting about 12,500 farms.
These figures show that we are continuing to bear down on the outbreak. We can be cautiously optimistic about the future course of the epidemic. The scientific advice was that the single most important action we should take against the spread of the disease was to reduce the time between report and slaughter to 24 hours. That has been our policy and it has been shown to be the right one.
The joint advice from the chief scientist and the chief vet follows detailed consultation with the veterinary profession and with the expert scientific group advising the Government on the course of the disease. This development is not, as some have reported, a relaxation; its purpose is to improve the achievement of the policy by refining the instructions given to staff in the field.
The key points are as follows: we will continue to kill all animals that are dangerous contacts, which will include animals on a significant number of neighbouring farms and beyond; on other contiguous premises, susceptible animals will be killed. Cattle may, however, be spared if there is adequate biosecurity. This will be a matter for local veterinary judgment, taking account of all the circumstances. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already published guidance--agreed with the veterinary profession--on the biosecurity measures that farmers can take to help protect their animals from infection. When cattle are not culled, they will be subject to regular veterinary patrols.
These refinements can be expected to provide some relief from automatic slaughter of cattle. They will not lead to a change in the policy of culling of pigs and sheep on contiguous premises. Pigs pose a high disease risk and can spread the virus. Sheep can carry the disease without showing symptoms, thereby causing further undetected spread.
Following consultation with interested parties, we shall be providing for the special circumstances of rare breeds of sheep, and of moorland and hefted flocks, based on tight biosecurity coupled with serological testing. Guidance on this will be issued to staff on the ground very shortly. These are complex matters of scientific and veterinary judgment. The new arrangements have to be right, to ensure that they meet real needs and contribute to, rather than hinder, disease control.
I would also like to update the House on the position regarding vaccination. The Government have given serious consideration to a cattle vaccination strategy in north Cumbria and possibly Devon, given the particular issues in those regions and, especially, the intensity of infection in certain areas and the forthcoming turnout of cattle from indoor housing to outdoor grazing. The Government accept the case for vaccinating cattle in those areas, but only if the vaccination programme is supported by a substantial majority of the farming community, by veterinarians, by the wider food industry and--I believe this to be crucial--by consumers.
As I told the Agriculture Committee on Monday, that level of support is simply not there, and the signs are that it will not now be achieved. Without that support, a vaccination programme would be very difficult to implement on the ground. We continue our discussions with all those who would be affected, but the case for a vaccination programme becomes less compelling as the number of daily confirmed cases and the weight of infection in the hotspot areas continues to fall.
The welfare disposal scheme has been established to deal with severe welfare problems arising from the FMD movement restrictions that cannot be dealt with by other means. I am glad that we have been able to extend progressively the options available to farmers to deal with welfare issues, and to re-establish routes for their perfectly healthy livestock to be sold into the food chain.
As of Monday of this week farmers within infected areas, but outside the 3 km protection zones surrounding infected premises, have been able to enter healthy livestock into the food chain. As a result of those changes, the vast majority of farmers have practicable alternatives to the welfare disposal scheme. I am confident that the rate of withdrawals from the welfare scheme backlog will accelerate as a result.
In the re-establishment of routes into the food chain across Great Britain as whole, it is imperative for the payment rates for the livestock welfare disposal scheme not to act as a disincentive to farmers by providing more attractive financial options than the market itself. In order to ensure that, I am announcing today that payment rates for categories of livestock normally slaughtered for meat or meat products have been revised. All animals collected for slaughter or slaughtered on-farm from Monday 30 April will receive the new payment rates.
The rates for cull and draft ewes, new season lamb, clean cattle, and pigs are being revised to a level that represents about 70 per cent. of current market prices. For hoggets and cull sows, a higher rate of 80 per cent. is being established. Arrangements have been put in hand to ensure that all who have animals killed under the scheme are aware of the financial returns they will receive before they formally hand over their animals. I still intend the scheme to be reviewed on 22 May; meanwhile, I shall discuss with the industry the separate market-related issues in respect of light lambs and cull sows that would normally have gone for export. It would be misleading to expect an early resumption of export markets, but taxpayers cannot be expected to buy out the problem.
In my statement on 27 March, I outlined a number of actions flowing from our initial assessment of the origins and spread of the disease. The consultation on the proposed ban on pigswill closed on 10 April. We received about 150 responses, nearly all of which favoured a ban. A number of detailed issues were raised; we are considering them as a matter of urgency, and I expect to make an announcement next week. We have also received a good many comments on our proposed 20-day standstill period, after movements on farms, for sheep, goats and cattle. Again, most representations are in favour, but a number of highly technical issues have emerged.
Because of the considerable interest that has been expressed, I have decided--in response to an explicit request from the National Farmers Union--to extend the consultation period for a further month from the initial deadline of 11 May. Cross-departmental examination of the controls on commercial and personal imports of meat and meat products is well under way, and I shall have more to say about the matter in the near future.
At this week's meeting of the Agriculture Council, I reported in full to EU colleagues the progress that we have made to combat FMD, and acknowledged the help given us by the Commission and other member states. As before, there was strong support for our efforts and those of my Dutch colleague, and for our determination to eradicate FMD. At my instigation and that of Laurens Brinkhorst, the EU will convene a conference later in the year to examine all aspects of our experience of this disease--in particular, that of the UK and the Netherlands--to help shape policy for the future, including vaccination policy.
Combating foot and mouth disease remains the Government's top priority, but as the disease is brought under control questions arise from farmers and others in the rural economy about options for the future. We therefore intend to work in partnership with farmers and others to identify ways of assisting the recovery of the farming sector. We shall focus in particular on farmers directly affected by FMD who face choices about their futures, and on the regions of the United Kingdom that have been hit hardest by FMD--especially, of course, Cumbria and Devon. As a first stage, the Government will concentrate on the need to provide high-quality, targeted business and agronomic advice to individual farmers, and will explore ways of improving marketing in the livestock sector, to the benefit of the whole food chain. The Government also intend to help livestock farmers to decide the optimum basis on which restocking should take place, taking into account the desirability of rebuilding flocks and herds that are high quality, disease-free, extensively reared and farmed in environmentally sustainable ways. As a further component of our recovery strategy, we shall work with the industry to develop insurance options against both animal disease and the economic consequences that disease brings, and we will share our thinking on that with our partners in the European Union.
Work to help farmers emerge from the crisis has begun, and will form part of the Government's long-term strategy for helping UK farming to restructure in sustainable, market-orientated and environmentally responsible ways; at the same time, it will take forward our policy for bringing about common agricultural policy reform.