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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Minister for making his lengthy statement available to me a little while before he made it in the House. I warmly welcome the improving picture that he has been able to paint of the state of the crisis and the spread of foot and mouth disease. I would like to take this opportunity to express again our warm appreciation of the work of all those service personnel, vets and others whose efforts on the ground, in the front line of tackling the crisis, have helped to reduce the spread of foot and mouth disease.
I shall start with the improvement in the figures, because that is crucial in assessing the progress that has been made and also, perhaps, in judging the merits of the other policy changes that the Minister has announced. The Minister will recall that before the Easter recess I asked twice for his assurance that daily figures for slaughter and disposal would continue to be published throughout the recess. In fact, the daily publication of the figures ceased and was resumed only after a substantial public outcry.
It is important now to know whether the basis on which the daily figures for slaughter and disposal are calculated has been changed. For example, let us consider the problem of carcase disposal in Devon. The NFU advised on Tuesday that the sudden fall in the number of carcases awaiting disposal in Devon was not because more carcases had actually been disposed of but because the Ministry changed the definition of disposal. Now, apparently, the Minister counts a carcase as disposed of once it has been moved to a disposal site. Few people who live or work within the sight or smell of such disposal sites would agree with that definition.
If the improvement that the Minister claims is partly achieved by redefining disposal, it casts doubt on some of his other claims too. If one set of figures is manipulated, are others any more trustworthy? The fact that the Minister prevented me from talking to vets in the Ministry's regional office in Exeter last week does not inspire confidence that the Government are being entirely open. Will the Minister therefore tell the House exactly what changes have been made to the way in which those figures are calculated? Since his Ministry now--rightly--makes use of independent epidemiologists, will he allow an independent statistician to audit the figures that have been published since the outbreak started?
The Minister announced a change of policy today and he will understand that many people, including farmers, will be surprised by the suddenness of a change, which, despite his description of it, most people will see as a relaxation. A few days ago, the Government wanted to start vaccinating, which suggests that they believed that existing policies to control foot and mouth disease were inadequate. Now the Minister proposes to relax those same policies. When was the new formal advice from the chief scientist and the chief veterinary officer, to which the Minister referred, given to him? Will the Minister publish that advice today? Since this change of policy was announced by No. 10 Downing street just in time for the 10 o'clock news last night, can the Minister tell us when the decision was actually made?
No one wants a single healthy animal to be killed if that animal can be saved, but the surest way to minimise the incidence of animals being slaughtered is to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease. It is important that no risks should be run; policy must not be relaxed until it is safe to do so. Ending slaughter on contiguous farms now raises the question of why that policy has been maintained for so long. Have thousands of healthy animals been sacrificed in vain? We support any steps that save healthy animals from slaughter, provided those steps do not risk the further spread of the disease.
As culling on contiguous farms will apparently continue for sheep and pigs, can the Minister say whether the legal basis of such culls is clear? Will he confirm that his Ministry withdrew a court application to cull uninfected animals on contiguous farms in Anglesey recently? If cattle are not to be automatically culled on
Have the Government ruled out the use of vaccination entirely? Does the Minister accept that the three tests that I have repeatedly set out, including yesterday in the House, are the right ones to assess whether vaccination should be used?
On the welfare disposal scheme, how long are farmers having to wait while their animals suffer before slaughter under this scheme occurs? The Minister will be aware of the public concern about the distress that some animals experience. If the backlog under the scheme is not cleared until the middle of May, is it true that some animals may by then have been waiting for six weeks?
As this crisis starts to pass its peak, does the Minister agree that attention must be paid to the origin of the outbreak? Is he aware that 15 parliamentary questions that I asked about this in March remain unanswered four weeks later? Will he undertake to answer all parliamentary questions that have been tabled by right hon. and hon. Members before any Dissolution of Parliament? Will he also assure us that, in the event of a Dissolution, the information that he promised today about the constituency spread of new cases will continue to be available to parliamentary candidates on a constituency basis throughout an election campaign?
Is the Minister aware that the Government's handling of foot and mouth disease is giving rise to more and more concern? Stories of muddle, delay and incompetence are still commonplace--telephones are not answered, faxes are ignored and contradictory advice and instructions are given. In many places, there is still a sense that no one is in charge. For example, can the Minister tell us who is in charge in Devon this morning?
The same muddle exists at a national level. Who is making the policy now--the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence? Last week, the chief scientist said that vaccination should be introduced to support the slaughter policy. The Minister agreed but the president of the National Farmers Union said no, so the policy was dropped. This week, the Minister and his advisers said that the cull of animals on contiguous farms was necessary to curb the spread of the disease. Then No. 10 spin doctors saw newspaper pictures of Phoenix, and the policy was changed.
When this crisis is finally resolved--and I repeated yesterday the four criteria by which that should be judged--there will have to be a full inquiry. Does the Minister agree that one key aspect of that inquiry will be to establish whether the spread of foot and mouth disease would have been very much less if the Government had learned the lessons of the 1967 outbreak and if they had acted on the timely advice that I and other Conservative Members have offered, on the record, at every stage during the past nine weeks?
This crisis has crippled our livestock industry, disfigured our environment and wrecked our tourist trade. It is costing families, businesses and taxpayers billions of pounds. It is a crisis that need not and should not have reached its present level. It is the Government's incompetence that allowed it to do so.
I am less grateful for what the hon. Gentleman had to say about muddle and delay, and for his stories about telephones not being answered, and so on. In my experience, one only hears part of the story when such reports are put into the public domain. I do not think it sensible for anyone holding a responsible position in public life to go around attacking those who are trying to bring to an end this outbreak of disease as quickly as possible. Hard-working public servants are entitled to our support, not our condemnation. I am willing to meet individual Members of Parliament who want to raise particular issues with me. I have done my best to do so, as have other Ministers in the Department.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the figures for slaughterings and disposals. It is true that those figures were removed from the Department's website for a few days, but that was to ensure that they were accurate and consistent. The full set of figures was returned to the website on Good Friday, and the figures have continued to be updated ever since. We did not respond to pressure from anyone in that regard: our aim was simply to make sure that the information being provided was accurate.
I freely say to the hon. Gentleman that he is right to identify a problem in Devon. In my statement, I told the House that there is a difficulty with the backlog of carcase disposal in that county, but I strongly dispute that we are trying to deal with it by putting into the public domain figures that are not correct. We are trying to deal with the problem by clearing the backlog.
The hon. Gentleman alleges that I have prevented him from talking to vets. I do not know how I could do that. I can stop him going into Government buildings around the country to talk to civil servants who are trying to control the disease for the benefit of the country--[Interruption.]