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Foot and Mouth

1.42 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak.

This is the 10th time that I have updated the House on the outbreak. Once again, I should like to provide details of the latest position on the disease, to set out the measures the Government are taking and to give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to raise points with me.

As of midday today, there had been 1,537 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Great Britain. Since I spoke to the House last week, the average number of cases per day has fallen further, from 16 in the week ending 22 April, to 11 in the week ending 29 April. That continues the decline of the disease from the highest point of 43 cases per day in the week ending 1 April.

More than 2.4 million animals have now been slaughtered for disease control purposes. A further 630,000 animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. May I remind the House that in the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which lasted for more than seven months, only 434,000 animals were slaughtered in total? The current outbreak is, as I have said before, unprecedented in scale and in the speed at which it spread.

There is no longer any backlog of animals awaiting disposal, anywhere in Great Britain. The disposal backlog in Devon, to which I referred last week, will have been cleared by the end of today. There are small numbers of animals awaiting slaughter, but the position has improved greatly during the past few weeks. That achievement is the result of a concerted effort in the past few days and weeks, using all the disposal methods--rendering, burning, incinerating, landfill and burial--according to need and as appropriate in the local circumstances.

We have been able to lift restrictions in 10 different areas, where there have been no new cases for 30 days and where thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. Some 16,000 farms have now benefited from the lifting of the tighter movement restrictions associated with infected areas. That represents about 13 per cent. of the number of farms that were ever restricted.

We can therefore be optimistic about the future course of the disease, although the epidemiologists warn us that cases will continue to occur for some time yet. What is clear is that our policy was the right one: to bear down on the outbreak swiftly and prevent greater spread of the disease by rapid slaughtering, within 24 hours of the report of a new case, tracing dangerous contacts and tackling the disease on contiguous premises within 48 hours. This has been crucial to the control of the epidemic.

Last week I was able to announce to the House a broadening of the existing areas of discretion for local veterinary judgment in relation to culling on a neighbouring farm. That has provided some relief from automatic slaughter of cattle and has been generally welcomed by farmers, as has the move towards making special arrangements for rare breeds of sheep and hefted flocks.

On vaccination, it remains the position that the necessary support among farmers, consumers and the food industry for a vaccination programme in Cumbria and

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possibly Devon has not been forthcoming and I cannot see that situation changing now, given the decline in the number of daily confirmed cases. Contingency plans remain in place for the rapid introduction of a vaccination programme should the situation change.

I announced last week a number of ways in which we have re-established routes for healthy livestock to be sold into the food chain. I am pleased to say that we are now issuing instructions to veterinary staff so that they can issue licences which will allow healthy stock from premises within 3 km of an infected place to move after a period of time to slaughter and use in the human food chain. Farmers who wish to take advantage of this should contact their local animal health offices. Access to the livestock welfare disposal scheme remains open to anyone who can demonstrate a real welfare problem that cannot be addressed in any other way. My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State will be meeting farming organisations tomorrow to review the operation of the scheme and its future.

The Government also want to do something to help with welfare problems on farms in infected areas which cannot move animals because of the local intensity of foot and mouth disease cases. I therefore propose to ask our veterinary staff to examine these problems on a case by case basis and to permit movements on farms provided that the fight against foot and mouth disease is not compromised. The most common problem which this change will address will be where animals are not able to cross public roads to fresh grazing. The change will be introduced by the middle of next week at the latest.

We continue to pay large sums in compensation and other payments to farmers resulting from the foot and mouth outbreak. We have already paid over £100 million pounds in compensation and the latest estimate is that this figure will eventually be over £600 million. The livestock welfare disposal scheme is expected to provide more than £200 million. This is all in addition to the £156 million being paid in agrimonetary compensation to livestock farmers and all the other funding that the Government are providing to support the rural economy and the tourism industry more generally. We are in discussion with the devolved Administrations and the farming unions about the longer term recovery plan.

The Government have also taken steps to safeguard farmers' entitlements to CAP payments. Following consultation with farming unions, the deadline for submitting IACS forms will remain 15 May. However, we have agreed with the European Commission that it will amend its rules on changes that may be made to IACS forms after 15 May. This flexibility will make it easier for farmers to adjust their claims to take account of individual circumstances. My Department has written to all IACS applicants to give them full details of the flexibilities we have secured and the procedures to follow. Farmers whose cattle or sheep have been culled and who are currently unsure of their future prospects should take steps to safeguard their entitlement to future subsidy, if and when they decide to restock their farms. This means that they should submit an IACS form in the normal way by 15 May. Where appropriate, they should also tick the boxes on the form for hill farming allowances and extensification premium.

When I reported to the House on 27 March, I drew attention to the need to enforce the rules on commercial and personal imports of meat and meat products into the

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United Kingdom. I should like now to inform the House of the steps that the Government have taken and are taking in this context.

The control of meat and meat product imports into this country involves the inspection of commercial imports at border inspection posts, effective controls on personal imports and action in shops and other food premises against sales of illegally imported food. The Government are taking action in all those contexts to build on our existing controls.

First, we have set up improved arrangements for the pooling of information in government about known or suspected illegal imports. That will help the authorities concerned--MAFF, port health authorities, local authorities and Customs and Excise--to target their activities on the areas of greatest risk.

Secondly, the Food Standards Agency has undertaken a programme of visits to ports and airports to examine the effectiveness of public health controls on imported food.

Thirdly, we shall be taking early steps to ensure that the restrictions on what may be brought into the United Kingdom from outside the European Union and the European Economic Area are made known to travellers by a publicity campaign involving the travel industry, airports, ports and Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts abroad.

Fourthly, the FSA has asked port health authorities and local authorities to ensure that, as part of their routine inspection of food premises and imported food, they check for illegal imports. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has laid before the House an amendment to the Products of Animal Origin (Import and Export) Regulations 1996 that will clarify local authorities' powers to seize suspected illegal imports. I understand that equivalent action is being taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Imports of meat and meat products into the United Kingdom, as into other member states of the European Union, take place within the framework of European law. As I promised the House on 27 March, I have asked the European Commission to give urgent attention to ensuring that the law on personal imports into the EU is clear and robust. Commissioner Byrne indicated at last week's meeting of the Agriculture Council that the Commission attaches great importance to ensuring that there is a high level of protection from disease at the Community's borders. I understand that the Commission's current thinking is that the main scope for tightening the EU's policy on imports lies in ensuring that the current rules are properly policed and in identifying and closing any loopholes.

I referred last week to the banning of pigswill and undertook to make a further announcement. I can inform the House that we are today making an order that will ban the feeding to livestock swill of catering waste that contains or has been in contact with meat. The ban is extended to include poultry and fish waste. The order will come into force on 24 May, after a three week phase-in period that is designed to ensure that animals can safely be weaned off waste food and on to an alternative diet.

The order has been made after consultation with the industry and other interested parties. The possible banning of all catering waste was considered in the consultation, but was subsequently deemed unnecessary, although the

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feeding of all types of catering waste from premises where meat or meat products are handled or prepared will be banned.

As I said, we can be cautiously optimistic that the worst is over, but we know that there will be sporadic outbreaks for some time and that we cannot afford to let our guard drop for a moment. All the resources that are required to overcome the disease will remain in place where they are needed, for as long as they are needed. We are determined to see this operation through to a successful conclusion. It is in all our interests to ensure that the job is done properly, so that farming and the whole of the countryside can get back to normal as soon as possible.

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