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House of Commons

Thursday 28 June 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Foot and Mouth

1. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If she will make a statement on the holding of a public inquiry into matters relating to the foot and mouth outbreak. [R] [570]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I begin by apologising to the House for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs who, as you know, Mr. Speaker, is a most assiduous and conscientious Member. He has written to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and to you about his unavoidable absence. Also, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is attending the preparatory discussions in The Hague for the forthcoming conference of parties on climate change. As you know, Mr. Speaker, it is always difficult at this stage in a Parliament, when no one can foresee the timing of these events.

It is right that we consider very carefully the issues connected with the foot and mouth outbreak. The question whether there should be a public inquiry as such is one for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Jack: I welcome the right hon. Lady to her first Question Time in her new Department. She mentioned the Prime Minister, but yesterday, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked him a simple question as to whether there would be a full-scale public inquiry into foot and mouth disease, the Prime Minister had considerable difficulty in giving a straightforward answer. Why are the Government finding it so difficult to answer that question?

We do understand that if the disease has a long tail, there may be a question about the timing of such an inquiry, but could not the right hon. Lady say today that in principle the Government accept that there should be a full-scale public inquiry, so that evidence can be accumulated before memories start to fade? If the Government have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from holding such an inquiry.

Margaret Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman is both too intelligent and too experienced not to know how

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disingenuous he is being. I was surprised to read in yesterday's press the perfectly untruthful allegation that Ministers had ever suggested that there might not be an inquiry. The Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear from the start, as has every Minister who has commented on the matter, that of course, at the right time, there will be an inquiry. No one is more anxious than this Government to see that inquiry fully held.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the term "full public inquiry" has a precise legal meaning. He may well have heard the recent radio interview with the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, in which the interviewer confidently asked, "Aren't you demanding that the Government commit themselves to a full public inquiry now?" and the answer was, "No, we are not, because what we want is an inquiry when the outbreak is over; an inquiry which is thorough and expeditious and which tells people, in the farming community and beyond, what they need to know."

I heard hon. Gentlemen say from the Conservative Back Benches, "We are calling for a full public inquiry." Yes, they are--not in the interests of agriculture, but because they hope it will be in the interests of the Conservative party.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I welcome my right hon. Friend and her colleagues to their new positions and welcome the new Department, but I also pay tribute to their predecessors, who did a superb job in the most difficult circumstances. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] As someone who has had 44 cases of foot and mouth confirmed in my constituency and 240 farms culled out--a disastrous time for the whole of Teesdale--may I add my voice to those calling for a public inquiry into foot and mouth disease?

Margaret Beckett: Of course I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said about my predecessors. I share his view that they have nothing to fear, and nothing to be ashamed of in their handling of the outbreak. I also wholeheartedly accept my right hon. Friend's assessment of the great problems and difficulties that have been caused in his area, as in many others, and of the need for a thorough look at everything that happened in the course of this disease, not least because its scale and the manner of its spread have been unprecedented. It is extremely important that we learn as much as we can from all the aspects of the case that we can.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): It is quite clear to everyone, not only in the House but in the country, that the scale of this disease demands a full, public, open and independent inquiry, and I hope that at some stage Ministers will recognise that. Surely, however, we do not need a panel of experts to tell us some of the obvious lessons; so will the right hon. Lady give us assurances that the Government are getting to grips with three things in particular? First, we need tighter port health inspections, so that we do not become subject to foot and mouth disease again very quickly. Secondly, we should alert the public, and everyone in the country, to the need to look at personal imports of food and plants, so that we can keep disease out for as long as possible.

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Thirdly, we should introduce new biosecurity measures for all farms, and inspections to ensure that we reduce any incidence of animal disease in future.

Margaret Beckett: Of course I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He will have heard Ministers say repeatedly from the Dispatch Box that we are looking at, and taking on board, all issues of the kind that he raised. However, he will know that it is as yet not clear--although I know that there have been widespread allegations--whether the cause of the initial outbreak was imported food, and particularly whether it was illegally imported food. However, that does not alter the fact that of course it is important to ensure that that does not become a possible source of another outbreak, and the Government are very mindful of that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the call for an open investigation, but will my right hon. Friend also make sure that that will include intelligence reports, whether from the police or trading standards, to ensure that we have the fullest possible knowledge about what went on during this dreadful outbreak?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is certainly right to draw attention to the range of material and information that may be available. He is also right to say that we need to take a careful and thorough look at how the disease spread as it did. I understand that not least among the reasons is that the presence of the disease was not known of for fully two to three weeks, which was probably the prime cause of the nature of the difficulties that followed.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): As it is quite plain that the right hon. Lady will not be appearing in front of a public inquiry in the near future, will she please undertake a personal inquiry into whether movement licences to and from Lincolnshire, which is not an affected area, are being unduly restricted? Furthermore, will she undertake a personal inquiry into why letters from me to her and to her predecessor regarding Mr. Dorey and his application for a licence have not yet been replied to despite the fact that I wrote on 28 May?

Margaret Beckett: First, I find it somewhat ironic to hear Conservative Members holding forth about the need for a public inquiry when I consider that, for so many years, they resisted any call for an inquiry into the BSE outbreak, which was infinitely worse even than foot and mouth.

Of course we are considering the movement restrictions. Indeed, we have made some changes and there was some alleviation a few days ago, which I understood to have been quite widely welcomed in the agricultural community. I am afraid that I have not seen the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I am sorry to learn that he has been waiting for a reply and I will certainly look into it.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): First, I welcome my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour to her new post. Already many farmers in Derbyshire have expressed enthusiasm for having such a local interest in their subject. Secondly, I echo the points made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, but would add one element that he missed. Should not the consideration of import

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controls and their adequacy be tackled with our European neighbours to ensure the security of internal transactions within the European market and to ensure our ability to be confident of the adequacy of those controls at the first point of entry into the European Union?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. We have always worked closely together in the locality and I look forward to working even more closely with him now if, as may indeed be the case--of course, it is not a matter for me--he remains a member of the relevant Select Committee.

My hon. Friend has a good deal of knowledge in this field and I entirely accept his point. It is important not only that we have the right approach, policy and scrutiny as regards the handling of imports, but that we encourage others elsewhere in the European Union to learn from our experiences and take their own precautions. I am happy to say that, as my predecessor reported to the House, I see every sign of the very supportive and sympathetic hearing that we have had from our European colleagues at the Council of Ministers continuing. It is clear that they are anxious to learn for themselves the lessons that we have had to learn.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I recognise that the previous Conservative Government were wrong to resist the calls for an inquiry into BSE. I am amazed that the very Labour Members who were so vocal in their calls for that inquiry appear, now that they are Ministers, to be resisting similar calls for an inquiry into foot and mouth disease. The Government have lost the trust of rural communities because of their handling of foot and mouth. Only an independent and public inquiry at which Ministers and former Ministers can be questioned will restore that trust. The previous Labour Government held such an inquiry after the 1967 epidemic. Surely the Secretary of State realises that sooner or later she will be forced to do the same thing for this epidemic. On Tuesday morning, I sent her our proposed terms of reference for the inquiry. Will she say what was wrong with those?

Margaret Beckett: I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the BSE inquiry--a sinner who comes to repentance late is better than a sinner who does not repent at all. Nevertheless, that does not excuse the Conservative party's rather pathetic behaviour in trying to pretend that the Government have not said from the very beginning that of course we have every intention of holding an inquiry.

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said:

The form that any inquiry should take is clearly very much an issue to be kept under review because--I repeat--despite what Opposition Members say, I see no evidence whatever from the rural communities that they want anything other than an inquiry that, yes, is carried out properly and expeditiously and that produces the information that people want. They are not interested in party political games; they are interested in answers.

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