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Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman's comments are bizarre. It is hardly the Secretary of State's fault that foot and mouth disease spread throughout the country. Ministers did not go around spreading it. What about the pig farmer in Northumberland who fed his pigs infected swill and transported them all the way to Essex? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that person is exonerated from any blame?

Mr. Ainsworth: I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman, but he should study the matter more carefully. He is clearly unaware of Professor Woolhouse's evidence, which suggests that if Ministers and officials had got to grips with the disease sooner, only half as many animals might have had to be culled.

Margaret Beckett: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Professor Woolhouse made his calculation and assessment, and he clearly has a valid point of view, but at the time, many people, including Opposition Members, blamed the Government for acting too swiftly.

Mr. Ainsworth: If the Secretary of State agreed to a full independent public inquiry, we might get to the

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bottom of some of those important issues. The Bill has sweeping powers, yet the Government have produced no conclusive evidence that resistance by farmers to culling helped to spread the disease.

Part I is based on a false premise, which the Government use to try to justify disproportionate measures.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman remembers the outbreak in 1967 and the inquiry that followed it. Despite the inquiry and report, we were ill prepared for what happened this year. Holding an inquiry does not mean that we will be prepared if such an outbreak regrettably happens again.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman makes a strange point. We should like a public inquiry to consider why the Government did not consider the evidence of the Northumberland committee of 1967-68 and use it as a precedent for action of the latest outbreak. It is one of the greatest mysteries of the affair.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the Opposition's policy is to hold a public inquiry into foot and mouth disease, and take legislative action only after the publication of its report, which could take two or three years? In the absence of an inquiry report, are they in a position to propose measures to tighten the regulations?

Mr. Ainsworth: We support a full independent public inquiry because that is the only means of getting to the bottom of what happened and when events occurred. Why did Ministers make decisions at particular times? What were the causes of the outbreak? How did the disease arrive in this country? We believe that legislation would be better informed and more useful to the farming community, consumers and everyone else if it were based on an understanding of the issues. Only a full public inquiry can get to the bottom of them. Presumably the Government refuse to hold a public inquiry, despite the massive public support and demand for one, because they know what they would find.

Margaret Beckett: That point is repeatedly made by Conservative Members. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department is mindful of what was in the Northumberland report. Opposition Members say that they want something like the Northumberland report, and that that means a full public inquiry. The Northumberland report was not the result of a full public inquiry, of the kind that Opposition Members want, under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1971, and it was serviced by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials, not by anyone outside the Department. But Opposition Members consistently quote that report. I have no quarrel with that; it is a very useful report. I have read it, but I do not see the lessons that Opposition Members have alleged can be drawn from it. That inquiry was thought to have been good enough then, and this Government have put in place a more independent process that is being run not by the Department but by people outside it and an independent chairman.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is being run by other Government Departments. The Government have set up a smokescreen, not a full independent public inquiry. If the

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right hon. Lady had nothing to hide, she would have nothing to fear from a public inquiry. In the absence of such an inquiry, people will inevitably be led to the conclusion that the Government have something to hide. That suspicion will haunt her for the rest of her political life.

It has been left to county councils to fill the gap left by the Government's cowardice. Northumberland has announced a public inquiry, and Devon has already reported its preliminary findings, which have a direct bearing on the Bill. The Devon inquiry gave those who had suffered most from the foot and mouth crisis the voice that the Government seem determined to deny them. It found:

It also found evidence of

which, it said, did

Those problems were not confined to Devon. Who could forget the television images of idiots with handguns chasing terrified animals round fields in Wales, for example?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): First, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill is putting in what was left out of the Animal Health Act 1981? For example, a farmer who deliberately infects his sheep or cattle would, under the 1981 Act, get 100 per cent. compensation and not be prosecuted.

Secondly, with reference to the Devon inquiry, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why Conservative- controlled Cumbria county council has not asked for a public inquiry when Cumbria was the worst affected area?

Mr. Ainsworth: Public inquiries seem to be breaking out all over the country in the absence of a national one. Shropshire is now holding one, and I have no doubt that Cumbria is considering the matter carefully, although I am told that it is concerned about the cost to its council tax payers. The issue should be handled and sponsored by the Government in a proper and considered way. On what the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said, a public inquiry does not have to take two or three years but can be conducted far more quickly if given the right instructions.

Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who now appears to support a Bill that proposes that someone who deliberately infects their own animals with foot and mouth would still get 75 per cent. compensation.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is one of the more bizarre aspects of the Bill that a farmer who infects his own animals will still get compensation. My right hon. Friend and others will no doubt wish to explore that issue in Committee.

A widely circulated letter from Alan Richardson, a retired veterinary surgeon who worked for the Home Office and for MAFF, and who was involved in the 1967 outbreak and offered his services in Cumbria during the

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latest outbreak, provides further compelling evidence of incompetence, bureaucracy and sheer stupidity on the part of officials acting on orders from Ministers.

Mr. Richardson reported for duty on 28 February at the Carlisle office, which he found

He went on to report

Worse still, he reports:

What instruction had those officials received from Ministers to resist positive diagnoses before the general election? Given that the Prime Minister had by then taken personal control of the crisis, was there perhaps a deliberate attempt to stifle bad news in the run-up to the general election? That is one of the issues that a full independent public inquiry could get to the bottom of.

As well as condemning the handling of the outbreak, the Devon inquiry offers a series of sensible recommendations for future action, dealing with the training of officials, animal movements, vaccination, the disposal of culled animals and compensation. None of those is to be found in the Bill.

Even more bizarre is the way in which the Bill pre-empts the outcome of the Government's own inquiries into the catastrophe. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), kindly circulated a letter to hon. Members in which he says:

Setting aside the fact that the inquiries are not independent in the true sense, that is turning the truth on its head. He seeks to justify pre-empting the inquiries on the grounds that

It would have helped had they taken timely and effective action in the first place. This is like locking the stable door after 4 million animals have bolted and been destroyed. There may well be a case for changes in legislation, but such a case could be made only after careful analysis of what went wrong and the lessons that have been learned.

As the National Farmers Union has pointed out,

The NFU also mentions next month's international conference in Brussels, which is co-sponsored by the Government and to which the Secretary of State referred. It will debate the merits of different approaches to future outbreaks. She confirmed today that it may bring some fresh thinking on vaccination.

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Yet, today, we have a Bill that pre-empts any fresh thinking. Not content with pre-empting their own inquiries, the Government have seen fit to pre-empt international discussions that could be vital to setting the course for future policy. Far from identifying and addressing the faults in the way in which the system was applied and seeking to right them, the Bill seeks to put even more power into the hands of the very people who were responsible in the first place for the bloody shambles, the heartache, the callous disregard for animal welfare and the massive costs to rural businesses and public funds.

The National Sheep Association said:

It is worth remembering that, right now, 18 DEFRA staff at the Exeter office are suspended, pending inquiries into financial irregularities.

The Bill provides for the mass slaughter of almost any animal that Ministers decide should be killed. Clause 1(3) makes it clear that it is "immaterial", in Ministers' considerations, whether any such animals have been

or even "treated with vaccine".

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