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The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electronic Voting

33. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What progress the Commission has made in considering electronic voting. [68947]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Commission has evaluated the electoral pilot schemes held in 30 local authority areas in England in May 2002, including several schemes involving electronic voting. The Commission will shortly submit to the Deputy Prime Minister individual evaluation reports on each of the schemes from the local authorities concerned, and will also publish, on 1 August, a report making recommendations for the future development of the pilot

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programme. The Commission also funded, together with the Local Government Association and others, the research report into the implementation of electronic voting in the UK which was prepared by a team led by De Montfort university and published in May this year.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for that full answer. Will the Commission be prepared to look to the private sector for further innovative possible pilot studies? I am thinking especially of the Canvey Island company, Telephony, which produced a promising solution in Teletrack, which it launched with IBM, just over the river, last Friday.

Mr. Beith: I can put the hon. Gentleman's constituents in touch with the Electoral Commission in case it can be of help to them.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): When the Commission considers the results of the pilot studies in electronic voting, which were held this year, will it consider differential access to such voting in terms of both age and social class and consider specifically the different experiences in the Church and Everton wards in Liverpool earlier this year?

Mr. Beith: I assume that those wards were covered by the pilot project and therefore will be covered in both the individual evaluations and in the general review which the Commission is producing. The Commission is certainly aware that there are great differences between people—perhaps even between Members of this place—in their ability to cope with electronic means of doing things.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): When the Commission is considering the entire process of trying to encourage greater use and participation, will it also have in mind the serious concerns that have been expressed in several areas about postal voting and postal ballots, which sometimes have not been returned on time? In some instances, the numbers of returns that have come in later than the last day have been more than the majority obtained in the election.

Mr. Beith: Yes, these are all matters that the Commission has under consideration.

Electoral Registration

34. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): What research is being undertaken into procedures among local authorities as part of the Commission's review of electoral registration. [68948]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): I understand that as part of the Commission's review of electoral registration, research into local authority practice in managing the registration process is under way. There will also be consultation with local authorities and others as part of the review process. The Commission will report in spring 2003. A separate research project into local

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authority practices in promoting registration has also been funded by the Commission, and is expected to be published in the autumn.

Mr. Love: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. I have been trying to ascertain the figures for the numbers of people prosecuted because they have not registered on the register. I have not been able to do that, although I have had contact with the Electoral Commission. Before the Commission starts to investigate the merits or otherwise of compulsory voting, would it be worth while it undertaking some research to see whether it is of merit to continue compulsory registration?

Mr. Beith: The Commission does not have an enforcement role in electoral registration, and the figures are not held centrally or held by the Commission. The legal obligation to register has implications for other persons who would be resident in the household, not only for the individual who fails to register. These are matters that the Commission regularly considers.


The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Clergy Pensions

35. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): If he will make a statement about the effect on clergy pensions of longevity, changes in taxation on pension funds and the recent stock market movements. [68949]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The latest actuarial review of the Commissioners' pension liabilities added a total £11 million a year to Church costs due to increased longevity. The withdrawal of the dividend tax credit from pension funds and charities has cost the Church some £12 million per year. Current stock market conditions disadvantage the Commissioners but help the new funds to be better and more cheaply invested. The net effect is broadly neutral.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply, which I shall study with care. Is not the real problem the fact that the pension is so modest? I recognise the important part that the Church Commissioners play in meeting a sizeable proportion of pensions. However, will the hon. Gentleman consider the problem from the point of view of a modest pension and see what the Commissioners can do to safeguard pensions during this difficult time?

Mr. Bell: I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to clergy pensions. As he knows, the Commissioners are not entirely responsible for all pensions, but only for pensions entered into in the past. The question of having them under review is one that the Church always takes to heart, and keeps constantly under review.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Simon Thomas—the hon. Gentleman is not here. I call Mr. Michael Fabricant.

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Cathedral Repairs

38. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What assessment has been made of the cost of repairing the fabric of cathedrals in each of the last three years. [68952]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I am reminded of the Alice in Wonderland poem which goes something like, "I met a Member who was not there; he was not there again today; he was not there again tomorrow." Perhaps next time we will have more Members present for the final session before the recess of Church Commissioner questions.

English Heritage has recently made an overall survey, in consultation with individual cathedrals and the Association of English Cathedrals for the purpose of assessing the continuance of its own programme of grant aid to cathedral repairs.

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Michael Fabricant: I thank the hon. Gentleman, although he has a very short memory; he knows that I was "there" because I asked him a question only three minutes ago.

With regard to Question 38, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that English Heritage was spending something like £10 million on restoring the fabric of English cathedrals only a few years ago. That sum has reduced to just £2 million. Can he use his best offices to ensure that cathedrals such as Lichfield's and others get the required money, because not just church-goers, but the whole community benefit from our great cathedrals?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that he was here three minutes ago. He was not here at the last Question Time, however, when I answered a very similar question. He will be delighted to know that I have written today to the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointing out the discrepancies in the figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers and inviting my right hon. Friend to use them as a submission for his next Budget.

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Foot and Mouth Inquiries

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth disease inquiries.

Following last week's publication by the Royal Society of its independent examination of how we might prevent and combat future animal disease epidemics in the United Kingdom—chaired by Sir Brian Follett—today we publish the independent report of Dr. Iain Anderson, in which he identifies the lessons he believes can be learned from the most recent of those: last year's outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Government are grateful to Dr. Anderson for the huge amount of work and effort that he has put in and to all the 800 to 900 individuals and organisations who gave him evidence.

Foot and mouth disease is a devastating and highly infectious animal disease, which is feared and loathed across the world because of its impact and virulence. In Britain alone, the experiences of the 1967 outbreak are a remembered nightmare in many rural communities, but what hit us in February 2001 was, as Dr. Anderson notes, due to a

The Government are determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. That is why we so quickly set up an inquiry process with three strands—each of them independent. That decision means that within six months of the United Kingdom regaining disease-free status, we already have the scientific review, the policy commission report charting the way forward for the industry and, now, the report of lessons that we need to learn.

Dr. Anderson's report, which concentrates primarily on the early part of the outbreak, is a sombre and thoughtful document—measured in its tone and content, though unquestionably grave in its import. What is crucial to future policy is that he makes a large number of strong recommendations, most, if not all, of which I believe we will be able to accept. Indeed, many of them suggest actions that the Government—while trying not to prejudge his report—have begun to address.

Separately, in his comments and observations, Dr. Anderson draws on the views and evidence put before him, about which there is certainly scope for different interpretation, even for disagreement. However, he asks in his introduction whether, as a first step, DEFRA can

I can and I do. The House will know that I have always acknowledged that, in the desperate circumstances faced not only by the farming community, but by my Department and its officials, as well as by our departmental and ministerial predecessors, mistakes were bound to have been made.

Dr. Anderson shows complete understanding and sympathy for the terrible experiences of those in the field, but he also shows recognition of the dilemma of the centre, especially where there were clear or substantial

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deficiencies in management information. He suggests that, for the first few weeks, the Government did not realise the seriousness of the measures that would be needed to control the outbreak. I accept—though it is with hindsight—that that is so, but he also shows how often the action taken was entirely consistent with the information and advice then available. But if we are to learn the lessons from those dreadful months, what we need most to consider is whether—while, as I say, there are bound to have been mistakes—there were structural defects.

Dr. Anderson does identify what he regards as mistakes of strategy. I think that it is right to say that many, if not all of those, the Government already acknowledge. Where there may be room for disagreement is, again, on how much of that was evident only, or at least primarily, with hindsight. On the issue of an immediate national ban on animal movements, Dr. Anderson himself says in the report:

the state veterinary service—

Throughout the report the reader returns again and again to what was known and to what was without precedent and consequently unanticipated. For example, the report says:

We now know, in fact, that there was virus present on at least 57 farms in 16 counties on the day the first case was confirmed, 20 February.

As to the unknown origin of the first case, both inquiries stress the importance of effective import controls to prevent exotic infectious diseases from entering the country. We have set in hand a wide-ranging programme of action against the risks posed by what must have been illegal imports of meat and animal products, but as both reports acknowledge, it will never be possible to reduce that risk to zero. So the necessary measures must be in place to limit the risk that, if disease enters the country, it will reach livestock and subsequently spread.

Both reports also highlight the importance of contingency planning. Dr. Anderson examines the pre-existing contingency plan, which was followed, but demonstrates that, though it met the international standards then expected—the European Commission judged the UK's readiness for disease outbreak as among the best in Europe—we can see, with hindsight, its deficiencies. But that is an admission that I make with hindsight. The European Commission is on record as having said recently:

On all those issues the analysis in the report is detailed. It shows that, in Dr. Anderson's own words—words echoed, among others, by Commissioner Byrne—the outbreak in Britain in 2001 was of a kind unanticipated in any country in the world.

Dr. Anderson makes some trenchant criticisms to which I shall return, but he also deals comprehensively with the myriad conspiracy theories in circulation then and since.

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He does not just dismiss them; he investigates and dispels them. One in particular, the charge that the handling of the crisis was driven by concern over the timing of the election, he explicitly rejects, saying:

While awaiting the reports, we have already published a draft interim contingency plan and invited stakeholders and operational partners to comment. We will now review it comprehensively in the light of the inquiries' recommendations for regular updating, involvement of stakeholders and rehearsals, all of which the Government accept.

Dr. Anderson calls for a mechanism to assess potential domestic civil threats and for steps to improve our capacity to handle an emergency of national proportions. We have set up the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, reporting to a Cabinet Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which is intended to do just that through horizon scanning, an assessment capability and work with Departments facing disruptive challenges on how to prevent or manage crises. Dr. Anderson also identifies the need to establish "trigger points", where issues move to a new phase of crisis handling. Again, we agree.

Both reports make important recommendations about how the Government should improve their ability to respond effectively in the event of a disease outbreak. Again, I can say that we support the thrust of those recommendations, especially where they relate to the need for high-quality management information systems.

The Army is praised, rightly, for the role it played in helping to deal with the enormous logistical challenge—one that it has identified as being of larger dimensions logistically than the Gulf war. The Army did indeed do a remarkable job. I believe that had we had better information systems in place, it would have been called into action earlier—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]—but, as Dr. Anderson demonstrates, not in the context, as so often claimed, of the Northumberland report, but when at a much later stage disposal options were failing to keep pace with slaughter.

In addition, knowing what we now know, we would on any future occasion work on the presumption that a national ban on livestock movements would apply when the first FMD case was confirmed. However, because of the early, silent spread of disease in last year's outbreak, it is important not to assume that it would ever have been easy to check. Dr. Anderson himself says that

We do not intend, in the future, to permit local authorities to impose a widespread closure of footpaths. That, too, is a judgment made with the benefit of hindsight, and the House will know that it is a contested judgment. Some local authorities clung to a blanket ban long after the Government had encouraged its lifting.

Both inquiries have called for a strategic approach to animal health and disease control policies, and endorsed the call in the report of the Policy Commission on Food

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and Farming, chaired by Sir Don Curry, for a comprehensive animal health strategy. My Department will in the near future open discussions with industry and other interests on the content and coverage of such a strategy. It would need to deal with the protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control, surveillance, animal identification, animal welfare and emergency preparedness.

Another key issue that has drawn much comment is the contentious issue of vaccination, on which both inquiries made recommendations. We can immediately accept two specific recommendations: that, as in 2001, we should ensure that the option of vaccination forms part of any future strategy for the control of FMD; and that any emergency vaccination policy should in future be not "vaccinate to kill" but, ideally, "vaccinate to live". That, however, does not require action from the Government alone; it requires acceptance of meat and meat products from vaccinated animals entering the food chain normally.

The inquiry reports rightly address most of their recommendations to the Government, but they both also recognise that the farming industry shares responsibility for minimising disease risks. Dr. Anderson concludes that the Government can do only so much to prevent a recurrence of disease; the farming industry has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity.

That reminder is particularly pertinent after last month's FMD scare in the midlands. It is not enough for any Government to have the right approach or proper rules to mitigate disease risk; everybody in the industry must follow those rules and they must be properly enforced. In that recent episode, existing pig identification rules were not followed. Had the tests confirmed disease, the effort to track down the source of the infection would have been severely hampered. The episode strengthens our resolve to continue to work with the livestock industry to establish better livestock identification.

Both this episode and the report lend weight to the call by Sir Don Curry's commission for farm assurance schemes, owned and operated by the industry itself, rewarding good farm management practice in biosecurity and other areas. The Government endorse that principle, too.

However, although we shall give full consideration to all the lessons in the reports, there are two areas where we can and will move forward more quickly. The emphasis in the reports on the roles that might be played by emergency vaccination and by pre-emptive culling underlines the importance of the passage of the Animal Health Bill, which my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be taking to a delayed Committee stage next week. The Bill contains powers that could be vital to the timely interventions for which the inquiries call.

Secondly, the Government need to take an early decision on the animal movement rules to apply from the late summer and, in particular, on the 20-day standstill. We shall consult quickly with industry stakeholders in the next week or two, in the light of what the two reports say, on interim rules to apply from late August.

Dr. Anderson's is a serious report into an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that was devastating for many parts of our country. I want once more to quote Dr. Anderson:

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The inquiry report makes many criticisms and addresses many concerns. It accepts, however, that all those involved did their level best to deal with a crisis of unprecedented importance. It makes criticisms that are accepted. It makes recommendations on which we will act. Above all, it fulfils its remit—it gives us the basis on which to learn lessons, and learn lessons we will.

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