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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): First, may I thank the Secretary of State for giving me access to the Anderson Committee's report this morning and for the 30-minute sight of her statement?

Members on both sides of the House will agree that at this time we need to have in our thoughts and sympathies those thousands of people whose livelihoods were either threatened or completely ruined by the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease last year. Although the report makes some trenchant criticisms of the Government, to which I shall allude in a little while, it is also right for the Opposition to make clear our appreciation of the work done by those many officials and veterinary surgeons, both in the right hon. Lady's Department and outside, working in the field and in London, who gave their all, often under impossible pressures and with inadequate support, to try to bring this dreadful epidemic under control.

The right hon. Lady drew attention to a number of the recommendations for the future in both the Anderson report and the Royal Society's report. We welcome the fact that she, like us, has been persuaded by the Royal Society's report of the need to incorporate emergency vaccination as part of a future strategy for containing further outbreaks of the disease.

Although I welcome, too, the Secretary of State's emphasis on the need to strengthen controls of illegal meat imports, can she confirm that 10 months after the end of the epidemic and three months after the publication of her Department's action plan, there have been only three spot checks on aircraft at our ports and that her Department is still wrangling with Customs and Excise over who exactly is in charge of those import controls? Is not it a disgrace that the Department should show such a lack of urgency in the wake of the devastation last year?

I hope that the Government will, as early as possible in the autumn, make time for a full parliamentary debate on the reports and that they will also make time for parliamentary scrutiny and debate of the contingency plan that they are drafting—as recommended in the Royal Society and Anderson reports. Will the Secretary of State use her best offices with her colleagues to ensure that those opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny are given to us?

The report amounts to a shocking catalogue of incompetence and confusion. Although the Secretary of State sprinkled her statement with the word "hindsight", is it not clear from any reading of Dr. Anderson's report today that many grievous mistakes were made, which ought to have been avoided on the basis of the evidence that the Government had available to them at that time?

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Is it not the case that Dr. Anderson concluded about contingency planning that, although contingency plans were in place,

Why was it not a priority? Why did the Government ignore the Drummond report of 1999, which identified serious shortcomings in their contingency plans? Why were the concerns expressed by the chief veterinary officer in 2000 about the inadequacies in contingency planning never followed up?

Why did the Government ignore the warnings of the European Union's foot and mouth disease conference committee and of their own scientists in 2000 that a virulent new strain of the virus was spreading through Asia, the middle east and into Europe? Why was no effective action taken in the wake of the outbreaks of classical swine fever in the Netherlands in 1997 and in this country in 2000?

Will the Secretary of State explain why there should be such a contrast between the inaction shown on this side of the channel and the reaction of the Dutch Government, who reviewed their contingency plans in the wake of classical swine fever, tested their contingency plan, agreed it with stakeholders and had it approved by that country's Parliament?

Why were Ministers, right up until and even during the proceedings of the Anderson inquiry, refusing to admit to the failure of their contingency planning? Has the Secretary of State seen the passage in the Anderson report where Dr. Anderson states that Government Ministers told the inquiry that

Does the right hon. Lady agree—even with hindsight—with Dr. Anderson's conclusion that the Government's plans were

The right hon. Lady spoke of hindsight, too, in her discussion of the reasons why the Government did not at an earlier date, during the critical first three days, impose a ban on livestock movements. Can she explain why the Dutch Government acted with greater alacrity than ours, and imposed a ban two days earlier than she and her colleagues chose to do? Can she confirm that Dr. Anderson's conclusion about the importance of hindsight in that decision was somewhat at odds with her own, as just given in her statement? Dr. Anderson stated:

The Secretary of State spoke about how her Department's response was handicapped by serious failures in management information, but might it not be considered, at least to some degree, the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that management information and systems were adequate? Does she agree with Dr. Anderson's conclusion on page 6 of his report that

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and that, for the first two months of the outbreak, there was a

Why should that be so when we know, not least from the public sessions of the Anderson inquiry, that again and again farmers and others living at the sharp end of the epidemic were shouting from the rooftops about the failure of the Government's systems on slaughter and the disposal of livestock?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that knowledge of the Government's failures to implement their declared policies effectively was a key factor in undermining public confidence in the Government's policy to stamp out the disease? How much confidence can we now have that she and her colleagues can put things right when the Select Committee reported only last week that her Department had no strategy on information technology and that key financial data are either omitted from its annual report or given in an inaccurate form?

The present Administration make much of their philosophy of joined-up government. Does not that slogan seem somewhat ironic when contrasted with Dr. Anderson's description? He said:

The situation was serious enough, even early on, for a ban on all livestock movements to be introduced and for the countryside to be closed down, so why did it take Ministers 31 days before activating the Cabinet Office Briefing Room system, or COBR, to co-ordinate Government actions—31 days during which, in Dr. Anderson's words,

and there was an

Why, even after COBR was set up, was strategic decision taking involving the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture taking place outside COBR?

Does not all that add weight to the widespread suspicion that the Government were allowing concerns about the election date and their election plans to take precedence over effective measures to control and stamp out the disease? Nowhere was that more obvious than in the Government's delay in calling in the Army. It was hardly as if there was a shortage of people asking for that course of action. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) called for that action, their proposal was rubbished by the same Ministers who say that, with hindsight, they ought to have called in the Army earlier. Does the Secretary of State endorse the comments of her permanent secretary to the Public Accounts Committee on 3 July that the delay in calling in the Army was due to difficulty in getting approval from senior Ministers? Does not that verdict from her most senior civil servant suggest once again that we are right to say that concerns about presentation and electoral prospects counted for most with Ministers?

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The Government's response to the epidemic is best summed up in a statement given not by the right hon. Lady but by the Prime Minister himself to Dr. Anderson on 22 January this year. When asked about the failures of Government policy, the Prime Minister responded:

Does not that single sentence encapsulate the special blend of negligence, incompetence and complacency that has characterised the Government's handling of foot and mouth disease? It is not just farmers but the entire rural economy and all taxpayers who have paid a heavy price for that neglect and incompetence. Does the Secretary of State agree that it will take more than promises? It will take action and results to restore the trust of people in the countryside in Ministers, a trust that has been wholly destroyed by the grievous failure of her policies and those of her colleagues.

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