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17 Oct 2002 : Column 455—continued

Departmental Accounts

7. Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): If she will make a statement on the auditor's qualifications regarding her Department's accounts. [72351]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): The Comptroller and Auditor General's report dated 26 February 2002 drew attention to a number of weaknesses in financial systems which have since been

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addressed. It must be remembered that the report refers to the preparation and audit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's resource accounts for 2000–01, which took place during a very difficult time for the former Ministry, and subsequently the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The foot and mouth outbreak was at its peak, machinery of government changes were in progress, and many of the Department's staff were redeployed to help deal with the exceptional increase in work loads which arose during that period. Nevertheless, steps have been taken to address the issues raised and, in particular, to embed resource accountancy into systems for budgetary control and financial management.

Mr. Field : They say that a week is a long time in politics, but I must confess that, having tabled this question three months ago, I had to rack my brain to work out what it was that I was trying to get to the bottom of. I am not sure that we have got any closer to the answer after the Minister's response. Will he tell the House how the unquantified future costs of foot and mouth disease will be taken account of in future accounts?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is probably referring to some matters related to the outbreak that have led to, for example, discussion about invoices and submissions for payment. They give rise to a contingent liability, which will be disclosed in the published resource account. The precise figures cannot therefore be given until they are finalised.

Flood Defence Schemes

9. Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): What guidelines she gives to flood defence schemes in flood plains. [72353]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): DEFRA provides a wide range of guidance to promote the development of economically, technically and environmentally sound and sustainable solutions to flood management and coastal erosion problems. It has been developed over the years, through extensive consultation, and is kept under constant review in the light of research and other policy developments.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am sure that the Under-Secretary knows about the Parrett catchment project in my constituency. The Environment Agency, which is charged with the work of flood defence in my patch, is finding it harder to understand where it is going. The Parrett catchment project is presenting schemes and ideas that step on the Environment Agency's toes. Will the Under-Secretary please ensure that there are clear lines of understanding about who is responsible for what in my constituency? We are beginning to reach the stage when people, especially landowners, are worrying about who is in charge of flood defence schemes in Bridgwater and west Somerset.

Mr. Morley: There is no confusion about who is in charge of flood schemes in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The Parrett catchment strategy, project

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and study is a good example of bringing together local people and the wide range of different groups with different interests. In the past, those differences led to severe conflict in the area. It has been resolved by bringing people together. All groups and individuals who have been involved in the Parrett catchment initiative deserve credit. Of course, they are entitled to present ideas. Some may not be feasible; some may be long term and others may be relevant to the strategies for improving flood defences in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The Environment Agency is considering some of those ideas, but ultimately, it will present the plans, and my Department will scrutinise them to ascertain their environmental impact, the cost-benefit analysis and whether they are technically suitable.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I fully support the Parrett catchment project, which, as the Minister said, is doing an extremely good job of bringing together disparate voices in the Somerset levels communities and perhaps showing a way forward for the rest of the country in inland flood defence.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary referred to the use of land for water retention. I believe that a significant problem remains. Of course, it is possible to use stewardship schemes, but will that constitute a sustainable income for farmers in future? Can the Under-Secretary assure farmers that they will have a sustainable income for sustainable practice on the levels?

Mr. Morley: It should be made clear that a stewardship scheme is not meant to be an alternative subsidy to the CAP. We are trying to move away from production support. The idea of stewardship schemes is recognising that farmers have land management skills and can provide a wide range of benefits, of which water management could be one. The payment reflects the job that they do. It will be geared to that commitment. I have made it clear that I believe that there is scope for that. We have to examine each scheme on its merits because, in some cases, water retention schemes require large areas of land and they may not be the solution to flood control.

However, the Somerset levels area, which is internationally important, is already in an environmentally sensitive areas scheme and has a range of different support structures, which could be integrated to achieve a range of benefits, including nature conservation, sustainable farming and flood defence. The Parrett catchment scheme and group are playing an important role in that.

Foot and Mouth Disease

10. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): What procedure exists for calling on the use of the armed forces in a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. [72354]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The armed forces would be alerted immediately if a case of foot and mouth disease was confirmed. The procedure is set out in DEFRA's

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interim contingency plan, which is published on DEFRA's website along with an electronic mailbox for comments.

Mr. Osborne: I thank the Minister for that answer. When the permanent secretary of DEFRA appeared before the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year, he confirmed that the 29-day delay in bringing out the Army in last year's foot and mouth outbreak was because the Prime Minister's authorisation was not forthcoming. What would the Prime Minister's role be in any future use of the Army in a foot and mouth outbreak? Can he be kept as far away from the process as possible?

Mr. Morley: If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to read the Anderson report, he would know how crucial the role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in co-ordinating the total Government response, and how successful that was.

I recall well, having lived through the foot and mouth epidemic in the days of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the original call for the use of the Army. People did not understand the way in which the Army role would be played. Those calling for the immediate use of the Army thought that it would be used simply to cart animals around, dig holes and undertake the sort of work that plenty of contractors could do. The value of the Army is in logistical control and command, in which it has particular skills. The time to bring it in is when the size of the epidemic justifies that. I should say that the Army was put on alert within days of the outbreak.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to ensure that we do not have to call out the armed forces again, that we do not have to kill hundreds of thousands of animals and that we do not have to pay #3 billion in compensation, is to develop a suitable foot and mouth vaccine and then routinely to vaccinate livestock throughout Europe?

Mr. Morley: I certainly agree that the vaccine will clearly have a greater role to play in the future control of epidemics. Indeed, vaccine technology has advanced from the date of the last outbreak to where we are now. Within the contingency plan we recognise that more work needs to be done on vaccine development. The Anderson report and the Royal Society report recommended that emergency vaccination should be moved up the options agenda. That is exactly what we will do in our future contingency planning.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Can the Minister confirm that the clearest lesson from all the foot and mouth inquiries that have reported has been that the State Veterinary Service needs to be as strong as possible? Will the hon. Gentleman say whether or not the moratorium on hiring state vets has been lifted?

Mr. Morley: Yes, I can confirm that the moratorium has been lifted. The SVS is an important part of our response to any sort of disease control. It provides advice on the prevention of disease as well.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I am sure that the Minister will be aware that yesterday, at the Select Committee,

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the author of the Royal Society report, Sir Brian Follett, was openly critical of the Government's efforts in scientific terms to improve animal welfare and to counter diseases that threaten the livestock industry. What will the Minister do to respond to Sir Brian's sage criticisms?

Mr. Morley: We will respond in detail, especially to Sir Brian's report, which was a very good piece of work. We accept the main thrust of the recommendations. I have not seen the details of his comments at the meeting of the Select Committee, but I will make a point of reading them. There is a debate at the Royal Society that will involve Dr. Anderson and myself. I am ensuring that all the members of the Select Committee will receive an invite to attend if they so wish.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): One thing that came out clearly from Dr. Ian Anderson's report was the inadequacy of contingency planning in this country compared with the plans put in place in, for example, the Netherlands. The Minister has referred to the Government's interim contingency plan. Can he say now, 12 months after the last confirmed case of foot and mouth disease, and nearly four months after the Anderson report, when he expects to make public the Government's final contingency plan that can be open to public discussion and debate in the House?

Mr. Morley: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Anderson report said that the outbreak that we experienced in this country was unprecedented on any international scale, and that no country's contingency plan was in a position to cope with an outbreak of such a type and on such a scale. In fairness, that should be recognised.

We recognise that we must re-write our contingency plans. We must rethink many of our approaches given the experience of the epidemic. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we have produced our immediate response, which is the interim strategy, so that we have a strategy in place. We are under way with the definitive strategy and contingency plan, which will be uprated. It will change because that is the nature of it. That involves a great deal of consultation and discussion. That is right and proper because we want to be open and transparent about this. We intend to bring forward the completed conclusions as quickly as possible and to encourage as much involvement and debate as possible.

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