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6 Nov 2002 : Column 292—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, I should say that I certainly want brief questions. There is no way that I can get through the list of hon. Members unless they ask brief questions.

Margaret Beckett: Of course I take my hon. Friend's point about the need for greater co-operation and rehearsal with local authorities. That is very much part of the purpose of the rehearsal and training that we intend to undertake in future.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The right hon. Lady is a frequent flier, often over some quite long distances, so she will know that it is entirely possible to pass through a British airport without any sight of the

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sign warning against illegal imports. The carousels where passengers wait for their baggage are the most obvious places to put the signs, yet they are entirely innocent of such signs. Now that we have a co-ordinated service, will she please make sure that the signs are where passengers can see them, not decorating the back of the arrivals hall where nobody has the time or would think to look at them?

Margaret Beckett: I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about the carousels. We have been endeavouring to work with the airlines and to encourage them to do more to remind people in-flight about illegal imports and to take other related action. I hope and anticipate that much more will be done to combat illegal imports as I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that it is important that people understand that they must not act illegally in that respect.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree with me that the real lesson to be learned is never again should we have the disaster that affected Cumbria and other parts of the United Kingdom last year. Nowhere in the EU should people have to suffer as we did. Is not the only way to do that to develop a vaccine and use it routinely? My right hon. Friend said that such a vaccination programme was a long way away, but my understanding is that it could be introduced within 18 months, given the resources. When we have that vaccine, whenever that is, will it be the Government's policy to vaccinate all animals routinely?

Margaret Beckett: I share and understand my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents in Cumbria. There are two separate issues with regard to vaccination. The first relates to emergency vaccination that we hope will be available within some 18 months or so. It may be possible to get validated tests, for example, to distinguish between an animal that is infected and an animal that has been vaccinated, but that still requires some work. The other issue concerns the development of vaccines that could be used in an non-emergency. I fear that a routine prophylactic vaccination for every animal is a lot further away, because, as I think my hon. Friend will be aware, there is a plethora of different strains of the virus and up to now the international community has not shown much interest in such an enormous undertaking. However, I can assure him that the Government are taking seriously the advice of the Royal Society that it is something that we should encourage the international community to re-examine and I have already written to this effect.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): May I start with a quick plug for Herefordshire tourism at the Britain visitor centre? One of the subjects discussed there this morning was the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak, so I am pleased that the three points that the Minister identified—systems, speed of response and the necessity for good science—are in the statement.

On the issue of systems, can the Secretary of State tell us whether people who are wandering around in the countryside will also be in some way responsible for contributing to the biosecurity that farmers will need in order to avoid this disease, should it ever break out again? In terms of speed of response, Dr. Anderson

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identified the qualifications of veterinary surgeons as being key. Can the Secretary of State explain why, during the summer, after Dr. Anderson reported, there was an embargo on hiring state vets? On the necessity for good science, the gamma inteferon blood test that is currently available for bovine tuberculosis is not being used or trialled yet. Perhaps the Secretary of State might bring that about shortly.

Margaret Beckett: If I may, I shall begin where the hon. Gentleman ended. I believe that a pilot scheme is currently examining that issue, and we hope—

Hon Members: Where?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is being rolled out.

Margaret Beckett: The scheme is being rolled out. [Interruption.] I shall write to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on the matter, as I am afraid that the geographical location of the pilot scheme is not present in my mind.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the general issue of biosecurity, and we accept that there is a need to remind everyone of the importance of behaving with caution and common sense. On vets and speed of response, unfortunately there was something of a hiatus in recruitment in the summer. Frankly, after all the expenditure of the past year or so, we ran out of money. However, I can assure him that the problem is being overcome.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Does the report state that never again will we see piles of animals being burned or even buried, usually in the wrong place? We witnessed such scenes during the foot and mouth crisis, and many constituents were very concerned about the smell, and about the burying of animals beside streams and schools. Does the report make it clear that such things will never happen again?

Margaret Beckett: I of course accept that distress was caused by the action that had to be undertaken during the outbreak. I did not go into detail about everything in the reports, but I know that Dr. Anderson considered whether there were hazards from such burials. He said that there was no evidence of that, but I fully accept that there is a difference between actual hazards and people experiencing great discomfort and unpleasantness. As a result of reassessment of the handling of the last outbreak, the hierarchy of steps taken in respect of disposal—beginning with commercial incineration and proceeding to rendering—is different from that which applied last time. That means that the issues that my hon. Friend has raised should not, we hope, ever need to be raised again.

David Burnside (South Antrim): If the Secretary of State were to fly into Belfast international airport, in my constituency, she would find out immediately how the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development brands livestock and produce to stop illegal food imports. That is carried out professionally and well, and we would like to offer that lesson to the rest of the

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United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State give the House some more details on policing resources, which is a major concern? She referred in her statement to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise getting more resources. We in Northern Ireland have a land border, which poses a greater problem than that on the mainland, and the policing of foot and mouth is absolutely crucial. Will she also give the House some information on the reason why very few prosecutions were brought after the foot and mouth outbreak? The two cases in Northern Ireland—in Armagh and the glens of Antrim—resulted from the illegal transfer of animals from the British mainland. Prosecutions were brought but no convictions were achieved.

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's last question. Obviously, the issue of who is prosecuted, and under what circumstances, is a matter not for me but for the relevant authorities. However, I shall inquire as to whether any general information is available that I can give to him.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the additional resources that are being provided, to which I have already referred. Some #1.5 million is funding additional enforcement officers at ports and airports. That funding began in October, and is being provided for a number of ports and airports across the United Kingdom, so we are beginning to step up our policing efforts. Of course, we took some relevant action earlier, such as increasing the powers of enforcement officers.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): May I raise with the Minister what I believe to be a major omission from her report? One of the most worrying and upsetting elements of the crisis was the way in which some saw the opportunity for price gouging and fraud. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that any fraud in future events is thoroughly punished? What steps has she taken to ensure that price gouging is avoided? What is she doing to tackle the culture of milking the system, which is so prevalent in agriculture?

Margaret Beckett: I accept my hon. Friend's concerns. I am aware of the vigour with which he and other hon. Members raise those issues on the Public Accounts Committee. All I can say to him is that we are looking very carefully at what is being said about those issues and we look forward to the report from the PAC, as well as that from the National Audit Office. Perhaps Xlooking forward" is not quite the right phrase, but we are certainly in anticipation of them. That is very much the background to some of the issues that are being and have been discussed about how we handle the valuation issue in future.

May I also add for the information of the House that I am advised that there are definitely posters about illegal imports on the carousels at terminal 2, Heathrow?

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