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6 Nov 2002 : Column 299—continued

Margaret Beckett: I understand that great disappointment will be felt, and I understand that many people in livestock farming simply wish the Government to abandon all movement controls. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman in all sincerity, given the strong recommendations of the Royal Society inquiry as well as of the lessons learned inquiry that we do no such thing, that I am afraid that the Government did not feel that it would be responsible to take such steps. We have made some minor amendments and exemptions, as he knows, to try to take account of some of the concerns about the movement of breeding stock. However disappointed people may be, I hope that they will understand why we did not feel able simply to abandon the restrictions. We hope that we will have some preliminary results by the end of the month, although we do not expect the full report until into the new year. Of course we will endeavour to keep the House informed about vaccination but I am not sure whether it is as simple as saying every so often that we will have a report on progress.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Now that the right hon. Lady has had a chance to study the reports that she commissioned, what, in her judgment, was the cause of last year's outbreak?

Margaret Beckett: Someone acted illegally in importing diseased meat and someone else acted illegally in not reporting the incidence of foot and mouth disease and in allowing movement, which meant that the disease was spread. If blame there is, that is where it lies.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): First, may I say how much I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will now be given sole responsibility for the control of animal and animal health products at ports and airports? I have long advocated that approach, and I am glad that it has been accepted by the Government. There remains the issue of what priority Customs and Excise will give that responsibility and what resources will be made available to them to carry it out.

Margaret Beckett: We are discussing increased resources with Customs and Excise. Responsibility for the material remains with DEFRA, but import controls will be the responsibility of Customs and Excise, and I feel sure that they will give the matter the priority that it deserves. That is, in part, something to which Members of the House might turn their attention.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)

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in welcoming most of what the right hon. Lady has said? Given the criticisms contained in the Anderson report in particular and the flurry of activity that it has engendered, does she still maintain, as she once said, that the Government's response to foot and mouth had been a minor triumph? Or will she take possibly the last opportunity—that I will offer her anyway—to apologise and say sorry for the trauma of foot and mouth?

Margaret Beckett: I made it plain following the publication of the Anderson report that the Government accept that mistakes were made. I also made it plain, as Dr. Anderson's report clearly shows, that a huge effort was undertaken to try to bring the disease under control. Dr. Anderson has previously identified the huge amount of utterly devoted work by staff in my Department and many others across the country. He pointed out:

Given the unprecedented nature of the outbreak, that was an achievement. If I used the words Xminor triumph", it was against the background of ferocious and unjustified criticism of staff in the field, not least staff in my Department.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Do the Government's contingency plans include the ability in an emergency to introduce a welfare cull? Does the right hon. Lady accept that they should, and that a welfare cull with fair compensation should be able to function swiftly and efficiently in the early days of an emergency?

Margaret Beckett: It is our hope that there will never again have to be a welfare cull. One aim of the trialling and the work that is being undertaken is try to ensure that we do not find ourselves in circumstances where such a thing has to be contemplated.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Having flown earlier this year from Ascension Island near equatorial Africa into a British airport and entered the country without speaking to a single human being, and having yesterday spent several hours with Customs and Excise at Dover seeing what it does, I am not persuaded that the Government's recently announced publicity campaign has got any traction. Is the Secretary of State aware that the main priorities of Customs and Excise are tobacco, alcohol and class A drugs? Does she accept that while the inclusion in the statement of a ban on personal imports was extremely welcome—although the fact that she has to ask Commissioner Byrne for permission is deeply offensive—what is required is a fundamental step-change in the understanding and psychology of people travelling to this country such as that which occurs when people go to Australia and the United States? Much more is needed, and soon.

Margaret Beckett: I can only repeat that there are posters at Heathrow, regional airports and other international airports. Some 20 international airlines have now agreed to distribute leaflets, either in-flight or at check-in desks and information points—I assure the hon. Gentleman that that has taken some work—and

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we are looking at other outlets for distributing leaflets, including high street travel agents, vaccination centres and regional post offices. I have mentioned already the advice that visitors get. A radio filler has been distributed to 118 regional commercial radio stations and a couple of campaign videos are due to be distributed soon. A great deal of work is therefore under way, much of which has to done through other people and agencies, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to pursue it.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I welcome the Secretary of State's remarks about the responsibilities of Customs and Excise, but will she make the point to her colleagues in the Treasury that that work needs to be done in uncanalised routes of entry as much as at Dover and the airports? What steps is she taking to enable farmers to take their animals to slaughter locally instead of being forced by supermarkets to drag them halfway across the country?

Margaret Beckett: I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the implications of various movements, but I believe that he is talking about commercial contracts, and I am not in a position to interfere with them.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The right hon. Lady will be aware that foot and mouth came late to the Vale of York and that the strongest criticism in the Anderson inquiry concerned the question of a contingency plan. What message can I take back to my farmers to satisfy them that there is a contingency plan for North Yorkshire? Will the right hon. Lady assure them that the high standards of animal biosecurity that apply to everyone else will apply to her own Department? A picture of her departmental colleague, Lord Whitty, appeared in our local newspaper on the same day as an advertisement saying that waterproof overall trousers and wellington boots must be worn, but he was visibly wearing neither.

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I am not familiar with the episode to which the hon. Lady refers, nor do I know where that photograph is supposed to have been taken. One of the less attractive features of the desperate attempt to make all of this stick to the Government was the pretence in some quarters that the disease was spread by officials from the Ministry rather than by the type of movement that actually led to its spread.

I realise that it is not much help to say that the contingency plan is available on the website—but it is. We shall of course look for other ways to make it

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available. The most important thing that we want and need from the hon. Lady's constituents and anyone else with relevant experience is their input to that contingency plan. It is a living document on which we shall continually be carrying out much more training, trialling and rehearsal. What we need most is the input of practitioners in the field to identify the weaknesses before there are any further animal disease outbreaks, not after.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On behalf of my farmers and constituents, who are deeply concerned, I endorse all the points made about the 20-day rule. The Secretary of State will have noticed that paragraph 4.6.3 of the report observes that the Government do not rule out the possibility of on-farm burial. My constituency was the epicentre of the 1967 epidemic in which there was an enormous amount of on-farm burial, yet there were no after-effects for any animal or person, nor any type of crop distress that proved that infection had resulted. I would recommend burial on farm. How does the right hon. Lady reconcile that possibility with the EU directive that her Government are intent on implementing that would stop on-farm burial in all circumstances from 2003, as a result of the concerns of the Environment Agency?

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