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6 Nov 2002 : Column 321—continued

Andrew George : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If he accepts the principle behind the amendment, his question suggests that he thinks that the Bill should be further amended to clarify the way in which the decision would be made. There are many opportunities for Parliament in that respect. If the Secretary of State had to demonstrate that proper consideration had been given to a vaccinate-to-live policy, it would be possible for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, for example, to give that decision proper scrutiny. Without that safeguard, the decisions could be made behind closed doors. We know that it is possible that the decision to use a slaughter policy rather than a vaccination policy could be made on the basis of what is convenient for the Department. The reasons for such a decision could be extraneous and not based on principle.

Mr. Martlew: Both of the reports that the House discussed earlier today accuse the Government of having a slow decision-making process, and identified it as a major problem in the most recent foot and mouth outbreak. The amendment would slow that process even further. Why change the Bill in a way that would make sure that that fault is still present when the next outbreak comes along?

Andrew George : I do not believe that the requirement to demonstrate that the Secretary of State has properly considered implementing a vaccinate-to-live policy would slow decision making. The Minister said that he agrees with the proposal in principle, but the hon. Gentleman implies that the Secretary of State should be given a way not to give proper consideration to the policy—he would not have to give full consideration to all the implications of the decision that is eventually made.

I cannot see how it will in practice delay the process, but it may result in better outcomes. Rather than arguing that it may delay a worse outcome, surely it would be better to allow for a proper process that might result in a better outcome with better and quicker control of the disease.

Mr. Curry: Is not the truth that the hon. Gentleman's amendment will not make the blindest bit of difference? There is no way for him to know the nature of the consideration that the Minister has given. In any foreseeable circumstances, it is inconceivable that a Minister would take a decision to slaughter without considering the alternatives, given the sort of public disquiet that that would inevitably raise. I am afraid that

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although the hon. Gentleman's amendment has a jolly political purpose, it has no practical or political substance at all.

Andrew George: The right hon. Gentleman says that it is inconceivable for Ministers to conclude that it would be better to use a slaughter policy rather than vaccinate if they have properly considered the issue, but during the last outbreak it was conceivable. One of the concerns throughout the outbreak and a reason why a lot of the processes were delayed was that many farmers did not feel that they had been properly represented or that the Government were on their side. It became conceivable that decisions were taken for reasons that were not directed towards the best possible outcome. If we want better and quicker outcomes in any future outbreak, we need transparency in the way in which Government processes work and the decision-making process operates.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) rightly spoke about the impact on the retailing of vaccinated meat. No doubt next time that will be a matter for consideration.

This debate has given us an opportunity to bring forward some excellent proposals, such as the one put forward by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for an annual report to be made to Parliament and DEFRA on progress to identify a vaccine. I would be interested in the Under-Secretary's response to that proposal because I hope that we could take it forward.

I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily on this matter; I am sure that I have spoken for far too long and I know that many others wish to speak. However, Liberal Democrat Members believe that it is important to be more explicit in the Bill and to be clear that there is a decision-making stream. If the Under-Secretary agrees with the principle of the amendment, it should feature in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): May I give some support to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in supporting the amendment from the other place? I think that we would all like to support it, because it is the ideal for which we strive. Sadly, however, I have to side with my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) in challenging the practicality of the Lords amendment. The Government's amendment is a reasonable compromise between what we would like and what we can work with in practice, so I hope that my hon. Friend does not push this to a Division. If he does, I might be in a different Lobby from him, and that is rather a dangerous occupation for a Conservative Member of Parliament at present.

I am no great expert on the intricacies of vaccination, but the farming community would face difficulties if a system of prophylactic vaccination were introduced. As we have heard, it is virtually impossible—indeed, it is impossible—to ensure that all stock is collected and vaccinated. It is estimated that there are 30 million sheep in the United Kingdom, with 3 million or 4 million in my constituency. Even in normal circumstances it is virtually impossible to get all the sheep down from the fields for dipping.

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During the foot and mouth culling, I attended a number of culls, including one on some large open-range farms where several thousand ewes were slaughtered over a couple of days. Not a single ewe or lamb was left on the hills, but the next day another hundred came out of hiding to see where their colleagues had gone. It is sadly impossible to guarantee that all stock is slaughtered.

Mr. Martlew: I understand the hon. Gentleman's train of thought, but if the vast of majority of the flock is immunised we will not have a major outbreak, will we?

Mr. Atkinson: I am advised that that is not the case. I have been told that if a single animal is not vaccinated, it could travel through the firebreak and spread infection. We were talking about the Dutch experience—there were three quarters of a million pigs in one unit, so there was no problem getting to them and vaccinating them. The situation with sheep and hill cattle is very different. Hill cattle are extremely wild and are hard to round up, as we discovered during the foot and mouth cull. Wild deer are common in many parts of the United Kingdom now, and are potential carriers of foot and mouth—the Minister will threaten me if I am wrong—and there is no point having a prophylactic vaccination system if a large section of the animal population is not vaccinated.

Mr. Martlew: The reality is that we did not kill all the wild deer after the last outbreak, but we have not had any further outbreaks.

Mr. Atkinson: I accept that. I do not know the risks of foot and mouth being transmitted to the wild deer population, but in a fail-safe vaccination system we must consider the chance of wild animals moving within a vaccinated animal community. That possibility has not been properly addressed.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's desire to avoid the unpleasant scenes that he and I witnessed at first hand, but that is a distant eventuality. We may one day achieve it, but in the meantime the Government amendment is the most practical compromise.

Mrs. Browning: Another aspect of the problem was touched on in Committee, but we did not get a definitive answer from the Minister. Any vaccination policy must deal with the question of the right to enter premises to enforce vaccination. That power needs to be looked at carefully.

Mr. Morley: It is in the Bill.

Mrs. Browning: I believe that the Minister is trying to help me, as he is usually helpful. However, a policy of prophylactic vaccination raises the question whether or not the Government will enforce it.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree entirely. How would we ensure that all animals were vaccinated? It would not be practical to test them to see whether a farmer was telling

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the truth. It would be pretty easy, however, for him to claim that all his animals were vaccinated, but not vaccinate them.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am afraid that my intervention will not be particularly helpful for my hon. Friend, but it is possible to vaccinate with a bolus that can be traced, so there is accountability.

Mr. Atkinson: I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct, but I mentioned that there were 30 million sheep in the UK, so he will recognise the size of the problem. Obviously, if a farmer was suspected of not vaccinating his flock, that could be checked. My hon. Friend surely cannot be considering random tests in a national flock of that size.

Will the Minister consider vaccination for rare breeds and species? There is certainly a case for prophylactic vaccination of herds of wild cattle, such as the Chillingham cattle in Northumberland, as their meat will never enter the food chain.

I have to say, reluctantly, that their lordships' amendments are too ambitious and that the compromise that we have been asked to support is correct.

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