Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Secretary of State, I think The Sunday Times had you as one of the "The Magnificent Seven". I hope you will not mind my saying that I think you are the doyenne of the Magnificent Seven.
  (Margaret Beckett) The eldest, certainly, I think, yes.

  2. We only have a Magnificent One, in the shape of Diana here. We are quite sure she will hold her own, worthy of seven. I am sorry we have got a rather crowded room. I am allergic to the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House because the witnesses are so far from the Committee that you need Semaphore in order to communicate, and rooms 15 and 16 are being used for storage at the moment, so I apologise for the discomfort of the surroundings, but good political advice is always cram into a smaller room rather than have empty seats in a big room. That is not a reference to my party's recent congress. Welcome to Jim Scudamore, as well. We are delighted to see you both. I think we may get to see each other relatively frequently and that will be, I have no doubt, a pleasure for both of us. If it is not we will have to get by without it being a pleasure. May I ask two or three general points to begin with, Secretary of State. We have now had over 2,000 cases of foot and mouth disease. When we began with this epidemic the policy of slaughter was justified on the grounds that we had to maintain the disease-free status of the United Kingdom. There was never any real costing put upon the value of disease-free status in comparison with the cost of the slaughter policy in terms of the compensation paid, on the one hand, and, on the other, the dislocation of businesses for farmers who did not have the disease but who were caught by the restrictions and, of course, perhaps biggest of all, the dislocation of other businesses which were deprived of customers. In the light of that, do you think the policy has been worth it?
  (Margaret Beckett) Obviously it is going to be very difficult, and I am sure lots of people will try to cost all of these different implications. I think my principal reaction, Mr Chairman, to your question is "What is the alternative?" Without wishing to pre-empt any of the results of the various inquiries which are taking place, it is not clear to me that there was much of an alternative in treating the outbreak of a disease of this nature. So, basically, I am sure that will be one of the things that is given extensive consideration, and when it is people will have to look at the costs of any alternatives. Given the arguments about the efficacy, for example, of trying to pursue a vaccination policy, in the circumstances in which we found ourselves when it was first realised how it had begun, I do not think there was much else that anyone could have done differently, in the circumstances.

  3. Getting back to normal is going to depend heavily upon the progress of the blood testing, which vets call "bleeding". Could you give us a report on when that process will be finished, so that normality can be restored? Is there anything you can say to businesses—which next week have the school half-term and the last opportunity, perhaps, to be able to earn a little before winter sets in—about their prospects?
  (Margaret Beckett) I will ask Jim, if I may, in a moment to give us the latest indication. I think it is an indication of the success of the scale of the action that has been taken to try and tackle this disease the extent to which testing has been racked up. I believe when the outbreak began the normal capacity to conduct tests was something like 400 a week, but we are now just over 170,000 and I believe we hope to have a capacity of 200,000 by November. So I think what has been done and the hours that people have been prepared to put in have been quite remarkable and very much worthy of praise. I will ask Jim in a second just to say where he thinks we are at in terms of timescale for finishing. It is also worth saying, because when the wide scale testing began there was concern it would reveal the disease was endemic in parts of the country, and that has not turned out to be the case. The latest figures, I think, are just under 400 positive tests out of something like 700,000 or thereabouts. So that is reassuring. As to the issue of normality, of course we have now got 92 per cent of footpaths in England re-opened. That is 109,000 miles out of a total of 118,200. We have continued to say to people throughout the period, once the initial stage of assessment had passed, that provided that people moved with caution and are cautious about contact with susceptible livestock there is no reason why people should not use the countryside in the normal way. I think that has broadly got across. I understand that in many areas there has been more of a recovery from what had been anticipated in business over the summer, but I share your view. We are having, mercifully, some mild weather and I hope people are recognising, and do recognise, that not only is this an opportunity for them to enjoy themselves in the English countryside but, also, an opportunity to help those who have suffered very seriously from the tackling of this disease.

  4. Before the Chief Vet replies, may I ask a supplementary which you may wish to embrace as well? As you say, you are finding relatively little incidence of whole disease or residual disease. Of course, if we are seeking disease-free status to be restored, how do we demonstrate there is no disease—residual disease?
  (Margaret Beckett) As you say, it is something he may want to address, but in terms of disease-free status where we are at present is that 104 counties are now classed as foot and mouth disease free. In Scotland all 23 counties are classed as free and 21, of course, never had an outbreak of any kind. Only two counties, Cumbria and Northumberland, have had outbreaks in the past four weeks, and we have not had a case, as of this morning, for 16 consecutive days. Having said that, I think it is only right to say immediately that, of course, we all fully recognise—and I know all this Committee will recognise—particularly given the fact that we have had to licence some autumn movement, although trying to take account of the balance of risk that is very, very clearly there—it would be a miracle if we get through the period when autumn movement is taking place without seeing a resurgence. Certainly there must be that very real danger, but where we are at the moment is certainly better than one might have feared.

  5. You may have just written a headline.
  (Mr Scudamore) On the serology we have done around about 1.6 million tests now. As the Secretary of State said, about 700,000 of those have been in protection zones, and we have had around about 400 positives. Of the 1.6 million that have been done in protection zones, we have had—

  6. The protection zones are 3 kilometres outside an infected—
  (Mr Scudamore) The 3-kilometre zone around an infected premises. We have done 700,000 of those. In the surveillance zones, which is between 3 and 10 kilometres, where we do not test all the flocks but test a statistical number of the flocks, we have tested about 460,000 and we have had 0.02 per cent of the animals positive. The remainder of the tests have been done for epidemiological diagnosis. To give you the overall result, in the protection zones, for example, we have tested 9,950 flocks and we have had 28 positives.

  7. Twenty-eight positive flocks?
  (Mr Scudamore) With evidence of antibodies. Of those 28 we found no evidence of virus in 26 of them, so of the 28 that were antibody-positive only two had virus present, which indicates that the flocks have been exposed to the disease but there was no longer any active disease in those flocks. In the surveillance zone we have tested 6,658 flocks as at 15th and four of those were positive on antibodies but had no evidence of any virus. So we are working through this testing and we are not getting a high proportion of the flocks positive. What we are seeing is evidence of old disease in a number of flocks, and it is possible there might still be one or two flocks out there with active virus in them. So that comes on to the second question and that is how will we know when it is all over? I think we are going to have to set criteria to say that it is all over. The first thing is we can say we have no disease in a lot of the counties and we can say that when we have had no disease in the country for three months that is a good indication that it is all over. When we have converted all the counties to free counties—that means we have completed all the serological work in those counties—that will be another indication. But we still remain with the problem of how do we finally clear it and say we have got no virus present in the country? The way we do that is, I think, that as we get test results in we will have to analyse them and see what they mean and what they show, and then we might have to do more testing in some areas to demonstrate there is no virus left in the national flock.

  8. I am going to ask David Drew to come in in a minute, but I have one final question from me, Secretary of State. I think perhaps one of the most common criticisms levelled during the course of this outbreak—and obviously my constituents have been seriously affected—has been the dislocation in the process of decisions taken in London and implementation locally, as far as movements are concerned. This goes right back to the original welfare scheme, various licensing schemes and the most recent autumn movement scheme. The trading standards office in Northallerton was wholly unable to deal with requests because the DEFRA computer collapsed on them. I have been told the DEFRA computer was programmed to deal with 8,000 hits a day and it collapsed at 2,000 a day. In every single case, a week after the chiefs had announced something in London the Indians in the constituencies have been saying "Can we have a few arrow heads?" "We have not got detailed instructions." "We do not know how to carry this out". Do you think that is a valid criticism, and what do you think can be done to make sure that when instructions or initiatives are taken in London that they are capable of being implemented efficiently and without dislocation?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think the Committee is aware and, indeed, my predecessor spoke to the Committee before about some of the earlier problems with the issue of licensing. I think we did have a particular problem with licensing movement, and I am not going to pretend that there have not been very, very real problems on the ground. We are extremely conscious of that and we do not attempt to conceal it for a second. I would like to take the opportunity to pay very real tribute to the local authorities because they did a magnificent job. Part of our anxiety at the beginning when we were trying to put this system in place was that the local authorities would find it difficult to start up and put the procedures in place actually to do their end. I have to say they have been magnificent. They have certainly carried out their role and there is not any doubt whatsoever that, as you have identified in the example you gave, we have had very, very real problems with the programme. It has been extremely difficult to do. It was a very difficult exercise to devise a good programme for. While the work was being undertaken to develop arrangements and to develop the software and so on, the Hexham outbreak occurred, which completely changed the background against which the planning had been undertaken and made everybody even more risk-averse and even more conscious of the problems we would need to address, and we had, as you say, very real problems. However, I understand and indeed hope that those problems have now been resolved and something like 26,000 licences have been issued and another 8,000 have been processed and we hope will be issued very shortly.

Mr Drew

  9. If I can just look at the issue of autumn licensing in a little bit more detail, is there a need to look at the system? You quite rightly paid tribute to local authority officers but there is inevitably going to be some conflict where you have got people in DEFRA offices saying one thing to farmers and then they go to local authorities for the licences to be issued and it does not seem to happen very efficiently. Are you actually looking at that system now?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, we are because, as I say, we are conscious that we have had very real problems. Obviously human error does occur, but I would have thought that anyone who contacted DEFRA would have been told that, first of all, when we announced the scheme we made it absolutely evident that it would take time to build up, that it would be extremely difficult and complex and that we were very, very mindful of the fact that if everybody came along on day one it could not possibly cope. All the way through we have been very cautious about saying "This is what we are trying to do, it is going to be difficult, we are going to have to build up to it slowly" and that was even before we understood the scale of the problems we were having with the computer systems. I would hope that any of our staff have been somewhat cautious but saying "This is what we are trying to do, this is how you go about it and we are doing our best to satisfy demand".

  10. Notwithstanding that we obviously have got to make a guesstimate of when foot and mouth will end and given that you do that, is licensing here to stay or is it very much connected to the foot and mouth outbreak?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think you will be aware that there was some discussion about whether we do want to control movement and there has been some consultation, which received what I can only describe as an unfavourable response. Clearly, again, these are exactly the kinds of issues that people will have to look at in the aftermath of this particular outbreak. This outbreak does seem to have very much been linked to animal movement. The question we will all have to consider is whether that is always likely to be the case in the circumstances in which farming operates today or whether it is much more to do with anybody knowing there was an outbreak. So all of these things we will have to thrash out.

  11. Surely the way forward is traceability of sheep? That must be your prime concern, at the moment. I know the Department is working on that. I was a bit surprised to hear a couple of days ago that if and when you introduce this you may have to do it with a paper-based system rather than using information technology. Could you perhaps say where you are with regard to that?
  (Margaret Beckett) There is still a great deal of work to be done on it, and I think it is a consequence of the problems we were talking about with the autumn movement system; people are concerned as to security and actually having accurate records. People have not been able, because of the range of other things that are taking place, to develop what would be, I agree, desirable in the long-term, which is good IT to maintain these records. The principles, in fact, that underlie the whole autumn movement regime are three-fold: the principle of all movement having to be licensed, the principle of that having to be linked to some form of inspection and then there is variation of degree depending on the severity of the problem, and then thirdly, of course, identification. I think that for a whole variety of reasons, not just to do with foot and mouth but to do even with marketing, people are talking more and more about whether we can get greater individual identification and whether we can get greater traceability. Really, everybody is talking about flocks rather than individual beasts.

Mr Todd

  12. Why was there a three-week gap between the announcement of the autumn movement scheme and the announcement of the Sole Occupancy Licence Scheme?
  (Margaret Beckett) Simply a matter of being able to get agreement on what the criteria should be, given the changing situation, and actually beginning to implement the scheme.

  13. Had this Sole Occupancy Licence Scheme been conceived of as part of the autumn movement scheme process, or was it an after-thought, after people said "Well, this is not going to work in the way you are suggesting, here is another way which will make something function effectively"?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not sure I would say it was an after-thought.
  (Mr Scudamore) We have been trying to develop a movement scheme that balances the risks and it is quite a complicated scheme. It is continually changing as the risks alter and the scheme has been looked at, so we are constantly looking and still looking at whether pigs can move separately to the way cattle can and have different rules on how sheep are moved. So the scheme was devised to allow movements where there was minimal risk. We have also had to try to devise a scheme where we have got the capacity in terms of serology to do the testing. One of the issues we were looking at, as the number of cases was declining and as they were being limited to Cumbria and Northumberland, was whether we could allow movements within 20 kilometres with a sole movement licence to allow people to move the premises within same ownership. At the same time we were having regular meeting with all the stakeholders, so we had regular meetings with all the people with an interest and there was an intensive set of meetings during this period with the Farmers' Union, LACOTS and others to try and devise a system which would minimise the risk and which would match the resources we had and allow movements. It is an on-going development.

  14. Yes, but it certainly gave the impression of confusion, because I was rung by several local farmers who had seen the autumn movement licence announcement and recognised that that simply would not work in their circumstances. They pointed out the fact that they had fields in ownership within a radius of, say, four to five miles, and why could they not move their stock between them? When I inquired, of course, it became clear that another scheme—which we now have—was being worked on at that time. That communication had not got through into the farming community and a lot of them were wasting time both ringing me (and, of course, that is part of my job) and, also, ringing up trading standards, DEFRA and so on, to try and find out what was going on and how they could carry on their business. You nod.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, I agree that communications is an area that we have to look at. However, in this particular case there were a lot of intensive meetings with the Farmers' Union and with LACOTS and all those with interest to try and get a scheme which would allow this sort of movement to take place and, at the same time, give us an assurance that the disease—

  15. The puzzle is why it was not conceived at the start as part of the original announcement and instead was added as an after action.
  (Margaret Beckett) There is always creative tension. One makes proposals and then people look at them and say "Wait a minute, could we not tweak the scheme here or make some changes there", and then say "Are you being consistent?" I think if people want policies to be adopted and schemes to exist that are responsive to the concerns that they express then they have to recognise that that means there will be change. The second thing I would say is that leaving all of that aside, the underlying concern all the way through has been—going back to what I said to the Chairman some little time ago—the acceptance of the very real fear of the risks that we were running. So it is not that people have no awareness of some of these difficulties; it has been a very cautious, step-by-step move to look at different relaxations because there is such an unease and concern about the very real risks that allowing any movement presents. That, again, is something that underpins all the steps. So, in those circumstances too, what you are bound to get is a degree of gradual evolution rather than a perfect scheme coming right at the very beginning.

Mr Drew

  16. If we could, again, look in some kind of detail at the responses to the 20-day standstill consultation, you have already alluded to the fact that it has not gone down very well. What are you going to do to try and alleviate some of the fears?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think this goes back to the point Jim made about communication. Everybody is going to have to take a step back and look at the full range of experience of this whole outbreak and look at it against what has happened elsewhere, what has happened in the past and then consider whether we have had a complete one-off. As I understand it—and Jim will correct me if I am wrong, I am sure—it is unprecedented for an outbreak to have taken place and to have run for so long without it becoming known that an outbreak had taken place. Does that mean that this is something that we should never expect to happen again? I suspect not, actually. I think it is against that background that people will have to look at all of these issues, including traceability and licensing. I am sure the Committee is aware, Chairman, that the Dutch Government is sponsoring a conference in December which is going to look at a range of issues, and I will be quite surprised if those issues do not come up.

  17. What are you going to do about the dealers?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not entirely sure what you are suggesting.

  18. I could say, if you wish.
  (Margaret Beckett) The role of the dealers is something that has evolved alongside the whole issue of movement. I am not sure which came first, whether it was the greater use of dealers that came first or whether it was greater movement. It has clearly played a very major role in the movement of animals, and that has on this occasion contributed to the disease. So, again, I go back to what I said earlier that I think to some extent how people look at the pattern of farming and the pattern of marketing and sale will depend on the degree to which they think this is something which could happen again in a similar sort of way.

  19. Does that mean that the Government has a key role to intervene to set the parameters? At the moment you almost get the worst of both worlds. It is not a free market but, at the same time, the Government has got limited powers to really be able to intervene. Is this something where you have got to look very carefully at much more intervention and actually almost say what movements and when—which is effectively what you are doing with licensing anyway?
  (Margaret Beckett) As I say, this is all part of the conversation and discussion that British people are having on the back of that consultation about which you were told earlier. If you have uncovered someone who actually thought it was a good idea to have that control I would be very interested to hear it.
  (Mr Scudamore) There is a comment, and that is we have had to have a 21-day standstill in the pig industry since 1974, so there already has been a precedent set in the pig industry, where following swine fever and vesicular disease and other problems there was a 21-day standstill on pigs. However, that standstill was then relaxed in certain circumstances. If the pigs were in a pyramid and they moved a certain way where there was no disease risk then there were exemptions to the 21-day standstill. This is a question, really, for pigs and other sheep and cattle.

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