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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. So far the only clear indication of action is large notices at ports of entry telling people about not bringing certain things in and the amount of meat you can bring in legally, and so on. I would not have thought that is going to make a great deal of odds because it will affect only law-abiding citizens who have a genuine concern about the matter, and not those who are careless and uninterested in the health of animals in this country and the economy that we are seeking to protect by these measures.
  (Mr Scudamore) We are building up a package of measures and we have been in close touch with the Australians, the New Zealanders and Canadians to see what mechanisms they have in place and how they are detecting and dealing with the illegal importation of meat.

  41. This is not rocket science, is it?
  (Mr Scudamore) No.

  42. The difficulty is that the British civil service culture which chooses to divide accountability for many of these activities into a series of separate units constantly requires months for people to mull over the various options with each other before any action is taken. So I assume we will wait until some time in the new year for some announcement on this, when we will digest the implications for each other's jobs. Is that roughly what happens?
  (Mr Scudamore) I am not sure, Chairman, I can answer that question. What I can say is that like you I recognise that illegal imports and the importation of meat containing viruses poses a major risk to the country. There is no question that if you look at the diseases and you look at the viruses and you look at their survival in meat, there is a potential—particularly with foot and mouth disease, swine fever, African swine fever and swine vesicular disease—for those diseases to come in in meat or meat products. The second thing, in my advice, is we have to look at where those three methods come in and we have to see how we can detect them and eliminate them. The critical question is enforcement and funding and resources. I think that is an issue which needs to be looked at.

  43. We had an outbreak detected in the middle of February of this year and we are now towards the end of October. What stage has this process of deliberation reached?
  (Mr Scudamore) As I say, there are initiatives under way. I cannot recollect, I am afraid—I can have a guess—but the initiatives involve publicity, which we have been pursuing—

  44. I have noticed that as a traveller.
  (Mr Scudamore) There are cross-departmental initiatives to look at how we can improve things and how we can look to detecting things. We are having to see what we can actually do with containers. We cannot turn out all the containers, so the question is what do we do with them?

  45. Last point. As I said, it is not rocket science and it is done elsewhere in the world. I think many people will have accepted an urgent adoption of the measures taken in other countries and the methods that are used in other countries, but, again, the British civil service approach is to seek to reinvent this process to a particular British specification, which of course takes a very long time and does not necessarily produce the best outcome.
  (Mr Scudamore) I do not necessarily agree with that. I think it is a very complex issue.

  46. It is a complex issue that has been solved in other parts of the world. Why can it not be solved here?
  (Mr Scudamore) If we take things like "sin bins", where people coming into the country throw their meat, there are all sorts of public health issues related to that, in terms of piles of meat piling up, and there is the possibility that other materials will be thrown into these bins.

  47. We are not the only country in the world that has people bringing in meat that is banned. Are we? It is a global issue and it is addressed by civil servants and politicians globally. Surely there are models which can be adopted from elsewhere which would suit our requirements, although they might be inconvenient to the particular administrative structure of the British civil service and local government.
  (Mr Scudamore) I think I have answered as far as I can at the moment.

Mr Martlew

  48. Can I disagree with what has been said. If it was so easy to stop smuggling we would not have a problem with illegal immigrants, we would not have a problem with drugs and we would not have a problem with cigarettes and drink being brought into the country. So when you made the point that we will eliminate this, I do not think it is possible to eliminate it. I think it is a cul-de-sac we are going down, in reality. The question is, we have to stop it getting into the animal food chain. That is where the work has got to be done. Why did we not ban pig swill earlier? What was the agricultural view on this? Were the farmers objecting to banning pig swill and what will be the view in the future, do you think?
  (Mr Scudamore) We wish to reduce the risk that meat comes into the country, but there is still the chance that it could get in and we have to have in place the measures to prevent that meat coming into contact with animals and, if it does come into contact with animals, to prevent the disease spreading from those. On swill, it is actually a very useful way of getting rid of by-product. After the 1967/68 outbreak there was no recommendation to ban swill. The recommendation after that outbreak and subsequently was that we had to tighten up the control on swill. In other words, the swill had to be collected by licensed collectors, it had to be taken to licensed swill plants, those swill plants had to have facilities to reach certain temperatures and pressures so that the swill could be treated and the temperatures they reached would destroy the virus in the meat. So there was actually little risk that if the swill was treated properly there would be virus left when it was fed to the pigs. When it was subsequently fed to those pigs, the pigs under the Movement and Sale of Pigs Order were only allowed to go direct to slaughter. So there were measures in place all the way along the chain to make sure that the way it was collected was kept under control, it went to the swill plant, was treated and was fed to pigs and those pigs had to go to slaughter only and could not enter the general pig chain. So I think all of those measures were in place.

  49. It depended on people actually carrying out the regulations.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, that is right. Swill plants were subject to more inspection by the government than any other pig farms. They were licensed and they were checked four times a year to make sure that they were complying with the rules. What any enforcement cannot do, however, is to make sure that every day those people do what they are supposed to do. What we could do was to license them, explain what was needed and to enforce it by the regular visits, and from 1967 until now the swill plants have operated and they have operated without causing any problem. The numbers of swill plants has gradually reduced. There were large numbers in the 1967/70 period and they have gradually come down so that there are relatively fewer of them nowadays. That was the position on swill plants at the beginning of this outbreak. Since then swill has been banned. The question then arises, where does the swill go? It goes into landfill sites. So we stop one problem but we might create other problems, which we need to be very careful about.

Mr Breed

  50. Mr Scudamore, you will be aware that Devon County Council's inquiry which they held in public has recently published their preliminary findings. There is an assertion in there that the handling of foot and mouth disease outbreak in Devon at least, (which is all they were looking at) was "lamentable". What is your response to that? Coupled with that, were you or any of your staff asked to give evidence to that inquiry?
  (Mr Scudamore) We are asked to give evidence to lots of things. The reason we did not give evidence to that inquiry is that we will be giving evidence to the two official inquiries—that is the Anderson Inquiry and the Royal Society Inquiry. Secondly, my staff are extremely pressed workwise; we have a huge job ahead of us, even now, and the staff in Devon were concentrating on restocking, cleaning and disinfection and serologically testing. I think I ought to pay tribute to those staff in Devon. If you look at those maps I have given you, they got well ahead of other counties in doing the serological testing and clearing the protection zones. So, at the moment, my staff are concentrating on dealing with disease, controlling the restocking and we are aiming to get Devon a free county as soon as we can, because that then has impacts on farmers. Going to inquiries is actually very time-consuming. I think our view was that we were still in the middle of an outbreak, we still had a lot of work to do and that staff should concentrate on that.

  51. Perhaps only one or two people for about an hour. If you are already preparing information for other inquiries presumably it would not have been that much more time-consuming.
  (Mr Scudamore) I think it would have been. Coming to a Committee like this, Chairman, takes a lot of preparation and a lot of time to read up and get all the facts and figures. If you do not get them right you then have even more of a problem. What we would want to do is give our evidence to the other two inquiries so that we can look back and get all the facts together and then the lessons can be learned from that. I think the Devon Inquiry, which is very useful, will go into the other inquiries and it will enable them to start looking at the issues raised in Devon.

  David Taylor: Your response to the assertion which was the core question?

Mr Breed

  52. What is your response to the fact that it was considered, as I say, "lamentable"?
  (Mr Scudamore) My response to that is I cannot really comment too much on that because, in fact, this will be an issue that will be looked at by the lessons learned inquiry. What I would say is that we have had an immense outbreak, we have had wide distribution of an unprecedented nature, we have had resources which have been stretched to the limit and we have had staff who have been working 14-hours a day to try and control it.

Patrick Hall

  53. Who decided that DEFRA officials would not participate in this inquiry? Who took the decision?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think that was a decision within DEFRA and, obviously, that is an issue for ministers.

  54. I am sorry, is the answer that a minister gave the instruction? Is that the answer?
  (Mr Scudamore) The answer is that it was discussed within DEFRA and it was decided, with ministerial agreement, that officials would not give evidence to the Devon Inquiry, for the reasons I have given, in terms of time, the resources and the need to get on with the job that we are doing.

  55. So the minister said, based on advice from officials, that DEFRA should not participate in the inquiry?
  (Mr Scudamore) I was not intimately involved in those decisions, but decisions like that are made by ministers on advice and in discussion. I do not know if Roy wants to say something on that.

Mr Breed

  56. There was also a mention in the report about the potential breakdown of communication between farmers and MAFF staff and allegations of insensitivity and belligerence and so on. Could you comment on what your response to that is? Secondly, in terms of the recommendation that a development of a national contingency plan to cope with foot and mouth would help with future outbreaks, we are aware that a contingency plan existed following 1967. When in the commencement of this outbreak was it realised that that contingency plan was wholly inadequate to deal with the outbreak which was then before you.
  (Mr Scudamore) On the communications and lack of sensitivity, communications are essential and we need good communications and I think one of the lessons which is going to have to be looked at is how we communicate. I do not think this is unique to DEFRA. In communicating with an outbreak of this size, how one communicates from the centre to the local offices is an issue we need to consider: how the local offices communicate to farmers, the sheer volume of communication that has to go on has to be seen to be believed. For example, we wrote to farmers; the ministers sent various letters to farmers on biosecurity and on all sorts of different things; we had media briefings, but it is a very difficult topic and how do you get messages and information when things are changing so rapidly. In the first two months of this outbreak everything was changing so rapidly, and I said it was unprecedented. We had to learn as we went along with a lot of this. No one has had to deal with a widespread sheep disease in a dense animal population before. We had to learn a lot as we went along and we had to change policy as we learnt the lessons through the epidemiology. I agree with you that communication needs to be looked at and improved, and we had very great difficulties in knowing the best way to get it through to people. Do you put it on the website? Do you send them letters? Whichever method we used, there were always people who did not get it.

  57. Was it a lack of staff on the ground that also contributed?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. We had a major problem with staffing—I am quite happy to admit that—but we started off with an outbreak in Essex. It then escalated so we had virtually twelve geographical areas with what were 1967/1968 type outbreaks; we ran out of vets; we did not have enough technical staff; we had to train people to bleed animals; we had to find administrative staff and even drawing on other government departments we have had a serious resource problem. We have had to agree this with other government departments to get in people; we have had the army in, so we have had a serious problem with resources due to the size of the outbreak.

Mr Taylor

  58. You ran out of vets. Whose decision was it to decline the offers of retired vets to assist in the earlier months of the outbreak.
  (Mr Scudamore) There are quite a lot of complicated issues related to vets and retired vets. One issue is we do have health and safety rules and one reason we are always concerned about employing older members of profession is that, if they are on farms and handling animals, we have to be quite happy that there are no health and safety issues. One of the lessons we learnt quite quickly was that retired vets would be invaluable working in offices so people with experience who might not be wanting to go out on the farms were very valuable working in offices. So we did have difficulties to begin with in recruiting people but in fact we have taken retired vets for quite a long time now.

David Burnside

  59. Health and safety issues for these older vets who were offering their help and would have been available? Health and safety issues affecting them.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. We are responsible for our staff and the environment they work in with respect to health and safety. If we send a man out to a farm who is not capable or able of dealing with large cattle and he gets killed or breaks an arm, we are in a very difficult position. We have to be quite clear that the people we are using in these sorts of jobs, which can be very dangerous if you are having to examine cattle on farms, are able to do it. One of our concerns was that we have to have fit and healthy vets on the farm to do that work. I will be retired before long and I am not saying that retired people are not fit and healthy but we have to be quite clear that the people who do these jobs are able to do them. We do have retirement at 60 in the Civil Service. We keep LVIs on until 65 and in exceptional circumstances up to 70, but we have been employing people in their 80s.

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