Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Farmers' Union

  1.  I am writing to you with some views of the NFU in connection with your current enquiry on this subject.

  2.  The NFU recognises the importance of the Census and the use to which the information gained from it can be put in the design and implementation of policy. We have consistently encouraged our members to co-operate fully with the taking of the Census. This year, of course, a special difficulty arose because of the disastrous outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Discussions between the NFU and the Office of National Statistics about the conduct of the Census first took place in mid March, that is to say less than a month since the first case FMD had been identified. The National Statistician made a welcome statement on March 20 to the effect that "census-takers working in the countryside will respect all foot and mouth restrictions, whether statutory or otherwise imposed". He went on to say that the census-takers would do nothing that might contribute to the spread of the disease.

  3.  We are grateful to the ONS for the understanding which they showed of the considerable difficulties and stress facing farmers in the affected areas, and for the recognition of the need to make special arrangements to ensure that the normal arrangements, whereby enumerators could pay up to three personal visits to a farm, would have to be replaced by alternative arrangements so as to reduce any risk of the disease being spread by people or their vehicles. It was very helpful to the NFU to be put in touch with the Census's local field managers so that local problems could be addressed. Due no doubt in large part to these arrangements and co-operation, we are not aware of any evidence that Census-taking activities led directly to any further spread of the disease.

  4.  Having said that we have received reports to the effect that the army of census enumerators did not in many cases seem to be well-informed about the special arrangements for taking the Census in FMD areas that had been drawn up between ONS and MAFF at national/regional levels, and the need to apply precautions in taking Census details from the farming community. It is hard to judge whether this could be attributed to a failing in the Census management arrangements, or to the fact that MAFF officials were under enormous pressure at the time, or to both. There were a few cases reported of enumerators running the risk of spreading the disease by their actions, for example by moving from one farm to another, though it is clear that this was inadvertent.

  5.  It has been suggested that in a number of cases enumerators complained that they did not have a comprehensive list of farms in their area. Although it seems that there was useful contact with MAFF, it has been suggested that insufficient use was made of Trading Standards authorities whose records of farms in their areas is reported as good—and sometimes more accurate or up to date—than that held by MAFF (we would underline that we have not conducted an investigation to test the strength of evidence in support of this assertion). Because of these problems there seems a possibility that a number of farms might have been missed out of the Census altogether; no doubt this is a point on which the ONS could comment to the Committee.

  6.  This year's outbreak of FMD in Britain is considered to have been the most extensive anywhere in the world in modern times. There have been some 2,030 cases to date, and over 1,500 of these had been identified by the time of Census day on April 29. It is of course a most unfortunate coincidence that the disease was near its peak at the time when the Census was being taken and quite obviously this could not reasonably have been predicted. In our view it would certainly be desirable to learn the lessons of this year's experience to inform contingency planning for the next Census in the unlikely but nonetheless possible circumstances that a similar coincidence of events occurred. One issue that is likely to emerge is the need for much more localised biosecurity plans to combat spread of disease; because of the nature of FMD in terms of its ability to spread in different terrains and weather conditions, a "one size fits all" approach is not adequate. We would be pleased to provide any further information or advice that the Sub-committee may require.

19 November 2001

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