Animal Health Bill

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Drew: Everyone is having a go at me now. That is the problem with trying to define such matters in legislation. In my view, 48 hours is too long.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman touched on a possible vaccination policy and powers of entry to vaccinate. Before talking about that in detail, would it not be sensible to hear what the Government's policy on vaccination is? We are supposed to believe that the Bill is needed urgently, in case something happens tomorrow, but in any event we would not know what the vaccination policy is. The Government have had plenty of time to examine the issue and collate information, and I know that conferences are planned. However, being in government is not about holding conferences; it is about taking decisions. We should be told today about the Government's vaccination policy.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman starts to discuss vaccination policy, I should inform the Committee that it is dealt with later in the clause.

Mr. Drew: I take note of your remark, Mr. Illsley, and I shall say nothing more about the issue now as we shall doubtless debate it in due course.

We must look at the implications of delay, as time is of the essence. In my view, a period of 48 hours after initially entering the holding is a long time, given that, according to all evidence, delay is one reason why the disease spread.

Mr. Breed: In these circumstances, we are not talking about obvious cases. There is no doubt that when a vet visits a farm, there are certain clear opportunities to tell whether cattle or sheep have the disease. We are talking about cases where there is a difference of opinion, and much of the problem relates to the contiguous cull. On the one hand, there is the speculative slaughter that no one wants, where, although there is no proven and clear link, the Ministry none the less thinks it sensible to cull the whole lot to get ahead of the disease. On the other hand, there is reasoned justification on the basis of independent advice and the comments of animal owners and others. The latter approach could surely fit in with the 48-hour period. I am talking not about cases where there is evidence of a clear link, but about holdings where there is currently no proven risk.

Mr. Drew: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that lengthy intervention, and I do not disagree with everything that he says. If people disagree with the contiguous cull strategy through which the foot and mouth outbreak was handled, they should be honest enough to say so. On the basis of the evidence that I have seen, I genuinely believe that there was no alternative to that strategy. People can fantasise about the use of vaccines, and argue that it was possible to delay spread of the disease by careful monitoring of particular holdings, but unfortunately animal diseases do not work in neat ways. According to one devastating piece of evidence presented to the Select Committee—it was presented by epidemiologists rather than vets, but I see no reason for the chief vet to disagree—there is a 50 per cent. greater likelihood of further spread of the disease in areas with an existing outbreak. That suggests that one needs to deal with the cause and the immediate possibility of transmission. We will doubtless discuss this issue in more depth to ensure that we understand it.

Mrs. Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Drew: I give way for the last time.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in giving way, but he is ignoring the fact that, in terms of contiguous culls, topography plays a major part in where the disease spreads. He says that he has no difficulty with the contiguous cull where there is evidence of FMD, but the problem is that many contiguous culls were based not on evidence but on suspicion. Given the terrible experience that we have just gone through, we should be able to get back test results much more quickly than we did.

Mr. Morley: No, we cannot.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister says no, and we might ask him why in due course. The fact is that the contiguous cull was based not on evidence but on computer modelling.

Mr. Drew: I wish it were that simple. I have talked to vets who made a judgment, disregarding blood tests. Animals were slaughtered on suspicion, based on evidence that vets saw on the holding. Such are the problems that are experienced out in the field. Taking away that power is not what the amendment is about, and I do not want to do that, but I should be interested to hear the Minister's views. The blood test is a nice idea, but as all evidence on sheep has shown, it does not necessarily prove that an animal was not infected with foot and mouth in the past. That is a further example of the importance of time.

I have taken far too long, but this is a useful debate that is central to the reason why the Government need to introduce powers. The question of whether they are the right powers, or whether there are too many of them, is for us to debate. Mention has been made of the need to strengthen measures on imports, but it interesting to note that the only member of the Committee to table an amendment to that effect was me. I look forward to discovering whether Opposition Members feel strongly about that and other matters, and to hearing their views on possible improvements to the Animal Health Act 1981.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I should point out that I have declared my interest, as a farmer, in the Register of Members' Interests. As a result of the foot and mouth outbreak, I have been unable to divest myself of that interest as quickly as I would perhaps have liked.

The amendment is central to the Bill. The farming community does not hold DEFRA in high regard because it has reservations about the way in which it dealt with the foot and mouth outbreak. It feels that giving the Department further powers at this stage is premature and unwise. I supported the way in which DEFRA went about controlling foot and mouth, and, in certain cases, I supported the contiguous cull because I thought it politically responsible to introduce such a cull in my constituency. Elements of DEFRA's approach, however, led to confusion, chaos and some cock ups, if that is not an unparliamentary phrase.

Still, I do not believe that there is a Government conspiracy to attack the farming community through the foot and mouth outbreak. On several occasions, I have told farmers—and been criticised by them for doing so—that this Government are not sufficiently competent to organise such a conspiracy. I am glad to see that a number of hon. Members who had foot and mouth in their constituencies are on the Committee. They will have an understanding of the issues raised by the Bill.

Many of the foot and mouth outbreaks in my constituency were obvious, so there was no problem with diagnosis and no complaints from the farming community. DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly took the appropriate action for the farmers involved. Problems arose when foot and mouth was diagnosed on farms, or premises were declared infected, even though it was completely unclear whether foot and mouth was there at all. A number of isolated farms in my constituency were declared infected premises, which brought great chaos for farming neighbours. That happened before the contiguous cull was in action, yet movement of animals was restricted and animals were on form Ds for months. Some farmers are still in at-risk areas and they are having great difficulty in carrying out their business effectively.

I will refer to one farm about which I am still in correspondence with DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly. The farmer believes that she did not have foot and mouth on her farm, and responsibly brought a vet on to her farm to look at the animals. A Ministry vet came but, because he was young and had not seen foot and mouth, he asked for a second opinion. However, he was told by the Ministry that he had to either diagnose foot and mouth or not diagnose it, and he was urged to diagnose. The animals were culled and the farmer's business was ruined. Her neighbours were also caused considerable problems in carrying out their businesses.

The hon. Member for Stroud said that some foreign vets made a contribution to the elimination of foot and mouth. They were from countries where foot and mouth is endemic, so knew what they were looking for. However, it was almost more important for vets to know what foot and mouth was not than what it was. When one sees foot and mouth, there is no problem, but eliminating farms without foot and mouth—taking them out of the net—is more difficult.

The problem with the Bill, and the powers it provides for the Minister, is that farms that are unclear could get caught up in a cull policy, as could contiguous farms. In respect of the farm that I referred to in my constituency, it is bad enough that the neighbours should have been involved in restrictions on animal movement. However, had the contiguous cull policy been enforced at the time—it was at the beginning of the outbreak—those neighbouring farms would also have been involved in that cull. Those issues have been made by many people in the farming community who are concerned about giving the Minister the powers under the Bill.

There is much to commend the amendment, which goes some way to address farmers' fears, and we support it, but it does not go far enough. I would like the Minister to reconsider the issues raised by the amendment.

Mr. Morley: A number of serious points have been raised by hon. Members. I take them seriously because they are not unreasonable. I return to the original point about the purpose of this part of the Bill: speed. If a culling policy is to be used for disease control, speed is of the essence. I accept that that should concern not only those who are objecting; the Department, too, has a responsibility to provide the necessary resources and measures. There was much to learn on that during the outbreak.

We had a dramatic outbreak—one of the biggest that the world has ever seen. The scale of it was gigantic, its logistical demands were enormous and dealing with it was difficult. I do not accept comments that suggest that, had there been an immediate stop on movements, things would have been better. I remember that when the outbreak was first announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), praise came from all sides for the speed at which the Government and Department acted. Bearing it in mind that when the outbreak first came to public attention there were only one or two cases in Essex, and that the previous post-1967 outbreak was confined to the Isle of Wight, we must be proportionate and reasonable in our response.

10.30 am

Everything must be taken into account. Stopping all movement of livestock in the country was drastic, had enormous consequences and happened within 48 hours of the outbreak. Everyone who spoke, including the Official Opposition of the time, praised my right hon. Friend for the speed of his actions. We have to look at the issues in retrospect, while remembering that retrospect is a wonderful thing.

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