It is not the case that for six months we strenuously resisted such a ban. I always believe in being charitable to the Opposition, so I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman may have a mistaken impression from things that he heard on the radio. The facts are that as long ago as last March a request was made to the European Commission via the Belgian Ministernot, by the way, on the grounds of anything to do with animal disease or avian flu but on the grounds of the welfare of wild birdsfrom those who have long and legitimately campaigned on those matters. Ministers were not unsympathetic. We sought advice, but the advice was that such a move was not justified. That was also the view of the Commission. The matter was discussed in Council. The Commission argued strongly that on welfare grounds it was a disproportionate response. I repeat that it was not a disease issue at that stage. It is not the case, as has been reported, that only the UK did not share that view. That is wholly untrue. Indeed a moment's thought would make people realise that it was untrue because if only the UK had taken that stance, it would have gone through. The Commission took the view that it was not required, and several member states, of which we were one, supported the Commission. There is thus no truth in the suggestion that we strenuously resisted such a move.
In September I asked my hon. Friend the Minister of State to review our contingency plan and our contingency arrangements. Following that, a decision was made to draft a letter to the Commission asking for such a ban. In fact, before the dead parrot ever hove into view over the horizon the Government had already
26 Oct 2005 : Column 311
decided to approach the Commission to ask it to reconsider the position with regard to a ban. As for the question of separation, the pooling of test samples is a standard procedure, as I said in my statement, and has been for many years. Obviously the whole question of whether birds are separated in different places and in quarantine, and of whether test samples are pooled, which are not at present addressed in the rules, will be considered in the review that we will undertake. It is, however, absolutely clear what the procedures were. We must consider two separate issues: whether the present events occurred because procedures were not followed, or whether they happened because of something to do with the procedures, which we should be refining in any event. That is the exact issue that we are considering.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about his famous survey. I understand that there are 70,000 or so keepers of poultry, who are, of course, probably the ones with relatively large numbers of birds about whom we know. He seems to be under the impression that those people should have been contacted by my Department. I thought that he was in favour of reducing the number of bureaucrats. I am not quite sure how many staff he wants the Department to have if it is to contact 70,000 poultry keepers personally. May I remind the House that it has been the case for a considerable time that poultry keepers are under an obligation to monitor their birds and report signs of illness? They must, as a condition of keeping those birds, know what to do about serious and notifiable avian diseases. These are notifiable diseases.
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that is not the point, but with respect it is precisely the point. Poultry owners and keepers are under such an obligation, and that obligation includes operating adequate biosecurity.
As for the question of keepers of small numbers of birdsperhaps almost pet birdsthe House will know that advice was issued for them a few days ago. We are doing everything that we can through advertisements and the industry associations to ensure that it is understood.
I am conscious that you do not like people at the Dispatch Box to go on for too long, Mr. Speaker, but I am also conscious that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) asked me at least eight questions, of which I have so far answered only three. May I just quickly
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD):
I welcome the fact that the Government are making a statement today and urge the Secretary of State to keep the House informed about future developments. Does she agree that it is important to strike a balance between adopting sensible precautions and not unnecessarily alarming the public or damaging the farming industry? Does she thus share my disquiet about the Edwina Currie-type advice from the European Food Safety Authority on the
26 Oct 2005 : Column 312
consumption of eggs and poultry? Will she confirm that there is no greater threat from eating poultry today than there was last week, last month, or last year?
There are serious questions about the quarantine arrangements in place at both the specific establishment in Essex and more widely. The Secretary of State said in her statement that the quarantine system worked, which was true in the sense that the disease was identified while the bird was still held, but cross-contamination happened. Will she clearly state whether she believes that the regulations in place were broken, or whether they were simply inadequate? The way in which birds were kept must be addressed. Do the regulations currently allow birds of different species to be mixed, which would seem to be a totally inadequate way of dealing with biosecurity?
Is there any truth in that suggestion? Does she share my disquiet that if the papers are accuratethe matter was widely reported in several national paperssuch an important biosecurity centre is apparently being run by an individual who has been jailed for offences relating to the importation of wild birds? Should there not be greater controls on who is permitted to run quarantined establishments? Will she make the examination of quarantine arrangements part of her remit?
I welcome the decision to introduce an immediate ban on the wild bird trade and thus urge her, as I did her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), last Thursday, to pay particular attention to the illegal trade, which will increase as a consequence. Will she especially examine trade on the internet, which causes a major problem in the wild bird trade? Will she explain why I was told that a ban on bird fairs was not necessary when I suggested it to her colleague on Thursday, although she announced today that such a ban will be introduced?
Finally, can the Secretary of State comment on suggestions in the newspapers that her Department is preparing, as a necessary precaution, for a mass cull of poultry? What will its parameters be, and could the influenza H5 vaccine be used instead?
Margaret Beckett: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer to some of his questions. For example, as I said a few moments ago, whether the regulations were observed and whether the rules are adequate are separate issues, and we are pursuing both of them. At present, different species can be mixed, and he is right to assume that that is exactly the kind of issue that the review of general rules will consider. As for where the birds were kept and who was keeping them, there is nothing that I can say about any individual except that the press reports include observations about individuals who are said to have committed offences, but those offences are not reported to relate to the keeping of birds per se. What have been reported are revenue offences.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about international trade. Of course, we are looking at that in the review and, indeed, the issue of bird fairs. He asked me about the premises that have been reported. I understand that published descriptions of various places do not relate to
26 Oct 2005 : Column 313
quarantine facilities. It is perfectly legitimate to make comments and, indeed, adverse comments if that is how people feel about the standard of facilities where birds are housed, but such comments do not, as far as I am aware, relate to quarantine facilities. I accept, however, that the impression is sometimes given that they do.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a mass cull and vaccination. We are looking at the issue of having to cull a number of birds, as we did in July to achieve the speedy eradication of Newcastle disease. We are also looking at the question of whether there is a potential for vaccine, but no authorised vaccine is available at present. If a suitable vaccine were used, birds would have to be vaccinated twice with a minimum three-week separation period. Poultry would be dead by then anyway, because there is a seven-week lifespan. Of course, we will look again at vaccination, but it is not the immediate remedy that people may hope for.