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Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The whole House should welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, including her confirmation that consideration is being given to a requirement that commercial poultry production take place indoors. Such a policy would require premature slaughter, would involve significant commercial and public cost, and would doubtless be based on the best veterinary and medical advice available to the Government. However, if we have to go down that road, does she agree that it would make sense for the Republic of Ireland to do so as well? If the position has to be decided at European level, it may be best to do so. Which EU member states have already implemented such a policy?
Margaret Beckett: I cannot give my right hon. Friend a great deal of information, because the position is changing. It is for member states to make a risk assessment, not merely in their country but in its regions. Yesterday, or perhaps this morning, France advised poultry keepers in coastal areas and another area in the eastern region of France to take their poultry indoors, but that does not apply to the whole country. The issue of whether or not there are circumstances in the UK in which we would advise people to take such a step is something that we keep under review, as does every member state. As I said, member states that are closer to the wildfowl outbreaks that have been reported have taken action in some parts of their territory.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con):
Unless I have been seriously misled, the outbreak occurred in my constituency, and there are lessons to be learned from the way in which it was handled. The right hon. Lady is rightly cautious about the company involved and the conviction for a serious fraud that resulted in a custodial sentence. However, one of my constituents put it to me that quarantine is our first line of defence. My constituents need to be able put their trust in people who are handling that quarantine, and they need to be confident that those individuals will obey the law. Health authorities have issued helpful guidance, but my own primary care trust was not told that the outbreak was less than five miles from its
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headquarters. We do not have anything to fear from disclosure, and the easiest way to avoid panic is to tell people the truth as quickly as possible.
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. Frankly, I do not have any idea whether the facility is within his constituency because I do not know where his constituency boundaries are. Nevertheless, in whatever constituency such an event occurs, he makes a valid and legitimate point and his constituents' questions are relevant. When people wish to set up a quarantine facility it is inspected in advance to check that it is adequate. When there are animals in the facility, there are regular inspections and monitoring by local veterinary inspectors and so on. The hon. Gentleman's constituents can be assured that such precautions are in place. They can also be assured that the review will look at whether those precautions are adequate and whether, for example, we should continue to permit the mixing of birds from different continents. I cannot comment on the position of his local primary care trust, but I repeat that the case was detected in a secure facility. Although there is proper concern about the long-term implications for human health of the avian virus we are not in circumstances where its feared consequences are apparent.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): May I welcome the Secretary of State's statement on initiatives and interventions, as well as her Department's readiness to make a further response? Has the Department duly engaged with the relevant devolved Administrations and the not-so-devolved Administration in Northern Ireland? Will she assure us that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland and its Minister will not be restricted or restrained from taking more stringent or specific action, particularly if they wish to do so in concert with the authorities in the Irish Republic?
Margaret Beckett: I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in contact with the devolved Administrations, who have offered helpful co-operation. They will consider whether there is any further contribution that they wish to make to the assessment and handling of such cases.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Secretary of State has just announced a review of the quarantine procedures, yet in her statement she said that measures to deal with avian influenza were fundamentally sound. If that was the case according to the original analysis, why, following the first testing of the system, does it have to be reviewed? As for scenario-playing, how many times has she played the scenario of what to do, and what lessons has she learned from that exercise?
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the scenarios. We had what one might call a live scenario involving Newcastle disease in the summer, as I mentioned earlier. He asks why the review. The position is changing. The procedures are basically soundthey worked in eradicating the outbreak of Newcastle disease at the beginningbut with regard to avian flu, it is a moving picture. We are seeing developments in what is thought to be the
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epidemiological understanding of the spread of that virus in wild birds, so we thought it right to reassess what we believe to be potentially a new situation, and certainly an evolving situation. He and his Committee, as well as the House, would be critical of us if we were not saying that, in the light of the event that has occurred, we should reassess not only the event itself, but whether there are issues about our quarantine rules that we ought to reconsider, because it is a changing situation.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will agree that there have been some astonishing scare stories and headlines in the press about avian influenza. She would probably also agree that, as a result, there has been widespread fear and public confusion, in about equal measure, about these issues. Does she agree that, although such scare stories might sell newspapers, it is vital that her Department undertake a concerted and vigorous public education effort to increase public understanding of avian influenza and to draw clear distinctions between that and potential pandemic influenza among humansrelated but very different issues? The public need to understand both those relationships and those differences.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right. It is important that the public get a clearer idea of the significance of avian flu and the distinction. We are making information available in the House for all MembersI hope it is already here, but if not, it soon will bewith an indication of all the steps we are taking. I will not bore the House with all of it, but guidance on biosecurity and surveillance has gone out to a range of organisations and to vets. Advertisements have been placed in trade publications and so on, and there is the leaflet that we issued a few days ago for individual poultry keepers. I take my hon. Friend's point that all these measures are aimed at those who have a particular interest in the trade or those who are poultry keepers. It is important for all of us to do everything we can to get across information to the general public.
I was a little alarmed at an exchange that I heard a few days ago, in which the prime question that seemed to spring to the mind of the questioner was, "Is there someone who is to blame for this?" Let us bear it in mind that the situation is of concern and the Government are taking steps to deal with it, but it is important that the public understand that what we are seeing is something of a development in avian influenza that we do not in any sense take lightly and are considering very seriously, but which is more of a risk to birds than it is to people.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP):
The Minister will appreciate that the poultry industry right across the United Kingdom has grown dramatically over the past five to 10 years, so can she assure the House that she will ensure that there is adequate veterinary supervision not only at the rearing stage but in the production and manufacturing process, and that if something were to happen, the Government are prepared with extra veterinary staff?
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Margaret Beckett: I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that it is part of our overall contingency plan, which he will find on my Department's website and which we published in the House in July, that there are arrangements, should they be requiredlet us hope they never areto supplement the veterinary facilities that are available now with other outside help.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): The proposed ban on live poultry sales is prudent and understandable, but will cause a great deal of difficulty for the poultry industry at this critical time of the year. What advice will her Department give to the commercial poultry trade about movement of poultry, which will become critical if, as she suggests, it may be necessary to move all poultry indoors? Many producers do not have the accommodation that they require. On a different matter, what help is being given to those eastern European and central Asian countries where bird flu is more endemic and where the problem originates?
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