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I feel a strong sense of fellow feeling with the right hon. Gentleman, who is a former Minister of Agriculturea small but select club. I take seriously his term considerable admiration for the hard work of officials, and I will do all in my power to make sure that
his understanding and recognition of their work is communicated, because it will be respected and taken seriously. Any British Cabinet Minister must be somewhat wary of committing to French levels of largesse in public compensation. I am happy to debate that with those on the Opposition Front Bench, who have snorted at that prospect. I am encouraged by their new-found interest in seeking examples across the channel. I will look at the French levels, but we have our own practices in that regard. The poultry industry is a proud industry that is not a recipient of Government subsidy, and it is important that the shared responsibilities that are established be taken forward. I recognise the right hon. Gentlemans strength of feeling about the situation of public authorities in Suffolk. We will certainly look at the situation, but as I said to other hon. Members, our focus, and that of all public authorities and private bodies, has been on stamping out the disease.
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State guarantee that my constituents are put at no risk whatsoever from the transportation of the dead turkeys to Pointons rendering plant in Cheddleton in Staffordshire, Moorlands? My constituents are concerned because in the past there have been occasions when animal parts and foul-smelling liquid have spilled from Pointons wagons and been deposited along the highway throughout my constituency and in Staffordshire as a whole. Could that happen in this case?
David Miliband: The answer to the first part of my hon. Friends question, on whether I can guarantee the health and security of her constituency, is yes. She also asked whether there was any chance of liquids seeping out of the lorries, and the answer to that is no. Intensive work has been undertaken in respect of the transfer of these carcases. A test is carried out on the lorry before it enters the Suffolk area. It is then sealed after the carcases have been put inside, and a further test is carried out. The load is then transported to my hon. Friends constituency with an escort. I can therefore assure her not only that every effort has been made, but that a foolproof system has been established. I think that I am right in saying that, in the past, lorries from other companies might have gone to the rendering plant, but on this occasion, only Pointons lorries are being used, and the company has been extremely helpful in co-operating with the Government on this issue. If it would be helpful, I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend to set out in detail the way in which we are ensuring that all the lorries are leak-proof and that other risks are eliminated.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con):
Last year, there was an outbreak of avian flu in my constituency. May I reinforce the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)? The way in which the Department responded to that outbreak and kept MPs informed was very good indeed. May I also commend the Secretary of State for his comments on the time factor involved in the rise in deaths of chicks and on the way in which the vet reported this to the Department? I have to declare an
interest here: Mr. Bernard Matthews is a constituent of mine. The feeling, at least in his company, was that there had been a degree of hysteria about this matter in the media. Finally, given that this is the third outbreak in about two years, does the Secretary of State believe that we are, unfortunately, going to see continuing incidents like this on an increasing scale? If so, what is the Department going to be able to do about it?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hope that, as a Norfolk MP, he will recognise that we have tried to apply common sense in establishing the restrictions and the other zones in the most sensible way. The hardest question that he asked was about future incidents. I would not want to say that I foresaw rising numbers of incidents, not least because extensive measures have been taken by the Government and by farmers to improve biosecurity, to try to clamp down on that possibility. Equally, there are incidents around the world, so there are risks. It would be wrong for me to come here and say that there will not be any future incidents. However, we are working in an open way with all the interested parties to minimise Britains exposure, and to maximise the chances that, in the unwelcome event of further incidents, they will be dealt with extremely promptly.
Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): May I thank the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) for keeping me informed of the incidents over the weekend? They are not in my constituency, but part of the restricted zone covers it. Is the Secretary of State comfortable with the fact that the restricted zone covers only 14 sq km? Does he consider that, because of the deadly strain of the virus, it should be extended further?
David Miliband: Perhaps I have been slightly ungenerous in not doing so before, but I am happy to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, who has done an outstanding job on this. I am pleased that he was able to get in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). My own viewand that of the experts, which is more importantis that the restricted zones are the right size, shape and proportion. The publicity surrounding the issue will heighten awareness among all poultry owners and farmers, and that can only be a good thing, because it will reinforce the need for care to be taken at every level of the chain.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I congratulate DEFRA and all concerned on the professionalism with which they have dealt with this outbreak. Now that we have H5N1 in a large-scale poultry operation, will the Secretary of State discuss with the industry the possibility that it should have a self-imposed movement ban when disease is first discovered, and that such a ban should be maintained until such time as it can be proved that the disease is not H5N1? As I understand it, this outbreak occurred in a closed poultry unit. If that is the case, will the Secretary of State carry out a thorough review of biosecurity measuresonce lessons have been learnedgiven that Bernard Matthews claims to operate to the highest standards in that area?
David Miliband: It is important that when the dust settles, which I hope will happen as soon as possible, we draw whatever lessons there are from the case. The right hon. Gentleman used the word if in respect of the closed nature of the premises. That is exactly what we are investigating; obviously, it is in everybodys interest to find out exactly how the incident happened. If there are any lessons, we will certainly draw them.
To be honest, I cannot remember whether the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has considered the issue. However, we would certainly welcome advice from the right hon. Gentleman and others on any lessons to be drawn.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The issue of compensation and who is responsible for it has already been mentioned. However, the Secretary of State will recall that there has been long-standing discussion about moving from the present situation to an insurance-based system. How far have those discussions gone?
David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises a good and probing question. It is fair to say that discussions are continuing; that is the line to take on the issue. The Government believe that it is important that the poultry industry operates without subsidy, independently, and takes responsibility. Equally, there are strongly held views about the rights of poultry owners. If an insurance-based system provided a third way, no doubt there would be many adherents to that approach. However, the direct answer to my hon. Friends question is that discussions are continuing.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I commend the action taken by the Secretary of State in banning poultry fairs, pigeon racing and so on throughout the UK. With that in mind, will he please assure the House that he and his officials liaise closely with their opposite numbers in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assemblyand, crucially, with the chief veterinary officers in each country?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and careful words. At the Civil Contingencies Committee or Cobra meeting that I attended this morning, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish officials were beamed in [Laughter.] They were able to participate through the wonders of new technology and video conferencing. They are following the situation very carefully and I think that I am right in saying that statements are being made by the respective Ministers.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. On a tiny point of detail, the ban covers Great Britain rather than the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, people are thinking about the links. However, as we speak the ban covers Great Britain only.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab):
I am grateful for the Secretary of States response to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), given the regular
frequency with which blood, other fluids and parts of carcases are spilt along roads in my constituency on the way to Pointons.
I am told that, this morning, a vehicle travelling to Pointons had blood and other fluids spilling from it, although it was not necessarily one of those transporting the turkey carcases. Will my right hon. Friend give further reassurance that when those vehicles are escorted, the escort vehicles travel behind the lorries, making sure that nothing at all is spilt from them? Will he further reassure me that should such a thing happen, any transportation will immediately cease until an investigation is carried out?
David Miliband: I am concerned by what my hon. Friend has reported. He did qualify the incident strongly by saying that it may not have been associated with the case that we are discussing. Perhaps officials can follow the issue up with him promptly. I know of a case in which a tarpaulin or cover was not on a lorry, but that was because it was transporting disused machinery, not animals.
I can say that rigorous systems are in place for the lorries that enter the Suffolk area and before they leave it. I can also assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs thinks that cars need to follow the lorries rather than preceding them if they are to see anything untoward. I shall certainly send him a copy of the letter that I am writing to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). Perhaps officials can follow up the case with him because although the TV footage may seem alarming, it is sometimes of previous cases and it is important that people do not leap to the wrong conclusions. All my information is that that is being taken seriously and addressed rigorously.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): As one of the dwindling band of former Ministers of Agriculture, I draw on the experiences of BSE and put the following to the Secretary of State. First, one has to recognise that the public are often uncertain about statements made by Ministers, and whenever possible one should use experts to reassure the public. Secondly, and differently, it is important to keep close to the European Unionthe Commissioner, the relevant Ministers in the Council and the officials. If we do not and are not able to provide reassurance, they may well do things that go beyond that which we think desirable or justified.
David Miliband: I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks from bitter experience. I agree that experts who talk with the authority that comes from their profession are invaluable. The deputy chief officer who has appeared over the weekend, Fred Landeg, has done an outstanding job in being very clear with the public and in conveying quiet authority. Certainly we remain close to our European Commission colleagues. The European Union has held either a press briefing or a press conference today, which it would do as a matter of routine, in the course of which it commended the work that we are doing.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned TV footage. It has been televised today that some farms within restricted areas do not appear to have taken their fowl indoors. Will he assure me and the House that if anyone is not complying with the regulations laid down, they will be dealt with immediately?
David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The answer is simple: it is illegal not to respond to the requirements laid down; it is also deeply irresponsible if that is happening. It is vital that a strong message goes out from all of us that the restrictions have been put in place for good reason and that they apply not just to 90 or 95 per cent. of poultry owners, but to all of them. It is in all our interests that they are followed rigorously and carefully.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Secretary of State has not been exactly clear about whether the Government will consider market assistance if the price of poultry meat plummets, as it has done on other occasions. During the last incident, the UK was the only member state that did not provide such support. Will he give us an assurance that the financial consequences of the Fontainebleau agreement will not deter him from drawing down such assistance, which would leave our poultry industry the most disadvantaged in Europe?
David Miliband: I hope I can be clearer: it is not the policy of the UK Government to second-guess the commercial prices that are found on the market. It is also the case that this countrynot the Government or the House of Commons, but the peoplehas a strong record of looking carefully at the evidence, and when sales in other countries have plummeted in previous episodes, they have not plummeted here. It is important that a clear and sober message goes out from the House about the facts of the case.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State reassure us that all the birds involved in the outbreak were swiftly and humanely killed? Have he and his officials reviewed both the number and the location of the containerised gassing units used to control the outbreaks to ensure that we deal with birds humanely and quickly in any future outbreak?
David Miliband: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. In this case we were able to use adjoining facilities, which worked very well. As I said in my statement, we are on track for the culling to be completed today, which by historic and comparative standards is extremely quick work. I commend all those involved for their speediness, and if there are lessons to be learnt we will certainly learn them.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con):
The largest private sector employer in my constituency is a poultry processor. The constituency also contains many small units of growers who serve that employer, as well as a number of other smaller businesses. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that if an outbreak occurred in Devon, where most poultry is reared outdoors for the organic market, and if all those birds had to be brought
indoors, there would be enough flexibility in the planning system for temporary housing to allow the welfare of the birds to be sustained?
David Miliband: That is an important question, to which the short answer is yes. We are aware that common sense and practicality must enter into the equation, and we agree with those in the organic movement that it is important to provide appropriate protection for them as well as for others. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details, but, as I have said, practicality enters into this, and I think we have the right systems in place.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Will the Secretary of State bear it in mind that as yet we have absolutely no certainty about the origin of swine fever or, for that matter, foot and mouth disease? Although we want to discover the origin of this disease, there is no guarantee that we will do so. Will the Secretary of State also bear in mind that on every single occasion on which the disease has struck in Europe, it has been contained by rapid, effective and properly publicised action? While we should prepare for the worst, there is every expectation that following the action that has been taken, we can contain the outbreak on that site.
David Miliband: I believe the right hon. Gentleman is the fourth former Conservative Agriculture Minister to give me the benefit of his experience. I do not know the collective noun for a group of former Conservative Agriculture Ministers. A flock, perhaps.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has raised an important point. I hope that he will have a word with the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who asked whether it was reasonable to say that we might not find an answer. The right hon. Gentlemans example of swine fever suggests that that may be the case. Suffice it to say that while we are determined to do all in our power to discover the origins of the disease because it is very important for us to do so, the right hon. Gentlemans cautionary words have been taken to heart.
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