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19 Feb 2007 : Column 28

Mr. Straw: Now I hear the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) say, “Oh, to be a democrat.”

I do not know whether we would have got to the position described by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). It is hard to persuade colleagues who disagree with one’s argument to go into the Lobby on a procedural issue. That is the problem. I have been perfectly frank with the House. I thought that there were many intrinsic merits to my proposal. Others supported it and it was supported by Government colleagues but, in the event, it ran into far greater opposition than I anticipated. It seems to me, for reasons that I have stated, better to make a graceful withdrawal or at least to make a withdrawal—it is a matter for others what adjective they attach to this—but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham for his support.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): As a radical and fervent supporter of the status quo, I congratulate the Leader of the House both on his courage and on demonstrating yet again what a good House of Commons man he is by listening to the opinions of the House. May I put it to him that if he joins those of us who believe in and support the maintenance of the status quo, a glittering future beckons him as a wonderful House of Lords man in the fullness of time?

Mr. Straw: I would rather like to have moved that the House sat in camera for that little discussion, because my constituents might find out about that faint praise. I understand the support espoused by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for the status quo. I do not happen to support it. I believe that there ought to be reform and I have come to hold that view very strongly, but I think that there is measured reform of the kind spelled out in the White Paper. I hope—I say this to the hon. Member for Buckingham—that those who wish for reform are, frankly, slightly better organised than they were in February 2003.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Although we are all grateful for the courtesy that the Leader of the House has shown today, he will know that the largest vote against the four proposals for reform of the House of Lords in 2003 was that against the 60 per cent. elected second Chamber. Why, therefore, is he so wedded now to recommending and putting before the House again in the new voting procedures a proposal that is so similar to that?

Mr. Straw: This is a free vote. My view is not necessarily shared by all my Cabinet colleagues; it is shared by some of them. There are various options and my personal view, as set out in the White Paper, is that a 50:50 House is the most appropriate way forward. Others take a different view. It will be for me to make my own judgment, if the proposal fails to command adequate support in the House, about what option I vote for next.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): When did the Cabinet change its mind?

Mr. Straw: These procedural matters are the subject of extensive consultation within Government. I promise the hon. Gentleman that.

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Avian Influenza

3.58 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on developments over the last two weeks in respect of the outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, in Suffolk. I reported to the House on 5 February the initial scientific findings and the planned response, and I can now set out developments in three areas: containment and eradication of the disease, investigation of its causes, and public information and public health.

First, containment of the outbreak required the culling and disposal of all turkeys on the site, preventive measures in a wider restricted area of more than 2,000 sq km, and extensive surveillance. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing my gratitude to public servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, other Departments and agencies, local government, the police and health authorities, as well as farmers and business people, for the efficiency, co-ordination and rigour of that operation.

Clinical signs of the infection emerge quickly and I am pleased to report that there have been no further outbreaks. Twenty-five wild bird locations, comprising 73 sites in the area, are regularly being patrolled. Tests have been completed on 12 dead wild birds in the area, as well as on live wild bird droppings from the infected premises. All results are negative. Domestic poultry in the protection zone have been located and clinically inspected by vets for signs of disease, as have the poultry premises considered most at risk in the surveillance zone. Tests have been completed on poultry samples from 21 premises in the protection zone. In all cases there has been no evidence of infection. The experts say that a period of two weeks from an outbreak is the time of greatest risk, but it is vital, as I will say at the end, that we do not in any way relax our guard.

The House will remember that the outbreak took place in one of 22 turkey sheds. Further analysis revealed that, although there had been no visible signs of disease, the virus was present in culled turkeys from three further sheds. Birds from all 22 sheds have been culled and the sheds have undergone preliminary cleansing and disinfection. Restocking can only take place 21 days after completion of secondary cleansing and disinfection, which is yet to take place. The part of the slaughterhouse where the turkeys were culled has been thoroughly cleansed and disinfected. Following assessment by the State Veterinary Service and confirmation by the Meat Hygiene Service that it was ready to slaughter animals intended for human consumption, the slaughterhouse was reinstated and designated on 11 February and reopened on 12 February.

Following scientific advice, restrictions in respect of shooting in the protection and surveillance zones as well as the national gatherings ban were lifted on 16 February. In accordance with the legislation, the earliest we would be able to lift the restriction zones in Suffolk is in the second week in March, provided there are no further outbreaks or suspect cases under investigation in the area.

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Our second area of work has been to find the likely cause of the outbreak. I reported to the House on 5 February that the most likely cause involved wild birds, but that all avenues were being explored. That was consistent with the record of all past outbreaks and the scientific advice at the time.

Further genetic analysis took place during the week of 5 February, and on 8 February the deputy chief vet informed Ministers that the UK case came not just from the same family of bird flu as the Hungarian case, but that the genetic match was effectively identical. On 13 February, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency confirmed that the genetic match was 99.96 per cent. These genetic findings were significant because, if wild birds had transmitted the disease, the virus would have mutated and thereby changed its genetic make-up. It is for that reason that, since 8 February, our working hypothesis has been that the spread of the virus was associated with the import of poultry products from Hungary. It is important to emphasise again that that working hypothesis is not being pursued to the exclusion of other possibilities.

We are examining all possible routes of transmission, but our investigation of the cause of the incident has focused on transport links between Hungary and the site in Holton, and on biosecurity at the site. Our current understanding is summarised in two reports, involving the Food Standards Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published on 16 February. Copies of those reports are available in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office.

Those reports found that there is no evidence that meat from the restricted areas in Hungary has entered the UK food chain. They also state that the risk to workers at the site was very low indeed. However, they show a number of ways in which infection could have entered the turkey sheds, carried from waste products by birds or rodents, or on footwear or clothing. Those possible pathways for infection make clear the importance of excellent biosecurity practices by all poultry keepers, whether large or small. I am assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way.

There remain restrictions on trade from restricted areas of the British and Hungarian outbreaks, but outside those zones, intra-Community trade is now normal. It is important that I record my thanks to the Hungarian ambassador to this country and to my Hungarian opposite number for their help and co-operation in the inquiry. Complex cases such as this depend on close international co-operation, and that has been forthcoming. I can also report that, last week, the first of a programme of three-way discussions involving UK and Hungarian vets and the European Commission took place. Tomorrow, I will be in Brussels for the Environment Council and I am seeking a meeting with the commissioner responsible for health and consumer protection.

The third part of our work has focused on public health and public information. In that, we are much helped by the role of the Food Standards Agency, which has been able to provide independent advice from the outset. That advice has been consistent: properly cooked meat poses no risk to consumer safety.

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Our response to this serious outbreak is far from over. Preventive measures remain in place and our epidemiological investigation continues. We will have decisions to take about any legal or financial consequences of the investigations currently under way. I am also determined that we try to learn any and all lessons following this outbreak. That includes all aspects of the regulatory regime, domestic and international. Consistent with past practice, work is already being done to learn the lessons of the outbreak, and when it is concluded it will be published for public scrutiny.

The expert advice available to me is that there is a constant low risk of bird flu to the UK and higher risk during migration seasons. There can be no guarantee against further outbreaks; in fact the only guarantee is that there is a continual risk. That is why it is important that I reiterate my appeal to all poultry keepers to register with the poultry register and to maintain the highest standards of biosecurity. I am grateful to the British Poultry Council and other trade associations and professional bodies for their support in promulgating that message.

During the last 18 days, I have stuck to two clear requirements: to be guided by scientific evidence and to enforce and follow carefully established rules. Scientific evidence is important because the only basis for public confidence is that Ministers are guided by expert and—where possible—independent advice. The rules for controlling and stamping out disease are important because they represent the best thinking at international level on what is sensible. I believe that my approach has so far delivered the right results in this case, and I will continue with it in the future.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving advance notice of it, and I thank him and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare for having kept the Opposition briefed on unfolding events during the recent brief recess. I also join again with the Secretary of State in congratulating those on the ground in Suffolk who have dealt so professionally with the outbreak since it was discovered.

Does the Secretary of State now regret that he did not take the opportunity provided by his statement of 5 February to draw attention to the regular imports of semi-processed poultry meat from Hungary to Holton? Was he aware at that time that such shipments were taking place and, if he was, why did he not take the opportunity of referring to them? If he was not aware of them, did someone at Bernard Matthews simply fail to mention their existence?

Is the Secretary of State concerned that an impression was given that Ministers have not at all times been in control either of relevant information or of decisions relating to the trade with Hungary? It might have been legal to have continued to permit the trade in turkey products between Holton and Hungary after the discovery of the outbreak, but was it wise, particularly in view of the possible reputational risk to the industry? Do not the relevant European Union rules preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit when they can be justified
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on the grounds of protecting the health of humans, animals or plants? Did he discuss that issue with the European Commission?

The Food Standards Agency report states that no turkey meat imported from Hungary came from within the restricted zones. That being the case, does it not give rise to some serious concerns about the adequacy of the EU rules? We are now told that the most likely source of the outbreak was Hungary, yet there is no evidence of a contact with the restricted zones in Hungary. Does that not imply either that the disease might be elsewhere or that the restricted zones are in the wrong place? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the EU and the Hungarian authorities about that? Will he comment on reports that some packaging linked to one of the restricted zones was found at Holton?

Whatever else might emerge as a result of the continuing inquiries, there was clearly a major failure in biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton. I do not expect the Secretary of State to comment on the possibility of legal proceedings, but will the taxpayer have to foot a bill for compensating Bernard Matthews?

The chance that infected material has been spread by birds and rodents is worrying. The Secretary of State said that surveillance of the wild bird population has been stepped up, and rightly so, but what are we to make of reports that no testing of live birds has been undertaken in Suffolk? If that is true, is it not evidence of astonishing complacency? How many live birds have been tested within the restricted zone in East Anglia?

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the FSA report concerns the possible route of infection. Until now, it has been widely stated that the only route of infection is inhalation. We have all been careful to stress that there is no risk of catching avian flu from eating poultry meat, yet the FSA report’s hypothesis implies precisely the opposite. If a bird or rodent either itself ate the infected meat or carried it into the shed where turkeys pecked at it, does that not mean that the disease was transmitted through eating? If it were transmitted through eating, would not the virus have mutated, which we know that it did not? I am sorry if I sound confused about this, but I am, and I am not entirely sure that it is my fault that I am. I urge the Secretary of State to clear up these matters with precision and urgency.

On sales of poultry meat, what are the Government doing to monitor poultry consumption? On 5 February, the Secretary of State completely dodged—no doubt inadvertently—my question about EU compensation. At what point would he consider that the trade had been sufficiently damaged for him to claim compensation?

Finally, what is the thinking behind DEFRA’s advice that the public need only report findings of 10 or more dead birds? Would not the discovery of nine dead birds—or even fewer—that might be exhibiting some symptoms of bird flu warrant a call to the DEFRA helpline?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keenness to engage with Department in the past two weeks and his remaining in contact, which has not in any way affected his ability to ask probing and serious questions.

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On Bernard Matthews’s links with Hungary, when I answered questions in this House on 5 February, I reported, correctly, that the outbreak in Hungary had not taken place at a Bernard Matthews plant. It had a plant some 250 km away, in the north-west of the country, and at that stage we did not know about the Bernard Matthews processing operation outside the restricted zone but none the less close to it; that became clear later in the week.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be better to be wise, rather than legal, in our approach, but my view is that it is generally wise to be legal in the operations that take place. He rightly referred to EU legislation that says that, in conditions of danger to human or animal health, it is possible to suspend the rules to which we are party. At no stage did I have any such advice. Obviously, if there had been advice about a risk to human or animal health, we would have taken different decisions, but in this case, the absolutely clear advice was that there was no such risk. The matter certainly was discussed—one obviously asks questions about it—and the answer was forthcoming very clearly.

On engagement with the EU, I make two points. First, and as I said in my statement, there were meetings and telephone calls last week on a trilateral basis with the EU and the Hungarian authorities. I will seek a meeting tomorrow, but discussions go on in that context. Secondly, he asked how this happened, and that is precisely what we are discussing; no possibilities are being ruled out. He also asked about packaging, and that issue is addressed in the reports that were published on Friday.

Biosecurity and related compensation is dealt with under the Animal Health Act 1981, which requires that compensation be paid in cases where healthy animals are slaughtered. No compensation has yet been paid in this case and, as I said in my statement, we want to take forward all aspects of our investigation before that question is addressed.

The hon. Gentleman said that he is worried about complacency in the investigation of wild birds close to the area. I will write to him about the number of tests in the immediate area. He asked specifically about Suffolk, but the figures that I gave referred to 73 sites in 25 or 23 locations. As I confirmed at my lunchtime meeting with the deputy chief vet and others, all the scientific advice is that we have one of the most effective surveillance and testing schemes anywhere in Europe.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the confusion that exists. I readily understand that this is a technical area and, if he is at all confused, my offer of a meeting between him and the deputy chief vet or other officials remains open. I am very happy for him to have that technical briefing.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are monitoring the purchase and consumption of poultry meat. Such figures have obviously been published, and we are following, rather than monitoring, them. On compensation, he will know that, like previous Governments, we do not compensate for market impacts. We will, however, follow existing rules and legal advice. Advice on what we would like the public to report has been set out extensively on the DEFRA website and elsewhere, and I urge people to follow it.

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