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8 Oct 2007 : Column 45

On compensation, I have made an announcement about support. We can best support the farming industry to recover from this very difficult time by controlling the disease, winning the confidence of Europe and reopening farm-to-farm movements. We must also reopen markets, which we have done: despite the difficult history, last week we got an agreement from the EU that meat product exports will resume. All the farmers I have spoken to have said that the single most important step that can be taken is the resumption of meat product exports, and we are determined to help make that happen, but it depends on persuading our European colleagues.

Finally, am I sorry that this has happened? I have already said that I am. Nobody would have wished this to happen, and I repeat that it should not have happened. But when something like this goes wrong—as it has—what is the most important thing that we should do? We should learn the lessons, sort it out and make sure that it does not happen again.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): It was very interesting that the Secretary of State mentioned the vaccine for bluetongue. As he is aware, Cumbria was in the middle of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which was a major outbreak. There was a lot of debate at that time about vaccination. That was rejected then, and it appears that vaccination has been rejected once more. Will the Secretary of State tell me why it has been rejected and under what circumstances we will use vaccine in the future?

Hilary Benn: The contingency plan for foot and mouth stated that we would consider whether vaccination had a part to play in helping us to control the disease after the first measures were taken, such as the use of protection and surveillance zones and the culling of infected animals and of dangerous contacts. Extensive surveillance has been undertaken by the vets and the staff of the Institute for Animal Health—and I know that some Members present have met some of the teams that have been working so hard since the beginning of the outbreak to make sure that we have the necessary information to discover whether the approach we are taking will work. On both occasions—the first and second parts of the outbreak—we stood up vaccination capacity and made an order for vaccines, but in both cases we have decided that the measures we have taken appear to have contained the outbreak: there have been eight cases in Surrey 66 days on. If we were to reach a point where we thought that vaccination was necessary to help us control the spread of an outbreak, I would be willing to consider it, but that has not so far proved necessary.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The source of this outbreak of foot and mouth was the Pirbright laboratory, which is regulated, monitored and licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In short, a facility designed to protect British farming from infection was responsible, to quote from the DEFRA report, “beyond reasonable doubt”—which is, after all, the test in a criminal case—for the infection, and DEFRA was in turn responsible for its biosecurity and safety. Do the Government now accept that they have a legal obligation, and certainly a moral one, to compensate those whose businesses have been damaged by the outbreak, and what is the Government’s estimate of the losses to British farming?
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What is suggested for hill farmers is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Also, what support does the Secretary of State propose to give to lowland farmers across England? What about farms within the control zones? Why has a similar scheme to that proposed in Scotland and Wales, giving a minimum price per animal, not been proposed in England? English farmers are on the brink, too, and DEFRA’s incompetence has put them there.

The second key point is that the Secretary of State must end the culture of impunity in his Department. We saw that with the fiasco over the Rural Payments Agency, and we now see it again with the Pirbright scandal. How long did it take the Department to establish biosecurity at Pirbright once the foot and mouth outbreak had occurred? When was the Secretary of State satisfied that there was no further risk of a leak of dangerous virus from Pirbright?

We know that specifically the drainage system—not merely the general state of Pirbright—was a subject of concern from correspondence from July 2004, so DEFRA had known about the health and safety issues at Pirbright and Compton for at least three years. Who was the most senior official, or Minister, to be informed of the problems with the drains at Pirbright? Why was work on dangerous pathogens not stopped as a result of these concerns? Will those responsible now be held to account, and will they resign? Will the Secretary of State name the official responsible for the licensing of Pirbright, and state whether that official is still in post? If they are—if they are not held to account—what encouragement does the Secretary of State think that that gives to anyone else in his Department to perform creditably in future?

So far, the reports from the Health and Safety Executive and Professor Spratt have given us a snapshot of the problem, but not an analysis of the organisational failings. Will the Secretary of State set up a public inquiry into how this débacle could have happened—an inquiry that will make recommendations to ensure that it never happens again?

Hilary Benn: On the question of legal obligations, in the end, that is a matter for the courts to determine. We are aware that some of those affected by this outbreak are consulting lawyers, so it is only right and proper that we should await any proceedings that anyone may choose to bring in those circumstances.

Secondly, the best help that we can give to those in the lowlands is to do what we have been doing: to try to get economic activity restarted. The single most important thing that we can do is to allow farmers to trade again, which is why so much effort has been devoted to that, and why we divided the country into a risk area and a low-risk area, regionalising the country in order to try to allow farm-to-farm movements and the resumption of markets as quickly as possible. In effect, we put a bigger buffer zone around the protection and surveillance zones in Surrey—Europe said that it wanted to add an extra buffer, which is why other counties have been brought in—thereby enabling a decision to be taken on the resumption of meat product exports. I hope that before long, the matter is in the hands of the Commission and of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, not
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me, and that the size of that buffer zone can be reduced, so that more farmers in more counties can benefit from the steps that have taken place.

Why have we not introduced a welfare disposal scheme? One reason is that I have not received representations from the National Farmers Union and others saying that that is the single most important thing that we should do in England. I recognise that the situation is different in Scotland and Wales, which is why they are proceeding with such schemes. Indeed, the farmers’ leaders whom I have spoken to have stressed the importance of getting economic activity started again.

With respect, I reject what the hon. Gentleman says about a culture of impunity within DEFRA. There is a very important point that he needs to bear in mind, particularly in relation to the drains. DEFRA’s role is as licensor and regulator. The consultation that took place with it, as licensor and regulator, was about whether, if the drains were changed, a new system would be adequate for the purposes of licensing and regulation. DEFRA was not at any time asked for funding to replace the drains. Why not? It is for the very simple reason that it is the licensor and the regulator. A factory that had a problem that the HSE identified would not say to it, “By the way, you are the licensor and regulator—can we have some money to put it right?” The proper place to go is of course the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is the organisation responsible.

The second point concerns what I said to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who speaks for the official Opposition, about the considerable amount of money that has been put into this site already. I share with him the question as to why, if it was so important, some of that money was not directed to it. The answer is that people did not think that it was as important as it turned out to be. That is the truth.

Will there be a public inquiry? No, there will not. What am I doing in addition to the two inquiries that I set up immediately we discovered the likely source of the virus? In addition to those two inquiries and the reviews by Bill Callaghan and the BBSRC, we have asked Iain Anderson, who reported on the 2001 outbreak and therefore appears to be the most appropriate person to do it, to reflect on how this outbreak has been handled. He can look into all the matters that he wants to and then he will report back to us. The report will also be published.

In other words, there will have been two inquiries, two reviews and another inquiry led by Iain Anderson. I hope that the House will agree that that shows that the Government take their responsibility seriously. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to point fingers at individuals; I am much more interested in putting things right.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Had it not been for the fact that a third outbreak was detected on 12 September, we would have been much more advanced than we are today, and perhaps many would not have felt their plight so severely. When my right hon. Friend mentioned that case, he spoke of undetected infection. Is he able to tell the House how long that undetected infection had lain there before it was picked up by anyone at all?


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Hilary Benn: Yes. The epidemiological report that was published suggested that the lesions in the animals at infected premises 5 could have been three or possibly four weeks old. That gives us part of the answer to the question that we all asked on 12 September—where has the virus been for a month and a bit? The answer was that it had been outside the original protection and surveillance zone, undetected and, as a result, unreported. That reinforces the point that inspection is the first line of defence and it fills in a gap in the timeline. That is what has transpired, and I am not interested in pointing a finger at anyone else in relation to this issue; as I said to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), I want to fix it.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): In paying tribute to the fortitude of the farmers, the smallholders and the villagers of Normandy in my constituency, where the foot and mouth outbreak began, and of Pirbright, the home of the two much respected organisations of the animal health institute and Merial, may I also thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw) for their kindness in keeping in touch with me so regularly as constituency MP during the crisis? It was much appreciated.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the problem has been resolved, as far as Surrey is concerned? Can he guarantee that the investment in the institute at Pirbright will continue and improve over the next few years? Finally, can he be specific about the compensation that he has in mind and how it can be obtained by local farmers and smallholders in the Surrey area?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and his support and interest during what has been a very difficult time for his constituents. In truth, I cannot guarantee that it is over. I can simply tell the House that, 66 days in and after eight cases, there has not been one for a week. I am sure that the House will understand if we say that in the light of the experience that we have all been through this summer, I am inclined to be a bit cautious about trying to predict the future, but I am working as hard as I can to try to safeguard the present.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the investment that the Government had previously announced—and that has already started to go into Pirbright—will continue. It is important that we have first-class facilities. Old is not necessarily unsafe, which is the point that Professor Brian Spratt made in his report. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the vital role that Pirbright plays in protecting us from animal disease more generally and the role that it has played in turning round test results really quickly, which has enabled us to take quick decisions about how to deal with it in the circumstances.

On compensation, we have of course compensated all the farmers who lost animals through culling and we paid for primary and secondary disinfection in all the infected premises, but if farmers wish to pursue further compensation cases, I refer the House to the answer I gave a little earlier.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I am pleased that the Secretary of State has listened to farmers and done something about the terrible plight
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that they face this year. The outbreak happened at the worst possible time of the year for hill farmers and when I talk to farmers in the Lune valley they point out many of the same concerns that the Secretary of State has raised. The resumption of exports was extremely important to them, as was an aid package for hill farmers. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the aid package will be paid quickly, and can he give me some idea of the time scales, because cash flow is important to farmers?

Hilary Benn: I hope that the payments will be made by the beginning of November and, like my hon. Friend, I am anxious that that should happen as quickly as possible. The outbreak did indeed happen at the worst possible time, especially for hill farmers, which is why I have announced the package of support today. Hill farmers—some of whom I met on Thursday—have bills to be paid and decisions to make about when to take their animals to market to sell them, so the support will give farmers slightly more opportunity to see how the market unfolds and take decisions about what is best in the circumstances. At Skipton market on Thursday it was heartening to see that although prices were down they were slightly better than some farmers had feared. I hope that remains the case.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): Quite rightly, the focus of attention today has been on the economic damage to the livestock farming industry and the terrible trauma suffered by some of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who have been directly affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but as the Secretary of State knows, the area affected is not primarily a livestock farming area. Is he aware that the movement restrictions in the protection zone are having a serious impact on other, non-agricultural, businesses and can he tell the House what measures he is considering to support businesses, some of which are under extreme pressure? Will he please not tell the House in response that owners of other affected businesses will have to look to taking legal action against the Government to get compensation or support for the loss they are suffering?

Hilary Benn: I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but as he is aware, it has been the policy of Governments—not just this Government, but other Governments—that compensation is not paid for consequential economic loss, so I can give him no comfort on that score. The nature of the area in which the outbreak occurred has meant that it is relatively lightly stocked, which is an advantage, but it has also meant that animals kept there are not necessarily on the registers, which is one of the difficulties that vets and animal health staff have faced. We ease restrictions where it is right and proper to do so, having taken account of the veterinary risk. I know it is tough and difficult, but the one thing the House would not forgive me for would be if I were to lift those restrictions—on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, which I have taken on every occasion—in a way that undermined our chance of containing and ultimately eradicating foot and mouth.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend advise the House whether he has any plans to pass to the Scottish Executive responsibility
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for all decision-making processes affecting livestock movements and associated matters relevant to future foot and mouth outbreaks in Scotland?

Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend is aware, a lot of those decisions already fall to the Scottish Executive and one of our tasks in dealing with the outbreak has been to make sure that we work in partnership with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government. My hon. Friend’s question gives me the chance to pay tribute to them for the co-operation and support we have received.

The outbreak has thrown into sharp relief for me the issue of cost and responsibility in the industry. I cannot help reflecting on the fact that some of the decisions that it falls to the holder of this office to take during the course of the outbreak are ones that, in a different way of doing things, might fall to the industry or some form of organisation representing stakeholders. I say that because last Thursday afternoon when I talked to farmers in Newmarket affected by bluetongue, I saw that there was a difference of interest between those caught by the bluetongue control area and farmers in other parts of the country. Once this is all over, I for one will come back to discussions about cost and responsibility in a new light because in future we ought to be looking at different ways of taking decisions about how restrictions are put in place and lifted.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I, too, thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for keeping me closely posted of developments. Does he accept that the outbreaks of both foot and mouth and bluetongue raise wider issues about biosecurity on farms in this country? As part of the inquiries he is holding, will he include an assessment of how well prepared farmers are in terms of the effectiveness of their on-farm biosecurity arrangements, especially taking into account the fact that in the livestock sector they are under economic pressure, they cannot always afford the best veterinary or biosecurity advice and there is an overall shortage of vets with large-animal experience?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I will pass on exactly what he has said to Iain Anderson. He has a very wide remit, but the right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will ask Iain Anderson to look at it as part of his work.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about involving farmers and stakeholders in wider discussions about biosecurity and about the need to look at insurance-based risk policies. I congratulate him particularly on learning the lessons from the 2001 outbreak, by declining to close the countryside to visitors, because it is the value of people using our footpaths, pubs, shops, restaurants and attractions that keeps the rural economy going. We need to be clear that, although farming makes an important contribution to the rural economy, other drivers are there as well.

Hilary Benn: I agree, particularly with the last point. In the end, we have to strike a balance, and we have all been at great pains to emphasise that the countryside is open, although there have been concerns about footpaths
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in the protection zones in Surrey—an issue that a number of Members who represent constituencies there have raised with me—and we have found a sensible way forward in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to look at some of those wider considerations in relation to the industry, because these are fundamentally diseases that have a very severe economic impact. That goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about what more can be done to try to anticipate such things and to find out what kind of insurance might be available and, bluntly, to work out how the cost of dealing with this will be shared in those circumstances. Those are precisely issues to put into the discussions about cost and responsibility once this is over.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): As a humble and active crofter, I declare an interest. In Scotland, we have 250,000 lambs stuck on hills or slowed from moving from hills or islands. The export market has been closed for the crucial two months of the autumn, resulting in massive grazing pressure. Of course, the situation is similar in Wales. Following advice from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the chief vet on welfare concerns for livestock, the Scottish Government have responsibly prepared a sheep welfare scheme, details of which will be announced tomorrow. However, as Westminster still exercises powers to collect Scottish taxes and given that this emerged from a Westminster Government laboratory, will the Government live up to their responsibilities and fund the Scottish and Welsh schemes fully? A proper welfare scheme is, of course, needed to offset the loss of millions of pounds suffered by Scottish and Welsh crofters and farmers. Will the Minister please remember the crucial point that sheep numbers across the nations of the UK do not follow normal Barnett percentages?

Hilary Benn: I am indeed conscious of the last point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, as he says, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are developing their own schemes to deal with the circumstances. I grant entirely the point that he makes about the hills in Scotland and Wales, where the pressures are particularly acute, given the weather and the time of the year, and it is for each Administration to decide on the most appropriate way forward. We do not yet know the total cost of dealing with this outbreak, and there is a genuine debate to be had about the extent to which welfare disposal schemes constitute an animal health issue, as opposed to support for the industry, which is facing real economic difficulties. One of the issues that I must address in time, once the total cost is known, is whether it can be managed within my budget and, if not, there are traditional routes that one turns to, including conversations with the Treasury, and the devolved Administrations can, of course, do the same.


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