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That this House notes the swift action taken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to impose movement controls when foot and mouth was first confirmed on 3rd August, in contrast to the Governments failures in 2001; is alarmed that the outbreak originated from a laboratory site financed, licensed and inspected by the Government; notes that warnings about the inadequacies of the facilities at Pirbright were ignored; condemns this negligent approach to biosecurity; urges the Government to accept its responsibility for the situation facing farmers caused by the subsequent controls which for many has been compounded by the outbreak of bluetongue disease; and demands that the regulatory body for facilities using dangerous pathogens should be fully independent of the facilities major customers.
For those of us who were involved in the catastrophe of 2001, the news on 3 August of another foot and mouth outbreak was a body blow. To be fair to the Secretary of State, he was open and helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), myself and affected colleagues. He gave us access to his vets, and he and the Minister for the South East kept us informed. We are genuinely grateful for that collaboration. One should also point out that much of what happened predated the Secretary of States appointment, but as is so often the case on such occasions, he was the unfortunate person left holding the parcel when the music stopped. I also acknowledge the swift action that was taken to clamp down on the disease by banning animal movementsa welcome contrast to the costly delays of 2001.
Early on Saturday 4 August, a farmer telephoned me and pointed out that the outbreak was near Pirbright. My immediate reaction was, So what? Thats just a coincidence. How wrong I was. Nobody realised then that this had been a disaster waiting to happen for five years and that the trail of incompetence led all the way to Downing street. As far back as 2002, an Institute for Animal Health review, commissioned by its owners the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, stated:
Some of the laboratories are not close to the standard that would be expected in a modern biomedical facility.
that pipes were old and needed replacing, but after much discussion between the Institute, Merial and DEFRA, money had not been made available.
The report also contains a letter from Merial dated 20 July 2004 setting out specifications for improvements to the drainage and referring to an unspecified quote
for the work. The reply from DEFRA simply stated that the proposals would appear to meet DEFRA standards for the safe transfer of the waste. That letter was dated 2 August 2004. Yet last week the Secretary of State told the House that
until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention, and everybody elses, as a result of the HSE investigation, nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.[ Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 44.]
As there is now incontrovertible evidence that DEFRA knew about the state of the drains as far back as 2004, will the Secretary of State explain how he can claim that it did not know until September 2007?
There was evidence of a lack of urgency and ownership of risk at all levels, resulting in the failure to take appropriate decisions on the funding for essential improvements in safety critical infrastructure. This was particularly documented in the series of letters and reports from the biological safety officer of the Institute in his attempts over four years to get agreement on funding for the replacement of the effluent pipes.
Spratt also made it clear that DEFRA inspectors had confirmed that the drainage system was part of the category 4 containment system. He said that the pipes were old and appeared not to have been subject to regular, thorough inspection. Even during the past 18 months, there had been two incidentsboth reported to DEFRAwhere virus was released into the public sewer. So we have a catalogue of reports, recommendations and pleas for help regarding the drainage system. The Secretary of State cannot claim that DEFRA did not know. Some people certainly did, and the House should be told who they are.
However, it does not stop there. We find that in the years following 2002with just one exceptionDEFRA cut funding to the institute. As Spratt said, money had not been available. In January this year, the director of the institute told Radio 4:
We are trying to deliver a Rolls-Royce service for surveillance in the UK but really were being funded more and more at the level of a Ford Cortina. Essentially, we are flying by the seat of our pants.
because work is under way to spend the money on renewing the facilities at Pirbright. Some £31 million of that money has already been spent.[ Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 44.]
Yes, £31 million, out of a Pirbright redevelopment scheme fund totalling £121 million, is indeed a lot of money, but it is not actually relevant. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, the Minister for Science and Innovation said:
Tenders for the drainage scheme of around £220,000 were received in October 2006.[ Official Report, 1 October 2007; Vol. 463, c. 2346W.]
The institute has already completed relining of the effluent pipes with a polyester lining, blocked off disused drains and sealed the manholes.
However, DEFRA has another role. Under the specified animal pathogens order, it has to license such facilities. That includes meeting its own containment requirements, which the health and safety report clearly states were not met. Yet in December 2006, DEFRA inspected Pirbright, and according to Spratt,
some issues relating to bio security were identified.
So why will the Government not publish that report? Is it because it is clear that the licence should not have been renewed? It seems odd that, despite the drains having been repaired, the licence is now suspended. Talk about closing the stable door after the cow has been shot! Are we really facing a foot and mouth outbreak for the second time in seven years because a facility had been licensed by DEFRA that should not have been? What is really hypocritical is that, if this had been a dairy farm or a shop selling food, it would have been prevented immediately from continuing in business until the problems were put right.
We know that DEFRA knew about the state of the drains four or five years ago. We know that it failed to fund the improvementsindeed, it cut the funding. Despite that, it went ahead and continued to license facilities that were rotten. It has cost the taxpayer well over £20 million, and rising. It has cost the English farming industry at least £100 million, and rising, and for Scottish and Welsh farmers the situation is just as serious. The potential damage, especially to our uplands, could be devastating.
What farmers need to know is, who is going to pay the price. When will somebody in DEFRA be accountable for this latest fiasco? Who will ultimately carry the can? Will it be the Prime Minister who, as Chancellor, cut the funding? Will it be the various Secretaries of State who ignored the warnings? Will it be the institute, or some inspector? No, we know that, as always with this Government, it will never be their fault. It is never their responsibility. Never resign, blame somebody elsethat is the culture. The can, of course, is being carriedby the poor farmers up and down the country who cannot sell their stock, buy new stock, pay their bills or see a positive future. Already, farmers are deciding to quit the industry. They can take the weather; they can take decoupling; they can even take the vagaries of the marketplace, but they cannotand nor should theytake the negligence of an incompetent Government.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): We all know that this is a dreadful situationas, indeed, a number of other animal disease outbreaks have been. However, will the hon. Gentleman, to be fair, acknowledge that this Government have spent a great deal of money on research into vaccination? Let us consider the example of tuberculosis, into which we had a number of inquiries. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but is he aware that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee is looking into the money that this Government are spending internationally on this issue? Of course the Tories do not want to knowthey do not spend any money.
Mr. Paice: I am very willing to engage the hon. Gentleman and anybody else on the subject of the incompetent way in which this Government have handled the tuberculosis business, as well, but that is not the issue facing us today.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Perhaps I might return the hon. Gentleman to foot and mouth, which is the worry for most of my farmers. Does he share my concern and that of many people in Somerset that infected carcases are being taken from the area of the foot and mouth outbreak and into my constituencyinto the heart of dairying countryfor disposal? Does he agree with me that that is an unnecessary and avoidable risk?
Mr. Paice: Any risk is worrying, and I can well understand the hon. Gentlemans concern, which has been expressed by many others. I hope that the Secretary of State will address that issue when he responds.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I listened to the Secretary of State address the House last Monday on the issue of the pipes in Pirbright. I remember that he said categorically that, although it was possible that pipes were faulty, it could not be guaranteed that that was the cause. Given the evidence that my hon. Friend has presented to the House today, does he agree that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that fact today, for the record?
Mr. Paice: Anybody who has read the Spratt and the Health and Safety Executive reports will have come to the conclusion that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has reached. It is stated clearly that that is by far the most likely cause; no other substantive alternative cause of infection is ventured. I can well understand why the Secretary of State does not want to admit that. I am sure that thousands of lawyers are on his shoulder, pressing him not to do or say anything that could be construed as accepting responsibility. However, I do not think that there is any doubt about how the situation was caused.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): As a dairy farmer close to the exclusion zone, I must refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members Interests. The Institute for Animal Health, at Compton, is in my constituency, so a lot of scientistspast and presentlive there. There is great anger among them at the fact that the Government are ignoring the way in which they go about their business, which is world renowned. They believe that the Government just want to dip in and out of the science and get a quick-fix solution. The actual solution is to look at the whole biology of these pathogens, but the scientists are prevented from doing so by the manner of their funding.
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. As I pointed out earlier, the director of the institute said that he is funded to run a Ford Cortina, when in fact, he is trying to run a Rolls-Royce service. That entirely sums up and fits with what my hon. Friend has just said.
So far, I have addressed the causes of this outbreak; let me turn now to the handling of it. The initial decisions were right, but there have been a number of problems in the detail. There was a desperate lack of communication. Farmers near the initial outbreak were wondering what was happening for days and days before they were contacted.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem that DEFRA has, and which Whitehall has more generally, is assuming that everybody is connected to the internet? We may have to be, but a lot of my farming friends are not and are simply left in the dark.
Mr. Paice: My next sentence was going to be, and will be, that DEFRA appeared to assume that every farmer spent their whole time studying the internet; I have obviously known my hon. Friend too long, or he has known me too long.
There was also confusion about footpath closures: whether to close them, and whether or not they were closed. There was no contingency plan to deal with casualty and dead animals at the hottest time of the year. Later, during the second cluster, we heard of different policies in different places: cattle killed on one farm, but not the sheep; goats being missed between adjoining slaughtered flocks; and, worst of all, the shooting of cattle from helicopters because they had broken out of a pen in the evening.
That raises the issue of why the country was declared free of foot and mouth only for further outbreaks to occur just days later. Last week, the Secretary of State said that infected premises 5 had had the disease for
three or possibly four weeks.[ Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 48.]
However, he said that he was not pointing the finger at anyone. Is that because of statements by the owner of premises 5 that DEFRA inspectors had been on the farm and missed the disease? Is it because by 20 September it was clear that this was linked to outbreak 1 and that it should have been followed up, but was not?
The Secretary of State cannot say that DEFRA emerges with credit from the handling of this outbreak. There is no getting away from the fact that it was handled better than last time, but it would have taken a superhuman effort to have done worse. The Prime Minister says that the public will judge him on what he did on foot and mouth disease. He is right that he will be judged, but it will not happen in the way that he imagines.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): My hon. Friend has been generous in taking interventions. On Saturday, I had a meeting with farmers in east Berkshire who have been affected by foot and mouth, some of whom have had their cattle slaughtered. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has also met them. In addition to the issues of lack of communication and lack of consistency, they raised a biosecurity issue to do with DEFRAs Pirbright establishment: that topsoil was being removed from around the broken drain, which was the source of the first outbreak, but DEFRA apparently has no records of where that topsoil was taken.
Mr. Paice: As my right hon. Friend knows, I am aware of that meeting and those allegations. Many more exist, and I suspect that other colleagues will make them during this debate. To be fair, the Secretary of State has set up the Anderson committee to examine the matter. It is essential that all those issues are considered by that Committee, and that Dr. Anderson is rightly given the information to make a proper examination to see whether there was even more incompetence than we imagined.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I have two questions for the hon. Gentleman. Would the Opposition have vaccinated in this situation? Why is the handling of bluetongue mentioned in the motion, because the Government have done nothing wrong in that instance?
Mr. Paice: I am coming to bluetongue. On vaccination, we would have taken more notice of the scientist who told us that the pipes were damaged in the first place. We have made it clear that in the circumstances that have arisen, we would not have vaccinated, but that option would have been in the locker had the disease got further out of control.
Even though the export ban has been lifted, at least notionally, and markets and movements have resumed in much of the country, the crisis in British farming is horrendous. The Secretary of State has said that returning to normal is the best solutionnobody would dissent from thatbut does he believe that that is what has happened? Merely switching on exports or movement does not solve the problem. The market overhang from weeks of movement restrictions is dire. Millions of animals should have gone by nowhundreds of thousands of sheep in our hills that are eating precious forage reserved for the winter, cull ewes, light lambs and fat pigsand all that means a calamitous fall in prices. With no live exports, bull calves are again being shot at birth. Lamb prices are up to 50 per cent. lower and those of finished pigs are also well down, while massive rises in the price of feed are having to be contended with.
I point out to the Secretary of State that the bulk of the UK pig industry is within the zone that cannot yet export. Probably 40,000 cull sows are now on farms. They are blocking up pens, costing money and are effectively worthless. Even if they could be exported, it would take many weeks to clear the backlog. The welfare disposal scheme via the fallen stock scheme that he announced last week, should be extended to cover sows within the whole zone from which exports are banned. That could be done, and I suggest using £1 million of the £2 million that he has allocated for promoting meat consumption. Important as that is, it is no use promoting something that is wasting away.
Mr. Heath: On pigs, has the hon. Gentleman noticed something that was brought to my attention by a small farmer from Muchelney in my constituency: the limited movement orders for pigs were available only to those producers who were in established pyramid schemes? That means that small farmers, who perhaps bought from weaner stocks in order to fatten and sell on their premises, were not able to move their pigs. Why should there be that distinction between small producers and large producers?
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