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17 Oct 2007 : Column 851

Mr. Paice: As the hon. Gentleman probably realises, I am not in a position to give the answer to that question. I suspect that it might have something to do with traceability. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us about that.

Will the Secretary of State also tell us what discussions he is having about relaxing the export controls? The huge area of the country from which exports are banned includes the abattoir that slaughters 70 per cent. of cull sows in this country. What is he doing about the 21-day rule? It is tying up farms, which, at this time of the year, are selling finished stock and normally buying new stock. That measure is in addition to the separate 20-day rule about general movements.

Will the Secretary of State speak to the Commission about one other aspect of foot and mouth control? Will he draw the contrast between the strict rules that it has imposed in this regard and its far more lackadaisical attitude to imports from Brazil? Both measures are designed to prevent the spread of foot and mouth, yet, despite a damning report from the Irish Farmers Association about the lack of traceability, the lack of vaccines and the non-use of ear tags, the Commission equivocates about Brazilian imports. In short, the regime, be it for Britain or Brazil, should be equally tough against foot and mouth.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I always listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman, because he commands great respect in the House on farming issues. He has talked about the Government paying the price and about the compensation that they have announced. In fairness, he has suggested that it should be used in alternative ways. Is he suggesting that there should be a greater compensation scheme, and, if so, to what amount and paid to whom?

Mr. Paice: If the hon. Gentleman holds fire, I shall come to that.

I turn to bluetongue, which hit us in September. Again, the initial actions taken were correct, but it rapidly became obvious that the consequences were going to be horrendous. We were told that stock could be moved to slaughter in the control and protection zones, yet nobody in DEFRA seemed to have realised that there were not enough slaughter places to slaughter the stock. I was told by a senior civil servant, in front of Lord Rooker, that licences would not be issued to allow stock from the control zone to go to the abattoirs because of European rules, yet that is now what is happening. Countless pedigree stock—cattle and sheep for which this is the peak sale time—cannot be moved, yet in France, a combination of an insecticidal regime and blood testing is being used to allow that to happen.

I know that bluetongue is a changing picture and that as new cases occur, problems of movement controls perversely become less of an issue. Bluetongue could be even more devastating economically to our livestock industry than foot and mouth. That is why vaccines are so crucial. Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he has had with the developers of vaccines about future supplies? Why has Merial been stopped from further development, despite the drains at Pirbright having been repaired? If he is to have any
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chance of preventing the spread of bluetongue across central and southern England and Wales next summer, he must ensure that enough vaccine doses are available as soon as possible. If stock is not protected before next year’s midge season, there is no chance of containing this disease.

Finally, let me turn to the issue of support for the industry. Last week, the Secretary of State announced a 30 per cent. supplement for the hill farm allowance. We had already said the previous week that we would have made it 50 per cent., but the gesture is right. He spent £4 million on other measures. He then announced, as if to a fanfare, the lifting of regulatory burdens. He wanted to increase the public procurement of British meat. We agree, but by my reckoning he is at least the fourth Secretary of State to say so and still only 3 per cent. of the lamb sold to our armed forces is British.

The Secretary of State announced a four-month delay in the requirement for hauliers to have a certificate of competence. It is a ludicrous requirement anyway and should be abolished. He announced a derogation for the amount of nitrogen to be spread on nitrate-vulnerable zones, but the crisis is now and no amount of nitrogen will make grass grow in the winter.

Finally—and I can hardly believe this one—the Secretary of State announced a one-month extension to a consultation. I can hear the sighs of relief as the red tape burden is lifted from farmers’ shoulders—I think not. That last cynical point is at the heart of the matter. For all its sins, the old Ministry of Agriculture knew that its role was to support and promote British farming. DEFRA’s role is to control and regulate. There is no natural empathy with or understanding of the farming industry, and no knowledge of the structures of the industry that realises that a restriction here has a knock-on consequence there. Where are the men and women who understood those things and who realised that animals keep growing; that grass is finite; and that if one cannot export pig shoulders, the price of the whole pig collapses?

Most importantly, where are the people who know that disease will wait for no man? It will not wait for a committee. It will not wait for the resolution of a turf war. Four years was too long to fix a drain. How many more times must this once proud and valued industry be ripped apart by an incompetent Government?

2.1 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome this opportunity for the House to debate foot and mouth and bluetongue, further to the statement that I made on Monday last week. I recognise the very
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real interest and concern on the part of many right hon. and hon. Members. We know that this could not have happened at a worse time of the year for the livestock industry. All livestock farmers have been affected and for many, things are very hard. I have met farmers and their representatives and they have left me in no doubt about the difficulties that the industry is facing. That is why, in responding to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, I want to set out before the House the action that we have taken to try to deal with the two outbreaks and to assist the farmers who have been so badly affected.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Why is it that the Secretary of State’s speech on Friday 5 October contained details of compensation for Scotland and Wales, but on the following Monday there was no mention of compensation for anyone other than English farmers?

Hilary Benn: Well, I heard someone mutter the words “the election”, but I take this opportunity to put it on the record in the House, as I have outside, that there is not a shred of truth in the allegation that any possible election had anything to do with any decisions relating to funding for foot and mouth. Colleagues have discussions and options are considered, and in the end the Government decided as I told the House in my statement on 8 October. I will return to that issue if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

I wish to begin by addressing the comments that have been made about the Pirbright site, because that is where the foot and mouth outbreak began. As I have said before, it should not have happened, I am sorry about the great effect that it has had, and I am determined that it does not happen again.

Following the initial confirmed case on 3 August, it became apparent—

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Before the Secretary of State moves on to the causes, could he return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on the response to my question about the drains after the statement last week? The Secretary of State said that

I am struggling with that definition of the truth. We know that Merial wrote to DEFRA about the drains in 2004. We know that the then Department of Trade and Industry had commissioned tenders to repair the drains a year before. How can the Secretary of State honestly maintain that the truth is that nobody knew?

Hilary Benn: I will respond directly to that point, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

It became apparent the day after 3 August that the Pirbright site was the potential source of the outbreak because of the type of virus identified—01-BFS-67. That is why we commissioned the Health and Safety Executive and Professor Spratt to lead a team of experts in reviewing biosecurity. We also took steps as
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the regulator to require the Institute for Animal Health and Merial to take action as concerns were raised with us by the HSE during the course of its inspection, including remedial action on the drainage system. I published both of those reports on 7 September.

However, as the HSE report, the Spratt report and the DEFRA epidemiology reports made clear, we may never be absolutely certain as to exactly how the foot and mouth virus escaped from the Pirbright site. But the drains, the flooding and the construction work—ironically, there was construction work on the site precisely because the Government are investing a considerable amount of money in improving the facilities at Pirbright—do seem to be the most probable chain of events, and I have been clear on that from the beginning.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Secretary of State is a decent man, but I fear that he is avoiding answering the question that I asked—

Hilary Benn: I haven’t got to it yet.

Mr. Ainsworth: In that case, when he answers he might like also to deal with the point that DEFRA inspected the site in November 2003, August 2004, September 2005 and December 2006, after the work on the drains had been commissioned, and found—according to the Minister involved—no major biosecurity issues. What does that say about the competence of DEFRA’s inspections?

Hilary Benn: In the Government’s response to all of these reports, I accepted the recommendations that were made. They are being implemented and an improvement is planned. Since 7 September, the HSE and DEFRA have carried out further joint inspections. All of the essential work will need to be completed before IAH and Merial can resume full operations.

I shall return to the issue of bluetongue and a potential vaccine from Merial a little later.

We are now requiring of Merial that all the virus that it produces should be inactivated before it reaches even the first part of the drainage system. That will require a heat treatment facility and it needs to put that in place —[Interruption.] Well, that is a factual description of what is happening in response to the question about when Merial will be in a position to resume work to try to find a virus to deal with bluetongue. We need to be satisfied that that has been done before it can resume its full operations.

I shall deal directly with the charge by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that warnings about conditions at the facility had been ignored. The first point that I want to make is that the IAH has been inspected, as part of its Specified Animal Pathogens Order—SAPO—licence, on a regular basis under the arrangements that were set up in the early 1990s. The institute was required to take action as a result of those inspections and submit reports on progress. However, at no point was it the view of the inspectors that the IAH was unsafe in its operations.

On the issue of the drains, DEFRA—as the regulator—was indeed consulted about plans for their replacement, but we were not aware that they were
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leaking. That is a very important point. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone else. No scientist who I know of has said that the drains were damaged. If the hon. Gentleman can draw my attention to any scientist who did say that, I would be very interested, because that is what he claimed. As soon as we became aware of the damage—in August, as a result of the HSE’s work—action was taken.

It is not the case that live virus was released into the public drainage system, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire suggested in his remarks. There is no evidence of that at all. So that the House understands, let me say that the Pirbright site has a two-stage process to ensure that all virus is completely inactivated before it goes into the public drainage system. The IAH and Merial had their own separate arrangements, which then fed into a shared pipe, and a second-stage belt-and-braces treatment process took place to deal with any effluent before it went into the public drainage system.

Why had a discussion taken place about the replacement of the drains? It had occurred because they were old, and because of concern about their capacity and about surface water potentially coming into the system, but not because of concern that the drains were leaking. As Professor Spratt makes clear in his report, safety depends not on the age of the facility but on the procedures carried out.

As regulator, DEFRA was consulted about the specification for the replacement of the drains; we were not asked for funding to replace the drains, and nor would we have been. As I said to the House last week, one would not ask the regulator for money to improve or replace one’s facilities, any more than a factory that was inspected and found not to be up to scratch would ask the HSE to give it some money to improve its facilities.

The Government accepted the findings of the reports of Professor Gull in 2002 and Dr. Cawthorne in 2003 about the need to upgrade the facilities at Pirbright. Following the development of a costed proposal, the Government decided in 2005 to invest £121 million in new facilities at Pirbright, which, it should be acknowledged, is fundamentally important to our fight against animal diseases throughout the United Kingdom—in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of that money, £31 million has already been spent on the site. With respect, therefore, nobody can credibly argue that a lack of funding to be spent in Pirbright was the problem.

Had the drains been thought to be the overwhelming priority for action on the site, no doubt some of that £31 million would have been used to replace them, but that was not the case. I accept that that raises a question about prioritisation: if people felt that that was the priority, why was that not a factor in decisions about the £31 million expenditure? I agree that the issue needs to be examined. That is the reason why the second review that I have set up—I shall come to the other one in a moment—which the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will carry out into IAH, will look at funding, governance and risk management.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Secretary of State is putting a robust case, but is he telling the House that there will be no resignations at all in his Department as a result
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of this fiasco, which could have cost our country billions of pounds? [Interruption.] It is a shame that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is shouting across the Chamber. This has been a disaster for our country, and the Opposition expect some resignations over the matter.

Hilary Benn: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. There have been no resignations, and there will be none. I will tell him who takes responsibility: I take responsibility. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, I happen to be the current Secretary of State. As I have done throughout, I am trying to set out for the House the steps that I have taken, accepting that responsibility, to put right what has gone wrong. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who is a reasonable man, will accept that the whole system of regulation for protecting against risk—whatever we are discussing—has evolved over time, and that one of the most important factors in determining how systems are changed and improved is learning from mistakes. Things did not go right, and I am determined that we learn from the mistake.

Mr. Drew: Unfortunately, some of us have acquired a lot of expertise in drains over the past couple of months. Following the episodes in the summer, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to consider new arrangements at a range of different sites, including establishments such as Berkeley in my constituency—a former nuclear station—given the likely threat of floods hitting us again in future? Will he assure me that not only biosecurity but structural measures will be increased to ensure that such episodes do not threaten us time after time?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. In accepting the recommendations of the HSE and Spratt reports, we have issued an advice note to all the institutions handling both animal and human category 3 and 4 pathogens, which will be followed up by a series of inspections. In relation to flooding, a lessons-learned review is being undertaken by Sir Michael Pitt. When such things happen, what do most people want? I accept that some people want a head on a stick, but the most useful and important response is to learn the lessons, make sure that there is not a recurrence and put a better system in place. I am determined to do that.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): In the light of the Secretary of State’s comments, will he take a serious look at the arrangements in this country for meat composting, which open up a risk of not only foot and mouth but swine fever, avian flu and a range of diseases? Will he consider in particular the fact that the process is allowed on livestock premises, because farmers in my constituency are asking that it be confined only to industrial premises?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to consider the issue raised by the hon. Lady. If I may, I shall respond directly to her, if that would be helpful.

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