Previous Section Index Home Page

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is an honourable and decent man and comes to the problem with fresh hands as a new
17 Oct 2007 : Column 857
Secretary of State. Hypothetically, if he had been Secretary of State presiding over such matters for the past five years, would he have resigned?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting that hypothetical question to me. All that I can say is that I was otherwise engaged during those five years, as I am now engaged in the task that has fallen to me. I shall exercise my responsibilities to the best of my ability.

Several hon. Members rose—

Hilary Benn: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and then to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, and then I would like to make progress, as I know that many Members wish to speak.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The Secretary of State has dealt at length with the question of the degree of knowledge or otherwise of those managing and regulating the Pirbright establishment of the defects in the drains. But does he not accept that, irrespective of the degree of knowledge, those who manage and regulate any establishment that is built to contain, and does contain, a substance that is inherently dangerous—and that will cause great damage if it is allowed to escape into the environment—must per se be liable for whatever damage is caused?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those who regulate and license, and those who have the responsibility, in this case the IAH, of ensuring that the terms of the licence are adhered to—that is an important distinction, and together those provide the appropriate safeguard—have a responsibility. But I have seen no evidence that anybody acted negligently, and that is why I responded to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire as I did previously. It is clear, however, that things did not go right, and that is why we have taken steps to put them right. I shall deal with another part of that action in a moment.

Mr. Paice: The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that, despite what I have stated, there is no evidence that DEFRA knew that the drains were in such a bad state of repair. Contrary to what he said, I am sure that I did not use the word “damaged”, and never meant to suggest that —[Interruption.] Actually, if one reads the full Spratt report, the drains were damaged by tree roots. But given that the Spratt and HSE reports both indicate the dire state of those drains and prior flooding incidents, does not the Secretary of State find it odd, as an objective and sensible man, that at no stage during all the exchanges of correspondence—taking into account Spratt’s comment that the drains did not look as if they had been thoroughly inspected—did anybody in DEFRA ask what the drains were like, why there was a desire to replace them, whether it was urgent, whether it should be done quickly or why an inspector had not opened a manhole and stuck his head down? It defies belief that that could have gone on without anyone asking those fundamental questions.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 858

Hilary Benn: We will both be able to check Hansard to find out whether the hon. Gentleman used the word “damage”. However, the point is important because the description of what went on that I am putting before the House rests importantly on the fact that, because of the combination of events that had taken place, nobody knew that the drains were in the condition that it turned out they were in by the time the HSE investigated them in April. [Interruption.] The letter from 2004 was about replacing the drains because people recognised that they were old. However, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not find in that correspondence people saying, “And by the way, we think the drains are leaking.”

The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point, which I want to come to, about the nature of the inspection regime. I grant him his point about what kind of inspection of category 3 and 4 containment systems should take place. The steps that we have now taken, and the requirement that we are putting on Merial to ensure that all the virus that it puts into the system is inactivated before it gets to that bit of now-lined drainage, raise the question of what the arrangements for inspecting category 3 and 4 pathogen handling laboratories should be.

For that reason, there is an issue about the respective roles of the regulator, the funder and the customer; Professor Spratt made a recommendation on that. That is why on 7 September I announced that Sir Bill Callaghan was to carry out a review of the regulatory framework governing the handling of category 3 and category 4 animal pathogens. He has now started, and he will report before the end of the year.

DEFRA is both the regulator for the 1998 order and a customer for the important services, including diagnostics and research on foot and mouth and bluetongue, provided by the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright. As I have already said, with hindsight my view is that that arrangement is not satisfactory. The Callaghan review will consider what the right arrangement to replace it should be. That is another instance of the Government’s determination to learn from what has happened.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con) rose—

Hilary Benn: I shall give way, but then I shall make some further progress.

Mr. Jenkin: I feel that I must take the Secretary of State back. The House is entitled to an answer to the question of whose responsibility it was to know the condition of those drains. In all honesty, it is not good enough for the House to be effectively told that it was an accident and that nobody was responsible for knowing their condition.

Hilary Benn: Under the 1998 order, the responsibility is for the licensor and regulator to specify the outcome that has to be met; that is the purpose of licensing and regulation. It is the responsibility of the licence holder to ensure that those requirements are met.

All the people involved in the work—and the people at the IAH and the inspectors who work for DEFRA are conscious and dutiful—did what they thought was right in the circumstances. Nobody thought, and this is
17 Oct 2007 : Column 859
the point, that the drains were leaking in that way. There was a confluence of events—a not-completely-inactivated virus coming into the system, heavy rainfall, a rising water table, a bringing to the surface and traffic because of the building work. The HSE review and the Spratt report say that that is the most credible explanation. The point that I am making to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is that we learn from such experiences. It is fair to ask whether we should have a system in which pipework that is part of a critical system gets inspected. I accept that point.

I turn to the handling of the outbreak. I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for his comments on the swift and effective action that DEFRA, the animal health authorities and partners in the industry have taken in trying to control the problem. Our contingency plan recognised the lessons of 2001. I hope that the House will feel that how we have responded to the outbreak this time around shows how we have applied that knowledge. Our priority, of course, has been to contain and then eradicate foot and mouth. That is why the national movement ban was brought in straight away on the evening of 3 August, a decision also taken at the same time by the devolved Administrations. We have carried out extensive surveillance, which, in the second phase of the outbreak, has gone beyond the European requirements by inspecting and testing animals. We are now 75 days into this outbreak. We have had only eight cases, all in Surrey. We want to keep it that way so that we can control and eradicate the disease.

Mrs. May: It may seem a small point, but the Government have consistently said that the second outbreak has been only in Surrey. That is not the case. Farmers in Berkshire have also had foot and mouth outbreaks and cattle stock there has been culled as a result. Will the Government please say “Surrey and Berkshire”?

Hilary Benn: I am duly chided by the right hon. Lady.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Secretary of State has been extremely generous in giving way.

One matter is troubling me. He says that the institute is not liable for the costs of the damage because nobody was negligent. However, as I understand it, the general proposition is that if a landowner has potentially dangerous material on site and it escapes, the landowner is responsible for the consequences. One obvious example of that is in respect of domestic animals. The Secretary of State knows well that if a horse escapes from a site, the relevant landowner will be responsible even in the absence of negligence. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s own Department is considering changing the law to address that point. I do not understand how liability can be avoided, given that the virus escaped from a Government institution.

Hilary Benn: I said that I had seen no evidence of negligence, but I did not advance an argument about what liabilities might arise from what has happened. I am not a lawyer; others are much better qualified to follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument and take a decision about whether they want to use that remedy.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 860

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Hilary Benn: No; I shall make progress now, as I have been generous in giving way.

I shall come to bluetongue in a moment. On vaccination for foot and mouth disease, in both phases of the outbreak we had organised and were ready to vaccinate if necessary. In the event, we decided that it was not—a view shared by the chief veterinary officer and independent scientific advice. We have worked with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to take decisions about disease control, when possible on a co-ordinated basis. After all, the industry is inter-dependent in its activities in different parts of Great Britain, although we recognise that animal health is a devolved matter. We have worked with representatives of the industry to circulate information about the controls, through information packs, text message alerts and information on the DEFRA website. I acknowledge that not all farmers have access to the internet, but a lot of effort has been put into getting information to farmers. We have worked with the National Farmers Union to do so, and to try to identify and reduce the very real economic and welfare pressures faced by farmers. That is why we have taken a risk-based approach to lifting movement restrictions.

Clearly, the emergence of the third case on 12 September—more than a month and a bit after the previous reported case—made things much more difficult. We now know that that was the result of unreported infection in one premises. [Interruption.] Yes, they were visited, but as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will know because of his expert knowledge, it is difficult to detect old disease. It was picked up because of blood sampling of sheep, and that reinforces the point that farmers are the first line of defence in defeating the disease.

As a result of the case, controls had to be reimposed. Farm-to-farm movement resumed on 23 September. Markets reopened at the beginning of this month, and last Friday meat product exports from Scotland, Wales and the low-risk area of England were able to resume. That is an important step forward. We are also working with the European Commission to try to decrease the restrictions on exports, and to increase the areas of the country from which exports can be made. The next meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health will be on Friday.

The 20-day rule relates to domestic controls on animal standstills. As of today, that is now six days for areas outside the FMD risk area. The 21-day rule is an EU export rule, and means that animals cannot be moved on to a premises in the preceding 21 days. To change that, we would need to persuade Europe to do things differently.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hilary Benn: I will give way to both hon. Members.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 861

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Bluetongue was discovered in my constituency on Monday, and I am very grateful to members of his Department for the way that they notified me of that and for their subsequent handling of my queries about the matter. In respect of controls for FMD and bluetongue, is the Secretary of State prepared to look again at how his Department is sorting out boundaries, given the knock-on effects for other farmers in the areas concerned?

Hilary Benn: I am indeed. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and I shall respond directly to it when I turn to dealing with bluetongue, which I am anxious to do in a moment.

Mr. MacNeil: The Secretary of State has said that FMD has not escaped beyond the confines of Surrey and Berkshire, but the UK is divided into two epidemiological zones—Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Given the pattern of the spread of the disease this time, does he think that other epidemiological zones should be established within Great Britain? That is the arrangement in the continent of Europe’s land mass.

Hilary Benn: There is always a case for using the light of experience to reconsider whether decisions about such zones should be changed. In this outbreak, we have created areas of high and low risk, with the result that we have helped to pave the way to persuading the EU to allow a resumption of meat product exports. I have listened to many representations on this matter, and my judgment was that that was one of the most important things that could be done to assist the industry at this very difficult time.

As of today, the removal of all restrictions outside the FMD risk area means that animal movements can take place freely. That coincides with the protection zone being folded into the surveillance zone, it being 15 days since the completion of preliminary cleansing and disinfection on the last infected premises. The size of the FMD risk area remains under review.

I recognise that serious difficulties remain for the farming and food industries. In my statement last Monday, I set out the details of what we are doing to assist farmers in England. The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly are introducing their own welfare disposal schemes under the devolved arrangements—

Several hon. Members rose

Hilary Benn: I think that I can anticipate some of the questions that certain hon. Members want to ask. We are covering the cost of that assistance from our own budgets, although we do not yet know what the full cost will be. As I said last week, it is open to the devolved Administrations to approach the Treasury if they wish to do so. However, the best help that we can give is to help the industry to recover.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Secretary of State realise that hill farmers in Northumberland have not yet received any welfare payments, even though they see that a welfare slaughter scheme is in operation for farmers on the Scottish side
17 Oct 2007 : Column 862
of the hill? For farmers on the English side, however, not even the payments to which he has referred have come through.

Hilary Benn: I accept that and, as I said to the House last week, we will seek to make payments to those in receipt of hill farm allowance as quickly as possible.

Mr. Llwyd: The Secretary of State has been in discussions with the farming Minister in Wales, but his suggestion that the devolved Administrations need only approach the Treasury is not very helpful. He could sanction the £6.5 million promised in the first statement, and he should do so now.

Hilary Benn: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but my Department, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive each fund the schemes to support farmers in our respective areas at this difficult time. We are using our existing budgets to meet the costs thus incurred but, as I told the House last week, it is open for each of us to open discussions with the Treasury if we feel that we cannot manage with what we have. That is the sensible place to turn to first.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I place on record my gratitude to the Secretary of State for making time available last night to meet me and other Scottish colleagues, as well representatives of NFU Scotland? He will recall that it was put to him that the Treasury had funded the animal welfare and economic loss compensation schemes for farmers in Scotland and other parts of the UK in 2001, and that he was asked why the arrangements should be different this time. Will he allow the House to have the benefit of knowing the Government’s opinion and tell us what is the difference between now and 2001?

Hilary Benn: It is true that the Treasury reserve met the costs in 2001, because the sheer scale of the outbreak and the costs incurred meant that no other budget—that is, of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or of the devolved Administrations—could possibly have coped with paying for the measures that it was decided needed to put in place at that time. That is the fundamental difference.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the concordat between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Executive in respect of the state veterinary service and animal disease compensation. Paragraph 4 states:

MAFF, of course, is now DEFRA, but the concordat makes it clear that the obligation to pay compensation lies with the UK Government. Why, then, are the UK Government not paying the animal disease compensation as they did in 2001?

Hilary Benn: Under the concordat, DEFRA has agreed to fund compulsory slaughter for disease control purposes. That applies to most diseases, including FMD, but the concordat does not cover meeting the costs of welfare disposal or economic support schemes.

Next Section Index Home Page