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17 Oct 2007 : Column 863

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that the Welsh Assembly does not have the contingency funds to deliver the meaningful welfare scheme that many of us want. Is he aware of any discussions that have taken place between the Welsh Assembly and the Treasury? In addition, we still need an answer to the question from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd): what happened, between draft and delivery, to the £6.5 million promised by the right hon. Gentleman in his statement last week?

Hilary Benn: I have answered the second question already. Drafts are prepared, options are looked at, colleagues have discussions, and I do not propose to get into a conversation about that— [ Interruption. ] The central charge that has been made—

Mr. Llwyd: Not by me!

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman should not be so sensitive, as I was referring to the Liberal Democrat Benches in general and not directly at him. I was about to say that there is not a shred of truth to the central charge that has been made. As for the first point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), I am not aware of any specific discussions that Elin Jones may have had, but no doubt she will enlighten us.

Paddy Tipping: In his remarks at the start of the debate, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) was, at best, rather dismissive of the £12.5 million package and the other measures that have been put in place. He implied that the Opposition would offer more in the way of compensation, but he was silent when I asked him directly who they intended would pay for it, and how much would be involved. In the longer term, does my right hon. Friend accept that we must move to a risk-based sharing of such costs, and look at insurance as a way of going forward?

Hilary Benn: In the end, it is about making choices and trying to give help in the most effective way. I listened to the representations made to me by the industry in England when I announced the package last week. I shall respond directly to the very good point made by my hon. Friend when I reach the end of my speech. I am very anxious to do that, as I have been very generous about giving way.

Mr. Davidson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hilary Benn: No, I have been generous in giving way and I want to turn to bluetongue. As the House recognises—[Hon. Members: “Give way.”]. As I am being encouraged to do so from the Opposition Benches I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson).

Mr. Davidson: I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State. When I and a number of other Members met representatives of the National Farmers Union Scotland this morning, we had to ask more than 20 times before they eventually confessed that they have not actually asked the Scottish Executive for any money. In those circumstances, is not it either astonishingly naive or
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deliberately mischievous for some Opposition Members to say that it is all Westminster’s responsibility when in fact the Scottish Executive have recently been given more than £1 billion of unspent money from previous years?

Hilary Benn: It is the responsibility of all of us. From the Scottish Executive’s budget this year of about £26 billion, there are choices to be made about how the money is spent. I asked the same question last night when I met the delegation that included the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). No doubt the delegation will put the same points to the Scottish Executive as they put to me.

Mr. Carmichael rose—

Hon. Members: Give Way.

Hilary Benn: No. I shall now conclude my remarks as many Members want to speak.

Mr. Carmichael: Frit.

Hilary Benn: Anything but.

Mr. Carmichael rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Hilary Benn: I have been generous in giving way, including to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

The whole industry, the veterinary profession and farmers had been anticipating that bluetongue would arrive at some point. We know that, which is why we had a bluetongue strategy drawn up, why there was a lot of coverage in the media, why it was part of the DEFRA livestock market roadshow and why Opposition Front-Bench Members were briefed in July. It seems that the wind carried midges over from Europe and the first case was detected on 22 September.

I realise that many Members have great concerns about the disease. The impact of bluetongue is considerable, as we have seen in northern Europe. That is exactly why we worked with industry leaders to identify the most appropriate boundaries and disease control measures when the disease was confirmed on 28 September. Bluetongue is a very different disease from foot and mouth; it is spread by midges and not by livestock, and rapid action will not mean rapid eradication, nor will culling animals. It presents a serious, long-term challenge, so it is vital that we work with the industry to decide what is best to do, which is reflected in the revised disease control strategy that we developed and published in August.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): On a positive note, I can tell the Secretary of State that the farmer in my constituency who suffered from a bluetongue outbreak told me on Sunday that his cattle are recovering well. That illustrates the different nature of the disease. However, does the Secretary of State accept that the movement controls put in place to deal with bluetongue have equally as damaging an effect on the industry as the
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movement controls relating to foot and mouth disease? When might farmers expect some lifting of the movement controls relating to bluetongue?

Hilary Benn: I am coming to that point directly. Before doing so, I have to inform the House that as a result of reporting by two farmers in Peterborough and Ashford, Kent, following tests, we are today confirming two new cases of bluetongue in those locations. As a result, two new control zones are being introduced and the protection zone is being extended. Details will be available on the DEFRA website later today.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con) rose—

Hilary Benn: I know that the hon. Gentleman is affected. I give way.

Damian Green: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the advance notice his office gave me of that distressing news not just for livestock farmers in my constituency but for the many farmers throughout Kent, Sussex and the wider south-east who use Ashford market. I hope that in the remainder of his speech the Secretary of State can give some certainty about time scales—how long the effects and the movement restrictions are likely to last. If possible, can he offer some practical reassurance to the many, many farmers who will be newly affected by this terrible outbreak?

Hilary Benn: I shall certainly try to do so and I shall come to that point in a moment.

Mr. Jenkin: I echo the thanks of my hon. Friends who have been so well supported by the Secretary of State’s Department during the outbreak. Another case was confirmed in my constituency only this week.

Is not the answer—to which the industry does not seem to be averse—to extend the bluetongue zone substantially so that there can be movement to slaughterhouses and movement of fattening stock across the country to enable the industry to survive? Bluetongue is not a crippling disease, like foot and mouth; it is a disease that we will have to accept and deal with, eventually by vaccination.

Hilary Benn: I accept the point the hon. Gentleman makes. We have talked carefully to the industry and the consensus at present is that we need to try to contain the disease in the east of England if possible and then plan for what we need to do over the coming months. We all hope for a cold winter, although nobody can promise one. But the issue is at what point we should face up to the question the hon. Gentleman puts—declaring the whole of England a bluetongue control zone and accepting that we have to live with the disease. As I told the House last week, this is a real dilemma for the industry, because it, above all, has the greatest interest in making the right decision. That is why we shall be holding further discussions with the industry group in light of today’s development. As soon as we can make the arrangements, we shall organise a briefing on bluetongue for all interested Members, to advise them about what can be done and answer detailed questions about movement controls.


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We are all anxious to have a vaccine as quickly as possible. I hope one will be available next year, subject to its being shown to be safe and effective. We are discussing with the industry the approach we should take to vaccination once a vaccine is available and we are talking to companies that are trying to develop one. There are three—Merial, Fort Dodge and Intervet.

Mr. Martlew: During the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, the decision was taken not to vaccinate because the industry—supermarkets and others—would not take the meat of vaccinated animals. Does my right hon. Friend believe they will take it from an animal that has been vaccinated against bluetongue?

Hilary Benn: We do not have a vaccine at present, but consumers regularly eat other meat from vaccinated animals, including poultry, so I am not sure that there would be a difficulty.

Concerns have been raised about access to slaughterhouses. From yesterday, it is possible for animals to be moved to slaughterhouses outside the bluetongue control and protection zones in England, and I hope that that will respond to the most urgent representations and make a big difference.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hilary Benn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall conclude. Many Members want to speak and I do not want to take up any more time.

This has been and remains a difficult time for the livestock industry at the very moment that prospects look brighter for the arable industry. I thank farmers and their representatives for their assistance and support, because they are our first line of defence. I thank all DEFRA animal health and other staff, including staff at Pirbright, who have done all the testing in relation to both diseases, for their professionalism and hard work over the past two months.

Today is one opportunity for the House to reflect on the lessons; Dr. Anderson’s review will be another. I shall conclude with one more lesson on which I have greatly reflected. As has been said, the two outbreaks throw into sharp relief for the House how best to take decisions about disease control. There is a strong case for the industry to be at the heart of decision making in the future, in both taking responsibility and sharing the costs. It is a difficult balance to strike, but the people best placed to take the decisions are those who are most affected by them and the Government remain determined to do all they can to contain and deal with the two outbreaks. I look forward to continuing to work with Members on both sides of the House and with the farming community in doing so.

2.49 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): This year has been a disaster for our farmers. Farmers are always at the mercy of the weather and other forces beyond their control, and that is illustrated by the bluetongue-carrying midge being blown across the channel, bringing farming in eastern England to a standstill. We very much regret the announcement that the Secretary of State has made today about the spread to Kent.
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However, this summer’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease was not an act of nature or random misfortune. A Government facility, Pirbright, which was designed to protect British farming has, in the words of the official DEFRA report, “beyond reasonable doubt” been the cause of the outbreak. In other words, the cause of the incident is so certain that it meets the standards of evidence required for a conviction in a criminal court. The knock-on effects of that disaster have crippled exports and the livestock market at the very worst time of year.

How could DEFRA, which has statutory responsibility for licensing, monitoring and funding Pirbright, have licensed a facility with an

with no fixed procedures for the maintenance of the drains? We are not talking about someone’s home; we are talking about a category 4 biosecure facility. As the motion—we will support it—points out, DEFRA not only inspected safety arrangements but approved spending at the plant. There could not be a more clear conflict of interest.

The key point, which the Secretary of State has not answered today, is that what seems to have happened at Pirbright is that the systems—not only the drains, but clearly the drains—have been run down to a point where there was no maintenance unless there was failure. That may be acceptable when running the Secretary of State’s boiler at home, but clearly in such an important facility there must be proper, scheduled preventive maintenance. We know from whistleblowers—for example, Steven Kendrew—who were contractors at the site, that there was no adequate schedule of preventive maintenance. Cameras should have been sent down those drains to check what had happened and to see whether there was damage. One need not be a Thames Water customer to know that old drains leak, so it beggars belief that DEFRA did not deal with the problem by sending down cameras to find out the state of the drains, even though it was considering the matter.

Ministers have said in the past that there was no awareness that there might be risks from the drains. Are they saying that it was not understood that the foot and mouth virus is able to survive in water and soil, and that a leaking pipe system could therefore prove to be a most grave hazard? That is exactly the sort of issue that a public inquiry could and should examine, along with the conflicts of interest.

I am frankly appalled that the Secretary of State appears to show so little interest in what exactly went wrong. He is an honourable man, and he comes here and says that he takes responsibility, but he was not there when the key points of failure occurred. If the most senior civil servants who knew about the pipework problems are not disciplined, what sort of signal will that send to other people in his Department? What incentive will there be to pay proper attention to detail and due diligence with other risks? There has been an abject failure of responsibility, and those responsible should go. They have palpably failed to do their job, which was to assist and protect British farming. After the rural payments scheme fiasco, there is a risk of a growing culture of impunity in DEFRA, where any sloppiness will be condoned simply because no one is likely to be found out, and if they are found out they will not face the consequences.


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As we look to the future, it would be good to know whether the Minister is satisfied that no further risk is posed to British farming by the Pirbright facility. But what about the implications of this health and safety debacle for the other Government facilities? For example, has anyone yet put a camera down the drains at Compton—Pirbright’s sister site—to see whether its effluent systems are in a similar state of disrepair? Can the Secretary of State also confirm that the development of a vaccine for bluetongue has been held up by this debacle? If so, for how long?

Of course, one of the unanswered questions continues to be whether the Secretary of State has yet made a proper assessment of the costs to British farming arising from the outbreak. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) asked for such an assessment on 8 October, as did I during DEFRA questions, but we have yet to receive an answer.

The losses are very serious—I hope that the Secretary of State will also deal with this issue—because in the final two weeks of September, lamb prices were down by an average of 21 per cent. per kilo live weight compared with the same period last year. During the first week of October, the average shop price of a leg of lamb was up by 19p a kilogram, or a 2.7 per cent. increase, on the same time last year. The disparity between farm-gate and checkout prices has long been an issue, and in the light of the Office of Fair Trading’s findings regarding the fixing of milk prices, I hope that Ministers will take this problem extremely seriously and give it proper attention—if necessary, by bringing in the appropriate competition authorities to check.

The National Farmers Union estimates that the cost to British farming is in excess of £100 million, but we must have a clear estimate from the Department. In Builth Wells, last Friday, a farmer sold her blue face Leicester rams for an average of just £200 per head, whereas in 2006 they averaged £700 per head. The insecurity and the depressed prices are compounding the difficulties that farmers face, despite the very welcome limited resumption of exports. Many farmers make about 80 per cent. of their income for the year at this time, and they are facing acute cash-flow problems. The entire farming calendar has been stalled, and the disruption to breeding now will have consequences next spring.

Mr. Beith: Does my hon. Friend not find it surprising, given that every hill farmer is known to and registered with the Department and is already subject to the payments system, that they cannot have received a payment by now?

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because the truth is that we were discussing and debating earlier today who will ultimately pay in Scotland and Wales. Many English farmers would like to be paid at all, without the debate about who or which budget will ultimately bear the burden, to ensure that they have some relief for the very substantial distress that their businesses are facing.


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