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House of Commons

Thursday 25 October 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Foot and Mouth Disease

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s response to the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease; and if he will make a statement. [160570]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): We put our contingency plan into operation as soon as there was confirmation of foot and mouth disease. Two and a half months on, it has been contained in a small part of the country. Nevertheless, we are committed to learning the lessons from this and all disease outbreaks, and we have therefore asked Dr. lain Anderson, who conducted an inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, to chair a review.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that rational and helpful reply. My constituency of Macclesfield is a predominantly livestock farming area. Livestock farmers have sustained huge losses. A little earlier this month, he announced a compensation package of £12.5 million. How widely do the Government anticipate that the package will be distributed? Will it adequately recompense livestock farmers throughout the United Kingdom for the huge losses that they have sustained?

Hilary Benn: I recognise the real difficulties that the livestock industry in particular is facing as a result of the outbreak, which could not have come at a worse time of year. The support that I announced to the House when we returned after the summer recess was for those who have been most adversely affected, who are, indeed, the hill farmers. As well as containing the disease with a view to eradicating it, we have tried throughout to get the market working again. In all parts of the country, except the remaining small risk area, all the restrictions that have been put in place domestically have now gone. The ones that remain are the result of the European Union rules, but we have already seen in the past two weeks a further easing of those restrictions to allow exports to resume. I am clear
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in my mind that the best thing that we can do is help the industry recover, but I know that it is going to be very tough and extremely difficult.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): In last week’s debate on foot and mouth, I referred to the pig sector and the problems that the outbreak has caused for it. I asked for assistance for that sector, perhaps through storage aid or a sow disposal scheme. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who responded to the debate, said that the team would be working closely with pig industry leaders to try to assist them. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress since?

Hilary Benn: I can tell my hon. Friend that that discussion with representatives of the pig industry and of all parts of the livestock industry has been a very strong feature of the way in which we have tried to handle the outbreak. A decision was taken on Monday at the Agriculture Council meeting to open a scheme for private storage in respect of pigs, following a request from Poland, which it made because of the difficulties that it is facing. I repeat what I said a moment ago. With the easing of restrictions and the lifting of all those put in place domestically, I hope that the industry will find that it now has the opportunity to recover, albeit that it will take time.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Following on from last week’s debate on compensation and so on, may I press the right hon. Gentleman on one question? If the Agriculture Minister in Wales were to apply to the Treasury for special funding in these special circumstances, would the Secretary of State lend his weight to the application and support it?

Hilary Benn: As I told the House when I made the statement, it is open to each of us—I have to manage the cost of the schemes that I have put in place and the assistance that I have given in relation to England—and to the devolved Administrations to have that conversation if they wish. However, it is not unreasonable in the circumstances, given that we do not yet know what the full cost of the outbreak will be, for each of us to bear the costs for the time being of the schemes that we think are appropriate for the parts of the country for which we have responsibility. That is what I have done for England, and the Welsh Agriculture Minister has done the same in Wales, as have the Scottish Executive in Scotland.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem impacted even on largely industrial constituencies such as mine? The company Devro, which exports sausage skins to many parts of the world—Europe, Africa and so on—and has locations in both Moodiesburn and Bellshill, clearly needed certificates of clearance. His Department was enormously helpful. Given the horrendous demands that must have been placed on it, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you on the company’s behalf.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words. I take this opportunity to echo those thanks—to the Department officials, vets and animal health staff
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who have worked phenomenally hard in the past two and a half months to deal with the consequences. They have worked not only to contain the outbreak but to give every assistance to those caught up in it. The reopening of the meat product export market to the rest of Europe—exports to the rest of the world will take some time to resume—has probably been the most important step. Those exports are now gradually happening.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The hill farm allowance supplement is an average £850 for an individual farmer and the average hill farmer in my constituency has lost in the region of £10,000 to £20,000 in the past few weeks. Given that the Government are culpable for the outbreak, does the Secretary of State feel that the additional support that they have provided is sufficient?

Hilary Benn: I recognise that the support will not help to meet all the costs, but it is not this Government’s policy—it has never been any Government’s—to provide full compensation for economic loss.

Why did I take the decision to help hill farmers? I did that because, as was said a moment ago, hill farmers have faced the greatest difficulties as a result of what has happened. The £8.5 million will provide some additional assistance and, I hope, give hill farmers slightly more options, albeit in very difficult circumstances. We should recognise that the markets are operating again—that includes the resumption of exports to Europe—and that that has released the most important blockage that the hill farmers were facing.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State has just stressed the importance of learning from disease outbreaks. One of the lessons of the 2001 outbreak was that the decision to close the countryside to visitors led to enormous economic consequences. Does he understand that although farming is important, the value brought by people who visit rural communities and boost the rural economy is more significant?

Hilary Benn: They are both significant and both extremely important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have sought to learn the lessons from 2001, which include the advice given by Dr. Iain Anderson. That is why he is entirely the right person to come back and say how we have all done on this occasion.

My hon. Friend is right to say that rural communities benefit enormously from such wider economic activity. We have handled the footpath closures in the protection zones correctly, but, like the industry more broadly, we have been clear about sending out the message that the countryside is open for business. It is important that people continue to enjoy the countryside and bring economic activity to it, to help those who would otherwise be affected in addition to the farmers, who have suffered so much.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I telephoned a leading farmer the day after the foot and mouth outbreak was announced, and was surprised to find that I was the one informing him about it. Given that, for years, automatic electronic telephone calls
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have been used to sell financial services, when will the Department make sure that they—not only text messages—are used to give farmers the earliest possible information about notifiable disease emergencies?

Hilary Benn: We have been using both text messages and automated telephone messages. Furthermore, we have been delivering information packs to affected farmers in the protection zones. However, we have to recognise that the media are one way in which we all get our news; I would be surprised if many farmers in the country had not been aware, first, of the outbreak, and secondly, of the imposition of movement controls. We all have a part to play, and I pay tribute to the efforts not only of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs staff but of the National Farmers Union and other organisations, including those representing different sectors. They played an important part in reinforcing the message to their members.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): At one stage of the outbreak, the chief veterinary officer declared that the UK was free of foot and mouth. If that had not happened, many of the hill farming industry’s problems would not have occurred. Was that declaration made because the surveillance area was not great enough, and will the Government learn the lessons?

Hilary Benn: Of course we will reflect on the lessons. That is why we have been so quick to invite Dr. Anderson to establish the review. In my view, the decision taken on 8 September was absolutely right in the light of our knowledge at the time; it was a month and a bit since a case had been confirmed, and the decision was confirmed by the European Union, which looked at all the evidence.

Why was there the further case? As we now know from the epidemiological report, which we published at every stage, in the interests of openness, the animals on one of the premises—infected premises No. 5, as it is described—had had foot and mouth and the lesions were between three and four weeks old. That reinforces our point throughout that the first line of defence in overcoming the disease is farmers’ vigilance. That case went undetected for whatever reason, and was therefore unreported. Had it been reported, the situation would have been different. Our decision at the time was right in the light of the evidence that we had.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): This outbreak has already, at the latest estimate, cost English farmers well over £100 million. Two weeks ago, as we heard, the Secretary of State announced a package of £12 million. On Monday this week, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), told me that no conclusions had yet been reached on cost sharing or the estimate of the element of those costs falling to farmers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the comprehensive spending review clearly states that an increased share of responsibility and cost-sharing will save DEFRA £121 million over three years, which is £40 million in extra costs to farmers each year—more than three times the package that he announced?

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Hilary Benn: Yes, I am happy to confirm that that is the case. I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman—we need to change the system. There are already different approaches in relation to different parts of the livestock sector. The truth is that if one was designing a system from scratch today, it would not look like the system that we have; we all know that. The deal to be done is to give the livestock industry much greater say over how the controls on animal disease outbreaks affecting animals only—not zoonotic diseases because we, as the Government, have a public health interest—are applied and lifted. We have worked in partnership with the industry in dealing with this and in, in return for that, there should be recognition that the costs of dealing with preventing disease and coping with outbreaks should fall more upon the industry. I think that that is the right way to go. This is very difficult anyway—especially so in the circumstances that we have just been through—but dealing with these outbreaks over the past two and a half months has brought it home to me that we should have a different system, and that is what I want to try to get agreement on.

Flood Risk

2. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the insurance industry on flood risk. [160571]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I am in regular contact, as are ministerial colleagues and officials, with the insurance industry and the Association of British Insurers. We are working together to ensure the continued widespread availability of flood insurance cover through the association’s statement of principles.

Mr. Stuart: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that it is now estimated that more than £3 billion is to be paid out by the insurance industry. How can my constituents be sure of keeping their flood insurance cover when only just over 40 per cent. of flood defences are properly maintained by the Environment Agency and when the increase in flood defence spending by 2010-11 will return us only to the level that we were at in 2004, before this year’s devastating floods? Can he give reassurance to my constituents and confirm that those in rural areas will not be neglected in order to put all the emphasis on urban areas?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue so I am very aware of the impact that the flooding had on his constituents in Burstwick and Hedon. I would say to his constituents that the increase in funding that I announced at the beginning of July and the way in which that is going to be phased in between now and 2010-11 is a direct response to the requests that many people have made of us, including the Association of British Insurers. In June, it asked us to get up to £750 million a year by 2010-11; in fact, we are going to be spending £800 million a year by 2010-11. That is why, when I announced that figure, the ABI said that this was the news that homeowners had wanted to hear. I recognise that there has been a second round of flooding since then. I am very keen that we continue to work in partnership with the ABI as
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we significantly increase spending on flood defence, building on the doubling of investment over the past decade so that we can keep that statement of principles in place and therefore protect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Following this summer’s flooding, my survey of 4,000 households in my constituency tells me that people would support my right hon. Friend’s Department giving incentives to landowners to manage their land in ways that help to prevent floods—not just the normal daily work of keeping watercourses and gullies free from obstructions but proactively, for example, by creating new water meadows and other wetland. Will he change the conditions for the single payment and the schemes for stewardship of land in order to give that incentive to landowners?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point. Of course, there is already land that naturally floods during the winter, but the problem for some of the farmers whom I met was that they did not expect it to flood in that way during the summer, so it came at a bad time of the year and affected their ability to get their crops out of the ground. Yes, the Environment Agency does need to consider all the ways in which we can accommodate astonishing flows of water of the kind that we saw in June and July.

It is debatable whether landowners have to be paid to do that because in the winter they provide such flood capacity naturally. However, one lesson that we have learned from all of this—Sir Michael Pitt will be drawing all of them together in his lessons-learned review—is that we have to look at the inter-relationship of the ways in which water can escape when we have the astonishing amount of rainfall that we experienced during the summer. If my hon. Friend has not already done so, he might like to pass on the result of his consultation to Sir Michael Pitt so that he can consider it in his review.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): In my constituency, we have had two “one in 30 years” floods in nine years, and the last time 2,000 properties flooded. The owners of those properties are worried that they will not be able to get insurance in the future. I suggest two things that the Secretary of State could do to help. First, there are too many agencies with responsibilities for different parts of the problem. It would be helpful if he were to put the Environment Agency in some sort of overall co-ordinating role.

Secondly, if we are to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the flood defences that we can afford and make sense of, we need a comprehensive survey of what could be done about each little bit of local flooding. I suggest that the Environment Agency should either do that, or commission someone to do it. Without it, we cannot make the decisions on whether particular flood defences are economically sensible.

Hilary Benn: Those are two good suggestions. We were already consulting on giving the Environment Agency such responsibility, particularly in relation to surface water flooding. The hon. Gentleman is right; a
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lot of disparate organisations have responsibility for different bits of the surface water drainage system. I want to take on board whatever Sir Michael Pitt has to say, but I am keen that we make progress on the matter, because it definitely reflects one of the lessons that we learned from the summer, particularly from what happened in Hull.

Secondly, the Environment Agency needs to look at the range of potential schemes, but even with the additional funding that we are putting in place, there has to be a system for deciding on prioritisation of where the money will be spent. The Environment Agency has already been reviewing the points system that it uses to weigh the different considerations in reaching a decision, which is a process that I support. We recognise that a decision will have to be taken to fund one thing rather than something else, but at least we have more money with which to take that decision than was the case in the past.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): In addition to welcoming the sensible suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about managing river valleys so that their uplands are not intensively farmed or left in a situation where flood water can rush down them, will the Secretary of State consider earmarking some of the welcome investment in flood relief and flood defence schemes for the overhauling of antiquated surface water drainage systems? They are not up to the job, and caused as many problems as flooding from river valleys itself.

Hilary Benn: Now that I have announced the phasing of the increase in funding over the next three years, the Environment Agency will be in a position to plan. It will need to talk to local authorities about surface water drainage. The truth about such drainage is that we have a system that was built between 100 and 150 years ago, at a time when people did not expect to have to cope with the amounts of water that we have recently seen. The second problem is that we have concreted, covered with tarmac and paved over a lot of the surface land in our towns and cities, so when it rains to such an extent, there are fewer places for the water to go. It is not soaked up by the ground that is already saturated. Those are some of the lessons we have to learn. It will be a combination of improving capacity and ensuring that new drainage is built to a higher specification than was the case in the past, but we need to ask what more we can do in towns and cities to improve capacity to enable water to run off when we have rain of that sort.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I appreciate the Secretary of State’s interest in the impact of flooding in Gloucestershire, and in my constituency in particular. There are two issues that I would like him to raise with the insurers. First, is it wise to keep building planned houses on areas that flooded in July, such as Leckhampton in my constituency? Will the homes built there be insurable at any economic premium? Secondly, will the insurers be able to expedite payments to small businesses affected by the flooding? Many of them are still waiting for compensation months later, with an obvious impact on their cash flow, their bank charges and the interest that they pay on their overdrafts.

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