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Animals in Scientific Procedures: Select Committee

4.3 p.m.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report on issues respecting animals in scientific procedures in the United Kingdom, including-- (1) the working of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986; (2) the effectiveness of and justification for animal experiments, particularly in: (i) medicine (ii) education (iii) defence (iv) product testing; and (3) the development and use of alternatives to animal procedures; and in all the foregoing considerations to pay regard to: - public attitudes, availability of information, labelling and consumer issues; - developments in biotechnology, and the likely future demand for animal procedures; - the effect of any changes on the economy and the science base; - EU and international law and practice;

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Lords be named of the committee:

L. Brennan, L. Hunt of Chesterton, L. Lucas, B. Nicol, E. Onslow, B. Richardson of Calow, L. Smith of Clifton (Chairman), L. Taverne, B. Warnock, B. Wilcox.

That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place.--(The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees.)

Lord Winston: My Lords, if noble Lords will forgive my delaying the House, I shall do so briefly. I have some concerns about the committee. I should like briefly to express them.

I am chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee. In the past I have also held an animal procedures licence. For those reasons, being parti pris, I felt that it would be inappropriate under my chairmanship of the committee for this matter to be discussed.

This House has unique expertise in medicine, biological science and veterinary science. Excellent though the proposed membership of the committee is,

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it troubles me that no biologists, medical people or veterinarians are on the committee. I realise that it is now too late to change the structure of the committee, but I should be grateful for reassurance that it may be possible--it happens with other Select Committees of this House--to co-opt one or two people with the scientific background which would add weight and experience to the committee. It would seem inappropriate to ignore that vast experience.

I do not suggest that we have an animal procedures licence holder, like myself. However, there are others who are not disqualified and would not be regarded as parti pris. I urge noble Lords to consider that.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord says. However, there is some difficulty. First, it is not possible for this committee to co-opt members because that is not within its terms of reference. There is expertise in your Lordships' House. However, the danger is--I think that this is why the composition has been chosen as it has--that people outside might view it as parti pris if certain people were involved, however great their knowledge of the biological sciences.

It is entirely within the power of the committee to appoint specialist advisers. It is also the right of the committee to call people from this House to give evidence to it. In that way a balanced committee which is not parti pris is able to produce a report with evidence from all sides, including from expert Members of your Lordships' House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Foot and Mouth Disease

4.6 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman) rose to move, That this House takes note of the current situation in the countryside, in particular in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in introducing a debate on a Motion which could cover an enormously wide range of issues, I hope that the House will understand if I confine my opening remarks to the specific details relating to the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country and try to pick up wider points raised on countryside issues when closing the debate in a few hours' time. The effects of primarily an animal disease are wide ranging and have impacts far beyond farming and its ancillary activities.

It feels a great deal longer than three weeks since the first case of foot and mouth disease in this country since 1981 was confirmed. It was in your Lordships' House on 21st February that the Government first reported the outbreak to Parliament. As the House is aware, in response to Questions, I have had the opportunity to update the House since then. But it may be helpful to have a stock take now.

The presence of the disease was first confirmed in pigs at an abattoir in Essex and subsequently traced back to a pig unit at Heddon-on-the-Wall,

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Northumberland. This is still the earliest known case in the present outbreak. It is now clear that the disease, prior to its discovery in Essex, had been distributed around the country by movements of animals, particularly sheep, through markets in northern England to holdings in many parts of the United Kingdom.

As at 2.15 today there were 199 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom with 143 farms still under investigation. Over 178,000 animals have been condemned to slaughter of which 131,000 have already been killed. This is a measure of the virulence of the disease and the magnitude of the problem with which we are faced. In addition, the French Ministry of Agriculture has today announced a confirmed case in a herd of cattle in north-west France.

The Government responded quickly and firmly to tackle this devastating outbreak. Our primary objective throughout has been first to contain and then to eradicate the disease. To that end, movement restrictions are put in place on individual farms and surrounding areas as soon as foot and mouth disease is suspected and removed only if we are sure that it is not present. All infected animals and dangerous contacts are slaughtered.

On the day that the first case was discovered we took action to protect other countries. On 21st February we put a stop to UK exports of animals and products, in conjunction with the European Commission, to ensure that we did not export the disease. On 23rd February, when it became clear that we had cases in Northumberland as well as Essex, the Government banned all movements of livestock throughout Great Britain so that the State Veterinary Service could trace all potentially suspect movements, particularly of sheep from markets in the north of England. That ban remains in force, with some minor modifications that I shall mention later.

On 27th February the Government empowered local authorities across Great Britain to restrict public access to farmland and to rights of way in order to help prevent the spread of the disease by people or vehicles. Those powers were further clarified on 2nd March and are still in force.

As to resources, the number of vets working for the State Veterinary Service has effectively been doubled, drawing in members of the profession in private practice in this country as well as official veterinarians from overseas. We are drawing on some assistance from the limited number of Army vets and are making contingency plans to call on additional logistical support if it is necessary for tasks such as killing farm animals and disposing of carcasses.

Our priority is to kill infected animals--most urgently pigs, because of the amount of virus that they exhale and their potential for disease spread, but also sheep and cattle--and dangerous contacts as soon as possible. Of course, we are equally anxious to dispose of carcasses as soon as we can. I understand the enormous distress that is caused to people who see their herds or flocks awaiting disposal on the farm after having been slaughtered--animals that they have

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spent a lifetime, or often generations, nurturing and bringing together. That is a devastating experience. However, we have to devote resources to the most urgent issues and the veterinary advice is that killing animals quickly is the most important thing to do. Once they are dead, the risk of spreading the virus is diminished to almost zero. We understand the problem and we are doing all we can to speed up the disposal of carcasses. But it is an enormous task. We are dealing with very large numbers of animals and the priority has to be the containment of disease.

The Government recognise that the necessarily tough and decisive action that we have taken against the disease has had an impact not only on the farming industry and ancillary industries in the food chain, but also in the wider countryside. Where we can safely do so without risk of spreading disease, we have introduced measures to alleviate some of the practical difficulties posed by the ban on animal movements. On 2nd March we introduced limited licensed movements of animals direct from farm to slaughter under strict conditions. In the main, those arrangements have worked well, so that supplies of British pork are now at 75 per cent of their normal level, with beef at 60 per cent and lamb at 35 per cent.

On 9th March we announced arrangements to enable limited local movements of livestock over short distances between parcels of land in the same occupation in order to help to alleviate animal welfare problems. Help has been given in some of the most urgent cases, such as when people have had difficulties in getting cattle from one side of a small country lane to another when they needed to be milked, or when sheep, pigs or cattle have needed to give birth. However, those are limited circumstances involving short distance movements.

On CAP schemes, the Government sought and obtained the European Commission's agreement that the outbreak could be treated as a force majeure event--in other words, confirming that our farmers would not be penalised if livestock numbers declared for subsidy were affected. In addition, we now have the Commission's agreement that livestock can graze set-aside land if controls make that necessary. I hope that that will be of limited assistance in particular cases.

The Government recognise the financial hardship that the present controls none the less bring. For those farmers whose animals have to be slaughtered, compensation at 100 per cent of market value is paid. In addition, my right honourable friend the Minister announced on 6th March that the Government would be drawing down £156 million in agrimonetary compensation for the beef, sheep and dairy sectors. We now have the agreement of the Commission to pay that money in March and April--some months earlier than it would otherwise be paid. For pig farmers, who do not have the advantage of being in a heavy regime, we have reopened the outgoers element of the pig industry restructuring scheme for six weeks.

There have been many calls for compensation to go further and wider to other affected industries. As I have said in the House before, no previous government

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have compensated for the so-called "consequential losses" caused by animal disease outbreaks. That would be a very significant step, and could involve the taxpayer in an almost unquantifiable commitment, both now and in any future outbreak. However, we are listening carefully to arguments about the implications of the disease and the restrictions and about the effects that are being felt.

The Prime Minister is fully seized of the gravity of the situation. This morning he chaired meetings with farmers' leaders, Ministers from the key departments and a number of organisations representing rural interests to listen to their concerns. All those present agreed that the Government's strategy for containing and eradicating the disease was the right one and supported it, even though it was proving painful for everyone in the countryside and would inevitably take time to succeed.

The Prime Minister has asked the Minister for the Environment urgently to assemble a task force to look at the impact of foot and mouth on the wider rural economy and countryside, and how that impact might be alleviated. The task force will look at whether tighter guidance can be produced to ensure that rural businesses such hotels, pubs and historic houses could reopen properly in areas where the risk posed by the movements of people rather than of susceptible animals was minimal. It will also consider whether the implementation of any rural initiatives, such as those from the rural White Paper, can be accelerated and will examine ideas for kick-starting the rural economy, particularly by encouraging tourism once foot and mouth disease has been eradicated.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease has taken hold quickly and has caused incalculable distress to families. I am only too aware of the anxiety and isolation of those waiting and worrying or facing the consequences of a diagnosis of the disease.

We have worked very hard to communicate clearly and promptly as the outbreak has developed. The Ministry's website devoted to foot and mouth disease is updated daily, and often several times a day. It contains a wide range of information. However, we recognise that not everyone affected can access the MAFF website. Therefore, we have attempted to communicate in other ways.

A telephone helpline was established early during the outbreak and is available from eight o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night seven days a week. The telephone number has been widely disseminated. Farmers can contact their local animal health offices for more detailed information regarding the situation in their own localities. My right honourable friend the Minister wrote to every farmer in the country, enclosing information about the disease and setting out what can be done to protect farms from it. If necessary, of course, we shall write again to every farmer with an update on the situation. The Chief Veterinary Officer has written similarly to all private veterinary practices.

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We have held weekly or biweekly meetings with representatives of the main farming, veterinary, processing, distributing and retail organisations. I and the Chief Veterinary Officer have listened to the points put to us. We value enormously the work that the organisations represented at those regular meetings do in communicating with their members. In addition, information is provided via Ceefax, Teletext and NFU regional offices. Daily reports are provided to Members of Parliament and placed in the Libraries.

Our policy is to be as open as possible in describing the situation and in communicating what we are doing in response to it. However, sometimes exposing contingency plans at early stages to a wide audience means that one spends a great deal of time chasing several hares that are set running but those plans may never come to fruition. I believe that one of the main lessons to have been learned from the Phillips report is that we must constantly assess and reassess policy as the disease develops and test it against the realities of the situation at the time. I do not consider that that is a matter for criticism.

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