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Foot and Mouth Disease

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend Margaret Beckett on the Government's response to the FMD inquiry reports. The Statement is as follows:

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    shape of movement controls to apply from next February. We expect full and final results in the first half of next year. As the inquiry reports recognise, the farming industry, too, shares responsibility for minimising disease risks and has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity. We shall work closely with the industry in following up the inquiries' recommendations in this area.

    "We also intend to work closely with the industry in developing a comprehensive animal health and welfare strategy, which has been called for by both inquiries and the policy commission. It is important that we share an agreed vision, which must cover protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control, and animal welfare. Informal discussions with stakeholders are already taking place before the launch of a public consultation exercise later in the year across the breadth of the stakeholder community. The strategy will draw on the inquiry reports and will provide a vehicle for implementing many recommendations.

    "We shall also use the consultation on the strategy as a means to discuss with stakeholders the best mechanism to provide regular reports on animal disease preparedness so that the lessons learned as a result of the 2001 outbreak and the recommendations of the inquiries are implemented and help to ensure that the experience of 2001 is never repeated.

    "But the House will want to know what else would be different in any future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. A national movement ban would be put in place as soon as the first case was confirmed, as my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary announced in the summer when our interim contingency plan was published. Restricted infected areas—blue boxes—would be declared from the start in a minimum 10-kilometre radius around infected farms. But public rights of way would need to be restricted only in a 3-kilometre radius from those farms.

    "International and EU rules are based on the need to eradicate what is an unpleasant as well as a highly infectious disease. Hence, the basic strategy in all FMD-free countries is that, as a first step, animals infected with foot and mouth disease and animals which have been in contact with them have to be culled. But what both inquiries say, and what the Government accept, is that, in some circumstances, additional action may be needed to control an outbreak. In that case, emergency vaccination will form part of the control strategy from the start. That would be emergency vaccination to live, provided of course that scientific and veterinary advice was that that would be the most effective course.

    "The inquiries themselves point out that the use of emergency vaccination to live raises a number of very difficult issues—scientific, logistical and economic. But the Government are committed to tackling those issues, in consultation with interested parties, with the aim of being in a position to trigger

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    an emergency vaccination campaign should the need arise. But the issues are substantial and this process will take some time to complete.

    "That does not mean that wider culling strategies will never again be needed. We must maintain a full armoury of weapons to tackle these diseases; hence our insistence on the flexibility proposed in the Animal Health Bill and in the Lessons to be Learned report to allow for pre-emptive culling so as to enable us to deal with an outbreak more quickly with fewer losses of animals and least disruption to the rural economy.

    "The Government are consulting on a 'decision tree' on FMD control which would set out the factors to be taken into account in deciding the best disease-control strategy for different circumstances. But we have to remember that each outbreak is unique, and we cannot prescribe in detail in advance how best to meet it. There will still be a need for scientific and veterinary judgment at the time.

    "For the longer term, the Royal Society recommended that research was needed on a vaccine that could be used routinely rather than just in an emergency against all strains of FMD and for all species. The Government recognise that that would be desirable as a long-term goal and will encourage international collaboration to that end. But the House will appreciate that we are some considerable way from achieving that.

    "In short, a mere three months after publication of the inquiry reports, the Government are today able not only to respond formally to those reports but to identify a massive programme of work and reform which is under way. Nothing can ever erase the horrors and the tragedies of the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease in the UK. But we can all resolve to establish more effective safeguards and, should those safeguards fail, an even more effective response".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend earlier today. However, I have to ask why the Statement has been delayed until now. Are the Government so totally inept that they were unaware that, until last Monday, your Lordships were still debating the Animal Health Bill on which these reports and their responses directly impinge? Is it not ironic that the Animal Health Bill has passed through its final stage in this House and needs the approval of another place today before it can be passed? Or are the Government totally unscrupulous in holding back necessary information until it is too late for your Lordships to take it into account in considering the Bill that has been before us?

Whether the Government have been inept, ironic or unscrupulous, I find the timing totally unacceptable. This House knows and appreciates the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He is always courteous, patient and

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accommodating. It is not him that I am speaking about but the department, which, I believe, has failed this House very badly.

I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. There is much in it that we welcome. We on these Benches accept many of the central suggestions and recommendations that have been made. In particular, we also want to record our thanks to Professor Iain Anderson and Sir Brian Follett for their very thorough work.

Perhaps I may highlight the question that has been challenging us throughout the passage of the Animal Health Bill—that is, the question of vaccination and of vaccination to live. Having received the booklet today, I looked back to see what was said. Recommendation 10 states that emergency vaccination should be considered as part of the control strategy from the start of any foot and mouth outbreak. The Minister confirmed that today and we are grateful for that. Recommendation 28 lays aside one of the difficulties that we have been facing—that is, it will be possible to distinguish vaccinated from vaccinated-infected animals. I hope that puts to rest that particular issue.

We also welcome mention in the Statement that a civil contingencies secretariat will be established. We welcome, in particular, the fact that it will be based in every region and that local input will be taken into account. I hope that designated decisions can be taken at that level. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that in his response. Presumably local decisions will be made locally and will not have to be taken back to the centre.

We also welcome the appointment of one body which will be responsible for anti-smuggling checks on imported animals, fish, plants and their products, including meat. As was said, that has been allocated to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. I understand from the Statement that that body will be set up as soon as possible. Again, perhaps we may be given an indication as to when it will kick in.

We also note that a science advisory group has been established. How much will the funding cost; what period will the initial funding cover; and to how many centres will the money be given?

We welcome the explanation of the 20-day standstill rules. That will be reported on by February next year, but most noble Lords bitterly regret that that issue was not addressed before the Animal Health Bill passed through this House.

I believe that all noble Lords will be particularly pleased with section nine in the booklet of responses, to which the noble Lord referred. It states that in the future there will be no more mass pyres. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that as it is hugely important.

We on these Benches, and I suspect those from other parts of the House, are keen to have proper disease controls in place. We worked so hard on the Animal Health Bill to ensure that they are robust. Perhaps in recent debates on the Bill we have fallen out with the Government because we feel that the provisions have bones but not enough flesh, and we have tried to add more flesh to the arguments.

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I draw the attention of the Minister to compensation. In the past it has been borne by the public purse. One finds on page 46 confirmation of rumours of what we knew would happen that the Government are to move away from public purse compensation towards requiring an animal disease insurance to cope with problems that may occur in future. I understand that a group has met three times to discuss animal disease compensation and animal disease levy and insurance options. Can the Minister tell the House more about that?

The Statement mentions imports, particularly illegal imports. We have expressed extreme concern about legal imports to this country from countries that have disease, particularly foot and mouth disease. Further explanation of that by the Minister would be welcome.

As I said fairly sharply at the beginning, I am tired of having to respond to matters that have been produced a day late, as in the case of the Animal Health Bill. We were awaiting government amendments so that we could proceed. I believe on all sides of the House that noble Lords want to ensure that the new legislation is robust and workable. It would have been so much better to have had this document available, even a week ago. I question why it has taken three months to produce. Could it not have taken two months and three weeks to produce so that we had a chance?

4.53 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I thank the Minister who has worked hard in relation to aspects of the Statement. I also thank Sir Brian Follett and Dr Iain Anderson and their teams for their work on the reports that we are discussing.

I too find the timing astonishing. I was used to responding to Welsh Statements in the other place with half-an-hour's notice, but to try to respond to this with little notice will be rather more complex. The publication of this document is important. Section 2 mentions the setting up of a civil contingencies secretariat which is extremely important because it was obvious from the start of the outbreak in 2001 that contingency plans were not in place. This will right that wrong.

Dr Iain Anderson said in his report that there were three key areas: systems, the speed of response, and good science. I want to comment on the systems to which he referred for tackling the outbreak mentioned in the Lessons to be Learned report. Being hands-on in terms of farming, I mention the farming systems. I believe that the farming systems took DEFRA by surprise. DEFRA appeared surprised that they have moved on so much in the past 20 years or so, including the activities of dealers. One needs to study such matters well—perhaps not in the way in which Mao Tse-Tung did by putting bureaucrats on farms, a comment which I see the Minister appreciates—and more in-depth knowledge of farming and farming systems would help a great deal. When a body is

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appointed to look at the situation, I sincerely hope that there will be adequate input from those with practical farming backgrounds, so that the matter will be treated with in-depth knowledge and so that it can head off certain misunderstandings that have occurred in the middle of outbreaks.

There is a section on funding for animal health research and on teaching and research. The Minister knows that we took great care to bring that forward in debates on the Animal Health Bill. I am also concerned about the State Veterinary Service and, in my view, the inadequate number of state vets. Had more such vets been in place at the start of the outbreak, matters may have progressed better. In welcoming the increased funding of, in particular, research, I remind the Minister that in 1983 Pirbright had 13 vets, but by 2001 it had only four. I hope that all those wrongs will be put right to ensure that in future we shall have a proper contingency plan for Pirbright so that it can function properly immediately an outbreak occurs.

I want to refer to a number of other issues. The Statement addresses the issue of imports which is particularly welcome to me. I thank the Minister for appearing to have accepted the amendment on imports and the methods of dealing with it that are in the Bill. I am grateful to him for that.

Clearly if Her Majesty's Customs and Excise is to be the overall organisation, we need to know what extra resources will be required to ensure that it is an effective organisation with personnel and technology that can tackle the matter. As far as I can see, at the moment there is one video and two dogs tackling the problem. I am sure that that will be put right by the organisation, but speed is necessary. That is an important point.

There is also the vexed matter of animal movement controls that we exhaustively debated on Monday under the 20-day standstill rules. If new rules are to come into effect in February—16 months after the last case of foot and mouth disease—that is a matter for criticism. We need to know whether the Government, as they say in the Statement, will use other methods of movement control following a reduction of the 20 days and it is important to know what kind of controls they will be.

I know of one case where animals arrive on one farm that is 25 miles from another farm owned by the same farmer, but standstill occurs also on the farm 25 miles away. That kind of situation is a nonsense and at the moment makes farming almost impossible.

The animal welfare situation is important. The majority of farmers adhere strongly to animal welfare. But I wish that to be pursued in the case of the rotten eggs in the bottom of the barrel, and there are one or two. The whole farming industry should not be criticised for them.

I am particularly anxious that the National Assembly for Wales and the Farmers Union of Wales are consulted fully on these matters. In terms of the national movement ban, which is immediate when an outbreak occurs—and I welcome that as being

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sensible—I should like to know what the strategy will be. I would like to know what the parameters will be—for example, a 10-kilometre radius around infected farms—and the whole issue of European Union rules and what impact they may have on this particular Statement.

I believe that there is a necessary sharing of burdens regarding this matter. In particular, there has to be a sharing between the Government in terms of DEFRA, the scientific community and the farmers. At the moment, the farmers shoulder nearly all the burden. I am sure that the Minister will enlighten us and demonstrate how this can be evened out in the future so that we all share our responsibilities.

5.6 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords opposite for their comments. I have five minutes in which to reply. As regards vaccination, there is a significant change in approach. People have to understand that it will not replace the culling of diseased animals, animals on the premises and dangerous contacts, which were a significant proportion of the animals killed last time. It is following that that we look at emergency vaccination as a tool. That will require clearing some of the difficulties before we can fully implement it.

The noble Baroness asked about devolution of decisions. The general strategy will be determined centrally but implemented locally. With a range of tactics available, some decisions will be taken locally. The noble Baroness also asked about Customs and Excise taking over the range of responsibilities for control of illegal imports. Some details need to be sorted out but it is intended that that will take place as rapidly as possible next year.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, asked about resources. In addition to the resources already allocated for personnel and the experiments to which he referred, the spending review has allocated a total over three years of £25 million. The exact division has yet to be determined, but the bulk will be on control of illegal imports.

The noble Lord referred to farming systems and the need to engage farmers in the whole process. That was one of the difficulties last time. There has never been a rehearsal involving all the public authorities, let alone farmers. The intention is to bring farmers into that process so that they are familiar with it and so that we are familiar with farming practices.

As regards the noble Lord's questions about the State Veterinary Service, we will provide adequate funding. The other benefit will be a single line of command with vets, as far as possible, co-located with others. So there would be clear co-ordination of all functions at the regional level.

In relation to the 20-day standstill, which both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord continue to be somewhat critical of—no doubt we shall return to this matter later in the week—the issue of how we have changed the 20-day standstill has not remained the same. We have adapted, in particular, to the autumn

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standstill. But in order to move to a permanent regime we need the full evidence required of us by the Royal Society and Anderson reports. That will be available in outline by the end of the month—in time, therefore, for us to take some decisions on the next big batch of movements in February next year.

The noble Baroness spoke about pyres. We shall have a different hierarchy of disposal. Mass pyres will not form part of our disposal, whatever the level of culling.

As regards research, the noble Baroness asked about the cost of the science advisory group. That is not a significant cost of itself because it consists of key personnel brought together to advise. The substantial expenditure referred to on research is not for the science advisory group. That will be spent in a number of different locations. The science advisory group will primarily be something that can be plugged into the whole control of the disease, but it will be there on a continuous basis before any disease hits us.

The noble Baroness referred to what she said was the delay in this report. In fact the report has been brought forward to ensure that it can be considered in this Session of Parliament. The reports were made in July. Those noble Lords who demanded a full-scale legalistic public inquiry will recognise that we would not have received the results of that inquiry by now, let alone the government response to that inquiry. We are therefore somewhat ahead of where many noble Lords were urging me to be only a few months ago. We have a detailed inquiry, plus government commitments on organisational change and on resources, plus a whole new approach to the Government's relationship with the farming and other interests involved should we ever be faced with this dreadful disease again.


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