|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I am glad that the earlier attempts to spin the blame for the foot and mouth disease outbreak on to Merial have been discredited. It seems to me that the staff at Pirbright have tried over some years to draw attention to the situation that led to this outbreak and that the blame must be laid solely at the door of Defra. The Minister has said that the investigations all show that the drainage system was the most likely route for the escape of the virus. Can the Minister comment on whether the lessons of Pirbright will be carried through the Governments establishments? Experience tells me that if matters are arranged in a certain way on one government complex, they are likely to be duplicated in others. Can he assure me that all facilities which deal with material harmful to people, animals or the environment will be checked to ensure that any similar drainage systems are replaced as quickly as possible in order to separate storm water from effluent that may be contaminated? Is he able to report to the House which establishments pose such risks and what action has been taken?
In earlier times, I was involved with horticultural establishments not unlike the Institute of Animal Health which lies at the centre of this crisis. The new build is impressive, the technology is first-class, but maintenance is frequently considered a Cinderella. The Treasury induces a penny-pinching approach to the proper maintenance of public assets. What private company would have ignored the connection between biohazardous waste and the rainwater system? When this was made known, how is it that the Government could consider it more important to argue over who would pay to put it right than recognising the danger and doing something about it?
The Minister referred also to the bluetongue outbreak. This second body-blow to the farming industry is capable of being far more damaging than the largely contained FMD outbreak. I hope that we will see Defra contain bluetongue as effectively and as efficiently, and ease the restrictions as quickly, as it did with foot and mouth. Newark livestock market is not far off 100 miles from the centre of the outbreak of this second crippling disease. It finds itself, however, only 100 metres within the zone and is, as such, effectively closed. I cannot see that this is in the public interest. I hope the Minister will attend to this issue without delay.
Are there any proposals to compensate farmers with animals afflicted with bluetongue, which could, if the Belgian experience is anything to go by, be the
8 Oct 2007 : Column 46
The sad story of this summers FMD outbreak is one of a series of disasters for Defra and one of huge consequences. It is no exaggeration to say that peoples lives have been ruined by Defras negligence. If this sounds angry, I am but reflecting the greater anger that rural communities feel at this whole episode. Where is the shame that the Government should be expressing at their part in this unnecessary tragedy for British livestock farmers? Not even an apology appears in the Statement.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I, too, declare an interest: I own two tenant farms which again have been affected rather badly by the outbreak of FMD, as they were on the previous occasion.
One of the problems faced by upland and lowland farmers is that the outbreak happened at exactly the wrong time of year. The non-movement of animals has been particularly devastating as keeping sheep on the fells or in the off-land means eating into winter feed, which is an added expense. After the wet summer, when many farmers failed to get in adequate supplies of winter feed, this is a double blow.
Much has been mentioned about responsibility for this outbreak. I know that the Minister and many of those working at Defra have worked extremely hard and cannot be held personally to blame for this. However, the biosecurity at Pirbright is an issue that needs to be addressed. Can the Minister say whether it is believed that the cuts that Pirbright has suffered in its funding over the past few years directly led to the situation with biosecurity? There has been a lapse in biosecurity and if it has something to do with the cut in funding it would seem particularly unfair.
The Minister said in the Statement that £8.5 million will be available to hill farmersa move that is much welcomed by hill farmersbut how did he arrive at that figure? It is calculated at 30 per cent of the overall payment, but is it £8.5 million because that is what was in the budget, or is it because £8.5 million has been worked out as the cost that will be faced by the hill farmers? It seems quite unfair that lowland farmers are not also beneficiaries of this.
The Statement says that the Minister is taking constructive steps and that the Government buy meat products. Will the Minister make representations to the MoD because it seems particularly unfortunate that meat produced next to Otterburn training areaa very large upland area for sheep farmingis not immediately sold on to the Army, which buys on the international market and not only on the national market?
I turn now to the issue of information and the excellent work conducted by the NFU through its bulletins. This has been a lifeline to many farmers who want information, especially as there is a feeling in the farming community somewhat against Defra at the moment. Bluetongue has been mentioned. I know this outbreak has spread throughout northern Europe
8 Oct 2007 : Column 47
I hope the Minister will look at the issue of the price of cattle and sheep that went to market straight after the FMD outbreak. There was an immediate drop in price. I hope he will look at whether some of the companies involved were profiteering, and will consider actions that could be taken to guard against that ifalthough I hope it never happensthe next outbreak occurs, because that had a devastating impact on those people outside the area who immediately lost value in their stock.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I thank both noble Lords who during the course of their remarks have paid tribute to the vets and the staff on the ground. There are literally hundreds of people involved in this, including the State Veterinary Serviceor the Animal Health Agency, as it is nowand the vets from the NFU, the RSPCA, the police and trading standards. There has been a massive effort, which is still going on. We freely acknowledge that the situation could not have been managed by Defra alone. I can virtually commit that each and every one of the recommendations in the executive summary of Professor Andersons report about the lessons from the previous foot and mouth outbreak was followed and has been implemented during this unfortunate outbreak, which, as the Statement says, has happened in somewhat special circumstances.
In early August the deputy chief vet said to me, We will probably never ever get another foot and mouth outbreak like this. It is quite controlled in one area and there is obviously a single source; all the eight outbreaks have been the same strain so it is quite clear that the disease came out of Pirbright somehow. We are not completely certain how, but in all the reports the evidence is that the disease probably came out through that drain, probably because of a loose manhole cover. There had been a lot of flooding on the site. There was also an enormous amount of vehicle movement because there is a £121 million capital programme on the site, so there were lots of lorries on and off the premises. The virus should not have been in the loose-fitting drain in the first placeit should have been killed offbut it was, and it aerosoled out into the air, maybe on to the lorries. It looks as though that was the route out, although one cannot be absolutely certain about it.
I shall try to deal with as many points as possible. What I am about to say is not in any way a defence, but Pirbright is not a government-run laboratory. The CSL at York, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge and the Cefas laboratories at Lowestoft and Weymouth are government-run, but Pirbright is not. The Institute for Animal Health is not government-run; it has its own financial structure and is accountable to the Science Council, while Merial is a private sector company. The Government are a massive customer of the IAH, and there is an organised split between the diseases dealt with by the IAH and by the VLA at Weybridge. It pays not to have all your eggs in one
8 Oct 2007 : Column 48
The facilities needed dealing with, hence the massive programme. I have not visited Pirbright; in fact, I was due to visit it as part of taking on animal health after the reshuffle. I was warned that I must go on a certain day, because I needed five days clearance after I had been there before I could go off on my weeks walking holiday, although in the event I could not go. So there were procedures in place. Anyone who reads Professor Spratts report will know, however, that the site is shot through with lack of care and attention to biosecurity, and we have accepted all of the reports recommendations.
Facilities are being checked around the country. I cannot give Members reports from the laboratories concerned because the checks are being undertaken now. Several laboratories work with pathogen categories 3 and 4, both animal and human, and all of them are being checked. Although the drains were identified as an outlet at Pirbright, we need to check all possible avenues of infection.
We could have done without bluetongue, but we were expecting itDefra has received weather forecasts virtually every day for some 18 months. I saw the map of a plume of midges and was told that it could have been responsible. We now know that two plumes that came across the Channel on 22 July, 27 July or 4 August may have brought the virus. We updated and published a bluetongue action plan in late July/early August, when the House went into Recess. The disease is totally different from foot and mouth; it cannot be controlled by slaughter, which is why we do not slaughter the animals concerned. It is true that we slaughtered the first few animals that we identified as being infected, but once it was confirmed that the disease was circulating, it was clear that slaughter was not an option. I recognise that slaughter raises issues of compensation: where we slaughter, we compensate; where we do not slaughter, we do not compensate. Those rules are part of plan. I cannot expand on the matter today.
The boundaries between the current zones containing markets and abattoirsone can see them on maps; they are being regularly updatedare a problem. After two days of the Labour Party conference I had had enough and came back early last weekit was an interesting two days; I must not complain. Due to the bluetongue outbreak, I came back to meet farmers from Norfolk and Suffolk at the NFUs offices in Newmarket and visit farms. It was explained to me that East Anglia is a large cattle and sheep area, but does not have massive abattoir capacity. Some big farms thereI have in mind four companies, but I shall not name themhave contracts that stipulate traceability, so they want to use the same abattoir. I understand that situation; it is an important part of the process. We are looking into the possibility of licensing areas on the boundary or
8 Oct 2007 : Column 49
It has been a bad time of year for the outbreak to occur, particularly in the uplands. More than a million sheep in upland Scotland and Wales would have gone to slaughter and to export, but there is now little market for them in this country. I mean no criticism when I say that the fact that the outbreak occurred while the House was in Recess was in some ways a blessing, because Ministers were not forced to pontificate and speculate daily. Part of the action plan, based on lessons from the previous foot and mouth outbreak, is to make sure that resources are available and that scientists and vets are in charge, taking decisions that are based on the science and not on political pressures. It was crucial that that part of the plan operated. The House being in Recess facilitated it.
How was the figure of £8.5 million arrived at? Discussions took place. The payment is not forward of the hill farm allowance; it just so happens that it is about 30 per cent of what English hill farmers had. The payment has already been made. We wanted to get money to the most seriously affected farmers. All farmers have been badly affected by the outbreaklet us make no bones about itbut those in the hills have suffered particularly because, without question, they cannot diversify as easily as elsewhere. Owing to the way in which we pay the hill farm allowance, we have a list of addresses and know exactly what was paid earlier this year. We hope to make the payments before the end of this month. We will ask other government departments to encourage home purchase in this difficult period. I appreciate that they are wary of their accountants, but we sometimes have to ask them to think about human beings as well.
I pay tribute to the work of the NFU and all those who have given out information. The website and the maps are constantly updated in Defra and we always encourage people to look at that. All the announcements are therebut the work on the ground of the RSPCA and the NFU, as well as the local authorities, has been absolutely crucial.
Work is going on on a vaccine for bluetongue, as the House knows, but it is not available at present. It may take more than a cold snap to affect the situation. I am told that it may take four months of continuous hard winterand then it may carry over in cattle, rather than the midges. At the present time, when I checked at midday today, the figure was 30 cases, which are still confined to the same area. The disease is mainly occurring in the Ipswich area, although there is the outbreak near Lowestoft as well. However, as the Statement says, now that the House is back we shall do our best to keep the House informed, as we have tried to keep colleagues informed throughout the whole of the outbreak, both in this House and the elected Members in the other place.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister has just mentioned making decisions based on science. Could he explain why Pirbright itself was not made the first infected premises? We knew that no animals
8 Oct 2007 : Column 50
I understand that a lot of construction work has been going on at the Pirbright premises, as is mentioned in the report. Lorries, JCBs and all sorts of vehicles were going on and off the premises without being sprayed as they went out. There seems to have been a very poor quality of record-keeping as to where all those vehicles went. Rumour has it that some lorries were taking topsoil from Pirbright and delivering it to people for their gardens. Can the Minister say anything about that?
As for bluetongue, there have been reports of outbreaks on the Continent, where animal welfare has been put in jeopardy because people cannot afford to pay to have their animals put down. That particularly applies to sheep, which I gather suffer the most. Will the Minister consider either assisting farmers with the cost of euthanising their animalsvets fees are pretty expensive, if you call a vet out to put an animal downor having a team of people who are prepared to come out and euthanise the animals, so that the animals do not suffer and farmers do not have to watch their animals dying because they cannot afford to have them put down?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot answer precisely the initial question asked by the noble Countess with regard to Pirbright and the control zone, but I assure her that when I was telephoned on Fridayand I was not in the country at the timeI was informed that the location of that first outbreak was incredibly close to Pirbright. In other words, the connection had been made virtually as the analysis was being done. Even then, that may well have been locking the stable door. I have not previously referred to this, but when the foot and mouth disease came back again in a third, fourth and fifth outbreak, it is clear from all the evidence that we have that the fifth was not in fact the fifth but at least the thirdand it may have been earlier than that. The disease was not reported and the lesions were up to four weeks old in some cases. The chronology is still being worked on by epidemiologists.
On bluetongue, I do not discount the distress of farmers but at the moment there are only 30 cases and one hopes that it will not spread. The disease does affect sheep very badly, but the bluetongue planwhich we updated and published in late July or early Augustwas agreed with the industry. There was no surprise about this; we had been getting ready for bluetongue for a while. We know what happened in Belgium, where it was rampant before it was discovered. We have the unique situation, because of the movement ban of foot and mouth, of being able to know more about how it may spread. I assure the noble Countess that dozens of scientists and vets are working on this at present. They are in the unique position of being able to find out more about how bluetongue spreads in a way in which they were unable to do in Germany and Belgium.
Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, the Minister mentioned his visit to Newmarket to talk to farmers from Norfolk and Suffolk who are of course affected by the restrictions imposed as a result of bluetongue. He will therefore be in no doubt at all about the unworkability of the present restrictions. Everybody understands what the Government have to do, but the fact is that there is no slaughtering capacity for the animals within East Anglia. Will the Minister this afternoon sketch out how he thinks plans for dealing with bluetongue might be developed, in altering the zones or whatever it might be? He has hinted that changes are being looked at. Is he in any position at all to enlarge on that?
Lord Rooker: No, my Lords, because then I would be making exactly the same mistake as happened in the last foot and mouth outbreak. As the Minister, I am not qualified to do that. We are aware in Defra at all levels, officials and Ministers, of the difficulties here and staff are looking at this issue as I speak. We are having daily reports on animal welfare and all the issues relating to this. I counted the list one day and there are 42 separate bodies reporting in, both from Defra and external. The welfare one is important, and the mapping one is absolutely crucial.
Our plan is to collapse the zones as quickly as we possibly can, for both foot and mouth and bluetongue. There is no doubt about that; it is in everybodys interests. I have just seen a small map that was brought to my office, which I have not brought into the Chamber with me because I could not really have used it as we cannot use overhead projectors here, which shows where the small abattoirs are in East Anglia. It is not that there are none, but the capacity is not there for the animals. In the main, large numbers of animals in East Anglia go to Devon, Wales and Lincolnshire for slaughter, because they are going to dedicated slaughterhouses for the contracts that those farmers have. That is important. Therefore, there was never a reason commercially to build up the abattoirs; the smaller ones are there but, clearly, we have to do somethingeither to license abattoirs or look at the zones. Both those issues are under active consideration. That I can say.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister as it is every Defra Ministers nightmare to have a foot and mouth outbreak and the introduction of bluetongue into this country. I have three points to make.
First, on the question of compensation, to my knowledge lambs have been selling at at least £10 a head less than they were at the same time last yearand I think that is probably an underestimate. There have been no reductions in price whatever in the supermarkets. There is still an enormous mark-up. Someone, somewhere, in the middle of the food chain, is making an awful lot of money. Will the Government please address that question? If the retail price at the supermarkets was lower, consumption would go up, which would help to solve some of the problems.
Secondly, on Pirbright and the Institute for Animal Health, it seems wrong to me, as a scientist, that there is a research institute and a commercial company on
8 Oct 2007 : Column 52
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|