With permission, I wish to make a statement about the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
As my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman reported on 21 February, the first case of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom for 20 years was confirmed on the evening of last Tuesday, 20 February, in pigs at an abattoir and in cattle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex. The number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease rose to nine this morning; two further cases, bringing the total to 11, have been confirmed early this afternoon.
Today"s cases are, first, in sheep at Hatherleigh near Okehampton in Devon at another farm in the same ownership as the one confirmed yesterday; at Bromham near Chippenham in Wiltshire, in sheep at an abattoir that received animals from the Devon source; in a farm between the two cases in Northumberland, which is likely to have been windborne spread; and at a farm near the Welsh border in Herefordshire, which had also received sheep from Devon. Infected area restrictions are being imposed. A decision was taken at lunchtime today to kill the remaining animals on the several premises in Devon under the same ownership, and on one neighbouring farm, as dangerous contacts.
Investigations are continuing into a number of other premises where there is reason to believe that there may be disease. The Government"s overriding priority is the containment and eradication of this disease. On 21 February, the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission acted swiftly to prohibit temporarily the export of live animals, meat, fresh milk and other animal products from the UK. Given the acutely infectious nature of foot and mouth disease, that was a necessary step in helping to prevent the spread of the disease to other countries. We are able to export non-susceptible animals and their products, provided that they meet certain conditions and are accompanied by veterinary certificates. Appropriate certificates are now available for issue from MAFF animal health offices.
We immediately ceased issuing export health certificates for export to third countries for any animals or products which cannot also be exported to other European Union member states. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that that applies whether or not the import conditions for a given country would allow us to export. We are urgently tracing all exports of foot and mouth disease susceptible animals from areas under suspicion to other member states since 1 February, but before the export ban came into effect. The European Commission has been kept informed at every stage, along with our EU partners. I shall be updating the Council of Agriculture Ministers tomorrow. In particular, we advised the German authorities of a consignment of sheep from the Devon outbreak, and those sheep were slaughtered by the German authorities yesterday.
Some of the cases have been on premises which are associated with substantial movements of animals. The confirmation of the cases in Northumberland on Friday 23 February showed that the disease was not confined to Essex, and had been in the country longer than had at first been apparent. In those new circumstances, the chief veterinary officer advised that stringent controls were needed. After discussion with the food and farming industries, and with the devolved Administrations, I announced later on Friday 23 February that there should be a seven day standstill of livestock movements throughout Great Britain. That exceptional measure was imposed at 5 pm on Friday, and is due to expire at midnight on Friday 2 March.
The Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency have confirmed that foot and mouth disease has no implications for human health or food. The disease causes serious loss of condition, and therefore commercial value, to the main farmed animal species of cattle, pigs and sheep. The presence of disease also blocks our export markets. The disease is highly infectious between animals and it can be transmitted by movements of people and vehicles. Unlike classical swine fever, which we had to deal with in East Anglia last year, it is carried through the air.
Firm control measures had to be taken. The Government are well aware of the disruption that the temporary controlled area in Great Britain has caused to farming, the food chain and the wider rural community. I pay tribute to the responsible approach that the industry and the public are taking. During the course of this week, the state veterinary service, under the chief veterinary officer, will continue its huge task of tracing and controlling the disease. It has been assured of all of the resources that it needs for that task. The Government are calling on the private veterinary profession and other countries" state veterinary services for assistance.
Baroness Hayman, the Minister of State, will be meeting industry and veterinary representatives tomorrow with the chief veterinary officer. Among other matters, they will discuss whether it is possible, consistent with a rigorous approach to the control of disease, to allow for some tightly controlled movement of livestock for slaughter. Consideration is also being given to the temporary closure of footpaths and rights of way. We are keeping in the closest touch with retailers and food producers to ensure that there should be no serious disruption to food supplies. I am grateful to consumers who have, as I requested, continued their normal pattern of buying.
The House will know that the policy of successive Governments has been that compensation is paid only for animals which are slaughtered for disease control purposes—in the case of foot and mouth disease, at full market value. Foot and mouth disease presents a relatively clear clinical picture. Incubation periods tend to be short. I therefore hope that the movement restrictions necessary for disease control will not have to be too protracted.
The Government are determined to eliminate this disease. My ministerial team, my Department"s staff and I will give this work the highest priority. I welcome the firm support that we have received from the industry, people throughout the country, our European partners, and others further afield in our efforts to do so.
I welcome the Minister"s statement. I am grateful to him for letting me have a copy of it about 45 minutes ago.
This matter is extremely serious. I am sure that every Member will join me in expressing profound sympathy for farmers who are affected and in the front line of the crisis, and full support for everyone who is involved in the struggle to contain the disease.
The Opposition will give full backing to all the measures that are needed to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease, to assist livestock farmers through the crisis, to maintain food supplies and to restore export markets. We fully support the steps that have already been taken by the Government. I join the Minister in recognising the work of the state veterinary service, other vets and the many other people who have been under great pressure. It is likely that the work will have to continue for some time.
Will the Minister make it clear, at least in principle, that the Government recognise the problems of farmers who cannot move animals off their farms? Given the confirmation in his statement of further cases of foot and mouth disease, can he confirm that the seven day standstill of animal movements announced on Friday is likely to have to be extended? Does he appreciate that cashflow problems for many farmers will quickly become extremely acute? What help does he expect to offer those farmers and when is it likely that he will be able to make an announcement about such help? Does he agree that the £200 million of unclaimed agrimonetary compensation on the table in Brussels, much of which is due to the livestock sector, should be claimed in full immediately?
Containment is clearly the top priority, but understanding how foot and mouth disease came to Britain is crucial if the risk of a recurrence is to be minimised. What steps are the Government taking to identify the source of the outbreak? If it appears that the source was imported meat, is the right hon. Gentleman ready to tighten controls on imports? Is he able to confirm reports that the unit in Northumberland was feeding pigs on swill, and bought its supplies from airports whose own sources may have been overseas?
I endorse the Minister"s advice to the public to avoid visiting livestock farming areas. Reports over the weekend suggest that not everyone has heeded that advice. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to conclude his consideration of whether action can be taken temporarily to suspend the use of footpaths and close rights of way. The Opposition will strongly support such moves. If parliamentary action is needed, we shall give it as fast a tract as we reasonably can.
Does the Minister agree that the crisis is sufficiently important to warrant an urgent debate in Parliament? It is a pity that the Government have not seen fit to change their business this week. I can announce that the Opposition will use half of our day on Wednesday for a debate on the matter to provide an opportunity to explore the subject in more detail.
Does the Minister agree also that the industry is too weak to survive such a crisis without urgent help? Does he recognise that the heartbreaking prospect for many farmers is not only the loss of their livelihood, but the destruction of their life"s work? Does he understand that the risk of human tragedies in these circumstances is real? Will he therefore assure the House that no stone will be left unturned in tackling the threat that faces one of Britain"s most important industries?
That is a very welcome change of tone from the hon. Gentleman. I confirm that no measure will be left untaken and no stone left unturned in suppressing foot and mouth disease. The Government"s policy is to contain the disease and then to eradicate it.
I do not welcome the idea of an urgent debate. It will divert both ministerial resources and scarce veterinary resources from the front line that is bearing down on the disease—[Interruption.] This Opposition have just said that they will do everything they can to help the Government to suppress the disease. If their idea of helping is to divert resources, including ministerial time, from dealing with the disease outbreak to dealing with a parliamentary debate, I am glad that they are not setting out to disrupt us—[Interruption.]
On the question whether we will close the—[Interruption.]
It is absolutely disgraceful that the Opposition should try to shout down a Minister who is trying to respond to questions that they raised under the pretence of trying to help, but with every intention of gaining party political advantage from what ought to be an issue that unites us all in the national interest.
On access to the countryside, as I said in my statement, we are considering taking legal action to close rights of way temporarily.
On our understanding of the origin of the infection, I have already said in public that I have asked officials, first, to type the strain and give Ministers a list of potential sources if they cannot narrow it down to one; secondly, to consider whether our control measures are being enforced adequately—clearly, the law is firm but the question is whether controls are being enforced adequately; and thirdly, to examine the way in which the food chain works nowadays, with intensive farming and just-in-time delivery, and to consider whether that makes us more vulnerable to disease.
On compensation for consequential losses, no Government have ever paid compensation for consequential losses. The previous Government did not; the present Government have not, except where animal welfare issues were involved in the recent outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia. The question of agrimonetary compensation is a separate one and is being considered separately.
As for future movement restrictions, of course that issue is being kept under review. As I pointed out in my statement, it is likely that the regime will have to be reshaped, and, subject to veterinary advice, that will happen.
I have to tell the House that I have just had a twelfth case confirmed to me—a further Devon case, which is linked to the farm near Okehampton.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on moving so quickly and comprehensively to freeze livestock movements. Does he agree with the British Veterinary Association that vaccination is not currently a viable policy? Vaccinated animals carry the virus, so all susceptible animals would have to be vaccinated repeatedly. That would mean that the disease would become endemic and would block exports from this country to a large section of the world.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the outbreak is further evidence of the importance of a well-equipped state veterinary service? Does he recall that under the Conservatives, between 1992 and 1997 the number of state vets was allowed to fall by about a third? Will he make it his objective in the medium to long term to restore the state veterinary service to its previous strength?
I have pledged to the chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, all the resources that he needs to contain the outbreak, and he assures me that he is getting the resources that he needs.
On vaccination, I am advised not just by the chief vet, but by the National Farmers Union, the livestock industry and the major processors and retailers, that they would not welcome the use of vaccination to control the disease, rather than the use of movement restrictions, quarantine and extinction. There are two reasons for that: we would lose our export markets for a very long time, and we would be acknowledging that we had foot and mouth disease here in the United Kingdom. Our intention is not to acknowledge that it is here, but to exterminate it and get back to our disease-free status.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for his usual courtesy in providing an advance copy.
I have a few questions. The ban on livestock movement will expire this Friday. What regime of controls is the right hon. Gentleman considering to follow the present ban? On the importation of food supplies, is he satisfied that food is being imported from foot and mouth disease-free countries? What consideration is he giving to banning the importation of food from countries that are known to have endemic foot and mouth disease?
Will he comment on the position of farmers with cattle that are approaching 30 months of age? Such farmers may have significant problems in respect of the over-30-months scheme. If they are prevented from selling cattle that are currently of 29 months of age, they will suffer considerable loss when those animals are more than 30-months-old. Finally, who has overall decision-making responsibility within the United Kingdom, bearing in mind the devolved responsibilities? What liaison is under way with Scotland in particular?
The devolved authorities and the Ministry are working closely together and are devising common approaches. Before any change is made, we speak at official level and, if necessary, consult on the telephone at ministerial level. What the hon. Gentleman said about the over-30-months scheme is true and we are keeping the matter under review. I cannot promise a relaxation of the regime to deal immediately with animals that are caught by the current circumstances, but I have it at the forefront of my mind. When veterinary authorities tell me that is possible to relax movement restrictions, that will be a priority for consideration.
On the question of food imports, it is already unlawful to import from an area where foot and mouth disease is endemic any product that might bear the virus. On livestock movements, although I cannot make a comprehensive statement to the House today, I can say two things: there is bound to be a successor regime
following the expiry of the present regime this Friday, and I am considering how it should be shaped and what exceptions should be allowed.
May I join those who have said how awful this tragedy is, not only for farmers but for all those who live in the countryside? My right hon. Friend has the support of men and women of good will for the rigorous manner in which he has approached the situation. That is clearly the right way forward. I have two brief questions. First, will my right hon. Friend ensure that every facility is made available to local authority trading standards officers, who are responsible for monitoring the movement books for cattle and other animals? Secondly, will he reconsider the issue of imported feedstuffs? I understand what the regulations say, but there is a feeling in the farming community that they have not always been adhered to.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. We have been inundated with expressions of support for the approach that we are taking—expressions that have come even from those who are most affected by it. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of the work of trading standards officers. Of course, they are employed by local authorities, but we are in touch with their central co-ordinating body and they will be present at our meeting tomorrow with other interested parties. On imported feed, I have asked for work to be done to consider whether our enforcement of the current rules is as rigorous as it should be, or whether there is some other area that we need to address. The continuing inquiries into the source of the outbreak will inform that trawl of the regulations.
The Minister will understand the great shock in my constituency and the fear within the local farming community, which has been reinforced by the billowing smoke that is over Warley. Over the weekend, I spoke to Mr. Gemmel, a farmer who is one of the victims of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. He is showing great restraint and dignity while seeing his life"s work destroyed. I spoke a short time ago to Mr. Cheal, the owner of the abattoir, who is working to eradicate the disease. He commends to the Minister and the House the sharp-eyed veterinary officer who spotted it. If that had not happened, the outbreak would undoubtedly have been more serious.
A couple of lessons can be learned from farmers in my constituency. The Minister will recall that I rang his office on Friday to ask that farms in the immediate vicinity receive information and advice. I am pleased to say that they have now done so. I hope that that is now commonplace where outbreaks occur. Unhappiness was expressed over the weekend because the Ministry website, the prime source of information, had not been updated. I am pleased that that has now happened.
Farmers in my constituency, especially those affected by the restrictions, stressed that the nature of farming has changed since 1967. Much diversification has happened into, for example, farm shops. Such activities are affected by movement restrictions. The problem that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) raised is therefore acute. I hope that, when examining the new regime which will replace the current system on Friday, the Minister will carefully consider that problem and realise that farming in Essex is on a knife edge.
The hon. Gentleman makes four fair points. He is right that farmers and abattoir owners are the victims, not the cause, of the problem. They deserve sympathy and support, not blame. The best thing that the Government can do is to eliminate foot and mouth disease and help return the industry to normal trading as quickly as possible.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman"s comments about sharp-eyed vets and abattoir workers. Their prompt action in alerting the Ministry may well have helped contain the spread of the terrible condition, and the hon. Gentleman is right to praise them.
I want to provide information as quickly as possible and to be candid with the public. Circumstances are changing quickly, and there is a great hunger in the media for information. We are therefore holding regular briefings to tell them how matters have advanced. The media provide information immediately and everything that is said is broadcast at once. Many people may well find out about developments for the first time through the media. That is the way of the modern world. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the National Farmers Union and other interested parties get information as quickly as possible. However, the media tend to get there first nowadays—and that applies not only in the circumstances that we are discussing.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the prompt and rigorous action that he and his officials have taken, not only in the United Kingdom but with our European partners, to try to counteract the deadly and frightening outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Does he recognise " that all reasonable people, not only in the House but throughout the country and especially in farming communities, will strongly support the measures that he has to pursue, however widespread they may become, to eliminate the sources of the infection? Will he refuse to be deflected by Opposition calls to take action on compensation that the Conservatives never took when in government?
Will my right hon. Friend pursue with Ben Gill, the president of the NFU —who has shown more statesmanship than the Conservative spokesman ever displayed—and the farming communities and their representatives all necessary action to eliminate foot and mouth disease and thus remove the threat from the thousands of farmers who are living in fear and trepidation?
The approach that my right hon. Friend outlines is right. Everyone contrasts the attitude of the NFU and others who earn their livelihoods in the livestock and food processing sectors with that of those who try to make political capital out of a national tragedy. My right hon. Friend is right to draw the House"s attention to the irony of demands for agrimonetary compensation from a political party that lid not pay a penny when it was in government.
The Minister will realise that the main suspect is a waste food feeder and that that was not the case in the swine fever epidemic. Will he focus attention on that and tell the House when there is something to report? Identifying the cause is crucial.
Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that footpaths and bridlepaths were heavily used in, for example, North Yorkshire at the weekend? The Government should take urgent action to close them, albeit temporarily, and perhaps issue red notices to bring home to people psychologically the importance of what is at stake. Will the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind that farmers have to take their stocks to abattoirs, and that we do not want thousands of trailers running round the countryside trying to deliver livestock? What attention will he give to using some form of collection centres, such as auction marts, where proper disinfectant can be applied and where vehicles that we can be sure cannot transmit the disease can be provided?
On the right hon. Gentleman"s third point, consideration is being given to exactly that matter, and I hope to have something to say on it relatively soon. It is being considered in the context of the way in which the current movement restrictions work. The right hon. Gentleman asked a perfectly fair question about footpaths, and consideration is being given to whether more needs to be done. I am grateful to those members of the public who have heeded my request that they stay away from livestock farms for the time being. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, laws work best when they have consent behind them, but there are obvious questions of enforcement.
Of course, we all want to get to the absolute root cause of the matter, and as I said earlier to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), work is under way in the Ministry to get as close to that as we can. The right hon. Gentleman invites me to say more, but I am afraid that I cannot—at least in part for legal reasons.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anxiety among the people in the west of Newcastle and in southern Northumberland at the events of the past week at Burnside farm, which is partly in my constituency? That anxiety has been fuelled by the further revelation today of a suspected outbreak at Westerhope farm, which is probably almost entirely in my constituency.
There is an overwhelming demand from all those within and outside the farming community that politicians do not bicker about this matter but deal with the real problems. Those people are asking how this could possibly have occurred at this farm in our area. I know what my right hon. Friend said in response to an earlier question, but will he say what time scale will apply to any investigation into the root cause? It has been reported that some of the conditions at Burnside farm partly contributed to the spread of the disease. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether his officials have identified that as a possible reason for the spread?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this should not be a party political issue. Indeed, the entire nation should unite behind the Government in our stated objective of containing and eliminating the outbreak. The farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall is believed to be the farm at which the outbreak has been in the United Kingdom for the longest time and, therefore, as far as we know at the moment, the first source of the disease. Investigations are continuing, and I do not want to say any more on that—again, partly for legal reasons.
It is likely that the spread to the farm in my hon. Friend"s constituency was windborne, and we have placed the area under strict quarantine. By far the best thing we can do is to quarantine the problem, bear down on it and eliminate it, and get back to a disease-free status as quickly as possible. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about the Government"s approach.
There has been a number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in my constituency and, given the parlous state of agriculture, that is a catastrophe for farmers and for many in the allied industries. I have spoken to Mr. Cleave in my constituency a number of times; he tells me that the work of MAFF and the MAFF vets is excellent and wants me to pay tribute to them. Nevertheless, I must raise a number of points on behalf of my constituents.
The first point relates to agrimonetary compensation. The Minister will be aware that all the eligible European Union countries draw that down. We hoped to hear from him a date when the money could be drawn down for our agriculture industry.
My second point concerns consequential loss. There is now much feed and fertiliser that is unusable. Agriculture has lost a great many markets. The market for exporting sheep has disappeared, and towards the end of last week the sheep price was about 30 per cent. less than the day before the announcement. Will the Minister consider some heads of consequential loss, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, for cattle that are nearing the 30-month limit?
My third point is that the compensation that will be due and payable should be paid at once.
Where we have an obligation to pay compensation at 100 per cent., with independent valuation and an arbitration system, we try to get the money out to the farmer as quickly as we can.
Of course I cannot promise compensation for consequential loss—no previous Government have, and I do not believe that any future Government will. Am I taking a hard look at what could be done in the circumstances? Of course I am, and I am especially mindful of the animal welfare consequences, just as I was during the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia. There is a distinction between those farms that have suffered consequential losses as a result of their animals having been purchased and destroyed for disease control reasons—I understand that it is possible to insure against that—and those that are caught by movement restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the condition but are not affected by it themselves. It is harder to get insurance against that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, discussions are continuing between the Ministry and industry representatives, including from the NFU and the National Pig Association, on how we should handle the problem, because I believe that a scheme should be put in place. The discussions arose out of the classical swine fever outbreak.
The key issue on agrimonetary compensation, as always, is that there is not a pot of money waiting in Brussels for me to collect. The problem is not a lack of political will but the fact that 81 per cent. of the cost of the measures comes directly from the United Kingdom taxpayer and has to take its place in the public spending round with competing priorities from other Departments.
Can my right hon. Friend give any details on the situation in Wales, and specifically in north Wales, where there is great anxiety? Does he remember the occasion, a year or more ago, when I brought a deputation of the leadership of the Flintshire NFU to see him? He received them well, discussing matters with them for well over an hour. They have asked me to ask him what help he may give, in any way, shape or form, on loss of earnings, and whether there is to be any compensation, bearing in mind the terrible blow that is now falling on family farms. I express my thanks to him for his reception of the earlier deputation.
My right hon. Friend and the leadership of the NFU in Flintshire did indeed make a very persuasive case, and I am not surprised that he echoes it now. I cannot add anything on Wales to my statement on the current foot and mouth outbreak, which covers the whole of the United Kingdom, not just England.
We have been able to confirm positives relatively swiftly, but it takes longer absolutely to confirm a negative, because the virus could be incubating but not yet showing up in laboratory tests. All the comfort that I can give to my right hon. Friend"s farming constituents today is that we have not had any further positives confirmed, and the passage of time, with continued negative test results, is a cause for hope.
The Minister will be aware of the role it is thought was played by imported meat in the recent outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia. He will also be aware of the huge anxiety in the industry about the effect of illegally imported meat and, indeed, imported meat generally. He will also be aware that the supermarkets and those who speak for the food industry have been saying that there will be no problems for consumers because the shortfall that results from the current restrictions on our domestic industry will be made up by imports of foreign meat.
What measures does the right hon. Gentleman plan to put in place to ensure that there is the greatest hygiene and safety surrounding legally imported meat? He will know how much anxiety farmers and others have about that.
The regulatory regime is essentially the one that I inherited from the right hon. Lady when she was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She will readily understand that the problem is not the regime itself but whether our enforcement of it is working as thoroughly as we who make the laws intend.
It is fair to say that there is a trade problem with import substitution. I am very conscious of that and want to do everything I can to help the domestic industry, consistent with doing the most important thing which, as the right hon. Lady will appreciate, is to isolate and extinguish the disease.
As for imported meat being the root cause of the problem, it is clear to everyone that something imported into this country must be the root cause of the problem because we have had disease-free status for 20 years. The disease has not been hiding somewhere in the United Kingdom, only to emerge suddenly. Precisely where it came from is not known; work is continuing to find a single source, or a range of possible sources, and then to work back and see what new public policy decisions, if any, must be taken to ensure that we block that potential route of infectivity as well.
I, too, commend my right hon. Friend on his prompt action in trying to stop this terrible outbreak. What discussions is he having with the industry on possible insurance-based arrangements for consequential loss?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Discussions were opened with the industry—including, in particular, the NFU and the National Pig Association—as a result of the classical swine fever outbreak. Controlling diseases in pigs necessitates movement restrictions, which may well have to be placed on farms that do not actually have the disease and will never have it. Such restrictions are imposed entirely for reasons of disease containment. Because of the modern ways in which the industry works, that can have economic consequences for the farm businesses.
Who should pay for those losses? I am making it absolutely clear chat it is not the taxpayers" responsibility—no previous Government have ever thought that it was. However, it is fair to consider whether it is the responsibility of the industry as a whole to make some arrangement to compensate farms that are under movement restrictions for the burden that they bear on behalf of the whole of the industry—which, of course, has a vested interest in disease control. Those discussions, which are a result of the classical swine fever outbreak, are continuing.
I am sure that the Minister will sympathise with the two farmers in my constituency who were the innocent victims of the outbreak which, sadly, started at a third farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in my constituency. Both men were reaching retirement age and have seen their life"s work destroyed at a stroke. Those commuting into Newcastle this morning will have had the reality of the situation brought home to them at the sight of the 150 yd long funeral pyre of burning carcases by the main road leading into the city.
An animal welfare group based near Norwich first reported this farm and the conditions on it in mid-December. That led to an investigation by the RSPCA, but I understand that no further action was taken. There were subsequent visits to the farm by Northumberland trading standards officers and MAFF officials, yet nothing was done about the conditions at the time. Will the Minister thoroughly investigate that situation?
I have looked into that last point. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when veterinary officials inspected the farm, there was no trace of disease in the farmed animals. The chief veterinary officer has satisfied himself that that is the case. Nor were any welfare infringements discovered. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the inspection was made primarily for welfare and environmental reasons, rather than for reasons of disease control.
The hon. Gentleman"s constituents have my sympathy, and that of every right-minded person, for what they are being put through. He is absolutely right to say that the huge blaze at the edge of the motorway last night and in the early hours of this morning provided a highly visual reminder to those travelling into Newcastle of the consequences of this terrible outbreak.
I am appealing to members of the public to avoid unnecessary visits to farm premises, regardless of the reason or justification for them. As for the remainder of my hon. Friend"s remarks, I shall ensure that they are passed on to those who take more interest in those matters than I can.
Will the Minister re-emphasise that he understands that we face not just an economic catastrophe for rural industries and a financial disaster for individual farmers, but a growing animal welfare problem, since beasts that should be at the slaughterhouse are accumulating on farms? How optimistic is the Minister that the discussions that he has mentioned will lead to controlled transportation—perhaps under licence; certainly supervised by the Meat Hygiene Service—from individual farm to slaughterhouse so that we can get the food chain moving again?
I welcome the statement made by the Minister on "Breakfast with Frost" yesterday that, if they remain disease free, the countries of Scotland and Northern Ireland could have the ban lifted early. What time scale do he and his colleagues envisage for that most desirable objective?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it may be possible at some future stage, although we most certainly have not reached that stage now, to regionalise the ban. The initial beneficiaries of such an approach would clearly be those areas that could demonstrate to our trading partners that they were free of foot and mouth disease and that measures were in place to keep them so. I have an open mind on whether that would be the correct approach for us to take. We shall have to see how the disease develops, since further cases from the primary source may remain to be reported. However, we may very well end up taking that approach.
On the food chain, I am conscious of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. I hope to be able to make an announcement soon, by which I mean within a matter of days. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that any responsible Government would want to keep animal welfare consequences closely under review. We must balance animal welfare considerations with disease control considerations, but disease control must be the priority. If it is necessary to find an alternative route by which to deal with animal welfare problems, the Government will have to do so.
May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decisive action?
Farmers in Cornwall tell me that they are unable to obtain disinfectant. Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is an emerging problem, and will he act to resolve it?
The issue of disinfectant supplies was raised with me by the president of the NFU earlier today, and I am asking for urgent inquiries to be made to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of materials essential to helping control the outbreak.
Does the Minister accept that farmers in my constituency, who are deeply apprehensive about the current position, will have been appalled to hear him say that, because the Government have to contribute 80 per cent. agrimonetary compensation, even with the massive war chest that they have built up by stealth taxes, they will not make that money available to farmers?
Secondly, on the legal reasons that the Minister mentioned, does he agree that, if there is any responsibility or any question of negligence on the part of officials as regards the place in Northumberland where the initial outbreak occurred, those officials should not invoke Crown immunity, and that consequential loss could thus be payable?
The hon. Gentleman is on to entirely the wrong point, given the thrust of his final question. As for his first question, he should tell his constituents that the Labour Government have paid out about £630 million in agrimonetary compensation. The previous Conservative Government, whom he did not support as enthusiastically as he might have done, paid nothing at all in agrimonetary compensation. The state of the public finances is the result of good stewardship by the Labour Government; it ill behoves the Conservative party to tell us how such money should be spent.
I visited the MAFF website today, to find out what a pig infected with foot and mouth disease looked like—its snout looked very strange indeed. It is intriguing that the farmer at the centre of this—at the farm in Northumberland—was unable to spot the virus for so long. Is my right hon. Friend happy that farmers nationwide know how to spot the symptoms of this and other diseases? If they cannot do so, what educational programmes is he putting in place to ensure that such a horrific disease never takes hold again because of the ignorance of the people who should be looking after the animals?
We have not had the disease in this country for 20 years, so many people will not have seen it. The disease is called foot and mouth disease because that is the literal description of its early symptoms. As for the other matters that my hon. Friend raises, I hope he will understand that I do not answer them for pretty obvious reasons.
Will the Minister pay tribute to the organisers of the countryside rally that was due to take place on 18 March on taking the sensible decision to postpone that march? That could not have been an easy decision, but it is the right one in the circumstances.
The Minister says that he is not prepared to consider any consequential compensation. Does he accept that many abattoirs and auction markets throughout the country are currently operating at the margins? If they fall through, that could have even more damaging consequences for this country"s agriculture industry once foot and mouth disease is completely eradicated.
I am looking at what we can do to help, but I cannot, on behalf of the taxpayer, accept an open-ended commitment to compensate for the consequential losses arising from an outbreak of animal disease and the steps that the Government have to take to control it.
I have not requested the postponement of the countryside march, but I pay tribute to the organisers for having postponed it as a contribution to the national effort to control this foot and mouth outbreak. I congratulate them on the decision that they have made.
Many contributions to this discussion have highlighted the cashflow problems for farmers and those in other sectors of the farming industry. Can we look at that matter, rather than compensation, as a key priority? It might be possible to consider ways in which loans and advances against future moneys payable into the sector could be brought forward so as to assist people who are currently in desperate trouble.
In the longer term, once we have eradicated this disease, may I urge my right hon. Friend to reflect on whether we need to examine further the mechanisms currently in place—intensive farming and increasingly large abattoirs that are ever further apart—and the possible contribution of such methods to the rapid spread of this disease?
I have already asked for the work that my hon. Friend requests—on whether current structures in the industry make us more vulnerable—to be done. He is absolutely right to ask for an examination of such matters, and he is also absolutely right to want to help. I have to be mindful of the state aid rules and of the cost to the British taxpayer of any commitment that I make, but I want to help and am looking very carefully at what the Government can properly do.
Does the Minister recognise the devastating impact that the outbreaks could have on such a prime livestock-producing area as Northumberland? Although he cannot make an open-ended commitment, will he consider the interdependence of those farmers who are affected by the movement restrictions and the hauliers, traders and other rural businesses, whom he must take into account in future measures because of the outbreak"s effects? Although he cannot now comment on the rumours about whether airport pigswill was used in this case, surely we must be certain that no airport or ship docking place anywhere in the country will provide pigswill or other animal feed now that the seriousness of the matter has been recognised.
The right hon. Gentleman is right; I must not comment on the specific case. More generally, he is absolutely right to point out the dangers to farmers in Northumberland and elsewhere. I am considering what I can do to help. A number of avenues are open to the Government, and I hope to have more to say about that in the future.
It always comes as a surprise to some hon. Members to hear that there are farms in my constituency. Earlier today, I spoke to Mr. Ian Frood, who is a farmer and an NFU regional organiser for the area. He put to me points similar to those made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) about information and stressed how important it is that MAFF officials locally keep the NFU fully informed because they are better placed with local farmers to do away with the kind of rumours that circulate in these circumstances.
A further issue was raised with me by a farmer in my constituency. Today, a national newspaper reporter walked through his farm and knocked on his front door to ask questions about the outbreak, even though he is in an area where no cattle can be moved. That is completely irresponsible. My constituent did not take my advice and hose the reporter down with disinfectant, but, given the problems that we face, would it not be wise for reporters to realise that the best story for farmers is that there are no new outbreaks, and that all reporters and members of the public should act with the utmost responsibility?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. I have already appealed to print journalists and those in the broadcast media to stay away from farms and, if they absolutely have to go on to farms, to ensure that they take the appropriate precautions. I have also asked those in the media organisations not to fly over the infected areas in helicopters. The virus is airborne, and stirring it up with helicopters is a very bad idea indeed, so I appeal again to people not to do it.
On information and input from the local NFU, my hon. Friend is on to a good point, which I discussed in some detail with the president of the NFU at our meeting earlier today. The NFU has offered information contacts, area by area, and we are putting in place a departmental structure to make full use of that because local knowledge can sometimes play a valuable part in helping to control the outbreak locally.
Farmers in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), on whose behalf I also speak, will have been devastated by the announcement that the case in Bromham has been confirmed. They will have welcomed much of what the Minister has said today, but will he accept that although farmers and other people in the area accept the restrictions that he describes, many of them have no idea what to do? For example, those in the village of Lacock, which is a tourist attraction and 1 mile from Bromham, or in the town of Chippenham, which is covered by the restriction, do not have a clue about what the restrictions will mean.
Will he clarify that and find ways to pass information on to the public so that they know what they may or may not do?
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who requested a debate on the subject, the Minister said that he had no time for such a debate. Is it not a rich irony that the House will spend 10 hours tomorrow discussing foxhunting, but we will not have an opportunity to discuss this appalling catastrophe for the countryside?
It is not a question of not wanting to debate important countryside issues—in normal circumstances I am very willing to come to the House to take part in a sensible discussion of the issues. However, in the middle of a disease management problem the proportions of which are not yet properly understood, it would not be right to divert ministerial, administrative and, above all, veterinary resources away from controlling tie disease and into discussing it here. Perhaps we can hold a debate after the outbreak has been brought under control, and not in the middle of a rapidly changing situation
The hon. Gentleman"s other pint was perfectly legitimate. Many people earn their livelihood in the tourist industry and in areas that attract visitors. There are, of course, difficulties when such activities take place side by side with the livestock sector. All I can do is repeat the advice that I have given, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will echo it locally: the public should refrain from going on to livestock farms or near to farmed animals.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the decisive steps that he has taken to isolate and eliminate this dreadful disease in this country and on the actions that he has taken to ensure that the disease does not spread to other countries. That is in marked contrast to the attitude that the previous Government took to BSE. BSE has had incalculable consequences on world trade, particularly in third-world countries, but, if we consider the lessons that we can glean from that, is it not true that modern, intensive, globalised management grossly magnifies the risk of the spread of disease? Has anyone tried to calculate the cost-effectiveness of cheaper food when it is compared to the enormously increased risk of the spread of disease, considered whether we should nave huge global regulation to prevent the spread of disease or less intensive, less globalised food production?
The implications of the modern methods of agricultural production for the livestock industry and other processes further down the food chain are issues that I have asked my Department to consider. When we have its report, we shall consider the consequences for policy makers. Indeed, we may even want to debate them here. My hon. Friend says that we are trying to contain and then exterminate the problem and must not export it. He is absolutely right.
No one in the House envies the Minister in his job, but we all wish him and his officials every possible success in what they are trying to do. That remains the case despite one or two of the slightly unfortunate partisan remarks that he has made today.
I wish to press the Minister on one issue. He talked about the possibility at least of providing new advice on the closure of footpaths and other points of access. He was quoted—possibly inaccurately—over the weekend as advising walkers to go into national parks instead of on to farm land. Parts of two national parks are in my constituency, so may I point out that 80 to 90 per cent. of the area of national parks is made up of farm land? I have received reports today that, unfortunately, very large numbers of people ignored the warnings and walked over livestock land this weekend. Will the Minister therefore work with the national park authorities to deal with that issue as part of the many other measures that he needs to put in place?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have time after time appealed for people not to go near farmed livestock. When I suggested that they visit a national park instead, it was of course implicit in my remarks that I meant national parks that do not have farmed livestock. I understand his point, but there are areas where it is perfectly possible to go for a walk in the country without going near farmed animals. There should be no disagreement on that point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the measures that the Government are taking.
It is impossible to overestimate the gravity of the situation facing us. In his responses to Labour Members, my right hon. Friend has said that it might be possible to undertake a wide-ranging investigation into animal health, the problems that we have come to realise recently and their link to intensive farming. Will he go as far as to say that he will include other parts of the food chain in that investigation, so that farmers are not singled out? Other parts of the food chain may bear some responsibility for the risks that we now face.
My hon. Friend is right. The study that I have asked for does not focus exclusively on farming practices; it is designed to consider more broadly whether the industry"s current structure, throughout the supply chain and including the catering sector and export industries, makes us more vulnerable to disease outbreaks than the way in which it operated some years ago.
I do not think that I have heard any Opposition Member criticise the work of the admirable state veterinary service or, indeed, that of MAFF to contain this wicked disease. It is therefore all the more surprising that the Minister should cavil at the prospect of a debate in Opposition time on such a fundamental matter affecting the survival of agriculture in this country.
Having said that, may I ask the Minister to take a more robust line on footpaths? I urge him to work with local councils to enable farmers to shut paths if they feel it necessary to do so, because people are tramping across those paths without disinfectant, and, when asked not to do so, are often extremely abusive to the farmers concerned.
I would be grateful to the Opposition if they could postpone their debate and let me and my officials get the disease under control. The hon.
Gentleman made a perfectly fair point about footpaths. We have that matter under review, and I anticipate announcing further measures shortly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his immediate introduction of robust measures. That contrasts with the action taken on BSE, which was always too little, too late. It is much wiser to take vigorous action from day 1.
If the newspaper reports are accurate, the living conditions of pigs on the farm in Northumberland give serious cause for concern. It defies belief that the farmer involved could not recognise the symptoms of foot and mouth when they were well advanced—seven or 14 days into the outbreak on his premises. MAFF"s animal health inspectors inspected the farm two or three times in December and January, but apparently did not comment on how bad the animal welfare conditions were. Do we not need a full inquiry into animal welfare, particularly for intensively farmed livestock, including pigs and poultry? There is something badly amiss here.
The veterinary inspectors" reports on the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall are consistent with what we know about the incubation time of the disease. The chief vet is satisfied that the disease was not present on the farm when the inspections took place. The whole issue is being considered by the appropriate authorities, and it would be wrong for me to say more about that now in the House.
My constituency abuts that of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). As south Devon is a peninsula, has the Minister considered asking local authorities to put matting on all roads leading into the area? Is he aware that farmers are having problems because disinfectant supplies are drying up?
Will the Minister say something not only about national parks but about the south Devon coastline, which has a heritage trail that people have continued to walk during the weekend and today? Those people, who include farmers from Norfolk, have walked on livestock farms.
As a result of the NFU president"s representations to me earlier today, I have asked for inquiries to be made so that we can be certain that we have sufficient stocks of disinfectant. That is a perfectly proper point for the hon. Gentleman to raise.
It is hard to make regulations that enable people to enjoy the countryside while ensuring that they stay away from livestock and other farmed animals. However, I appeal to people to do so. The most important point is to make sure that we do not spread the disease, and then we can contain and extinguish it. As the disease is primarily spread by the movement of animals, we have halted that practice so that we can isolate and extinguish it. I appeal to people to stay away from farm animals. Although it is a more remote possibility, there is a chance that such a virulent strain of the disease will be spread by people and vehicles.
Since the 1967 outbreak, fundamental changes have altered the risks that the farming community and society face. People are more mobile, animals are moved more frequently, vets and farmers see the early evidence of this virulent disease infrequently and, indeed, some of the animals at risk are kept as pets. Although information on the MAFF website about the more advanced stages of the illness is good, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that farmers and veterinary practitioners receive sufficient scientific training on the early stages of the condition? The Leahurst faculty of Liverpool university"s large veterinary school is in my constituency and has a worldwide reputation. However, I suspect that a generation of veterinary scientists has left there without seeing the disease in its very early stages.
I am satisfied that the veterinary profession can identify the disease. I think it is harder for farmers to identify because we have not seen it in this country for 20 years. Nevertheless, we have a two-way method of control. In addition to our vets following up the cases that might have got the disease from contact with infected areas, we rely on farmers an I their private vets to ring the Ministry and prioritise what they believe are suspicious cases. My hon. Friend is correct to say that the vulnerable animals are sometimes kept as domestic pets.
There is a considerable sense of foreboding and anxiety in Anglesey because there is a suspected case of foot and mouth at the abattoir in Gaerwen I understand that tests have taken place. Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the results will be available? If they confirm the first case in Wales, will that be announced by his officials or the Welsh Assembly, or will a joint statement be issued?
Does the right hon. Gentleman know about the reports of people walking in Snowdonia at the weekend, although there were requests not to do so? There will be considerable support in Wales for the temporary closure of footpaths and rights of way. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that farmers in Anglesey in particular are concerned about the operation of the over-30-months rule and the delay in taking animals to market. What hope can he give to those farmers, bearing in mind that the animals might be more than 30 months old when the restrictions are lifted?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Those people who are proposing to submit animals under the over-30-months rule could be caught by the restrictions on movement. As we reshape those restrictions—although that is conditional on our getting a firm grip on the outbreak of the disease—I promise to keep the over-30-months scheme and those affected by it at the forefront of my mind. I am afraid that I cannot say more than that now.
There is close co-operation between my Department and the officials who work in the agriculture section of the Welsh Assembly. There is also close communication between myself and my counterpart in the Welsh Assembly. We are trying to take a common approach to the temporary closure of public rights of access. What has happened in Snowdonia is one of the matters at the forefront of our minds as we consider this difficult issue. I am grateful to people who have taken heed of appeals not to go near farms livestock or animals, but I am aware that not everyone has responded in that way. We must consider what else we have to do.
I know that the suspected case will be a cause of great anxiety to the hon. Gentleman"s constituents. It is a tentative hope rather than anything firmer, but we do not yet have a positive finding—at least, I am not aware of it. The passage of time gives more grounds for optimism in that local case; it takes longer to confirm a negative than to confirm a positive.
We have heard what the Minister has had to say about compensation for consequential loss, and we might want to return to the issue when we see for how long the ban on movements continues, but he could do too specific things immediately to help farmers, who are already in a difficult financial position, who suffer such loss. One of those things, for which many have asked, is to claim the agrimonetary compensation. I think that the £202 million must be claimed by the end of April, if at all. More than three quarters of it would go to the livestock sector. The Minister might point out to the Chancellor that our friends in the European Union pick up 20 per cent. of the costs of very few public spending programmes.
Secondly, when the Minister this evening meets our friends in the EU, will he suggest that farmers who are having to keep animals on their farms for longer than planned might be allowed temporarily to graze them on set-aside land in order to alleviate tin problem of having to buy additional food? That was permitted during the BSE crisis. It is something for which the right hon. Gentleman could ask which would cost nothing.
I am looking at whether there are derogations that we could seek from the Commission in the management of the current outbreak that would give some help and assistance to those who are caught by it. I have a range of points, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman makes, that I want to take up informally with Commissioner Fischler before we make formal representations. I understand the hon Gentleman"s point about agrimonetary compensation. I remember him as a Treasury Minister; I wonder whether he would have taken the same view of the 19 per cent. EU contribution and the domestic contribution of only 81 per cent. when he was at the Treasury.
Although the right hon. Gentleman deserves unqualified support for the measures that he has taken—he has received it from those of us on the Conservative Benches—does he accept that he would better create a mood of national unity if he treated this House with a little more respect? His answers on appearing before Parliament have been disgraceful. To suggest that we should not have a debate is quite wrong. Will he bear it in mind that, when this country was at war, Churchill constantly reported to the House? Does he remember his former colleague Lord Robertson, former Secretary of State for Defence, reporting to the House day after day when we were engaged in hostilities? The Minister"s prime duty is to be answerable to the House. Will he therefore reconsider his ill-judged remarks and give a categorical undertaking that he will make regular statements at that Dispatch Box?
No, I will not. My priority is to confront and extinguish the disease. The hon. Gentleman"s remarks are distinctly unhelpful. I have always treated this House with courtesy and restraint, but to haul Ministers here as part of an Opposition day debate when we will be in the middle of disease control seems highly irresponsible.
I thank the Minister, his Department and the veterinary service for the very prompt response to this hideous virus. Is he aware, however, that Thirsk auction mart—and, I understand, many auction marts throughout the country—has received a very confusing briefing from the Meat and Livestock Commission? Entitled "UK Foot and Mouth Update No 1", last week"s MLC briefing said that the foot and mouth export ban will be in place for six months
after the last confirmed outbreak has been fully dealt with".
That is totally confusing; it seems to contradict advice from MAFF and the Commission that there will be only a one-month export ban. Will the Minister please explain the provenance of that briefing? Did it come from his Department? Will be please eradicate the confusion today?
May I also ask the Minister to take the prompt legal action to close footpaths which he said he is considering? Confusion arises when livestock are inside and the public simply do not know that livestock are present.
On the issue of footpaths, I give the hon. Lady the assurance she seeks. I have the matter under active consideration with the devolved authorities and I hope to make a further announcement shortly.
As the hon. Lady probably knows, I do not have direct responsibility for the activities of the MLC. She asks about the likely duration of the export bans. It will differ, depending on whether European Union trade or bilateral trade with third countries is involved, because all have slightly different rules of their own. However, we shall never get the bans lifted until we have disease-free status—confirmed disease-free status. In future, we might be able to get the ban regionalised so that parts of the United Kingdom can export again, but it is premature to speculate along those lines today. We simply do not know whether there are animals still incubating the condition, so further quarantine and disease-control measures are required.
I believe that the Minister terribly misjudged his response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). At a time of national crisis, which this is, the Minister"s real duty is to report to the House at every necessary opportunity.
None the less, I thank the Minister"s private office because, on Saturday afternoon, its staff were most helpful in arranging a licence to be given to my constituent Mr. Richard Bradshaw, who had 17 decomposing carcases in his yard and could not move them without a licence. However, this morning, anomalies have been revealed in the regime for fallen stock and casualties, in that Mr. Bradshaw has been told that he cannot move cattle that have an OTM22 form; although they have been deemed healthy enough for human consumption, the animals must be left on the farm to decompose for seven days. The arrangements have been made in haste and the Minister is caught on Morton"s fork. Will he give me a clear answer tomorrow on how casualties will be dealt with while the crisis lasts?
As well as dealing with the problems of the hon. Gentleman"s constituent, my private office now has to help to prepare for the debate, as do veterinary authorities and senior officials in the Ministry. I repeat that it is distinctly unhelpful to try to make me do things in addition to bearing down on the disease. Nevertheless, I shall ensure that the perfectly proper point the hon. Gentleman makes about how fallen stock and casualties are dealt with is addressed. He is right to say that we have been licensing movements under very strictly controlled conditions to deal with the problem, but complications arise in connection with issuing general licences for normal disposal routes: because they go from farm to farm, such established routes provide a means by which the disease might be spread.