With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about foot and mouth disease. I want to update hon. Members both on the latest position on the disease outbreak and on the range of actions that the Government have been taking since I last informed the House on Wednesday 21 March. I then want to outline what we know so far about the causes and spread of the outbreak, and to announce the measures that we propose to take as a result.
At 1 pm today, there had been 668 confirmed cases in Great Britain and one in Northern Ireland. Forty-two cases were confirmed yesterday. Out of a total UK livestock population of more than 55 million, 697,500 animals have now been authorised for slaughter and 423,000 have already been slaughtered. Outside the United Kingdom, there is one case in the Republic of Ireland, and there are two cases in France and five cases in Holland.
I made public last week the epidemiological studies that I have received on the likely cause of the disease. They differed in their detail, but they were all clear that this is an unprecedented outbreak that has not yet reached its peak.
Our strategy remains focused on three key priorities. All animals—cattle, sheep and pigs—on infected farms are to be culled within 24 hours of the infection report. All animals—cattle, sheep and pigs—on contiguous farms are then to be culled within 48 hours. We are concentrating our efforts in northern Cumbria on clearing all animals identified for slaughter in Solway, and on creating a firebreak south of the worst affected area.
Last Wednesday, I explained to the House what actions the Government were taking to speed up our response to the disease. I believe that we have taken the right actions and I will spell out what effect they are already having. We have made full use of the resources of the Army. At my Ministry's request, 780 soldiers are now deployed and are helping with the logistic operations. They include 115 soldiers in Scotland and 50 in Wales, in addition to more than 600 in England, of whom 118 are in Cumbria and a further 72 in Devon. As well as the Army unit in our headquarters in London, there are Army headquarters in Exeter, Worcester, Carlisle and Dumfries. Military liaison officers will be joining all major disease control centres. The Army's role is to enhance command and control and to assist in the disposal process. Its presence allows us to free up vets to concentrate solely on veterinary matters.
Last week, I informed the House that we had put in place senior officials as directors of operations in Cumbria and Devon and were about to do so in Worcester. In addition to those three, we have since put in place further directors of operations in Stafford, Chelmsford, Gloucester, Leicester and Newcastle. These senior administrators have also taken over operational tasks from senior vets and allowed them to get on with their veterinary work.
We are also bringing more and more vets into the front line. The total number of vets in the state veterinary service who are tackling the disease is now 1,235, and we are looking to increase this number still further. We are following up offers of assistance from the French and Spanish Governments. An appeal by the British Veterinary Association to its members has generated a large number of inquiries, which are being pursued. Enhanced rates of pay for temporary vets were announced last week.
Wherever possible, we have reduced the time between when a vet makes one inspection and when he or she can make the next one. Where the disease risk is minimal, the turnaround time has been reduced to 24 hours. We have simplified the valuation arrangements while at the same time safeguarding farmers' interests by introducing a generous standard tariff. More than 95 per cent. of confirmations now take place on clinical grounds; that is, without the need for laboratory tests. We have revised protocols to allow vets in the field to make on—site judgments and to initiate slaughter.
The key task is to reduce the time between the first report of the disease and the slaughter of the herd or flock. Our target remains that that should not exceed 24 hours. The epidemiological studies published last week confirmed that that is the crucial intervention that will enable us to get on top of the disease. We are achieving that in large parts of the country, including Devon in recent days. In Cumbria, the high density of infection and sheer number of cases has meant that we are not yet achieving that target, and work is in hand to address that.
Yesterday, I visited the two most affected areas of the country, Cumbria and Devon. I saw for myself the hard work that is being done by the state veterinary service, the Army and all the other parties involved. I also met farmers and their leaders.
There has been a good deal of speculation recently about the possible use of vaccination as an ingredient in our foot and mouth disease control strategy. Vaccination can be used in two quite different ways. One approach is to use a national policy of vaccination as the protection mechanism against foot and mouth disease. That is not a policy that is adopted or favoured by any member state or by the European Commission.
It is, however, accepted that emergency vaccination can play a role in controlling an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, either to establish zones of protection between infected areas and the rest of the country or to reduce the number of cases in disease hot spots. The Commission has already agreed to the possible temporary use of vaccination in such circumstances by the Dutch authorities.
Vaccination is no easy option. It would be expected to delay full return to international trade, at least for the region affected, and would be likely to require tight additional controls—again, at least in the area concerned. We would need to consider, with the Commission, whether it was necessary in due course to slaughter vaccinated animals—with compensation, of course—as part of a return to normal trading.
The Government are considering whether to use vaccination. I have therefore authorised my representative in the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee to seek a contingent decision permitting the use of vaccination during the present outbreak, so that it can be deployed immediately if we conclude that it is the right approach.
We have done a great deal to help farmers financially. Our help includes full compensation for animals slaughtered on disease grounds, the provision of agrimonetary compensation and the preservation of common agricultural policy subsidy entitlements under EU rules on force majeure. In addition, last week I opened the livestock welfare disposal scheme as an outlet of last resort for livestock farmers whose animals face welfare difficulties as a result of foot and mouth disease-related movement restrictions. The scheme provides for the removal and disposal of animals, for which Government will bear the costs. At 90 per cent. of pre-outbreak market value, the tariffs for the animals slaughtered under the scheme are generous. The detailed payment rates are being placed in the House Libraries today. The estimated value of that optional scheme to farmers obviously depends on take-up, but it is now likely to be in excess of £200 million.
Let me now turn to what we know about the possible causes of the current outbreak, the spread of infection and the differences between this and the 1967 outbreak. It is likely that the source farm, from which the outbreak subsequently spread, was the fourth infected premises to be discovered, at Heddon-on-the-Will. Hon. Members will be aware of speculation that the practice of feeding swill to pigs was a cause, or the cause, of the outbreak. The farm in question, at Heddon, was licensed to feed swill to pigs. Epidemiological and other investigations continue. I know that the House will understand if I do not comment on the specifics of the case.
The subsequent spread of infection is traceable to some extent. Virus from the source farm spread to seven other farms in Tyne and Wear. Sheep from, one of those farms were sent to Hexham market on 13 February; sheep from the 13 February market at Hexham were sent to markets at Longtown, and further dispersed from there during the period between 14 and 24 February. So within days, at a time when we were still unaware of the disease, infected sheep were criss-crossing the country in hundreds of separate movements, and coming into contact with other livestock.
From Longtown market, sheep were sent to markets at Carlisle on 16 February and at Welshpool on 19 February; to dealers at Highampton, Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, Dearham in Cumbria and Nantwich in Cheshire; and, indirectly, to markets at Hatherleigh on 20 February, Hereford on 21 February, Northampton on 22 February and Ross-on-Wye on 23 February.
While tracing movements of pigs from the index farm has proved relatively straightforward. tracking movements of sheep has proved more difficult and in some cases impossible. That is partly due to unrecorded sales of sheep, which it seems took place around the edges of various livestock markets without passing through the markets' books.
Over the past four weeks, many comparisons have been drawn with the 1967 outbreak. The truth is, however, that the two outbreaks are very different The key differences between this outbreak and that of 1967 are the speed and geographical scale of the spread of infection—which result from a number of factors—and the species involved. Experts agree that the current outbreak is unprecedented internationally. First, time had elapsed before the infection at the probable source farm was disclosed. The suspicious lesions found on pigs at Heddon-on-the-Wall on 22 February suggest that the pigs had been incubating the disease for at least two, and possibly up to three, weeks. By 23 February, when infection was confirmed at Heddon-on-the-Wall, infected animals had already spread through markets and dealers to Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Devon, Cheshire, Herefordshire and Northamptonshire.
Linked to that, the second factor in the speed and scale of the spread was the larger scale of animal movements nowadays compared to 1967, aided by a much improved network of roads and motorways. A third factor was that the infection spread quickly to sheep. and then among sheep. The nature of sheep flocks and the way in which they are traded made the course of the infection more difficult to trace. The 1967 outbreak was mainly in pigs and cattle. The strain of the virus with which we are currently dealing does not manifest itself clearly in sheep, which makes detection difficult. Apparently healthy animals may be disease carriers.
I am announcing four actions in response to this assessment of the origins and spread of the disease. The first measure relates to pigswill. I am today proposing a ban on the use of swill feeding in this country. I accept that the arguments in favour of and against allowing the practice are quite finely balanced. If the statutory conditions for feeding swill are complied with—heating at 100 deg C for one hour—it does not present a risk of transmitting foot and mouth disease and other similar pathogens.
Banning swill feeding will not necessarily prevent the risk of illegal feeding of swill and catering waste to pigs—possibly by the owners of small numbers of pigs, for example. However. I have concluded that the risk of swill feeding introducing disease to livestock farms on which swill is not used, and to the wider community, is now greater than the benefits to the relatively small number of premises that continue to adopt the practice. That is why I am proposing an early ban.
My Department is today issuing a public consultation document seeking the views of all interested parties on the principle and detailed application of such a ban. Meanwhile, let me remind the owners of all the pigs in the country, including pet pigs, to comply with the current law. It is illegal to feed untreated household waste or any other materials that may contain meat products.
I am also issuing a second consultation document today containing a proposal to introduce a 20-day standstill period, after movement, for sheep, goats and cattle. There are rules on the identification and movement of pigs, including a general requirement that no pigs should be moved off premises within 20 days of any pigs moving on to those premises. If a similar requirement had been in place, and observed, in relation to sheep in particular, it is likely that the spread of the foot and mouth virus would have been significantly slowed down, making tracing and control of the infection easier. I am minded, therefore, to introduce legislation to require a 20-day standstill period for sheep, goats and cattle, subject to the views of interested parties. That is why I am launching a full consultation exercise today.
Thirdly, we know that, somehow, infection has entered this country. One possible way is through illegal commercial imports of meat, in which contents have not been declared. There is clearly an issue in relation to carrier liability, to which the Government will give careful thought. Another possibility is that infected produce might have come in as a personal import. Rules already exist to control such imports, and they must be enforced effectively. I am co-ordinating action across government to ensure that this happens. I shall also write to Commissioner Byrne to stress that a consistent and tough approach needs to be taken across the European Union.
Lastly, once we are beyond the current difficulties, my Department will consider a range of other issues relating to the operation of the livestock sector, to ascertain whether more can be done to minimise disease risks still further. This work will cover the operation of markets—in particular, out-of-ring sales—and the identification and tracing of pigs, sheep and goats. In all those matters, I shall act in close consultation with the devolved Administrations.
This has been a dreadful time for farmers and others directly affected by foot and mouth disease. I believe that our policy of containing the disease is the right one, and that the massive logistical exercise required to implement it is being reinforced. We will succeed in eradicating this disease. In addition, I believe that the measures I have announced today will ensure that we learn the lessons and minimise the risks of such a tragedy in the future.
I am grateful to the Minister for letting me have a copy of his statement about 20 minutes before he made it. I begin by again expressing our warm appreciation of the work of all those who are fighting to contain the outbreak.
As the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease continues its remorseless rise, let no one forget that behind each deadly statistic lies a terrible human tragedy. A farmer—often a whole family—faces the prospect of months of emptiness and inactivity and, beyond that, a very uncertain future. In urging the Government to work harder to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease, I am thinking not only of the mounting economic damage that it is inflicting: my heart is with the men, women and children on farms who sit helplessly as the disease gets nearer day by day and finally strikes.
Let me repeat that the Opposition will continue to back the Government whenever they take timely, effective and appropriate steps, as we have at every stage in the crisis, even when the action proposed was unpopular. That was the case with the cull around Cumbria, which the Government announced 12 days ago. We gave immediate and unqualified support.
On the proposals made by the Minister today, we share the concern about the use of pigswill and the large number of perfectly legal sheep movements and transactions that appear to have occurred. We support in principle the steps that he proposes and we shall examine the details when they are published.
On the origin of the outbreak, I am interested in the Minister's view that Heddon-on-the-Wall was the original source. Does that mean that the Government are now certain that foot and mouth disease was not present elsewhere in Britain before the case in Northumberland? Will he publish all the relevant reports, which may shed light on the possible origins of the outbreak? Can he assure the House categorically that no one—not even officials in his Ministry, either in London or the regions—was aware of a possible foot and mouth disease outbreak before 19 February 2001?
I welcome the Minister's recognition that the weakness of Britain's import controls probably allowed infected produce to enter our country and cause the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. He knows that the Conservative party has been calling for tougher enforcement of all rules relating to meat imports for a very long time and I hope that early action will be taken effectively.
Is the Minister aware of the surprise that many people express when they learn of the continued legal import of meat from countries where foot and mouth disease outbreaks have occurred in the recent past? Although measures to prevent foot and mouth from returning to Britain in future are important for the longer term, does he accept that none of the proposals on banning pigswill, a 20-day standstill period for livestock and carrier liability will do anything to deal with the immediate crisis or to slow down the relentless spread of foot and mouth disease across our countryside?
Does the Minister agree that vaccination is the very last resort and that if the Government decide that some form of vaccination is necessary, they will, in effect, be admitting that their other policies have failed? [Interruption.] Yes. Will he confirm that if Britain is to regain its status as a foot and mouth disease-free nation in a reasonable period, every single animal that is vaccinated would still have to be slaughtered eventually?
Does the Minister agree that the permanent loss of our foot and mouth disease-free status would have profound consequences that would go far wider than the livestock industry? Will he confirm that vaccinated animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption?
Will the Minister confirm that the Government's chief scientific adviser said last Friday that, if the Government did not step up the scale of their measures to prevent the spread of the disease, in the worst-case analysis up to half Britain's livestock would be lost? Will he further confirm that one of the measures that the chief scientific officer described as essential was cutting to 24 hours the time between reporting a case and slaughtering the animal? Will he admit that in most areas the target is not being achieved?
The Minister stated this afternoon that 264,000 animals are awaiting slaughter. Will he confirm that, in the 24 hours that ended at 3 pm yesterday, only 31,000 animals were slaughtered? At the current rate of progress, it will take not 24 hours but more than eight days to clear the backlog of animals, even if no further cases are identified. In those eight days, thousands of animals run the risk of spreading the disease still further. Will the Minister confirm that the Government fell even further behind events because in the 24 hours to 3 pm yesterday, 48,000 more animals were identified as requiring slaughter, but only 31,000 were slaughtered? That means that 17,000 more remain on the waiting list.
Will the Minister confirm that the figures for carcases are scarcely better? Despite the excellent but belated work that the Army is now allowed to do in Cumbria, the total number of carcases awaiting disposal increased yesterday to 104,000. Does the Minister finally realise that the Government's failure to act promptly and adequately in response to the crisis has led directly to the scale of the emergency that now engulfs our nation?
Does the Minister accept that many of the actions that the Government are starting to take are the steps that I suggested at a much earlier date? If the Government had brought in the Army in a hands-on role, as I suggested on 11 March, instead of waiting two more weeks; started on-farm burial, as I suggested on 15 March, instead of persisting with potentially harmful incineration and rendering methods; and authorised vets to order immediate slaughter, as I suggested on 13 March, the problem would be much less serious.
For the Prime Minister to suggest yesterday that the Conservative party had jumped on a bandwagon was deeply insulting to those whose suffering our timely proposals are designed to help, and a hideous distortion of the truth, which demeans his great office. Like other Ministers before him, the Prime Minister claims that foot and mouth disease is being brought under control when, plainly, it is not, and that his policies are succeeding before they have been fully implemented.
In the six days since the Prime Minister said that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, the number of animals awaiting slaughter has increased by two thirds. The dither and confusion in Government have continued and the actions that the Prime Minister's chief scientific adviser described last Friday as essential for curbing the spread of the disease have not been fully carried out.
The situation with which we are dealing is unprecedented. I shall not rise to the bait because a serious problem confronts our country and I honestly believe that the best way to approach it is in as bipartisan a spirit as possible.
I shall take one at a time the points that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) raised, but first I express my thanks for his appreciation of the hard work of uniformed personnel and civilians in the field. They are working incredibly long hours to eradicate the disease, and they have to deal with a rising profile of cases, especially in Cumbria and Devon. The rise is remorseless, and the hon. Gentleman was right to describe the situation as a human tragedy. I give this commitment on the Government's behalf—we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the farming community and the broader rural community and do what we can to make the uncertain future to which the hon. Gentleman referred more certain. We will stand in the farmers' corner, not just helping them through the disease outbreak but working with them on a recovery plan afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had stood by me even when I had to make unpopular decisions. If he can think of a popular decision that I can make in these circumstances, I would welcome his advice. There are some very hard choices to be made. There is not one recommendation that does not have a good argument against it, except this—doing nothing is not an option. Some very difficult questions must be addressed.
I met farmers yesterday in the hardest of circumstances in Cumbria, where the outbreak is most intense, and in Devon. I found the farming community very upset and distressed, quite naturally. I heard personal stories that were absolutely heartbreaking. However, the farmers were being brave enough to face up to the difficult decisions and discuss with me unpalatable alternative strategies—as I said, there are no palatable ones . It behoves all of us to do the same and to treat the issue with the seriousness that it deserves.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the consultation on pigswill. On the movement of sheep and cattle, alternatives are set out in the two consultation documents, particularly with regard to how far we should restrict cattle movements. I welcome views on the proposals. There are no right and wrong answers, just alternative routes that the Government could follow.
We believe, and have done since the early stages, that Heddon-on-the-Wall was the original source of the outbreak. There is a whole series of urban legends about officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knowing that the disease was in the country earlier and concealing it for some inexplicable purpose of their own. That simply is not true. I cannot publish what does not exist. There is no report marked "Secret", saying that there is foot and mouth disease in the country but we believe that no one will notice. Such a proposition is plainly absurd.
I cannot publish what is not there, but I can publish what I was told, and when. I asked for a note to be drawn up setting everything out in that crucial week from the first suspicion of the disease being present in Essex to the controls being put in place the following Friday. I am willing to put that in the Library so that people can see what Ministers were told, when, and what actions were taken.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had warned of the weakness of controls over foreign imports. They are the same controls that were in place for 18 years of Conservative government. They have not deteriorated over time. I want a hard look at how they are being enforced. There are two routes. First, is the rule on importation for personal use being abused? If so, how is it being abused and how can we tighten up enforcement? The second, separate, issue is meat products that are imported on containers, either lawfully or unlawfully, being described as something other than what they are. We need to take a hard look at those questions across Government, and I am co-ordinating that work from my Ministry.
The hon. Gentleman asked, perfectly properly, about vaccination. There are two ways, as I said in my statement, in which we might consider the use of vaccination. It would be a very serious step. There are arguments against it, and I want to consult the devolved authorities.
It is not true that in all circumstances the use of vaccination will compromise the disease-free status of the whole of Great Britain. I am determined to restore that disease-free status for the whole of Great Britain. That is the right strategy for the Government to pursue. We should not allow it to be compromised, not even by vaccination, but it may be possible to apply a policy of vaccination on a regional basis, and have the region in which it is applied treated differently. It is not automatic that vaccinated animals would be slaughtered afterwards, but there is a presumption that the Government would pursue such a policy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about our target of 24 hours from recognition of the disease to slaughter of the animals. That is by far the most important single intervention that we can make. We are achieving the target in most parts of the country, but we are still behind in Cumbria. We need to up our game to ensure that we achieve it. I understand the hon. Gentleman's criticisms, but it is a little like a back-seat driver saying, "You should have taken that left—hand turn half a mile back I now realise," but also saying, "Get on with it." I do not need to be told to get on with it and nor do the officials on the ground.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when this Government were elected, live pigs were being fed with the remains of dead pigs, with pig slaughterhouse waste and with the waste from pet food manufacture, and that it was this Government who took action more than two years ago to ban those practices, which the previous Administration had done nothing about? Does not it follow, therefore, that anyone feeding any mammalian waste to pigs today is acting unlawfully? I hope that the proper consequences will flow from that.
Will my right hon. Friend also recognise that even in the most dire circumstances in Cumbria he has the overwhelming support of farmers in taking the tough and often complex decisions that he is having to take? In that regard, will he assure me that he will spare no effort, but will use every resource and waste no time to take the steps necessary to isolate the outbreak at Seathwaite in the Cumbrian fells? If we are not able to do that, the consequences will be dire indeed.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct about the constraints on the feeding of mammalian meat to pigs, except in the special circumstances involving heat treatment that I described to the House. I met Cumbrian farmers yesterday and I was enormously impressed by their fortitude and resilience in the most appalling circumstances. I can promise my right hon. Friend that the Government will stand shoulder to shoulder with his constituents and their neighbours until the disease. is eradicated and a recovery programme is firmly in place.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for his usual courtesy in providing an early copy. We, too, support in principle the measures contained in the statement. I have a few questions, however.
First, the chief scientific adviser a few days ago used words to the effect that this was a disaster waiting to happen. When did he come to that conclusion and, more important, when did he communicate that fact to the Government? Secondly, what arrangements are to be made for the disposal of the waste food that will not now go into swill? Will it be the subject of proper regulation and inspection?
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider permanently increasing the resources of the state veterinary service and, in effect, reversing the cuts that have taken place under the present Administration and under the previous Conservative Government?
Will there be additional port health inspectors to give real teeth to the inspection of imported food to ensure that this situation cannot happen again? Will the Minister also put more resources into the inspection of farms, in particular to enforce the 20-day restriction? It will be of little value if it is not rigidly controlled. Does he accept that vaccination might be a sensible precaution to protect special breeding flocks and cattle herds where valuable gene pools have to be preserved?
We still have not heard about a scheme to assist farmers with cattle over 30 months. That is becoming a real problem as more and more cattle fall into that category. Has the right hon. Gentleman been able to discuss with his colleagues a scheme to deal with that? Has he also considered the problems of healthy stock trapped within restricted areas? In some cases, they are now awaiting welfare disposal, rather than being moved for slaughter so that they go into the food chain. Is not that against basic common sense?
Is the Minister aware of a letter from a college in Germany that was passed to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)? It states:
Much to our regret we have to cancel our stay at your college from 28 March to 12 April … because of the foot and mouth disease. The Ministry of Agriculture has given advice to the Ministry for Cultural Affairs—
that is in Germany—
to stop all trips to England within the near future".
Perhaps that is somewhat at odds with the message that we understood we would be sending to Europe to ensure that such colleges maintain at least some business during the crisis.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should make it clear that the letter probably refers to the German regional Ministry of Agriculture and not my Ministry. I know of no reason why people cannot visit market towns and other parts of the countryside. I have been very consistent in my advice on that matter—all that people have to do is to stay away from farmed livestock and support the authorities in the necessary work that they are undertaking.
On the hon. Gentleman's perfectly proper question about the over-30-months scheme, I am looking at what can be done to help farmers in these difficult circumstances. I cannot make an announcement today, but I am looking at the matter and I hope to be able to say something about it at some stage.
On vaccination, the hon. Gentleman is right: if we are to use vaccination as part of our disease control strategy, we must make absolutely certain that the consequences have been worked through and that we have a local management plan in the circumstances where we use that strategy. The hon. Gentleman is right that it could help in our desire to preserve rare breeds and animals that are particular to a region. That is one of the arguments in favour of using it. However, we need to be clear precisely how we would use it and why, and what the exit strategy will be.
On the 20-day standstill, yes, it will be inspected. There are other consequences; for example, looking at movement records for sheep, including the possibility of a recording system in the future that is similar to that currently used for cattle—so that the process is more transparent and more easily monitored.
The work of port health inspectors forms part of the work that I am taking forward within government.
I do not believe that the size of the state veterinary service has been substantially reduced since the Labour party came into government, but we shall clearly have to take a hard look at the ability of the service to respond to a rapidly changing situation when viral disease breaks out among animals.
If the chief scientist said that foot and mouth disease was a disaster waiting to happen, he was certainly behind the times; the disaster has already happened and we are trying to get on top of it. I did not hear him say that; he is advising the Government on the epidedemiology. That is useful work.
As we are now burying carcases, will that reduce the need to send them to rendering plants such as the one in my constituency? I am concerned that my right hon. Friend says that there seem to be some unrecorded movements of livestock. In his view, are there perhaps deliberate attempts to hide things for financial gain? There were some dodgy practices leading to BSE. A National Audit Office report on set-aside policy found more than 1,000 irregularities. Is there something wrong in the farming industry that we should know about?
I cannot comment on individual cases that may come before the courts. It is perfectly clear from the tracing work undertaken by MAFF officials that some anomalies still need to be reconciled; a possible explanation is the unrecorded movement of livestock.
Where on-farm burial can be used as a disposal route, it is used. There have been about 42 such disposals in Cumbria alone. However, there are also difficulties—the most obvious of which is the presence of the water table. It really is not a good idea to put a large number of dead and decomposing animals into the watercourse.
In Westminster Hall this morning, I raised the serious problem that farmers will shortly have to decide whether to turn their stock out from the cowsheds on to the pastures, because they will soon run out of fodder. When the stock are turned out on the pastures, that is likely to spread the disease more quickly and to a larger geographical area. Farmers will need clear advice from the Ministry as to whether they should turn their stock out. Will the Minister comment on that this afternoon?
Yes. One of the purposes of the proactive cull that I announced some 12 days ago is to make a pre-emptive strike on the disease, which mostly involves sheep but some pigs, so that the disease in sheep can be firmly contained before cattle let out on to summer pastures, because by and large we have managed to keep the disease out of cattle so far. I know that there are exceptions to that, especially in the hot spots, but this problem is predominantly associated with sheep, and the hon. Gentleman is right that it is important that we get on top of it now. It is also important that we give clear advice to those who are thinking of turning cattle out into pastures that have recently been vacated by sheep.
However, there is confusion among the people on the question of vaccination—which I believe has been fuelled today. There is not an understanding of the distinction between vaccination as a way of preventing the entry of foot and mouth into a body of beasts or a country, and vaccination as part of a programme of culling to rid a country, an area or a group of beasts of an existing foot and mouth infection. Clearly, it would be in relation to the latter that my right hon. Friend's officials have given consideration to the subject. I urge him to make it absolutely clear to the public that that is the case, that any vaccination policy would be, in effect, part of the culling policy, and that any beasts that were vaccinated should therefore be immediately slaughtered.
My hon. Friend is right. It is in the second context that he describes that the Government are considering a vaccination policy, but we have not yet decided whether such a policy would help us with our disease eradication proposal. The Government have no intention whatever of generally vaccinating livestock in Great Britain. I cannot envisage our undertaking such a policy.
My understanding of the outbreak in Heddon-on-the-Wall and in my hon. Friend's constituency in Newcastle is the same as his: that his constituents were affected by the plume that rose from the intensively farmed pigs that had the disease, we now know, for two, perhaps three, weeks.
It is perfectly possible that those sheep lay over in a lairage with, or after, sheep carrying the virus, or at least the antibodies, when they arrived in France. In other words, there are explanations as to the route by which the infectivity was brought there, other than the conspiracy theory that it was in our country before the beginning of February. I have looked quite hard at this question and I must tell the hon. Gentleman and others that there is not a shred of evidence that the first outbreak was the result of anything other than events at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall.
I strongly support my right hon. Friend's decision to appoint Brigadier Birtwhistle to take control of part of this exercise, in Cumbria. He is doing a first-class job, along with his 118 troops, and he is inspiring confidence in the population.
There is growing support for ring vaccination in Cumbria. Can my right hon. Friend ensure the future of the Herdwick sheep, the future of which worries us because they play such an important part in land management in the county?
I understand the very special points about Herdwick sheep, and I tried to refer to them, and the principles more generally, in an earlier answer. Yes, we will do what we can to preserve the Herdwick sheep, but that action must be compatible with the rest of the disease containment strategy. That is a reason, although I have to tell my hon. Friend that it is a subsidiary one, why we might consider a vaccination strategy in the localised circumstances in Cumbria, but I emphasise that we are not there yet and any decision will be made in discussion not just with the NFU nationally, but with the territorial departments and farmers locally. I met local farmers on my visit yesterday, and I found them to be very brave, resilient and willing to face up to difficult decisions. I also found them very appreciative of the leadership of the armed forces and of the contribution that the armed forces are making to disease control.
Does the Minister recall that the first revelation appears to have been in Essex, not in Northumberland, so there is something of a question mark about the extent to which sufficient analysis was done, by officials or others and/or by Northumberland county council, in respect of the Heddon incident? That matter needs to be properly investigated. No doubt the Minister is giving the best answers that he can on the basis of the best evidence that he has at the moment, but will he give a guarantee to the House that a public inquiry will be held in due course, so that everyone can be fully satisfied that the statements made so far can be verified?
There has already been an inquiry into the matter. The farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall was farm No. 4 in the order of infected premises. It was discovered as a suspect on a Thursday and confirmed on the Friday morning, when Parliament was in recess. In fact, I telephoned the Prime Minister that dayßžhe was in the United States—and we had the movement restrictions imposed, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, by 5.30 that afternoon, so we acted pretty promptly. The issue is that disease was incubating on those premises for a fortnight, perhaps three weeks. In other words, it had been present; it had not been reported to the Ministry; it had formed a plume and we now know that other animals had been infected, including those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and in that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to Carlisle yesterday, meeting the MAFF staff and seeing the excellent work that they have done, together with the vets and the Army. I understand that Brigadier Birtwhistle is due to retire in a week's time, so I hope that good offices will prevail and that he will be kept there for a little longer. There is dispute in Cumbria about vaccination, but people want clarity. Although we must take the right decision on vaccination, will my right hon. Friend try to take that decision as speedily as possible, so the options become available to Cumbrian farmers?
I give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I also promise to return to his constituency to discuss the issue personally with farmers' leaders before any decision is taken. It is an important decision; it affects the livelihoods of those in my hon. Friend's constituency, as well as those in neighbouring constituencies. I will return to Carlisle, and I will discuss the issue very carefully with farmers before any decision is made. I will also make it abundantly clear precisely what the decision is; in which circumstances, if at all, vaccination would be used; and what the exit strategy would be for the animals. When I visited Cumbria, I found a yearning for clear-cut advice and to have the policies clearly stated and well understood.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that one of the most important things for farmers is to have information. Much of my constituency is now in an exclusion zone. Pig farmers and other livestock farmers need to know when and if they can move their animals to slaughter, or whether there will be welfare slaughter schemes. In fairness, they are getting no information at all. They cannot get any information from MAFF. They asked the NFU, but the NFU local secretary tells me that he cannot get any information. When I have tabled parliamentary questions to Ministers on their behalf, I have received the reply
I will reply to the hon. Member as soon as possible.
Somewhere, somehow, the Ministry must be able, through the NFU or others, to let farmers know what is happening. It is grossly unfair to keep all those who are desperately concerned in the dark and to deny them information.
We have been quite successful in getting a fair bit of the domestic livestock industry back to some form of movement. I accept that it is not taking place under normal conditions; the licensing requirements are tight, severe and bureaucratic. However—believe me—if unlicensed movements of livestock were taking place throughout the country. the chances of eliminating the disease would be dramatically diminished. I know that people find the licensing regime burdensome, but I assure the House that it is necessary.
There is a whole separate set of questions about the welfare disposal scheme which is designed to help farmers in circumstances in which the animals cannot move through the trade and cannot be managed locally. I agree that there have been teething troubles, but we are trying to resolve them. Potentially, the scheme will be very popular.
My right hon. Friend will know that we have a major outbreak in the Berkeley area of my constituency where seven farms have already been infected. We are now about to embark on the proactive cull. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend define what is meant exactly by contiguous holdings, because the issue is causing concern? Will he also tell us how the chain of information goes to such holdings, because there have been difficulties in the way in which that has taken place? Will he consider the issue of disposal, because we must get on top of that problem very quickly—and will he also consider the role of slaughterhouses in areas of infectivity, because they have a major influence on what animals can move and where?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on his final point but, to some extent, that problem is unavoidable.
Infected premises will be slaughtered out within 24 hours; that is the target that we have set and, as I have said before, it is the single most important intervention that we can make. There is a target of 48 hours for the contiguous premises, but clearly veterinary resources have to be prioritised. Infected premises—including any that might exist in other parts of my hon. Friend's county— are the priority but, when the infectivity is less dense, it is perfectly possible for a vet to take a slaughter team with him, identify the animals and slaughter can take place at once. Although I cannot promise that it will always happen, it is possible in some cases that the surrounding premises can then be visited and slaughter—I know it is hard, but it is necessary—can commence there as well.
My hon. Friend asked about the definition of contiguous premises. It covers those that border the infected farm holding, but it is possible to make a case in exceptional circumstance. However, the circumstances must be exceptional—the general rule is that the animals are to be culled out.
We now have the voluntary livestock. welfare disposal scheme, but I assure the Minister that it is not working. A pig farmer in my constituency—who I believe the Minister met yesterday—now has 3,000 more pigs on his farm than the buildings can accommodate. That is absolutely disastrous. Yesterday, the farmer was ready to move his pigs to the licensed abattoir at Hatherleigh, which was ready to receive them, and transport was laid on to start the process.
At 7 pm, an official from MAFF rang and cancelled everything. He stated that animals should be slaughtered on the farm. The Minister must concede that that would be dreadfully inhumane, a danger to public health and appalling for animal welfare purposes . I dare not dwell on the consequences of partial culls being handled on the farm, especially in pig buildings. I am told that the official who cancelled the arrangements was a Whitehall official, so will the Minister please resolve the chaos and confusion and issue instructions immediately that the scheme should proceed through the abattoir at once?
I will take a hard look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. However, there may be countervailing reasons why the instruction was given—I do not know and I do not want to rush to judgment. The hon. Gentleman is right—I spoke to his constituent yesterday—and I assure him that I shall have a hard look at that case and get it resolved.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's frank and detailed statement and the spirit with which he is trying to address the genuine concerns of Members of all parties. I remind him that we now have eight confirmed cases in my constituency and perhaps another two about to be confirmed. It looks as though the situation in the county of Durham is continuing to deteriorate. I welcome the evidence of the speed with which slaughter is already following identification. Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether the rumours that the Army may come to the county are true?
Is the Minister aware that I was contacted earlier this afternoon by Mr. Colin Keron, a constituent of mine who is working as a temporary vet in Carlisle? He described the position in Carlisle as a continuing complete absence of management. When MAFF is scouring the world to find additional vets, I am told by Mr. Keron that vets in Carlisle are spending two to three hours at a time cooling their heels, waiting to be assigned, and when they do go out on assignment, it can take them up to an hour to get through to MAFF's phone line to get a new assignment. Mr. Keron describes the foot and mouth situation in the county as absolutely and completely out of control, and he joins the call of many others, including Members of all parties, for vaccination to be adopted immediately. The Minister will recall that I raised the case for vaccination with him six days ago. Can he please move beyond the consultation phase to action?
No, I cannot, because there are serious reasons why one might not want to use vaccination. That strategy is not to be rushed into just because some people call for it; others are bitterly opposed to it. It is important to explain carefully what we are doing, why we are doing it and what our exit strategy is, and it is vital that we explain ourselves properly to farmers and carry them with us. I did hear something of the complaints that the hon. Gentleman mentioned when I visited Carlisle yesterday, and I am taking action to make the best possible use of veterinarians' time.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the supportive remarks made by vets and farmers in Dover, Deal and other parts of east Kent. Will he consider the particular circumstances prevailing in east Kent, where two cases have been confirmed purely on observations, but all the blood and tissue tests have proved negative and local vets and certainly local farmers are convinced that there is not a foot and mouth outbreak? Yet we have the imposition of all the restrictions about which we have heard this afternoon, and tomorrow a massive cull is threatened of what I consider to be healthy cattle.
I said earlier that there is not a popular announcement that I could make. If I lifted the movement restrictions, as my hon. Friend asks me to do, and the disease spread throughout the southern parts of our country, I would be justly criticised. I am afraid that it is necessary to keep those restrictions in place for the time being and to work through the licensed movement system where we can. 1 know that that is hard news. I understand why people who believe that their animals are healthy resent it, but there is not an easy option and the right thing to do is to keep the restrictions in place. I apologise to my hon. Friend's constituents for that, but it is for the greater good.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whenever I speak to farmers they ask for two things: clarity of advice and co-ordination of operations? He heard what the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said about Brigadier Birtwhistle. Will he consider, as I asked him on Friday, appointing a senior military officer, to be directly answerable to him, to take charge of the operations nationwide, rather than merely having a series of regional commanders? When will the Minister give Members of Parliament the briefing that he promised us last week?
The briefing is placed in the Library daily and should have been placed in the Opposition Whips Office. As for last Friday's presentation to journalists and Members of Parliament who could attend, I aim to repeat that exercise this week or at the beginning of next week at the latest. I shall try to hold it at a time that is convenient for hon. Members, which I understand is mid-week.
Has my right hon. Friend or his ministerial colleagues had a moment to reflect on the proposal in New Scientist, which I sent to him, that napalm could be used to destroy carcases quickly? If there is a shortage of napalm in Britain, surely the Americans could help. [Interruption.]
I understand the question. It is not as frivolous as Opposition Members seem to think. We are considering a range of disposal routes, but napalm is not one of them—not even as a fuel, which is, I think, what my hon. Friend means.
Now that the epidemic has become a pandemic, I welcome the Minister's commitment at least to look at the possibility of using vaccines. How much vaccine is in the United Kingdom and how much might have to be imported? What contingency plans does he have to distribute the vaccine to vets?
Purely on a contingency basis, plans are quite far advanced. Some 500,000 shots are lined up for this strain of foot and mouth disease and I have access to an additional 5 million vaccinations, if they are needed. A vaccination strategy requires repeat vaccination. It is not an intervention that is carried out just once. We must also consider the time that it takes for the vaccine to have an effect. The shot that we have had made up is particularly vigorous and would have an impact on the animals between four days and a week.
The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, asks about distribution. We can get our hands on it fairly quickly.
My right hon. Friend will he aware that Calderdale is part of a severely restricted blanket exclusion zone, but local farmers have complained to me that they are not being officially told that they are in such an area. They are finding that out through the NFU, through conversations with neighbours or when they apply for movement licences. A number of those farms are more than 17 km from the outbreak in neighbouring Queensbury and the NFU has made representations to the Ministry to get the restriction limited to the 10 km exclusion zone. Clearly, welfare problems are an issue for anyone in a restricted area and I am not pleading a special case. However, it appears that a decision has been made to blanket an area when the normal restrictions might be more appropriate. Secondly—
I shall consider the control zones in my hon. Friend's constituency. However, they take into account local circumstances, are imposed on veterinary advice and are vital to prevent the spread of the disease.
Does the Minister acknowledge that there are three crises in the countryside? First, that of the farmers who have foot and mouth on their holdings, with the tragedy that that entails; secondly, that of the farmers who are caught in the restricted areas, which are widely drawn from London without regional guidance and where enormous problems of animal welfare and of running a business are building up; and, thirdly, the difficulties experienced by hundreds of thousands of ordinary businesses because there are tourist attractions with no tourists, visitor attractions with no visitors and businesses with no customers. Will he deal with those issues?
In addition, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that he cannot build a firebreak on the fells? If the disease gets on the Pennine uplands, it will sweep south like a brush fire. Vaccination might be necessary to stop that. Will he take that decision quickly? If he does vaccinate, will he ensure that he has got the vets to do the job? I am afraid that there is a history of a long interval between the Minister announcing policy intentions and their implementation.
It would not be necessary to have vets to pursue each individual vaccination. That can be done by others who are trained only to vaccinate the animals. For once, veterinary resources are not a constraint on policy. I have been as candid as I can be with the House. We have a vaccination strategy under consideration, which I am not announcing today. A contingency plan is being moved into place if we decide to go down that route. If we decide to stand it down, we shall stand it down.
We have tried to respond to the broader difficulties in the rural community, including those faced by the operators of tourist businesses and others. 1 have introduced the farm animal welfare scheme to deal with those who cannot in move their animals and cannot manage them in their local circumstances. The rates have been widely welcomed by the trade. They are as close to market conditions as we would dare get without disrupting the market. That has been done to try to help hard-pressed farmers Where the disease is found, we buy the animals on the basis of 100 per cent. compensation. I agree that that does not solve the problem, but it goes some way.
May I ask my right hon. Friend about abattoirs such as Farmers Fresh, which is a producer-owned and producer-led business in Warwickshire? I met some of its representatives last night. It is a high-standard abattoir and it was making significant progress in securing export markets for British lamb. With the present low through-put, it is facing awkward difficulties.
As my right hon. Friend said, we need to think also about recovery. The Farmers Fresh abattoir will need to exist when, as is to be hoped, we arrive soon at recovery. What help is he thinking of giving such abattoirs in the intervening period?
My hon. Friend is right to set out the difficulties that are faced by other parts of the food chain, including abattoirs. We are trying to get work moving where we safely can. We are trying to do other things to help the sector. He talks of a business being geared up for the export market. I do not know the circumstances in detail, but any recovery plan—we are working on such a plan with the industry—must take into account the fact that the export trade, especially for the sheep sector, is likely to be constrained for some time
Will the Minister consider urgently the practical issue of pedigree breeding flocks and breeding herds? Owners of such flocks—the sheep have genes that go back more than 100 years—are petrified that if the disease gets into them they will lose them for ever. I would like the right, hon. Gentleman to press that issue.
Will the Minister consider the question of price? It is welcome that cattle and sheep can now be moved to abattoirs, but the prices that are being paid, especially for sheep, are extremely low. There is a feeling that farmers are being ripped off by the trade. Will he look into that? Does he agree that one way to resolve the issue is to encourage both consumers and Government Departments to buy British?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about buying British. I appeal to everyone: if we want to help the British livestock market in these difficult times, we should buy its product. It is clearly identified in retail outlets. Let us make a special effort to buy British. That would help to reinforce the supply chain and reinforce prices within it. I have appealed to everyone in these difficult circumstances to treat one another fairly, and I am happy to repeat the appeal today.
I note what the hon. Gentleman says about rare breeds. I want to do what I can to save pedigree stock and rare breeds. He is right to say that a local vaccination strategy may help us to achieve that objective, either directly or indirectly.
I commend my right hon. Friend and his Department for their approach to this terrible problem. I am aware that he has documentary evidence, supplied by Sky Television and others, of illegal activities. Does he agree that the real issue involves livestock dealers and markets? Will he consider what I feel is a reasonable suggestion made by Commissioner Byrne, which is the tagging of sheep ?
We are in close contact with the European Commission about all that. I have not yet received the evidence that Sky Television said that it would send me, but when I do, naturally I shall examine it very carefully indeed.
Having listened to the Minister and to the Market Bosworth branch of the National Farmers Union earlier in the day, I have to tell him that he has no chance of meeting the 24-hour and 48-hour deadlines in west Leicestershire. He must bring the Army in if he expects to have an extended cull.
Why has MAFF got a block on the use of homeopathic borax, which has been used in previous outbreaks with great success? Does he remember that Nye Bevan said:
Why read the crystal ball when he can read the book?"?
Will the Minister read the homeopathic medicine book, and understand that borax is well documented as being very effective in preventing foot and mouth?
Getting our response time down to 24 hours from discovery to slaughter is essential; all our endeavours drive in that direction. In response to a question on a previous statement, I promised the hon. Gentleman that I would have the issue examined. I have asked for that to be done, but I have not yet seen the response.
A great deal of progress has been made. There are a number of possible sites and I know that there is a lot of interest in exactly which one will be used; all sorts of rumours are going round the community, as always happens on such occasions. I am not in a position to make a statement to the House today; in fact, I expect the announcement to be made locally. However, we are looking to open other disposal routes, and I understand that we are pretty close to getting those arrangements in hand and announced.
May I personally thank the right hon. Gentleman for the support that he and his Ministry offered at the meeting of the European Commission's Standing Veterinary Committee today, which agreed to give Northern Ireland regional export status? That was very good news for Northern Ireland. Given that the principle of regionalisation in the United Kingdom has now been accepted, will he consider opening up other areas on the mainland that do not have cases of foot and mouth so that they too can benefit from that development?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the Government want to pursue a regionalisation strategy where possible. I am pleased that we have got acceptance in principle for the strong and perfectly justified case made by Northern Ireland. As our efforts bear down on the disease and we confirm the disease-free status of the north of Scotland, western Wales and East Anglia, it may well be possible to make adjustments to localised movement controls and perhaps, in time, for trade more generally to resume. It is early days, but clearly we have that at the forefront of our minds.
My right hon. Friend is right that British consumers who want to support British farmers can go out and buy British products. Does he agree that if British people want to support their tourism sector and the broader rural economy, they should go out and do so now? Will he prevail on Opposition Members and perhaps the media to desist from their unhelpful assertion that the countryside is closed?
Even in infected areas such as my constituency there are small family businesses, such as the hotel in Shifnal, which has lost 75 per cent. of its trade in March for no good reason, and the village pub that 1 visited on Saturday, which has lost 30 per cent. of its trade for no good reason. Does my right hon. Friend agree that careless talks costs livelihoods and jobs and will he seek to instil that point into Opposition Members?
We are facing a serious disease outbreak in animals; that is no reason to avoid the countryside. All people have to do is stay away from farmed livestock. There are many things in our market towns, heritage sites and so on that people can visit; they should just stay away from farmed livestock. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
As one who has an unforgettable memory of the outbreak in 1967, may I ask the Minister to confirm that the then Minister, Fred Peart, was advised not only that the slaughtered animals should be buried immediately, but that if the carcases were burned, there was a serious risk that the virus was so viable that it could be carried a considerable distance beyond the infected area?
I do not know what advice was given to Fred Peart in 1967—I was at school at the time—but I do know that the business about the virus being spread by on-farm burning is a myth. The risk of the virus being spread as a result of the fires destroying the animals is vanishingly small. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that on-farm burial should be considered as an option. Indeed, it is used as an option, but only where that is compatible with the water table and with other very necessary disease—I include prion disease—control measures.
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to movement controls? Clearly, we must be vigilant about authorising any movements, particularly within restricted areas. However, the experience reported by my constituents, of very long distances being travelled from areas as far as the north of Scotland into my constituency for slaughter under the licence to slaughter scheme, contrasts with the extraordinary bureaucratic process that must be followed to obtain an occupational licence, with a paper chase across two regional service centres, and a vet's authorisation as well.
I understand what my hon. Friend says, but he describes two quite separate operations. No matter how long it is, there is very little risk in the final journey of the livestock to the abattoir. Such journeys cannot be interrupted, and the animals are supposed to be certified clear of the disease, but even if it is incubating in them without having yet come to fruition, they are going to an abattoir, where they will be examined by a vet and killed. They will therefore cease to breathe out the virus. There is an enormous difference between that and animals that are moved for perfectly proper reasons but will live on and risk meeting other animals, which thereby risk contracting the disease.
The Minister is aware that the number of cases in Northumberland and County Durham is rising, and there is great concern about the length of time that it is taking to detect the disease and slaughter the animals . For example, in one of the last two cases discovered in my constituency, it took five days from detection to slaughter, and in the other case, the animal, which was identified on Saturday morning, had still not been slaughtered two or three hours ago. That is causing serious concern that the disease will spread. One answer would be to take responsibility for the region away from Carlisle, which is clearly overwhelmed, and set up an independent control centre in Newcastle, so that we could get the help of the Army and have a chance of beating the disease. Will the Minister also confirm that farmers selling directly to other farmers or to dealers is not illegal, and that that has more to do with saving auctioneer's commission than fiddling any EU subsidy?
I am no expert, but my understanding is that the hon. Gentleman is right about dealing outside the market. It does relate to the auctioneer's commission. If people can come to an arrangement among themselves, that in itself is not illegal. With regard to controlling the outbreak in Hexham we are setting up a localised control headquarters in Newcastle. I cannot say with certainty whether that would embrace all his constituency, but I will check for him and make sure that he is told. He is absolutely right: we must get our response times down to 24 hours. Bringing in localised control is an effort to do that.
Was my right hon. Friend told earlier of any recommendation to ban the use of pigswill? Does he agree that it is not sufficient for Governments to take scientific advice when a crisis occurs, but that Departments should have the means to seek out and respond appropriately to scientific advice that can anticipate problems, so that pre-emptive action can be taken before they arise? Will he ensure that his Department does so?
I agree with the principle that my hon. Friend sets out and I try to work to it when carrying out my ministerial responsibilities. I have taken particular note of the Phillips report recommendations, which are guiding me in our handling of the outbreak, even though we are dealing with an animal disease. She will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) told the House regarding advice about the recycling of mammalian meat. 1 confirm that that assurance is correct and that the Government were acting on scientific advice, even though it related to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies rather than to viral infections.
Many farmers who are affected by this dreadful outbreak will be concerned about their position with regard to the payment of various moneys under Community livestock schemes. I understand that the Minister has had discussions about the matter with the European Commission. Will he report to the House on the progress that has been made? On the Seathwaite outbreak, can he give any indication about why the disease seems to have leapt a very long distance in a situation that he deems to be under control? Farmers in my part of Lancashire are now deeply worried that the disease can spread rapidly over long distances, and they are struggling to understand why.
I cannot give a complete answer to the right hon. Gentleman about the spread of the disease, except to say that it is highly unlikely to have been airborne, which narrows down the possibilities. With regard to livestock premiums, there are five separate premium schemes and I have the Commission's consent to the application of the force majeure rules. We have an agreement in principle, although one or two issues of detail still have to be sorted out in relation to inspections. However, the essential point is that the premiums will be paid and that the Commission is standing in our corner on the issue.
When the Minister considers vaccination, on which I welcome his comments, will he think about the positive effects that could be achieved for the tourism industry if it were introduced as a double-barrelled approach to the disease? For example, it could restore confidence in the northern part of my constituency. which has no foot and mouth cases, but is an infected area, and might allow tourism to return there. Finally, has MAFF made any assessment of the effect of census enumerators on the control of foot and mouth? I understand that their visits are due to occur at the end of April.
As I understand it, the census is not yet under way, but we are keeping the matter under review, as nothing should be done that would risk spreading the disease. That includes all inappropriate movements on and off farms. We have not announced a vaccination strategy, but as I said, we are actively considering it and contingency plans are being put into place. I assured my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that I would talk to his constituents—the people who would be most affected—before anything was done. I hope that we can restore visitors and tourist business to the countryside. People can visit all sorts of things without going near farmed livestock, so it is not vaccination itself that would turn the situation around. However, if it played a part by happenstance, that would be welcome.
The Minister spoke about a recovery programme for abattoirs. One step that he might care to take is to allow or encourage licensed abattoirs to participate in a welfare disposal scheme. As we heard from the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), no such encouragement is currently provided. We will need these abattoirs after the epidemic is brought under control. They have spent a lot of money on their equipment and they are under-used, and proper encouragement would ensure their survival. As the over-30-months scheme allows meat for human consumption and cull meat to be dealt with in the same abattoir, why does not he take that necessary step?
We are encouraging abattoirs to participate in such a scheme, but it must be compatible with the other necessary restrictions on products that are entering the food chain. It is not intended that animals that are dealt with in the welfare scheme should proceed into the food chain, so we need to ensure separation. Do I know of any human health reason why that should be so? I must candidly tell the House that I do not.
I use this opportunity to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for taking up the issue that I raised yesterday in a point of order. Members' briefings have now appeared in the Opposition Whips Office, but I should like to reiterate the request for an MPs' hotline to enable us to deal immediately with all the urgent matters that our constituents are raising. In addition, I asked two weeks ago whether emergency powers were needed to achieve the necessary speed in implementing the strategy that the Minister has introduced. We now read reports from No. 10 that there is an admission that Cumbrian farmers with healthy stock that needs to be culled cannot be compelled to allow that to happen and must give their consent. Will he review whether emergency powers are required? That also involves the question of vaccination as an option in the context of the contingency planning, which I welcome.
Finally, rather than just giving holding answers, will the Minister consider responding to my questions about when the inception of the disease in this country took place?
These are important issues. As I am sure the Minister agrees, they affect the epidemiology and, perhaps, the strategy that is used in treating the on-going epidemic.
I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman's last question in my statement. As for the daily report to Members, it has always been available in the Library. I had intended that Members should be able to obtain it through their party Whips Offices; I am sorry if there has been a breakdown in the process, but if there has, it results from no act of mine.
We are considering establishing a Members' hotline through the Cabinet Office communication network. I hope that an announcement can be made about that in a few days.
Cheshire is one of the top three cattle counties in the United Kingdom. Between 9 am and 1 pm today, 240 cattle belonging to my constituent Anthony Dale were shot on Shirdfold farm in Adlington. They were shot before the existence of foot and mouth disease had been confirmed: indeed, it still has not been confirmed. This was a pre-emptive cull, very much along the lines advocated by the Minister.
My farmers are experiencing problems in dealing with MAFF and the MAFF vet at Stafford—in getting hold of people, and in being given decisions. Following the shooting of 240 cattle, the immediate problem is disposal. Those on the farm want to bury them there, and people and equipment are available to enable that to be done. Will the Minister ensure that those responsible have the ability to make a decision?
Those responsible do have that ability. I will ensure that the individual case raised by the hon. Gentleman is examined as a matter of urgency. There is no ideological reason not to allow on-farm burial, but there may be other reasons that I do not know about. The most obvious is the water table; I do not know what the position is in that regard.
It is because there may be reasons that I do not know about that we have Environment Agency officials in our control centres—there is a new one in Stafford, as the hon. Gentleman said—looking into the issue. In the case of cattle aged over 30 months, there is also the question of BSE prions. A range of matters must be taken into account. This is not just bureaucratic delay; we have to worry about all those matters.
Mr. Lembit Ã–pik:
Does the Minister accept that farmers genuinely want to co-operate with culls, but are enormously frustrated by, on occasion, not being part of the consultation loop for local cull plans? Will he commit himself to reviewing the procedures, in order to help farmers—including those in mid-Wales - to be as co-operative as they can?
Will the Minister also address himself to the specific issue of the Rogers pig farm, which has 2,000 head of pigs? That means the infectivity equivalent of 6 million cattle, in the heart of an infected area. I fear that it represents a time bomb for mid-Wales, and also for the west midlands. Will the Minister please ask his staff to review the issue, and to proceed with a cull as soon as possible—preferably tomorrow?
These are incredibly difficult issues. Enormous risks are associated with intensive pig farming. I think that a farm in Wales would fall within the competence of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Secretary in the Welsh Assembly; I expect to talk to him on the telephone later, and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's question to his attention.
As for communications, representatives of the National Farmers Union are working with officials from my Ministry in Carlisle and Devon, which helps. There are also regular meetings with representatives of local farmers, a practice that I would like to see replicated more generally.
The Minister has rightly expressed concern about infection caused by illegally imported meat. According to the chairman of the East Anglian branch of the National Pig Association, the Minister was informed in a letter dated 20 May last year from Mr. Clive Lawrence of Ciel Logistics that gross abuses were involved in illegal imports of meat for personal use from African countries through Heathrow. There were, apparently, examples of baggage leaking, and of rotting deer and monkey carcases. What did the Minister do about that, when he was informed? Have there been further such incidents? What checks can put in place to reassure the House?
I think that the material to which the right hon. Lady referred was seized by the authorities—in this case, Customs and Excise. However, I shall look at the specific complaint that she has raised.
The right hon. Lady is right that there are more general issues that relate to the importation of surprisingly large quantities of meat for personal use and to the use of container transportation to bring meat that is not always accurately described into the country. Both those matters need to be looked at, with regard not only to the effectiveness of the law—I do not think that that is the problem—but to the effectiveness of the inspection regime. We must ensure that the intervention powers are adequate in the current circumstances, and they may well not be. If they are not, I shall come back to the House, and I expect that I should get all-party support in dealing with the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman has announced a consultation on the 20-day standstill. That might be a very sensible thing to do. Will he however, approach the consultation with a genuinely open mind? He will appreciate that he does not have to come to an immediate conclusion on the 20-day standstill. He will also appreciate that the advice that he is receiving on the matter comes from a fairly narrow source. I make no criticism of that, but the source is narrow. He will appreciate further that such a proposal would interfere with legitimate business. Finally, is he aware that it might constitute a barrier to the free trade in goods that is an EU requirement?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point was a fair one. They were all fair points, but the last one was particularly so. On that point, I want to assert the disease control imperative over the more general rule of the free movement of goods and services. After all, the 20-day standstill rule would apply to everyone; it would not be discriminatory. I shall approach the consultation with an open mind, and when he examines the consultation document, he will see that—certainly as far as cattle are concerned—because of the traceability scheme in this country, there are options. I genuinely welcome views on all the options.
May I turn the Minister's attention to the suspect cases at Uffington referred to by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser)? Is the Minister aware that a number of my constituents have animals—lambing ewes and cattle approaching the 30-month threshold—on land in the vicinity of Uffington ? Will he at least tell local vets and farmers who believe that those suspect cases were not confirmed whether they are right in that belief? If they are right, will he explain to them why licences previously granted to them have been revoked, and why they cannot now move their animals?
I do not want to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman an answer here and now, because I do not have sufficient Knowledge of the case. I shall write to him setting out my formal response, and I promise to examine the letter personally before it is sent to him.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Previous Speakers, when faced with a difficult situation such as this, involving many hon. Members trying to speak, have said that either they or their secretary would very kindly keep a list of those who failed to get in, so that next time there was a statement, they might be given priority. Several hon. Members have been trying for some time to ask questions without being called.
That goes without saying. In fact, the hon. Gentleman might have noticed that in the early stages I called hon. Members who were not called at the previous statement, some of whom are still present.