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Foot and Mouth

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:14 pm on 21st June 2001.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:14 pm, 21st June 2001

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment. I know that she brings to the job wide experience of Government, and also knowledge of the countryside, both at home and abroad, acquired partly at least from her caravanning holidays. I look forward to debating with her the whole range of the responsibilities of her enlarged Department in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday next. I hope that she appreciates the depth and urgency of the crisis in our countryside. Whatever the merits or otherwise of restructuring in Whitehall, what the countryside, farming, tourism and the whole rural economy need is not a new Department but a new Government policy.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has taken this first available opportunity to make a statement on the foot and mouth epidemic, although I have to say in passing that a copy of her statement reached me only five minutes before she started speaking. I also warmly welcome the progress that she has announced on relaxing the restrictions on livestock movements from infected areas. Again, I offer the Opposition's full support for those and any further measures that are needed both to eradicate the disease and to help the industries that have been damaged.

I hope that the Secretary of State will not fall into her predecessor's habit of claiming regularly that the epidemic is under control when plainly it is not, or make claims like those made by the Prime Minister just before the general election, when he said that the Government were on the home straight in dealing with the disease, when plainly they were not.

I hope that the Secretary of State will visit not only one but many of the worst affected areas--in the Yorkshire dales, Lancashire, Cumbria, Devon and Somerset--where she will find that farmers paint a very different picture from that which has regularly been painted by Ministers. For example, in Yorkshire, after the Prime Minister's claim at the beginning of May, the disease spread into previously uninfected areas at an alarming rate. Does the right hon. Lady realise that the damage caused by the disease is not confined to the countryside? For example, in April, the number of visitors to Britain, including those intending to come to urban areas, was down by a quarter.

I am surprised, and very disappointed, that the Secretary of State did not refer to the public inquiry that is clearly needed. The scale of the epidemic makes it essential that a full public inquiry be held to establish how the disease reached Britain and why the Government reacted so slowly--and often incompetently--in those crucial early weeks, and to advise on an effective prevention strategy to minimise the risk of another similar national disaster.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that only a full public inquiry will be acceptable, that former Ministers responsible for handling the epidemic--all of whom seem to have been conveniently shuffled away or retired--must answer in public for their actions, and that the Prime Minister, who said at the end of March that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, must also give evidence? Is the Prime Minister still in personal charge of the crisis? The Leader of the House refused to answer that question earlier.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a full public inquiry need not take anything like as long or cost as much as, for example, the BSE inquiry, because the science of foot and mouth is already better understood and the period of events to be investigated is very much shorter?

Has there been any change in the basis on which the figures for foot and mouth cases are calculated? In advance of a public inquiry, will the Secretary of State arrange for a qualified statistician to undertake an independent audit of the figures produced by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food throughout the period of the epidemic?

I note the Secretary of State's comments on relaxing some of the footpath restrictions. Does she accept that footpaths in or near infected areas should be opened only after a proper and rigorous local assessment of the risks, in consultation with all the interested parties?

Does the right hon. Lady accept that the proposal for a 20-day ban on the movement of livestock, announced as one of her predecessor's knee-jerk responses in April, is unworkable in practice and should be withdrawn and completely rethought?

The Secretary of State did not refer specifically to vaccination. Will she start talks with other European Union member states on whether the EU-wide policy should now be fundamentally reviewed? Do the Government plan to carry out serological testing, and if so, will the results be published, and what will be done with the animals that test positive? Does she recognise that compensation is needed not only for farmers whose animals have been slaughtered but for many others who have suffered unrecoverable losses as a direct result of the epidemic?

When will the Government introduce a full recovery plan for the livestock industry, the rest of the rural economy, tourism and other countryside businesses, including the equestrian sector? How many businesses have benefited so far from the measures announced by the rural task force and, in the absence of the Minister for the Environment this morning, will the Secretary of State tell us who is now chairing the rural task force?

Do the Government accept that the epidemic should never have reached its present scale, and that if prompt effective action had been taken at the outset, as I suggested in the House and as inquiries into the previous outbreak made clear, far fewer animals would have died, far fewer family businesses would have been destroyed, far less damage to farming and the rural economy would have occurred, and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would have been saved? The crisis has inflicted hideous suffering and damage on human beings, animals, the countryside and the economy. It has not been handled well and has still not been resolved; it needs the Government's most urgent and continuing attention.