Foot and Mouth Disease

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 17th October 2002.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton 11:30 am, 17th October 2002

What procedure exists for calling on the use of the armed forces in a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The armed forces would be alerted immediately if a case of foot and mouth disease was confirmed. The procedure is set out in DEFRA's interim contingency plan, which is published on DEFRA's website along with an electronic mailbox for comments.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

I thank the Minister for that answer. When the permanent secretary of DEFRA appeared before the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year, he confirmed that the 29-day delay in bringing out the Army in last year's foot and mouth outbreak was because the Prime Minister's authorisation was not forthcoming. What would the Prime Minister's role be in any future use of the Army in a foot and mouth outbreak? Can he be kept as far away from the process as possible?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to read the Anderson report, he would know how crucial the role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in co-ordinating the total Government response, and how successful that was.

I recall well, having lived through the foot and mouth epidemic in the days of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the original call for the use of the Army. People did not understand the way in which the Army role would be played. Those calling for the immediate use of the Army thought that it would be used simply to cart animals around, dig holes and undertake the sort of work that plenty of contractors could do. The value of the Army is in logistical control and command, in which it has particular skills. The time to bring it in is when the size of the epidemic justifies that. I should say that the Army was put on alert within days of the outbreak.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to ensure that we do not have to call out the armed forces again, that we do not have to kill hundreds of thousands of animals and that we do not have to pay #3 billion in compensation, is to develop a suitable foot and mouth vaccine and then routinely to vaccinate livestock throughout Europe?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I certainly agree that the vaccine will clearly have a greater role to play in the future control of epidemics. Indeed, vaccine technology has advanced from the date of the last outbreak to where we are now. Within the contingency plan we recognise that more work needs to be done on vaccine development. The Anderson report and the Royal Society report recommended that emergency vaccination should be moved up the options agenda. That is exactly what we will do in our future contingency planning.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Conservative, Leominster

Can the Minister confirm that the clearest lesson from all the foot and mouth inquiries that have reported has been that the State Veterinary Service needs to be as strong as possible? Will the hon. Gentleman say whether or not the moratorium on hiring state vets has been lifted?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I can confirm that the moratorium has been lifted. The SVS is an important part of our response to any sort of disease control. It provides advice on the prevention of disease as well.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that yesterday, at the Select Committee, the author of the Royal Society report, Sir Brian Follett, was openly critical of the Government's efforts in scientific terms to improve animal welfare and to counter diseases that threaten the livestock industry. What will the Minister do to respond to Sir Brian's sage criticisms?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will respond in detail, especially to Sir Brian's report, which was a very good piece of work. We accept the main thrust of the recommendations. I have not seen the details of his comments at the meeting of the Select Committee, but I will make a point of reading them. There is a debate at the Royal Society that will involve Dr. Anderson and myself. I am ensuring that all the members of the Select Committee will receive an invite to attend if they so wish.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister (Food, Farming and Environment)

One thing that came out clearly from Dr. Ian Anderson's report was the inadequacy of contingency planning in this country compared with the plans put in place in, for example, the Netherlands. The Minister has referred to the Government's interim contingency plan. Can he say now, 12 months after the last confirmed case of foot and mouth disease, and nearly four months after the Anderson report, when he expects to make public the Government's final contingency plan that can be open to public discussion and debate in the House?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Anderson report said that the outbreak that we experienced in this country was unprecedented on any international scale, and that no country's contingency plan was in a position to cope with an outbreak of such a type and on such a scale. In fairness, that should be recognised.

We recognise that we must re-write our contingency plans. We must rethink many of our approaches given the experience of the epidemic. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we have produced our immediate response, which is the interim strategy, so that we have a strategy in place. We are under way with the definitive strategy and contingency plan, which will be uprated. It will change because that is the nature of it. That involves a great deal of consultation and discussion. That is right and proper because we want to be open and transparent about this. We intend to bring forward the completed conclusions as quickly as possible and to encourage as much involvement and debate as possible.