I beg to move,
That this House
recognises the potential risk posed to British agriculture and to the environment of the UK by the importation of animal and plant diseases;
acknowledges the crucial importance of preventing diseases from entering the country;
notes with concern the increase in the number of diseases in Britain emanating from abroad and the spread of virulent epidemics across the world;
recognises the implications for biosecurity of the enlargement of the European Union;
condemns the Government for failing to learn the lessons from the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease;
regrets the failure of the Government to address these problems and to instil confidence in the farming community;
and calls on the Government to take urgent action to put in place the stringent measures necessary to prevent animal and plant disease from entering the UK.
This morning I received a letter from the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environment Quality explaining that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was not available to respond to this debate because she was attending a meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development in the United States. He also told me that the Minister of State was at the same conference—two Ministers and staff in America at taxpayers' expense—and that he himself would be unable to respond to the debate because he was speaking at a rural affairs conference at the invitation of the Irish Government.
The Government have had a week's notice of this debate. It is perhaps understandable for one Minister to be unavailable, but for three Ministers to fail to respond to a debate on a subject that threatens the livelihood of British farmers is not only to treat the House with contempt, but sends a clear message to farmers that the Government are not interested in them or their future. Once again, the Government are letting British farmers down. I look forward to hearing the contribution of the Under-Secretary. I doubt whether the House will want to hear from him twice in the same debate, but we will see how it unfolds.
The year 2001 was possibly the blackest period in modern history for British agriculture. Our green and pleasant land became the scene of death and destruction. Our television screens were filled with images of funeral pyres, rotting carcases and smoke-filled air. The pain and suffering caused to Britain's rural communities was etched on the faces of those farmers who saw their lifetime's work destroyed by a contiguous cull on a massive scale. As a result of foot and mouth disease, 10 million animals were slaughtered, our countryside put up closed signs and some were forced not just to the point of bankruptcy but of suicide. For our farmers, it seemed like the end of the world as they knew it: for many, it was.
The subsequent report from the National Audit Office said that the outbreak cost Britain £8 billion—a £3 billion cost to the public sector and hence the taxpayer, and more than a £5 billion cost to the private sector. The Institute of Directors put the cost higher at £20 billion. We all understand that outbreaks of diseases such as foot and mouth affect not just our farmers, but the wider economy, the service industry and tourism. We owe it to all of them to ensure that it can never happen again. It is our duty, and the duty of any Government, to ensure that it can never happen again. Yet my colleagues and I have yet to meet a farmer who believes that we are better prepared for a future outbreak. The fact remains that the Government have lost the confidence of our farming industry in respect of their ability to prevent disease from entering Britain.
What did the farming community tell the hon. Lady about the £4 billion loss and the destruction of the livestock sector caused by the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy?
There is no doubt that British farming has suffered a number of difficult periods in recent years. That is why it is all the more important that the Government put in place the action necessary to ensure that we never see such devastation happening again.
The farming community's lack of confidence in the Government is in no small part due to their decision to deny a full and independent public inquiry into foot and mouth. Of course, we have seen a number of commissions and reports into the outbreak, but Government have steadfastly refused to conduct a transparent inquiry into the events and circumstances leading up to and during the course of the outbreak. The only public inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak was the result of pressure by Conservative Members of the European Parliament and was opposed tooth and nail by Labour MEPs.
I am grateful for that intervention, but I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman is talking about the full and independent public inquiry that the British farming industry wants the Government to call in order to get answers about why the outbreak happened.
Since it became public knowledge that we were holding this debate, my staff have fielded a stream of telephone calls, e-mails and messages from people throughout the country. Those people feel strongly about the issue: each has something to say, and is able to uncover another piece of the jigsaw in respect of what happened in the outbreak. That shows that the Government, far from reassuring people and answering their questions and concerns, have simply chosen to ignore them. However, those questions and concerns will not go away.
We have had the inquiry into lessons learned headed by Dr. Anderson, but have we really learned any lessons? Following the 1967 outbreak, we knew not only how the disease came into the country, but the very yard where the outbreak happened. However, despite all the improvements in science and forensics, and the leaps forward in DNA testing, we still do not know how the virus responsible for the 2001 outbreak came into the country, or why. The public's obvious concerns will not be allayed by the recent revelations concerning Jim Dring, the vet responsible for inspecting the premises in Heddon-on-the-Wall where the outbreak is suspected to have started.
Mr. Dring is an honourable and conscientious man. He concluded that the foot and mouth crisis would never have happened if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been more rigorous. However, he said that he had been hamstrung by a lack of veterinary resources.
"Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waughs' patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 FMD epidemic would never have come about."
My hon. Friend will recall that we discussed the Dring report in Westminster Hall on
I certainly echo the comments made by my hon. Friend. The report is a very important part of the evidence as to what happened during the foot and mouth outbreak. It is unfortunate that the Minister has tried to deny, from a sedentary position, what the Dring report contained.
The matter is about more than one man's mistake. It is thanks to Mr. Dring's courage and honesty that we have this vital piece of evidence. It was withheld from the Anderson inquiry, to which it should have been available. I echo the challenge to the Minister to explain why the information was not made available.
The House may not know that, when it became clear that the report existed, the Government claimed that it was an aide memoire—even though it is 26 pages long, and consists of some 11,700 words. It is an important piece of evidence that should have been available to the Anderson inquiry.
"it is clear from the cover note and from what Mr. Dring has said that he wanted his personal statement to go to the inquiry in some form. The legal advice was that it could be prejudicial to the trial of what almost certainly was the starting point of foot and mouth and therefore to any judgment that that court made. In a sense, that was understandable legal advice."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 24 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 701.]
However, to say that releasing the Dring report could have prejudiced the trial does not stand up to scrutiny. Mr. Waugh's trial was over before the Anderson inquiry reported. Moreover, publication of the report could have been put back until the risk of prejudice had passed.
There is no question that anyone wants to blame Mr. Dring. We want a definitive answer as to how the 2001 FMD epidemic started, and to ensure that its lessons are fully learned. One of the issues raised in Jim Dring's report is that the state veterinary service was under pressure because of lack of resources.
It is understandable that a man under pressure might make a mistake: what is not understandable is how the Government could allow the pressures to get to that point, knowing the risks that that entailed. What cannot be forgiven is that the Government tried to hide the evidence and to keep it from people. How can members of the farming community have confidence that the Government have given them the truth, when the necessary information comes, not from Ministers or the Department, but from the pages of the farming press?
It is understandable that farmers might ask why, if one damning piece of evidence can be withheld, should not other evidence also be hidden in Ministry filing cabinets.
I am sure that the hon. Lady has read the Select Committee report on the state of the veterinary service, which does go along with some of her points. We may never know what caused foot and mouth in this country, but we certainly know that the transmission mechanism was down to the fact that we have a process based on production subsidies, which means that animals are pushed around the country to earn a few pence. The Government have had to learn a lesson from that, and we are, thankfully, moving away from production subsidies. When the Conservatives were in power, what did they do to deal with that?
What we certainly know is that the Government have not put in place the inquiry that is necessary to make sure that we get answers on why the outbreak occurred and the disease came into the country. Mr. Drew implied that we would never be able to get to that answer. We did in 1967, when the inquiry not only got answers but set out lessons to be learned.
We now know, of course, that an internal DEFRA investigation has cleared Ministers and officials of any wrongdoing or attempt to mislead. I might add that the existence of that internal investigation was revealed only after it had concluded that everything was above board and squeaky clean. That will give no reassurance to the many farmers who want to get to the truth. It is, after all, only a few weeks since another internal investigation cleared another Minister of wrongdoing, only for her to be forced to resign after fresh evidence came to light a few days later.
I raised the possibility earlier that more pieces of evidence like Jim Dring's report might be sitting in Ministry filing cabinets. I would be willing to give way now to the Minister if he wanted to rise to guarantee to the House that no other information has been withheld and that Dr. Anderson received each and every piece of relevant information relating to the outbreak. I should be happy to give way if the Minister wished to do that, but I am afraid that the fact that he is not—[Interruption.] Oh, he is.
I have asked that question of officials and have been assured that that is the case.
Well, we have had a lot of Ministers standing up to talk about what officials have or have not done. It is about time Ministers took responsibility for what happens in their Departments.
I shall not give way because I want to make progress. [Interruption.] No. I shall make some progress.
The only way to restore our farmers' confidence in the process is to have a full public inquiry. I call again on the Government to do just that. We need plain and honest answers to simple questions.
We must all realise that the threat of another outbreak of foot and mouth or other equally virulent diseases is ever increasing. The increase in air travel and hence in the flow of people and goods makes the transmission of hazardous products all the more likely. In recent times, we have suffered swine fever and foot and mouth disease. Over the past six months, we have seen a growing number of diseases crossing our shores. In the south-west, we have had the first outbreak of brucellosis in England in 10 years. The previous case in the United Kingdom was an outbreak in Scotland, caused by infected cattle from France. Yet, to date, we have no idea where the most recent outbreak came from. One thing is sure, however: this and other diseases are not native to Britain; they are foreign diseases that enter our country from overseas.
We must consider not just animal diseases. In recent months, we have had outbreaks of brown rot and ring rot, the most contagious disease to affect potatoes, which recently caused devastation when it took hold in the United States of America.
The hon. Lady may or may not be aware that the potato ring rot outbreak in Wales was contained entirely efficiently and did not spread to other farms. Would she like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly Government and the Westminster Government on their efforts to ensure that it did not spread?
It is interesting that when there is a problem it is the officials, not the Minister, who take the blame, yet when there are congratulations to be made it is the politicians, not the officials, who are congratulated. I am happy to say "Well done" to those on the ground who were responsible for containing that disease, but the fact that it arrived in this country and that other diseases are being found is a cause for concern and we should look into why that his happening.
Another example of a plant disease is sudden oak death syndrome or phytophthora ramorum, as it is known. [Laughter.] I may not have pronounced that right and I hesitate to do so again. It may sound more like a spell from a Harry Potter book, but it is a serious disease that has taken hold in some parts of the country. It threatens our oak and beech tree populations.
Yes, indeed, it starts from rhododendrons but it then passes to oak and other trees. There is evidence of that in certain parts. [Interruption.]
Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to take part in the debate or to intervene, I should be grateful if he would rise in the usual way. Interventions from a sedentary position are extremely disruptive.
The important point raised by diseases such as sudden oak death syndrome, which has caused the destruction of rhododendron plants of up to 150 years old, is that people feel free to bring back plants from abroad. They do not realise the dangers of that to species in the United Kingdom. It is time that people were made more aware of the risks of importing plants. We must bear in mind the fact that with the enlargement of the EU on Saturday our borders will be wider and more difficult to control.
We expect our farmers to be vigilant, to look out for signs of disease and to put in place necessary biosecurity measures, but we must also play our part. It is all very well to ask farmers to improve biosecurity, but the single most effective way of preventing disease from spreading across our country is by preventing it from entering the country in the first place. We need to put in place stricter measures, such as are seen in other countries. What a difference there is between our lack of import controls, and, for example, the strict import controls seen in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. I heard recently of a tourist from Somerset who was surprised on going to Australia to be fined £1,500 after being arrested at Perth airport for importing an apple, a pear and five tangerines. By comparison we are lax on import controls.
How is it that today the hon. Lady is calling for more EU regulations to bring us into line with the United States and more investment in veterinary services and protective mechanisms of security when only yesterday the Leader of the Opposition said that he would reduce EU regulations by a third and make reductions? They are completely contradictory. How much would all this cost?
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene in the debate, he should listen to it before he asks his question.
I welcome the Government's new campaign against meat smugglers. Posters and leaflets are being circulated at air and ferry ports to make travellers aware of the potentially devastating consequences of illegally imported products, but leaflet campaigns are superficial. The subject should not take the Government by surprise. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Gardiner, is not present because I should like to pay tribute to him for his work on raising the issue of bush meat imports. He has raised this issue on a number of occasions. We should all recognise that illegal meat imports pose a major threat to the health and biosecurity of the nation.
We are not talking about a ham sandwich brought in by an unsuspecting tourist in their handbag or a half-eaten foreign delicacy. The trade in illegal meat is a multi-million pound a year criminal trade being run in an organised, systematic manner. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the views of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the independent consultants SafetyCraft, which conducted research for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which estimated that an average of 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat products are imported into the UK every year, a figure greater than the combined legal imports of beef into the UK from France, Uruguay and Argentina. That may amaze some hon. Members, but they should not be shocked, because the research also said that the figure could be as high as 17,500 tonnes a year. It is reported that baggage handlers at Heathrow airport have repeatedly raised concerns over personal luggage arriving on flights from Africa that are full of bush meat. Luggage has been found covered in maggots and some has left a trail of blood in the arrival halls. Often, the meat is detected by nothing more than its pungent smell.
The hon. Lady is wrong about rhododenrons, but she is right about this issue. There is a laxness about our border controls across the spectrum. It would be far better to have a single uniform border force that could cope with Customs and Excise functions, immigration functions and policing functions, as well as the intelligence work that accompanies those functions. It could provide proper interdiction of the import of illegal meats at all of our ports of entry, not just those where there happens to be a customs officer on duty.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a real need for us to focus on the issue and to consider improving our import controls. However, I am not convinced that that would best be done by a single agency that would bring people together in the way that he suggests, because of the specialisms needed to make assessments across the spectrum of issues. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the need to take the issue seriously, but I am sad to say that the Government do not appear to do so.
I recommend that the Minister look at the website of the Bushmeat campaign or speaks to Mr Clive Lawrence, formerly of Heathrow-based Ciel Logistics. It says on the website that Mr Lawrence has witnessed seizures of between 400 and 500 kg of illegal bush meat from just two passengers entering the country from Africa.
According to Department for Transport statistics, 64 million passengers landed at or departed from Heathrow airport in 2000 alone. Of course approximately half of those are leaving the country, rather than coming in, but nevertheless, they are massive numbers. However, according to the Customs and Excise annual report for 2002–03, 10,528 people coming in to the UK in total were searched, for all forms of smuggling. Illegal meat imports can be anything from beef, pork and chicken to exotic products such as monkey, antelope, grasscutters—which I am reliably informed are giant rats—porcupines and bush rats. Very real concerns have been raised that bush meat could potentially be infected not just with animal diseases such as foot and mouth and swine fever, but also with diseases such as Ebola and monkey pox which could have a devastating impact on human health in this country.
We should also not underestimate the dangers posed by avian flu, a highly contagious disease in poultry that has caused devastation in the far east. In the last few months, tens of millions of chickens and ducks have been slaughtered across Asia. Sadly, bird flu has also killed 22 people in Vietnam and Thailand. This is a disease threat that must not be underestimated. Nor is it a disease restricted to foreign or distant lands. Last year, 10 million chickens were culled in the Netherlands in an effort to stop the spread of an outbreak of the disease, at a cost to the Dutch industry of an estimated €200 million. It is a disease that has already struck in mainland Europe. We do not have any guarantees that it will not enter the British isles, and the implications could be far worse than foot and mouth disease. Only last week, Dr. John McCauley, of the Institute for Animal Health, said that the virus could be 20 times worse than the 1918 flu pandemic. He said that there was also a realistic chance of the current avian flu virus evolving to threaten people directly. It is important that we discuss such issues in a calm and considered manner. The last thing our farming industry needs is another food scare.
Although we must not cause a public health or food scare, we must also be sure not to take this issue lightly. As Gareth Vaughan, president of the Farmers Union of Wales, said only last month:
"Foot and mouth devastated the British countryside. We do not want to see a repeat of those dreadful scenes because of poor important controls allowing that or some other terrible disease back into the country."
That is why I say that it is an issue that the Government should take seriously.
The figures that I have show that the Government spend £22 million a year on the control and diagnosis of animal diseases and import measures. They also spend £15 million a year on research into bovine TB in badgers, making a total of £37 million on just those two points. Should the Tories get into power, will the hon. Lady give a commitment that they will not cut that expenditure in any way?
If the hon. Lady is a little patient, I shall come on to the Government's spending figures shortly.
The trade in illegal meat not only threatens the risk of further disease, but poses a serious threat to highly endangered wildlife in Africa and across the globe. The world's leading scientists have stated that species such as gorillas will face extinction within a generation unless immediate international action is taken. The necessity to deal with this problem is not only economic; it is environmentally and ecologically right to put an end to this illegal trade. However, it is a lucrative and an organised trade, worth up to an estimated £1 billion per year, and it is easy to see why. A grasscutter rat can be bought in an African bush meat market for a few pounds but, in the UK, each carcass can command a price well in excess of £100.
The Veterinary Laboratories Agency calculates that roughly 85 per cent. of the bush meat entering the country illegally comes in via personal luggage, that 11 per cent. is smuggled in ship containers, that 3 per cent. comes in via transit sheds and that the remainder arrives by post and courier. Eastern Europe, west Africa, southern Africa, eastern Asia and the near and middle east account for 83 per cent. of the total flow of illegal meat into this country. Once here, it is estimated that 55 per cent. is intended for commercial use. The majority is therefore not for the personal consumption of those bringing it in, but is sold on at vast profit.
Mrs. Lawrence referred to the figures that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is spending. It has invested £25 million in a three-year action plan to tackle the illegal trade, and that is welcome news. The initiative includes a new frontier enforcement strategy involving Customs and Excise, four new national strike teams of Customs officers to detect meat and animal products, continuing intelligence gathering and publicity drives and—wait for it—increasing the number of sniffer dogs from two to six. There will be six sniffer dogs when the UK has 110 ports of entry. As we have heard, Heathrow alone deals with more than 64 million passengers a year, and the Minister is offering us six sniffer dogs to deal with the problem.
I do not believe that the Government have taken the threat seriously enough. We have seen a 10 per cent. nationwide reduction in front-line Customs staff, rising to 40 per cent. in some parts of the country such as Wales. That means that ports of entry are often left unmanned. Strike teams and improved intelligence gathering have replaced, rather than supplemented, the existing service.
It may be worth while to compare the figures that the Government are spending with the sums spent in other parts of the world. Some £25 million is being spent over three years to address illegal meat imports in the UK, but Australia is spending £246 million in one year alone—this year—to counter threats from exotic pests and diseases. In addition, the Australia Quarantine and Inspection Service receives £116 million. Is it any wonder that our farming community has no confidence in the Government's commitment to disease prevention?
I shall not give way again.
The lack of resources is evident in one further area—prosecution rates. Only two prosecutions have been brought against people caught bringing illegal meat, including bush meat, into the UK since Customs and Excise assumed responsibility for the task a year ago. An estimated 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat is entering our country, yet there have been only two prosecutions in 12 months. Even when there are prosecutions, the courts are so lenient that prosecution acts as little deterrent. The first case involved a 48-year-old woman who was charged with illegally importing 186 lb—more than 13 stone—of fish, goat meat and snails from the Gambia through Gatwick. She was fined £150 with £140 costs at Mid-Sussex magistrates court. The second case was that of an American man who was fined £300 with £140 costs. What sort of message does the Minister think that sends out to the organised gangs involved in commercial smuggling?
I began the debate by referring to the scenes of devastation in our countryside in 2001. That was not just about pictures on the television screen. That devastation was felt by many people in their lives, as farmers watched years of painstaking work being destroyed before their eyes and many farmers and others saw their livelihoods vanish. We all have a duty to make sure that that cannot happen again.
Sadly, the Government are failing in that duty. Their failure to deal with illegal meat imports and their lack of import controls are putting British farming and potentially the health of the nation at risk. It is time the Government listened to farmers and others, including those on their own Back Benches who have been highlighting the risk. It is time the Government took the risk and the issue seriously. Their failure to act is letting all of us down.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"commends the action taken by this Government to eradicate exotic plant and animal disease when it occurs, and to control endemic disease;
congratulates the Government on its actions that have succeeded in reducing the number of BSE clinical cases to just 184 last year;
further congratulates the Government on eradicating a major outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in seven months and on implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Royal Society Inquiries so that Government is better prepared to tackle a future outbreak of a major livestock disease;
welcomes the significant progress made to tackle illegal imports both by increasing enforcement activity at the border and by increasing public awareness;
applauds the Government on its action taken against other animal and plant diseases, notably Salmonella Java and potato ring rot;
and notes the Government's continuing commitment to prevent serious animal and plant disease."
I am grateful to Mrs. May for initiating the debate. I am sorry that she felt it necessary to take a cheap swipe at my ministerial colleagues who cannot be present today. As the Minister responsible for animal health, I am pleased that I can be here. It gives me the opportunity to outline some of the measures that the Government have taken to protect and improve our animal and plant health record.
When Labour came to power, there were out-of-date and insufficient plans for tackling major outbreaks of exotic diseases, yet the Government managed to control and eradicate in only seven months the largest outbreak of foot and mouth disease ever, and contrary to the wording in the Opposition motion, we have learned the lessons from that outbreak. We have taken new legislation through Parliament to ensure that we have better powers to tackle not just foot and mouth, but other exotic diseases in future. We have put in place new measures to protect against the import and spread of disease, and we have consulted on and published detailed contingency plans for tackling those diseases in the event of an outbreak.
We have also set about addressing what the overall approach to animal health and welfare should be, a subject on which the hon. Lady had nothing to say. The Policy Commission on the Future of Food and Farming, known as the Curry report, was highly critical back in 2002 of Britain's animal health record under the previous Conservative Government. The present Government are committed to restoring our national reputation and we will do so by working with all interested parties. It is this approach that underpins the current development of our animal health and welfare strategy.
That will set out the roles of Government and others in protecting ourselves against the incursion or spread of animal disease. There will be incentives to good practice and a greater sharing of responsibilities and burdens between taxpayer, consumer and the agriculture industry. A key strategic aim will be to ensure that animal owners adopt a far more proactive approach to preventing disease and welfare problems and address practices that increase the likelihood of disease.
There are also some fundamental challenges for the veterinary profession. The recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on vets and veterinary services raises issues about the extent to which the veterinary profession will be able to deliver the aims of that strategy. We are working closely with the entire profession and with livestock farmers, and we will respond to the Committee before the summer recess.
Does the Minister share my concern that while we rightly allow veterinarians from within the EU, which is a single market, to come and practise in this country, it is clear that the amount of work they do on farm animal husbandry during their training is miniscule compared with the amount involved in veterinary training in this country? Does that cause him concern?
No, it does not. It would be wrong of the hon. Lady to decry the contribution made in this country by vets from other EU countries. Their contribution has been massively important, not least in the foot and mouth outbreak and since. They have a contribution to make and they would not be allowed to work in this field if they did not have the relevant qualifications. Our veterinary student numbers are at record levels, so I do not share the concern that she expresses.
No; I should like to make some progress.
The Government also accept that we have a key role to play in protecting public health, in protecting and promoting animal health and welfare, in helping to control or eradicate disease and in securing opportunities for international trade. We must recognise that the UK benefits enormously from that trade. In the last year for which we have figures, 2003, our livestock exports were worth £1,667 million to this country. Our export of crops was worth £825 million and exports of pig and pigmeat products alone amounted to some £107 million.
Imports are also important, because they enable us to produce a wide range of value-added products that we could not produce if we had to rely on UK materials. This is good for jobs and good for the UK economy generally. The hon. Member for Maidenhead was right to say that controls on imports from third countries are a major weapon in the fight against the introduction of disease via imported animals, animal products or plants. The vast majority of import controls are part of EU law. Where there are gaps, we apply domestic measures on the basis of a risk assessment.
Live animals and animal products may be imported only from third countries approved by the European Commission, and only from approved establishments in those countries. They must have an official veterinary certificate guaranteeing their health status and may enter the EU only via an approved border inspection post at the port or airport of entry. There, comprehensive veterinary checks are carried out to ensure that all the import conditions specified in Community law are met. Only then will they be released for import.
Imports from other EU member states will have been subject to controls before they were exported, to ensure that they meet Community rules. Where there is an outbreak of certain diseases in a member state, exports are not permitted.
My hon. Friend has just explained the legal and commercial route for livestock and foodstuffs through border import posts. As I see it, that system has worked robustly and well for a long time, but the fears articulated in the debate seemed to overlook that system completely. Does he think that paying more attention to the successes would be very helpful in reassuring people when we start to clamp down on the areas that need more attention?
It is important that we draw attention to our successes, which is partly what I am trying to do, but there are also genuine concerns about the other side of these matters, including the illegal smuggling mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead, to which I shall refer in a moment.
There are similar import restrictions in relation to plant health. Where there is a plant health risk, all plants and some plant products must have an official phytosanitary certificate guaranteeing their health status, and some are prohibited altogether. All consignments are liable to inspection on arrival either at the port of entry or at an inland inspection point, whether or not a certificate is required. UK checks are targeted at trades and consignments deemed to represent the highest risk. For intra-Community movements, the onus is again on control in the member state of origin, through a system of plant passporting backed up by a comprehensive system of monitoring and trace-back arrangements in the event of a problem being identified.
Following the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, the Government have made significant strides to improve our ability to detect and prevent illegal imports of animal products from third countries. We have provided new money amounting to £25 million over three years to enhance controls. Her Majesty's Customs and Excise took over responsibility for border controls targeted against smuggled imports in 2003. A range of new measures have been introduced, including additional staff, better intelligence gathering behind the scenes and teams of detector dogs, of which there will shortly be 10. There has also been a significant increase in publicity material, and new posters and leaflets are now available to increase public awareness.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman on his specific question about X-ray technology. As a result of the measures that are in place, seizures of illegally imported meat have increased massively, and I shall give him some figures later in my speech.
"There will be an epidemic and some form of transmission into the human population. It is a matter of mathematics. No one can say when it is going to happen, but it will happen"?
What has he got to say about those comments from a fellow Minister about the Government's regime?
I hesitate to comment on quotes provided by Opposition Members that I have not read before, which may be out of context, but I will check up on that point. Yes, the threats are serious. Extra challenges arise as trade, from which we all benefit, increases, but I argue that the Government are meeting those challenges. The hon. Gentleman is right that, not least in the hands of terrorist organisations, zoonotic diseases could be a serious threat not only to the UK but to countries throughout the world, which is why we are implementing our measures.
In my reply to Mr. Reid, I said that seizures have risen significantly. There were 2,053 seizures in 2001–02, and that figure increased almost fourfold to 7,819 in 2002–03. The latest indications are that that upward trend has continued, and the figures for 2003–04 will be published in June in our annual review of controls on imports of animal products.
I have indicated that we can never achieve 100 per cent. protection against disease entering the country. One factor that can reduce or increase the spread of livestock disease is the quality of biosecurity within the UK. Biosecurity includes the extent to which livestock are moved around the country, and standards in markets, which is contrary to the contribution from the shadow Chief Whip, who indicated that livestock markets play no role and that biosecurity at livestock markets is not important. A high level of biosecurity is vital in helping to prevent the spread of disease.
Back in 2001, livestock movements in this country were virtually unrestricted except for pigs, but foot and mouth taught us that we could not continue like that. Farmers and others in agriculture obviously want to trade when and where economic conditions encourage it, but equally, the Government have a responsibility for the protection not only of the public interest but of animal health, and we have tried to find the appropriate balance between those two potentially conflicting points of view.
Initially, we extended to all species the 20-day standstill for pigs, but we also commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of various movement standstill regimes. We concluded that the 20-day standstill should remain for pigs, but for other species we should not revert to the pre-2001 laissez-faire approach but should instead introduce a six-day standstill, which we introduced in August 2003, with the involvement and overwhelming support of stakeholders in the livestock industry.
We have made it clear that if disease threatens, we will revert to a 20-day standstill, and that if disease returns, a complete movement ban will be imposed initially. The same approach has been taken to developing controls in markets and elsewhere. Biosecurity proved paramount in the eradication of foot and mouth disease in 2001. We have learned that the livestock industry must observe higher standards than in the past in order to reduce the risk of livestock disease spreading, and that we must improve detection of those who fail to comply.
Markets and livestock shows now have to be licensed to make sure they maintain biosecurity, as the mixing of a large number of animals from different origins could allow disease to spread very quickly. The cleansing and disinfection of livestock vehicles is also key to preventing the spread of disease. Strict rules were in place for some time, but we learned from the foot and mouth disease outbreak and improved the rules so that they can be better enforced.
With regard to the measures that are being put in place to deal with any future outbreaks of exotic animal disease, contingency plans that fit within the framework of EU-approved contingency plans have been and continue to be developed. The latest version of DEFRA's foot and mouth disease contingency plan, which provides the structures, roles and responsibilities to ensure a robust framework for the response to a future exotic animal disease, was laid before Parliament at the end of March 2004.
Let me comment on what Mrs. Browning said about the foot and mouth outbreak and the role of the state vet, Mr. Jim Dring. I accept, as do my ministerial colleagues, that it was a mistake not to pass Jim Dring's testimony—or whatever one wants to call it—on to the Anderson inquiry. We have also made it clear that, as the hon. Member for Maidenhead said, the decision was made on understandable legal advice about the possibility that it might prejudice the forthcoming trial of the Waughs. As soon as Jim Dring's testimony was drawn to my attention, I asked for it to be published and placed not only in the Library but on DEFRA's website.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for Maidenhead did what some in the media have done in quoting selectively and tendentiously from Jim Dring's very long testimony, to suggest that during the inspections immediately prior to the foot and mouth outbreak he complained about a lack of resources. He did not. The only reference that he made to the service being stretched was in connection with an earlier outbreak during the previous year. It is best to read Mr. Dring's report in full. He has said that there was no knowledge that he possessed at the time that was not passed on to the Anderson inquiry. Professor Anderson, whom I asked to read Jim Dring's report in full, has also said that nothing contained in it would have made any difference to his recommendations.
I have to tell the House that Mr. Dring is furious about the misrepresentations made in some media reports, which I am afraid were repeated by the hon. Member for Maidenhead and which seem to try to divert blame for the foot and mouth outbreak from those who were responsible on to a conscientious and hard-working vet.
In questioning this matter there is no attempt, certainly on my part, to put the blame on Mr. Dring. I raised the issue in the House on
It did not have to be dragged out from me. As I said, as soon as I was aware of the report, I put it into the public domain. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I usually have quite a lot of time, falls into the same trap as the hon. Member for Maidenhead and some of the media by misquoting not only Mr. Dring's report, but quotes in this House by my ministerial colleagues. The Secretary of State did not describe the Dring report as merely "musings", and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman check his facts in Hansard before misquoting hon. Members.
I want to say something about endemic diseases. Again, the Government's record shows that we can get those under control, as is illustrated by BSE, which is now in sharp decline. From a peak of more than 37,000 clinical BSE cases in 1992, there were 184 clinical cases last year. We hope that beef exports banned under the previous Conservative Government will soon be able to resume.
Brucellosis was confirmed in a suckler beef herd in Cornwall last month. The outbreak was detected early and dealt with swiftly, and has not affected our officially brucellosis-free status within the EU.
Bovine TB is perhaps the most difficult animal health issue that we face. We recognise the distress and hardship to those whose businesses are placed under restriction, but there are no easy answers. This is a complex disease, and many of the scientific issues associated with it are poorly understood. However, the Government are determined to tackle the problem by working in partnership with farmers, vets, wildlife groups and others.
There have been increasing calls by some for a policy of badger culling. The finding last year that reactive culling increased the number of TB breakdowns in cattle, compared with control areas, illustrates the need for caution. As I have said before, the Government are prepared to consider a badger-culling policy, but not in the absence of robust scientific proof that such a strategy would help.
I have regular contact with my Irish colleagues, and if the hon. Lady had taken the trouble to ask them, she would have received the answer that the report has not yet been published. As soon as it is, we shall respond to it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for my sedentary intervention. The problem with the Irish experiment is that it is not underwritten by any scientific rationale. That makes it highly defective, but we will learn that lesson. Given that my hon. Friend seems to have spent an awful lot of time answering questions from Mr. Paterson, who is unfortunately not with us today, would it not be helpful, in addition to considering the Select Committee report, to bring hon. Members in to look at the latest scientific evidence on bovine TB? I am alarmed that those on both sides of the debate seem to want to push it in a direction that is not underwritten by science. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to get on top of this disease is to use the science in a satisfactory way?
As usual, my hon. Friend speaks very good sense, based on a wealth of experience. He might be interested to know that, on a number of occasions, I have offered a specialist briefing to the hon. Member for North Shropshire, but he has so far not taken up the invitation.
I am grateful for the Minister's forbearance and I entirely endorse the comments of Mr. Drew. The Minister said earlier that it was absolutely paramount that biosecurity measures should be put in place and that his Department placed a high priority on that issue. What priority does it place on fallen stock, in respect of the animal by-products order? When we debated the order in Committee on
"We hope to be able to make an announcement on the start date shortly."—[Hansard, 12 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 495W.]
In fact, the scheme might not be in place until the autumn, at the earliest. What does that tell us about the priority being given to this important matter by the Department?
I regret that the scheme is not already up and running. It is not exactly hot news that it is going to be delayed until the autumn; an announcement was made to that effect about a month ago. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we encountered a number of problems getting the agreement of the industry on the levels of charges for the different sectors and different sized holdings, for example. We also encountered specific problems relating to sheep fleeces, among other problems, which needed ironing out. The delay that we are facing does have the support of the industry, and I am confident that the scheme will be up and running this year.
I need to say a little about plant health, because the hon. Member for Maidenhead addressed that issue in her speech. This country's record on protecting Britain from plant pests and diseases is an excellent one. The high level of UK expertise in this area, both in terms of the quality of scientific input and the effectiveness of on-the-ground inspection and enforcement is widely recognised. Indeed, that recognition has been acknowledged in the National Audit Office report, "Protecting England and Wales from plant pests and diseases", which also noted the country's good record on containing and eradicating outbreaks.
Clearly, the best first line of defence is to keep pests and diseases out, and again the UK's record is good in that regard. But without a complete ban on trade it is not possible to prevent totally the entry of pests and diseases, and even then some will make their own way here. The plant health service's ability to respond rapidly to outbreaks is therefore vital. As my hon. Friend said, the response to last year's outbreak of potato ring rot in Wales was widely acknowledged in both Government and industry circles as textbook, and was illustrative of the professionalism of DEFRA's plant health service.
Current and recent challenges, such as potato ring rot last year and the fungal disease phytophthora ramorum—sudden oak death—have highlighted the need for close collaboration between Government and growers. The potential impact of phytophthora ramorum on some of our native and non-native trees and other ecologically important species is a particular concern. As soon as the link between the strain found in Europe and the US was established, by a Forestry Commission scientist, the UK was instrumental in securing an EU co-ordinated approach to tackling the disease. I have heard it said several times that the disease continues to be imported into this country. However, the majority of the findings confirmed so far are of UK origin. That is why, at the end of last year, in addition to the EU measures, I agreed a 50 per cent. increase in resources devoted to the detection of the disease and research.
Although it is still too early to be certain, our strategy appears to be working. Comparing the first three months of 2003 with 2004, the number of new outbreaks has dropped by 67 per cent. The first major Forestry Commission phytophthora ramorum woodland survey has also recently been concluded. The disease was not found during the survey of 1,348 sites visited across Great Britain. That is encouraging news but we still have a lot of work to do. I have seen for myself in California the devastation that this fungus can cause. It is imperative that we gain a clear understanding of the potential impact here, and in the meantime that we continue to take a precautionary approach. I am very conscious that that is creating difficulties for those affected in a number of areas. I am grateful for their continuing co-operation and understanding. For the Government's part, we will do our best to work with those concerned to ensure that the impact on their businesses of any necessary action is minimised.
The hon. Member for Maidenhead had something to say about money. I was pleased about that. I shall give her a couple of examples comparing spending on this area now with spending under the previous Government. The total DEFRA spend on veterinary research in the last year of the Conservative Government, 1996–97, was £24,240,000. In the last year for which we have figures, 2001–02, it was £37,576,000. That is a huge increase, of 54 per cent. Similarly, with regard to resource allocation to the state veterinary service, the spend back in 1995 was £1.1 million, compared with £1.445 million now. I cannot do the maths off the top of my head, but that seems to me to be a 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. increase. Again, that is a huge increase in the Government's commitment to tackling the issue.
Back in February, I wrote to the hon. Lady asking her about her financial commitment not just to this area of policy but to DEFRA as a whole. As we all know, her colleague the shadow Chancellor announced that only education and health would be protected in terms of spending in the first two years of the next Conservative Government, and that the cut that would have to be inflicted on DEFRA was equivalent to about £140 million. I sent that letter on
If one goes through a list of all the potential plant and animal diseases, and their prevalence in this country, the rest of Europe and other parts of the world, one sees that we have a much better record on plant and animal health than is generally assumed because of the major problems caused by BSE, foot and mouth and bovine TB. On plant health, we have one of the best records in the world. Diseases or pests that are common or endemic elsewhere, such as Colorado beetle, potato ring rot and thrips palmi are rare or absent here.
Animal diseases such as rabies, swine fever, avian flu and brucellosis which are endemic or cause regular problems abroad are absent from this country today. In fact, contrary to what is said in the motion, there has been a positive trend despite a massive increase in trade. Activity to eradicate animal diseases has continued over the last 40 years under successive Governments, and foot and mouth, classical swine fever, brucellosis and Aujezsky's disease, for instance, are no longer endemic here. Any incursions of disease have been dealt with effectively to maintain our disease-free status.
The foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 was brought under control in record time, and measures are now being taken on the basis of recommendations made by the Anderson and Royal Society reports. We are working with the farming industry to tackle tuberculosis in cattle, a problem that we share with a number of other countries including Ireland, the United States and New Zealand. We have also developed, for the first time, an animal health and welfare strategy, so that we can learn from the problems we have experienced and from best practice abroad.
I am sorry, but I am about to finish my speech. The hon. Lady had an opportunity to intervene earlier.
The strategy will help producers to improve and protect their animals' health. It will provide incentives for good practice, and it aims to make the balance of the cost between producer, consumer and taxpayer more equitable if problems do occur.
Against that background, I urge the House to reject the motion and support our amendment.
First, let me draw attention to my entries in the Register of Members' Interests in relation to livestock farming.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate these issues today, as too often we have been prevented from doing so. My hon. Friend Andrew George has frequently chided the Secretary of State for treating the House as a notice board rather than as a debating chamber where we can scrutinise Government policy, and perhaps contribute to making it more beneficial to the British agriculture industry. I would go a little further: I think that DEFRA does treat the House as a notice board, but often it has no messages to put on the notice board.
The farming industry finds it very difficult to plan for the future when so little information is given to it. We are still waiting, for instance, for information on tenants and new entrants in the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. They are the most vulnerable people in the industry. The over-30 month scheme seems to have disappeared over the political horizon, and if we had to depend on the Government for the fallen stock scheme the stock would remain fallen on the farms, which would cause a great problem for everyone.
Bovine TB is getting out of hand. It is spreading across the country at an alarming rate. What causes farmers the most distress, though, is the Government's inactivity and lack of resolution.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the spread of bovine TB. In Cumbria we were exempt, but when we were "killed out" after foot and mouth we imported cattle with TB from the south-west. It was not badgers that spread the disease in our area.
I do not think we have yet resolved the question of whether TB is always spread from bovine to bovine, or from wildlife to bovine animals. Part of our concern is the need to get on and do the fundamental research that is so important. As the Minister said, we must make decisions based on sound science. If we start to base them on knee-jerk reactions, we will probably end up in a worse situation than at present. Mr. Martlew made a good point on the movement of cattle. We are considering the consultation document on TB and will have something to say on pre-movement and post-movement testing.
The Government seem to have no confidence in themselves to deal with a number of the issues, and as a result, the industry has no confidence in the Government. That is a poor base on which to establish a sound and realistic approach to preventing disease from entering this country, and to stop the spread of disease if it does enter the country and take hold.
Of course, I accept that the Government have had to start from a very weak base. It was the Conservative Government who closed veterinary investigation centres and presided over the closure of veterinary departments in universities. Had it not been for work done by my predecessor, they would have closed the veterinary department in my university, Cambridge, but luckily, that survives. They also centralised the state veterinary service and reduced the number of vets involved in it, and I shall come back to that. As the Minister said, when this Government took over, the contingency plans in place were often incomplete, inadequate or incomprehensible to read, and they were of no use in dealing with diseases when they occurred.
Much mention has been made of the problem with imports, which is fundamental. I am sure that farmers' and the agriculture industry's trust in the Government would be enhanced if the Government were much more open about the importance of import controls. We can hardly hear them speak about import controls without their then going on to talk about biosecurity in the farming industry. Farmers accept that, but they would also like to see a much more open, definite and strong voice when the Government talk about import controls.
Some 18 months ago, I spoke in support of a ten-minute Bill in the House that asked that import controls be put in the hands of one agency. I was therefore very encouraged when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced one day that that would happen, and that controls would be put into the hands of Customs and Excise. That is the right move, but I do not know if it has achieved as much success as we would have liked. The sheer quantity, as Mrs. May pointed out, of illegal meat that comes into this country makes it almost certain that at some stage we will get an exotic disease that is either infective to animals, whether to domestic animals or wildlife, or is a zoonotic disease—one which spreads to human beings. All the public uproar that we had over BSE and foot and mouth would be as nothing compared with the public uproar if a disease came in that affected the human population.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I tried to intervene on Mrs. May. Much is said about import controls, and I wholeheartedly agree that despite what we have done, we need to toughen them up. Much emphasis is given to what the United States does, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that what we have seized in this country is only a fraction of what they have seized in the United States. We say that that country has a good system, but it seizes literally hundreds of thousands of kilos. That seems to be forgotten.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there is a huge market in ethnic foods in this country, which contributes to the scale of the problem.
I have visited Heathrow, through which, as the hon. Member for Maidenhead said, more than 60 million people a year pass. That is an enormous number of inspections to carry out. We will never tackle this problem if we attempt to do so on a random or lottery basis, and greater emphasis must be placed on an intelligence-driven system. The people involved in illegal meat imports are often the same people who are involved in narcotic and drug imports. They see the former as an almost equally profitable business to be in, but without the great danger of being apprehended, and with virtually no danger of any punishment if they are caught.
In addition to an intelligence-based system, we want magistrates and judges to be given more training in the nature of this offence, and to be made aware of the severe consequences if illegal meat imports continue. The best deterrent of all is a very stiff sentence. We look to the courts and the training systems to ensure that that issue is addressed.
I missed the hon. Gentleman this morning at Windsor Great Park—[Interruption.] I was there and he was not. He is making some very constructive suggestions in respect of illegal imports, but will he distinguish—as I asked the Minister to do— between such imports and legal commercial imports conducted through import posts, at which the inspections are thorough and reliable?
I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman. If he is talking about commercial meat imports into this country that come through recognised ports and which are declared, I take his point. We still have a problem with beef imports from south America, for example, where foot and mouth remains endemic. We import from areas that are "foot and mouth free", and we depend very much on the work done in those countries to ensure that meat is sent there with a credible assurance that it is free of foot and mouth.
One of my concerns is that when cargo consignments enter this country, they are often labelled as consolidated, with no indication given of what might be in the container or package. Clive Lawrence—he has been mentioned before—points that out as a great weakness in the system. It would be of great help at airports and seaports if full details of the contents of imports were given on containers.
The problem with the debate about illegal imports—and legal imports, as my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney alluded to—is that it is not as straightforward as it appears. The EU has been in dispute with the US for countless years about hormones in beef, and in my view the EU is right; indeed, I had an argument with my noble Friend Lord Rooker about whether such opposition is legitimate. The situation is not as straightforward as "Illegal imports bad, legal imports good."
I take the point that the situation is more complicated than that.
I shall have to gallop through the remainder of my speech if other Members are going to contribute. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives raised the subject of foot and mouth and Mr. Dring's report in the House on
BSE is a classic case of our not addressing the fundamental science. We still do not understand the nature of the infective agent. We do not understand entirely how it spreads from bovine to bovine or whether it is also found in ovine animals. Equally, we do not know with any certainty how it spreads from cattle to human. That has resulted in huge problems of expense. No one who has had a blood transfusion since, I think, 1980 can donate blood, because we did not understand then and we do not understand now. Investment in fundamental science is always cost-effective for the nation, because it allows us to make decisions with certainty rather than guessing.
Has the Minister fully investigated the problems of developing an effective vaccine for tuberculosis? Is it being held up by financial considerations, or by the fact that it takes a number of generation times to do the development work—or are we simply not putting enough pressure on the research establishment? Very difficult decisions will shortly have to be taken.
Professor Godfray's report said that Professor Bourne's recommendation not to continue with active culling was implemented too soon. That is a classic example of two different interpretations of the same evidence.
There has been a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Professor Godfray said about the abandoning of the reactive cull. Neither he nor John Bourne said, contrary to some press reports, that it was the wrong thing to do. They both said that, in terms of science, it would have been preferable for the cull to have continued, but given the fact that the independent scientific group found—Professor Godfray did not challenge this—that the reactive cull had increased the incidence of TB in cattle by 27 per cent. in the affected areas, both gentlemen understood why, politically, the Government could not possibly have continued with the cull.
If we consider the whole process of the Krebs trials, we see that several issues need clarification, either from the Minister or from his officials.
We are very pleased that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is conducting another investigation of TB. I do not see the Chairman here today, but I urge the Committee to visit Ireland. There is a lot of discussion about whether the work being done there has the imprimatur of the peer review that is so essential to science, but the Committee should go there and scrutinise it, just to see whether it has any implications for the British situation, because there are a lot of similarities in relation to the countryside and the nature of our agriculture.
The outbreak of ring rot in potatoes was in my constituency. There was disagreement in the House about who was responsible for controlling it—the politicians or the officials. We should all have enough good grace to say that the person really responsible for ensuring that the disease did not spread was the farmer. We talk about biosecurity, and he had excellent records and could trace the path of every single potato that had left or entered his farm. I do not want to make the point again in great detail today, but Ministers refused my invitation to meet the farmer, John Morgan, who could explain the position to them. There is a man suffering huge financial losses, for which no blame has been apportioned. I believe that his position should be examined: it is a one-off, and if it had not been for his immaculate work in maintaining records and doing his job, the problem could have been a lot worse than it is.
I finish with a brief review of the veterinary service in Britain. The state veterinary service has been centralised and reduced: it is no longer as reactive as it was to local developments. The British Veterinary Association made contact with me today and asked me to ask the Minister how many times vets go out on livestock farms nowadays to examine the livestock itself. Not only is the state veterinary service much reduced, but because the livestock industry has gone through difficult financial times, large animal practices are not as thick on the ground as they were. More and more of vets' work is connected with pets and small animals. Vets seldom go out to look at the stock on farms. Indeed, even during emergencies, few vets are available to treat large animals. I could provide many examples to back that assertion, if necessary. Will the Minister respond to my points about the state veterinary service and private veterinary practice? I reiterate my point about the importance of reflecting on what is happening in Ireland.
The Minister provided some evidence to show that the Government were spending more money on research, but we say that it is very well spent indeed, and if there is any more investment is to be made, it should be in the fundamental sciences, because in the long run, they will prove most effective in dealing with the problems that we are debating this afternoon.
I shall start by attacking the Opposition's logic in claiming that the Government's record does not bear looking at. I shall then gently criticise my Government for some of the things that they have not yet done.
It seems to be my lot to speak about agriculture. Over the years, I have tried to get away from it, but the reality is that I am in my place to talk about it again. In 1986, I was working for one of the largest dairies in the country when the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl took place, nearly closing the factory. To be honest, biosecurity would have had no effect on that particular incident.
It may be asked why I am bringing up events that happened in 1986. First, I remember that in 1986 the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—now the noble Lord Jopling—said that the matter was under control and that the problem would be solved in six months. However, farms—many in Wales and, I understand, some in my county of Cumbria—are still affected by radiation from Chernobyl. So nearly two decades on, we are still suffering from problems stemming from Chernobyl. The Government of 1986 allowed lamb contaminated with radiation to enter the food chain. When I became a Member of Parliament, I sat on the Agriculture Select Committee, which conducted an inquiry into that matter.
Shortly after that, I recall the problem of salmonella. It was a major issue because the responsible Minister and former MP, Edwina Currie, said that most British eggs were contaminated with it. That created panic in the country and meant the destruction of millions of hens. It took the industry years to recover and brought an end to a ministerial career. I recall debating the issues in the House and quoting Peter Rabbit—the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time was John MacGregor, and it seemed appropriate.
Some people say that the problems caused by foot and mouth disease are of the same magnitude as those caused by BSE. They are not. The difference is that BSE has killed 140 people, including an 18-year-old constituent of mine.
Moreover, BSE was not imported, and did not come to Britain in someone's suitcase. It was manufactured in the UK, by the previous Conservative Government, who allowed a reduction in the rendering temperatures used on material going into food. I do not say that they manufactured BSE deliberately, but the problem arose directly out of that decision.
Today, the Opposition's criticism of the Government does not amount to very much, as an inspection of the motion makes clear. Some Opposition Members attending this debate were in the House at the time of the BSE scare, and some were even Ministers. In fact, I accept some responsibility too, as I was a member of the Select Committee that investigated the matter. We concluded that it was safe to eat beef, but we were wrong. It was not safe to eat beef at that time, but we did not know the science involved. Later, I was in a car on the way back from a by-election when I heard the then Secretary of State for Health admit to the House that BSE could be transmitted from animals to human beings. We must not think that BSE and foot and mouth are of equivalent seriousness, as the foot and mouth outbreak did not lead directly to any human deaths.
I want to say, by way of a gentle word to the Minister, that it is not a good idea to keep on saying that the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak was the largest in Europe, or the world. I do not think that this Government, or any other, could have tackled it any better, but the truth is that they did not tackle it very well. I am sorry that my hon. Friend Mr. Brown is not present, as the foot and mouth outbreak was tackled well across the border in Scotland. The problems there were far smaller than in England.
I represent Carlisle, so I was at the epicentre of the outbreak. It was not very pleasant, and I accept that the problem went far beyond the loss of animals. A whole way of life was lost, and many people lost their life's work. That was very distressing.
My constituency is mainly urban, and I live in the centre of it. However, I could smell the meat singeing on the pyres all around. I vowed that we should never have to go through that again—in my constituency or anywhere else.
Part of the problem in tackling the outbreak stemmed from the fact that the previous Conservative Government had reduced the number of veterinary surgeons. If another outbreak occurred today, we would not have enough vets to deal with it. I suggested, during the 2001 outbreak, that we should establish the veterinary equivalent of the Territorial Army. Under that plan, we would have vets in reserve who could be called on in emergency. I am not sure that we have done that.
My biggest criticism of the farming industry and the Government—and the Opposition too—is that, both during the outbreak and since, everyone has avoided tackling the question of vaccination. I do not believe that we can make the country's borders secure. In 2001, the foot and mouth epidemic caused the general election to be delayed. If people wanted to create panic in this country, all they have to do is import the foot and mouth virus. That would be bioterrorism, and it could happen.
In such circumstances, it would not matter how many sniffer dogs we had at our ports. I remember asking my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, Mr. Morley, who in 2001 was Minister for Fisheries and the Countryside, if he knew the names of the only two dogs that we had. For the first time in my experience, he was not able to answer the question. In reality, our borders will never be secure. Although I agree that we should try our best to make them so, there will always be the chance of disease coming into the country. That is why I believe that we should make sure we never have foot and mouth again by introducing routine vaccination. It is sad that this country—under the previous Government, though I do not blame them for that—persuaded the rest of Europe away from vaccination. Unless we introduce that as policy, we will, sooner or later, have another outbreak of foot and mouth.
We all hope that there will never be another outbreak of foot and mouth disease, or that if there is, it is as long until then as the last one was from the one before. Vaccination is important, but when we considered it at the height of the last outbreak, retailers would not accept it for meat to be sold and we thought that the public would not buy meat if animals had been vaccinated, which was the justification for the retailers' decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should now be raising awareness and winning minds about vaccination for the future?
I totally agree. The company that runs the dairy where I used to work threatened to close it if we introduced vaccination, because it believed that the product would not be acceptable. That was nonsense. We need only to think of the number of other things for which animals are vaccinated. It was a panic reaction by the retailers. Even so, people in Cumbria practised on oranges—that is how close we came to vaccination. In the end, the National Farmers Union decided that it was not a good idea, although I suspect that most farmers in the area thought that it was. We have to take the opportunity now when there is no panic to get retailers, wholesalers and the industry to accept vaccination. It will be too late once there is another panic, as my hon. Friend says. Vaccination is the way forward.
Mr. Williams mentioned a vaccine for bovine tuberculosis, and I agreed with what he said. About 12 years ago, I tabled a parliamentary question asking why we had not developed a vaccine for that. We have had one for human TB for 50 or 60 years. The answer was that research was going on, but that a vaccine was a long way in the future. Twelve years is a long time into the future, and I do not think that the issue has been given enough priority. One reason for that was that everyone hoped it would go away. It will not.
Unless we have a vaccine, some difficult decisions will have to be taken. On one side, the farming community will rightly want to protect stock, and the Government will spend millions of pounds paying them compensation. On the other side will be the animal welfare people. It is a delight to see a badger in the wild. Any Government who underestimate the effect of carrying out a major badger cull are deluding themselves. I hope that we shall work hard on a vaccine. If the problem is resources, perhaps we should switch them from somewhere else, because that would save money in the long run.
I will conclude because I notice that a lot more people want to speak than I had expected. The Opposition had no right to table their motion because their record does not stand looking at. That is true on how they responded to Chernobyl, on salmonella and, especially, on how BSE started in this country, not just affecting farm incomes and animals, but affecting humans. Even now, it is unsafe for the vast majority of us to give blood because of BSE under the previous Government. Foot and mouth taught us a lesson, although I am not sure that the Government have learnt it totally.
I have explained my particular solution. It does not worry me that we might have an outbreak of foot and mouth disease tomorrow. We know what to do because we have just done it. People will be put in place and it will be sorted. What really worries me is if we have an outbreak in 15 or 20 years, by which time the lessons will have been forgotten and some community will suffer as mine did.
For those reasons I will support the Government today, but I am concerned that they have not learnt all the lessons from the foot and mouth outbreak.
So far there has been much discussion of the foot and mouth outbreak of three years ago, but I should like to address a specific problem that is current and is getting worse, and that is bovine tuberculosis. Large swathes of my constituency are already affected and infected. That is true also along much of the Somerset and Devon border. I am sure that my colleagues who are here today will also wish to comment on bovine TB.
Nationally we are aware that the problem is getting worse. In the past year there have been 18 per cent. more incidents and 20 per cent. more cattle have been culled. It is quickly becoming, not an endemic disease, but an epidemic. On several occasions the Minister has rightly acknowledged that there are a number of difficulties. The Government have published a strategy, imposed further measures to stop the spread from cattle to cattle, although some of those worries are much exaggerated, and have discontinued trapping badgers in reactive areas in the Krebs trials.
It is probably worth spending a few moments on the costs of those trials. They have already cost tens of millions. Compensation paid to farmers is increasing dramatically from just over £3.5 million four or five years ago to £31 million in 2002–03. My hon. Friend Mr. Paterson has done a lot of work, and as we know, asked a lot of questions on this subject. He has ascertained the sum that could well be spent. According to a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report, "Preparing for a new Strategy on Bovine TB", it would appear that over the next eight years we could well spend £1,000 million on just trying to contain, and not even beat, bovine TB. That figure does not measure what will have to be spent by farmers themselves, so the total figure will be in excess of £1,000 million.
Mr. Martlew is concerned and in an intervention mentioned cattle to cattle spread. It appears from a demonstration from reactive areas that the Government are doing only half their job. We know, to put it bluntly, that if we remove infected cattle but leave behind the source of the infection, which is arguably now proven to be the badgers in large areas of my constituency, the problem remains. More cattle become infected. That does not make sense.
My constituency has "no cull" areas, centred around Huntsham in Devon and in Ashbrittle, Chipstable, Skilgate and elsewhere in Somerset. It also has a proactive Krebs area centred on Hawkridge, which includes Dulverton, Winsford and Withypool—all mainly on Exmoor, as the Minister will no doubt know. The reactive area was centred around the Brendon Hill and Brompton Regis area. As it has been abandoned now, there are at least 40 farmers in my constituency who are impacted. In short, the cessation of the Krebs reactive badger cull has not removed the infected badgers; they are allowed to roam around. Being weak and suffering from a disease effectively means that they are moving into other areas. In that way more and more farmers are being impacted. The Minister gave the order to stop the reactive trials because, he said, there had been an average 27 per cent. increase in the number of cattle herds that had been infected in the trial areas—but the numbers ranged from 3.5 to 53 per cent. That is even worse than the spread to clean farms in the no badger cull areas. The implication was that the reactive cull had spread the weaker badgers infected with TB even further afield.
Christopher Thomas-Everard and his son have a farm in my constituency, and the Minister will probably have heard of them. They have made a detailed study of the issue. In 1979, only 0.1 per cent. of herds in the UK had TB, although the figure was 0.5 per cent. in the south-west. The disease was nearly eradicated, but now 40 per cent. of herds in the hotspot area of west Somerset in my constituency cannot sell any cattle because they have TB. There are now 20 parishes in west Somerset with TB, as opposed to one a few years ago. In Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, the incidence of bovine TB in clean herds has gone from 403 in 2000 to 1,240 in 2002.
How was the disease introduced to west Somerset? Some people believe that it was brought in when some Animal Liberation Front activist moved TB-infected badgers from Chagford, near Dartmoor, on to Exmoor. There is good evidence for that, but the problem is now well out of control. One of the saddest aspects, for those of us who care about animal conservation, is that the massive rise in the incidence of the disease has meant that lots of badgers have died, cattle have to be slaughtered before time and farmers have to put in great efforts to make the testing work.
The hon. Member for Carlisle made an impassioned plea for a vaccination. It is clear from Professor Godfray's report, and recent parliamentary answers, that there is no prospect of a vaccine being developed in time to save the Minister from having to make difficult decisions. However, given the amount of money being spent, someone in the Treasury may make the decision for the DEFRA Ministers.
We could do more to improve matters now, such as introducing gamma interferon testing. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's views on that. I am told that DEFRA completed a feasibility study in 2001, three years ago, but we still have no word on when the tests will be available for wider use. The Government have not published a progress report on their strategy to tackle TB in cattle since January 2001, and the Minister says that he is consulting—yet again—until June 2004. Farmers are not being helped. We need to use today's knowledge and sound science, and the Government must get a grip on what they intend to do and do it, instead of just consulting.
One option is to introduce "clean ring" testing of badgers in TB areas. We could also explain, without emotive use of language, that TB is a badger disease as well as a cattle disease. It has horrible effects on badgers as well as cattle and we need to do something about it, for the sake of the badgers and not just for the sake of cattle herds. We also need to provide a reliable TB test that does not show so many false positives.
The Government have failed to address many of the real problems of bovine TB, not only in my constituency but in the whole of the south-west. They have let down the very people they are there for—the British farmers—and caused unnecessary suffering to many animals. When the broader population find out—I have many urban constituents—that the problem has and will cost taxpayers a fortune, they will be very annoyed with the Government, and rightly so.
Thank goodness, I have the opportunity to explain my presence in Windsor Great park this morning before a story gets out involving a scandal and the allegation that I met Mr. Williams. This morning saw the launch of a campaign by the Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust for greater recognition and protection of ancient and historic trees. Given that this country has about 80 per cent. of Europe's ancient and historic trees, we bear a pretty heavy responsibility. I shall return to that subject on a more appropriate occasion.
I wish to refer to the foot and mouth outbreak two years ago. It was a most distressing time. I remember the day that I went to my local district veterinary office in Stafford. Along with the Army and the veterinary service were vets who had been brought in from all around the world to help. I met a vet from New Zealand, a Spanish vet and a South African vet on that day. It was a Sunday, but the place was teeming with people trying to get on top of the outbreak. I also met many farmers and none greater than John Lewis, who was there to liaise between the veterinary service and local farmers. He was rightly recognised in the Queen's honour list for his work during the outbreak. I saw all the heartbreak and upset, but I also saw the closed countryside and the businesses involved in catering, leisure and tourism that suffered too. That is how serious the problem was.
We all hope that such an outbreak will never happen again, but how realistic is that hope? We clearly need to plan just in case it ever happens again. One of the lessons learned from the outbreak that appeared in the Anderson report was that it is one thing to write a report afterwards and draw up a contingency plan but, if there is no outbreak for years afterwards, that plan will become out of date. The contingency plan that was dusted off two years ago from the great outbreak in the 1960s in Staffordshire and Cheshire proved to be a waste of paper.
The crucial differences are that a notifiable disease was not notified on the latest occasion and the great increase in the number of, and speed at which, animals are transported around the country. Who knows what the great differences will be in the next outbreak? It is important that we keep contingency planning up to date, and DEFRA has at least made the commitment that it will do that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that fact and how important it is. He is right to say that we must ensure that contingency plans are up to date by carrying out operations from time to time.
On foot and mouth, I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew about the vaccine. If an outbreak took place tomorrow, we know from the contingency plan that there would be an immediate stop to transportation and to exports. We know that the countryside would not all be closed, but it would be selectively closed. Crucially, we also know that cattle would be culled again. That is still the official policy of the Government and this Parliament, and we are not going to disagree with the Government. A future outbreak will be controlled by a cull. If we want to do something different, it is important that we have the debate, provide the education and engage in awareness raising and the winning of minds between now and the next outbreak. That is an important issue for us to deal with in future.
I shall deal next with illegal imports. Perhaps I can elaborate now on my interventions about border import posts. I have had many meetings with local farmers in my constituency and they often raise the issue of illegal imports of meat. It is extremely important to them. Whenever I mention border import posts, it is clear that many people do not understand that there is a system that works effectively in respect of the proper commercial import of food into this country. As far as I am aware, no one questions the effectiveness of that system which, let us remind ourselves, is multi-agency, involving trading standards, Customs and Excise, immigration, Home Office and so on. Between 20 per cent. and 50 per cent. of the whole delivery of meat is inspected for quality on each occasion. That is why I say that the system is substantial, reliable and, as far as we can tell, robust. It is an important message of reassurance to our public that there is a system and it works.
We are focusing today on an area where things may not work as well as they should—that is, illegal imports, which cover a wide range. There are the personal imports by people coming into the country. I have stood in the arrival lounge of an airport and seen the flood of people coming off an aeroplane. If we stopped them all in a queue and searched each of them and their luggage, there would be a total breakdown of travel by air. I have stood on the ground at the port at Dover and watched a ferry unload all its vehicles—cars and lorries—which have all come past me in a great rush. Again, if we stopped and inspected each of those, there would be a total dislocation of travel and trade in this country, so those are not realistic solutions.
Part of the solution must be the collection of intelligence and risk assessment, to pick out the people and vehicles that need to be stopped and searched. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Williams, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that when we catch people who are breaking the law in that way, they must go to court and they must be severely punished. We need to make sure that that message gets back to everybody else as a deterrent. If the courts are letting us down on the sentences, I do not see how we can say that is the Government's fault. We in this place must raise the awareness of judges that they are letting the country down with lenient sentences.
As a footnote to this part of my contribution, I point out that about two years ago, before the new strategy for controlling illegal imports, including the transfer of responsibility to Customs and Excise, was put in place, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs organised a seminar for Members of both Houses to discuss the best policy for illegal import controls. Measures that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs described as successes have been adopted since that seminar. I do not say that hon. Members like me who attended that meeting contributed all the good points that became Government policy, but it would be good of the Government to acknowledge that others contributed to the development of their policies that have been successful.
I agree with hon. Members who asked today why there cannot be similar input from us on TB. I remind the Minister that two debates ago on bovine TB in Westminster Hall, I suggested to him that a seminar would be a useful part of the process of developing his new strategy, and he agreed to hold such a seminar. I hope that that will take place soon.
I have one last point to make on the effectiveness of our immigration controls for meat. It is anecdotal, but hon. Members tend to judge issues by their casework, do they not? I never had a complaint about illegal imports of meat from an illegal importer before we passed over responsibility to Customs and Excise, but since we did so, I have had two complaints of excessive attention to duty by Customs and Excise in seizing meat from constituents of mine—one case involved a car coming into the country by ferry at a port, and the second, a minibus coming by ferry through Dover, when every one of the minibus passengers had their luggage searched and illegal meats seized from them. That is anecdotal, and perhaps other hon. Members can say whether they have had similar experiences. At least it shows some evidence of the effectiveness of the new policy.
My final contribution to the debate is on the subject with which the Minister began his contribution—animal health and welfare. He mentioned that later this year the Government's strategy on that would be developed. I agree with him about good animal husbandry, and biosecurity is a fundamental building block of security for the future of the country's animal welfare. Will there be legislation to underpin the strategy? It is understandable that the House is clamouring for more controls, but will that lead to more regulations that place more burdens on farmers, who are hard-pressed to deal with current regulations? I would hate to think that, with the best of intentions, hon. Members might impose on farmers new burdens that they could do without.
Let me share with the Minister my view of the solution. The more we can move towards a whole farm approach, the better. I know that we have tried a little bit in that context with regard to payments and audit, but we should view the whole farm as a unit for animal health and welfare assurance, including the inspection that goes with such an approach and with regard to risk assessment. Perhaps we could use new legislation to say that we are lifting burdens away from farmers while establishing new and better practices for the future. I hope that that is a constructive suggestion that I can leave with the Minister.
I should like to begin with a point about which I intervened on the Minister. Other hon. Members have mentioned veterinarians, and I wish to reiterate the genuine concern that exists about the number of vets available whose training is based on farm animal welfare. As we have heard, many vets today decide to specialise in companion animals, which means that fewer of them have farm animal experience of the sort that the Department needs to call on when there is a crisis such as foot and mouth.
I repeat to the Minister that there is clear evidence—I am sure that the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has spoken to him, and if not, I am sure that it would do so—about the fact that the training of qualified vets in other EU countries does not concentrate as much on farm animal husbandry in its course and syllabus as our own veterinary qualifications.
This is not an issue of knocking people from European countries who come to work as vets in this country, as they are clearly entitled to do; it is about looking at the resource of qualified veterinarians who have the expertise that might need to be called upon in an emergency. One of the lessons that was learned from the last foot and mouth disease outbreak was that many retired vets who were living in the community could have been called upon and would have brought to the situation not only their expertise as veterinarians, but a valuable resource that was clearly needed during the foot and mouth crisis—local knowledge. That would have helped vets who were called in from throughout the country to assist.
I raised the issue of security at ports and airports on several occasions during the passage of the Bill that became the Animal Health Act 2002, as I served on the Committee that considered that Bill. The Government have made some gestures, but I am not happy in my mind that these matters are clear in practice. There is a paucity of people coming before the court to be tried and convicted, and we have heard about the rather laissez-faire attitude of the people who sit and hear the very few such cases that do come before them.
In 2002, I tabled a written question asking the Secretary of State
"what plans she has to introduce amnesty collection bins for food products at UK air and seaports."
The reply stated:
"We are currently consulting the Home Office, the Department for Transport, HM Customs and Excise, and the relevant ports and airports . . . on . . . amnesty bins or equivalent measures".—[Hansard, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 228W.]
I do not travel abroad widely or extensively; as the Minister knows, I live in God's own county, and who would want to travel abroad when they live in Devon? None the less, I do so occasionally, and I think that in the past year, I have visited Canada and two or three EU countries.
I have not visited Belgium; a little shiver just went through me.
The provision at Dublin airport was implemented as a direct response to our foot and mouth problem in the UK, and the airport lounge contains not only amnesty bins, but a veterinary office. Other countries perceive the issue in that way, and I would like an update from the Minister on illegal imports, which other hon. Members discussed today, and personal imports.
It is important that passengers on planes are asked to fill in a slip and declare what they have. When one enters the United States, for example, one is asked to tick a box. Dogs can deal with the problem without holding up passengers who are moving through airports, because they can sniff out imports without bags having to be opened and examined. More dogs should be involved, because they deal with the problem so effectively.
When the Secretary of State responded to the foot and mouth disease inquiry reports on the Floor of the House, she made a clear commitment, and it would be good if the Minister were to update us on why so few people are apprehended at our ports and airports. Are all ports and airports covered or are there gaps? What happens to people who arrive in this country by sea from the Channel Islands or mainland Europe? When one arrives at a major airport in this country—in particular, Gatwick and Heathrow—one sometimes does not see any officials, and I should like to hear more about that point.
I shall briefly discuss one or two specific animal diseases, on which I should like to hear the latest updates from the Minister. The Animal Health Act includes measures to rid our national flock of scrapie, which is a laudable aim that I support. When we debated the 2002 Act, however, the fact that scrapie is rife in eastern European countries was mentioned, and I discussed the matter with the Minister for the Environment. What will happen to our scrapie policy after
On avian influenza and Newcastle disease, some hon. Members attended the British Poultry Council's lunch, at which Lord Whitty and Mr. John Maunder, who is my constituent and the retiring chairman of the British Poultry Council, gave a presentation. In his address, Mr. Maunder mentioned that the council works with DEFRA on environmental matters and contingency planning for an outbreak of avian influenza or Newcastle disease. He said:
"The Plan is good and" the industry
"will work within it. There are some aspects such as movement licences that still have to be finalised."
When will those movement licences be finalised to complete the protection against avian flu?
My hon. Friend Mr. Flook and several other hon. Friends mentioned bovine TB. When I was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1994 to 1997, I was aware of bovine TB, because, when I was elected in 1992, it had just spread down from Exmoor to affect the area to the north of my constituency. Bovine TB has now spread through my constituency, and it would be on its way into the Minister's constituency if the Minister's constituency contained any farms. The Minister will know from his knowledge of the geography of the south-west peninsula that bovine TB descended across Bodmin moor from higher moorland areas such as Dartmoor and Exmoor.
From 1994 to 1996, I could see the disease moving to other parts of the country, going round the corner to Bristol and up to the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The policy that we had put in place to deal with and control the disease appeared not to be working. I had many meetings to discuss the problem, including with the Irish Government, who had put into practice a cordon sanitaire. My boss—the Agriculture Minister—and I agreed to set up the Krebs committee because we felt that any dramatic change in policy had first to be assessed by an independent panel, then brought back to this House. However, the election and the change of Government intervened.
If the Minister really wants to stop the spread of the disease, which is rather different from containing it where it already is, will he consider what has happened in the Republic of Ireland? As I see it, the only option is to throw a cordon around certain areas where we can see that it is travelling up or—as in the south-west peninsula, where the Minister and I have our seats—down the country. Having held the office that I did for three years, I understand the problems and risks involved and realise that it is a hugely difficult call politically, but it is one of the options that he must consider.
Linked to that, it is well worth considering the work that is being done in the Republic of Ireland on vaccination. One of the things about research—I was always sensitive to this, as is the Minister, I am sure—is that scientists want to bid for those valuable pots of money, whether public or private, to follow their own interests in terms of what research might bring. However, we should not let the fear of duplicating effort preclude us from looking beyond these shores to where research is being done that might help to fast-track some of the solutions that we need, particularly in the difficult area of bovine tuberculosis.
I came to the debate intending not necessarily to take part but to listen to what the Minister had to say about several issues about which I have written to him—not least bovine TB. The title of the debate as it appears on the Order Paper is "Government's Record on Animal and Plant Diseases", and I was stunned that Mrs. May made no reference to the impact of bovine TB or BSE on the farms in my area. That is a clear indication of how out of touch Tory Front Benchers are in relation to issues that affect my farmers. I am pleased that at least the hon. Members for Taunton (Mr. Flook) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) recognised the importance of bovine TB to farmers in west Wales, which is a large dairy area.
If it was deemed so important, one might thought that a significant portion of the speech by the hon. Member for Maidenhead would refer to it, but anyone who was present would realise that that was not the case.
I want to refer to issues that have been brought to my attention by farmers in my constituency. Pembrokeshire and west Wales generally is a major dairy-producing area in the UK. Every time I meet farmers, they give me anecdotal evidence that the problem of bovine TB has increased dramatically in recent years. That was also reflected in the comments of the hon. Members for Taunton and for Tiverton and Honiton. Anyone who has anything to do with farming knows the devastating impact on farmers of finding out that they are personally affected—and I know that Mr. Williams had farming experience before he came into this place.
My hon. Friend Mr. Ainger and I usually meet jointly with our local farmers, and we have written to the Government urging them to take action on this issue for west Wales farmers. I have to say that, in general, the response has been very positive. However, I would like to raise one or two points today. The first involves road-kill. One of the major issues raised by my farmers is the fact that so many badgers are killed on the roads these days. If there were a means by which they could be analysed to find out the extent of the incidence of TB, it would go a long way towards helping us to obtain the necessary scientific information. I was pleased to hear that the Minister had no objection to a cull based on scientific evidence. Our farmers are saying that there is a desperate need to pursue that information, and the examination of road-kill badgers could certainly help in that regard.
The issue of bovine TB is often seen in terms of a conflict between farmers and badger groups, but it should not be. The hon. Member for Taunton touched on this point. It is not an issue of conflict. It is in the badgers' and the badger groups' own interest to ensure that the issue is dealt with and that the badger population is kept healthy.
I have found that one of the real difficulties is persuading badger groups that badgers are responsible for bovine TB. They are in denial about that, and although we present the evidence of diseased badgers, they do not necessarily accept the connection.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; that is the point that we have to make.
At the moment, the evidence is anecdotal. We need scientific evidence to show that connection. We need to say to the badger groups, "Yes, you have the badgers' best interests at heart, but you are not in conflict with the farmers because it is in their interest—in regard to their cattle—and the badgers' interest to get to the bottom of this. That is the way to ensure that as well as having a healthy environment in which the farmers can be sure the disease is not being passed on to their cattle, there is also a healthy badger population." TB is an awful disease. We know that from history, from when it affected the human population, and we need to get across to the badger groups the message that it should not be something that they want to see perpetuated in the badger population.
I return to the point that I made in my earlier intervention. The issue is money. All this work costs money. The figures that I have seen show that the Government spend £15 million a year on TB research, and £1.5 million on TB vaccination research. I also have figures showing that £74 million is spent on the TB programme overall. That is a significant amount of money. Why will the Opposition not state categorically that they would be prepared to continue with that investment, rather than cutting back on it in line with their shadow Chancellor's statement on public spending?
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the state veterinary service, which is an important factor, as is the availability of vets to treat farm animals. In rural areas such as mine, that availability seems to be diminishing, and that must be addressed. No one has mentioned veterinary medicine today. Farmers tell me time and again that they end up paying so much more for drugs here than people do in countries such as Ireland. I have experience of that myself. I went on holiday to Ireland with my dog, which required treatment, and I was stunned to discover how cheap it was to get an animal treated there. I urge the Government to ask the Competition Commission to investigate this issue. It would be wholly wrong if British farmers were paying more than necessary for essential drugs in fighting disease.
One more issue in relation to the availability of veterinary medicines is that the European draft directive on the dispensing of veterinary medicines could mean that medication that is currently available through agricultural suppliers will no longer be available through that means. Farmers will therefore have to pay for a veterinary surgeon to prescribe medication. That issue is of major concern to local farmers in my area, and has been raised with me, which is why I want to raise it with the Minister.
Finally, on bush meat, I congratulate the Farmers Union of Wales and the International Fund for Animal Welfare on their work to combat the trade generally. It is an important health issue and a conservation issue. In terms of health, it has been shown that there are links, for example, between simian immunodeficiency virus in primates and HIV/AIDS, and diseases crossing species barriers.
Again, however, we return to the issue of funding. We have seen in recent years a massive increase in this Government's spending on international development. Bush meat studies have shown a distinct link between the production of bush meat and poverty. DEFRA has given £80,000 to the bush meat working group to fund examination of the issue generally, and the Government have made a commitment to reach 0.7 per cent. of GDP for international development. If we are serious about tackling all these problems, we must make a commitment to maintain and increase that funding. I regret that those on the Conservative Front Bench refuse to do that, and I would very much like to hear them make that commitment.
I want to read out a piece from the Western Daily Press two days ago written by the farming correspondent Chris Rundle, which sums up the situation nicely:
"The leader of Britain's livestock farmers has called on his members to start boycotting badger testing—because of the Government's failure to control TB.
The Minister will know Richard Haddock extremely well, because he is a south-western farmer based close to his seat, and he has been a crusader, to put it crudely, against TB for many years. It is significant that a major daily regional paper should carry such an editorial, which concludes:
"But the NFU has reacted bitterly to the announcement, with officials protesting that MPs have still failed to grasp the urgency of the situation—and pointing out that another inquiry would do nothing to slow the advance of TB."
That sums up neatly the feeling of south-western farmers.
My constituency includes Exmoor—
I do not disagree with the Minister, but I think he will find that yet another inquiry is being requested in relation to TB because of the ending of the Krebs testing.
The spread across Exmoor increased during the time when foot and mouth was prevalent in that area. Its spread across Exmoor and Britain is at 18 per cent. per annum. Within five to 10 years, virtually a third of the country will be covered by TB unless we do something about it now. It cannot wait. Regardless of which Government are in power, decisions must be made now.
Interestingly, the DEFRA homepage says:
"A number of wild animals . . . badger . . . brush-tailed possum, buffalo, bison and several species of . . . deer . . . can act as reservoirs" for bovine TB. Given that we have only deer and badgers, that narrows the problem down fast. On Exmoor, the worry is that more and more farmers, because they are getting concerned, scared and worried, are taking the law into their own hands to try to resolve the problem, which is not acceptable to anyone in the House or outside it. Because of foot and mouth and other factors the Krebs testing had to be cancelled last November, but it showed that in cull areas the disease was still spreading. That problem will continue.
The Krebs testing set the basis for where we are going. Krebs stated that MAFF had spent approximately £16 million a year on TB compensation. The testing cost £45 million. Farmers received 100 per cent. Government funding, which went from £3 million in 1989–90 to £31 million last year. The Government spent £73 million last year, of which £31 million was for compensation, £29 million for testing alone, and £13 million for research. It is costing the country a fortune not to be able to eradicate the disease by means of either vaccination or better security.
As a result of the foot and mouth outbreaks, there is now a huge backlog of testing of the 65,500 registered herds. If the present rate continues—62 overdue tests completed every three months—it will take up to 16 years to clear the backlog. That is ridiculous. If testing is not effective and up to date, how on earth can we predict what the disease will do?
Professor Godfray's report recommended that the formation of a TB strategy should not wait until any further badger-culling trials had been completed. Can the Minister tell us where we are going on this? If the policy continues to drift, the spread of TB will continue unchecked. In places such as Exmoor and the area represented by my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning, that is entirely unacceptable. We have enough problems in the hill areas already, especially with the single payments scheme that is being introduced.
Foot and mouth has cost the country between £3 billion and £5 billion. We do not want that massive epidemic to be repeated. I am not convinced that the Government have managed to do all they said they would do in terms of security. Dr. Iain Anderson's report includes five points, which I want to impress on the Minister. First, it recommends:
"Contingency plans to be reviewed to ensure all departments can prioritise rapidly in the event of a crisis."
I am fairly sure that that process has not been completed, and that not all Departments are prepared for another major epidemic. Secondly, it recommends:
"Development of a national strategy for disease avoidance and control."
Is that up and running? Has it been completed? If there is a certain amount still to be done, are we discussing the issue with those in other European countries, such as the Irish, who are also involved?
Mr. Edwards made it clear that an exercise was about to begin to test the resolve of those drawing up contingency plans, and to assess whether they would work. I established that those in my area, Exmoor, and in Somerset were not aware that there was a local contingency plan. I am not saying that that is the fault of the Minister or anyone else—perhaps the message has not reached that level—but will the Minister ensure that those in Somerset and Devon, for instance, know what the plans are? That may be up to MAFF, or to the Government office in the south-west.
I should also like to know what stage we have reached with the electronic livestock tagging system. It is quite highly developed in the case of sheep, although for obvious reasons there is not the same problem in that instance. It would be one way of passporting cattle with absolute accuracy. I need not tell the Minister that passports and tags have an annoying habit of dropping out. All right, there are certain people who might use it for other reasons, but an electronic tagging system would leave no doubt about where that cow, calf or bull had been and what it had been up to.
The final point, of which I have some experience, concerns better training for farmers and others in biosecurity measures. Everyone knows the vital importance of training farmers. They do not have enough time as it is, but we have a problem because many of our agriculture colleges are not having the resources put into them to enable them to provide that training. My agricultural college in west Somerset, which my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton and for Taunton (Mr. Flook) have been fighting for, is on the point of collapse and closure, and has been taken over. When I got in touch with it about this, it did not have any idea what it was meant to do to train farmers in biosecurity. It offers that as part of an agricultural course, but that tends to be for young farmers, and not, dare I say it, farmers who are slightly longer in the tooth—no disrespect to Mr. Williams.
The Government must look at that problem in a controlled manner. Another matter on which I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments is the Haskins report, which made many recommendations on the streamlining of the systems that control the country, including English Nature and DEFRA. The Secretary of State rejected most of it. I thought that it was a very balanced report, which Lord Haskins had lived through because of his experiences in the north-west, in Carlisle and other areas, which he brought together to show that we needed a much more streamlined system to be able to look after ourselves should there be an epidemic. I wonder what pressure was brought to bear on the Secretary of State on that matter by larger organisations such as English Nature, which may have said that they must not be amalgamated because they would not then be effective. Surely the whole answer is effectiveness and speed. The one thing to come out of the epidemic was the knowledge that we were woefully slow in bringing our defences up.
The first report on foot and mouth, by the Royal Society, in 1715, suggested burning and burying. How far have we come since then? Pitifully, the answer is not very far. The only difference is that we will not now burn on farms, but want to incinerate.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In an emergency, burial is as good a way of getting rid of carcases as any other, but he is absolutely right to say that we should be going for incineration. My point is that should there be another epidemic, there would not be the capacity in this country to incinerate the necessary number of animals safely. I know that on-farm burning is still an option, but as one who lived through it, I would hesitate over that, and would not want to see it again.
In conclusion, in areas such as Exmoor and Devon, which my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton and for Tiverton and Honiton also represent, we cannot get this matter wrong. If we do, whole swathes of this country suffer, as we have seen. Many things have been recommended by various reports, but they have not been brought together. There are too many loose ends, and unless the Minister and the Government pull them together, if we have another epidemic, either because TB grows faster or foot and mouth returns to this country, we will not be prepared to deal with it. People such as Richard Haddock and farmers throughout the country will be quite rightly furious with us as MPs, and with the Government in particular.
It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to the debate, and perhaps I may comment on one point that Mr. Liddell-Grainger just made on agricultural colleges. I am sure that he shares my concern that with the decline in the number of people wanting to enter agriculture at a young age, the agricultural colleges have diversified into such subjects as equine services and countryside management. Those are perfectly worthy activities, but the colleges have not been able to give as much investment or support to existing farming communities—the farmers who are long in the tooth whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
It has been a pleasure to follow some of the speeches of my colleagues, and my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) made good contributions. My constituency was badly affected by foot and mouth, and some of the issues that we have discussed today have been brought to my attention by farmers in my constituency.
I agree with probably two thirds of the official Opposition's motion. I agree that illegal imports pose a threat to this country and that vigorous controls are needed. I do not agree, however, that the Government have learned no lessons since the foot and mouth outbreak. Lessons were incorporated in the Bill on animal health, many clauses of which the official Opposition opposed; indeed, they may even have opposed the Bill in principle.
Another lesson that has been learned is the importance of contingency planning. In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford I mentioned Operation Hornbeam, a major simulation operation that will take place in June to test contingency plans for another foot and mouth outbreak, and which will cover all parts of the country.
I acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Williams, who spoke about how well the ring rot outbreak in his constituency was contained, especially thanks to the responsible actions of the farmer concerned. I should also point out that it was a great honour to attend last Saturday the funeral of Geraint Howells, former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader and former Member of Parliament for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North. He would have contributed to this debate in his usual, very deliberate way.
I was rather surprised when the Minister opened his speech by applauding the fact that the foot and mouth outbreak was contained within seven months. That seemed like a bit of positive spin that was perhaps written by a special adviser. There was more than a year of absolute hell in my constituency. I attach no blame to anybody in this regard. The situation overwhelmed everybody: Ministers, farmers—
Given that the Government managed to eradicate the 2001 outbreak more quickly than the late 1960s outbreak was eradicated, and that the latter was far more restricted geographically, does my hon. Friend accept that that was an achievement?
Perhaps I might assist in this debate. The Anderson inquiry, entitled "Lessons Learned", makes it clear that the 1967–68 epidemic lasted 222 days and the 2001 epidemic 221 days. So, far from its being eradicated in record time, it was eradicated in about the same time.
I shall not comment further on that, except to say that many lessons have been learned.
I do hope that consideration will be given to a vaccination programme. I well remember the Prime Minister coming to my constituency at the height of the 2001 outbreak. The Farmers Union of Wales and the National Farmers Union made very strong representations to him. They were against a policy of vaccination, even though I was receiving dozens of letters from constituents who found the process of culling, fires and burials absolutely repulsive. They expected that consideration would be given to vaccination.
The FUW has impressed on us the importance of the issue of illegal meat imports. A year or two ago, I attended a disturbing seminar by some experts. Evidence was shown of the amount of illegal imports coming through airports, and there was evidence from environmental health officers concerning the illegal production of meat. We in Wales have a particular problem with the production of smokies, which are a delicacy that is well liked by members of the West Indian community, and which involve the blow-torching of pork or beef. The illegal production of smokies has led to arrests in west Wales. The FUW is suggesting that the matter be brought into the open by enabling legal production of smokies in a properly controlled way. I hope that consideration can be given to that idea.
I ask my hon. Friend to choose his words carefully. North of the border, smokies are a completely different thing; Arbroath smokies are well known and very well liked by all.
I would like to clarify that we are talking about two different products.
The farming community is calling for more rigorous controls on illegal imports. Mrs. May referred to recent cases in which people convicted of illegal importing were given derisory fines of £140 or £150. If illegal imports were an important factor in the foot and mouth outbreak, let us consider the cost of that by comparison. Surely there should be an onus on the courts to sentence appropriately. Perhaps the court in Uxbridge is not close enough to a farming community to impose the penalties that might have been imposed had the cases been heard in west Wales or in a court in the farming community in Monmouthshire.
It would also be right for all embassies to urge their citizens not to travel with meat products and other foodstuffs. When we go to America or Australia, we even have to declare whether we have been on a farm in the last four weeks or whether we have mud on our rugby boots. We have to declare any foodstuffs. We could have more rigorous controls in this country.
It has been a pleasure to contribute to this debate. Hon. Members of all parties have spoken with authority and knowledge, and we all hope that we can avoid any further outbreak of foot and mouth and, if necessary, impose much stricter controls on illegal meat imports.
This has been a good debate on an issue of tremendous importance to British agriculture, animal welfare and our rural economy. I echo the comment of my hon. Friend Mrs. May that it has been marred only by the fact that the Secretary of State and both Ministers of State decided that they had higher priorities elsewhere and left the Under-Secretary as the sole representative of his Department on the Treasury Bench.
Much of the debate has concentrated on foot and mouth, which is not surprising, as it is only three years since we suffered the worst epidemic of the disease that the world has ever seen. More than 9,500 premises were affected directly, and up to 60,000 farms were subjected to movement restrictions. In my constituency, we were perhaps fortunate in having just the one outbreak, but that meant that it was an infected area, so all the farms were subjected to movement restrictions. I remember only too well that in many ways the hardship resulting from those restrictions was just as great for the farmers concerned, who of course received no compensation payment.
The total number of animals slaughtered in the outbreak represented roughly an eighth of the entire farm livestock herd. The cost to the British economy was, according to official figures, about £8 billion, and according to some estimates, anything up to £20 billion. The outbreak left many farms devastated, with farmers seeing a lifetime's work destroyed.
Even now, as this debate has shown, some questions remain unanswered. We still do not know how the disease entered this country or when, or indeed whether the first cases really were at the pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, or whether, as some suspect, the disease might even have been in sheep for several months before. We still want to know why the Government ignored so many of the recommendations of the 1969 Northumberland report on the previous outbreak. Contrary to what Mr. Kidney said, a lot of people believe that, if the Government had implemented those recommendations, the outbreak would have been contained far sooner.
We still need a proper investigation of the efficacy of the contiguous cull policy, under which millions of uninfected animals were destroyed, and an answer to the question whether that cull was even necessary. We still want to know why a vaccination programme was not introduced at an early stage. I share some of the views of Mr. Martlew. Such a programme might have prevented the spread of the disease and led to its being eradicated far more quickly. That policy was adopted in Holland when 25 outbreaks of the disease occurred in April: it worked, and as a result, Holland was able to recover its export status just four months later. I have to say that that makes the Minister's remarks about achieving a solution in record time rather strange, as Mr. Edwards pointed out.
Those are all questions that should have been, and still need to be, dealt with by a full public inquiry, which we have never had.
The Minister referred to biosecurity, which we all agree is terribly important. He implied, as have some of his predecessors, that farmers were somehow at fault in failing to take proper precautions. I have to say that farmers are deeply angry about that claim, particularly when the vast majority were scrupulous in observing biosecurity. At the same time, they had to observe contractors employed by the Minister's Department who showed scant regard for biosecurity. Indeed, farmers had to watch lorries filled with infected carcases driving through uninfected areas.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have little time left.
All those questions should have been examined by a full public inquiry into how the epidemic originated and how the Government managed it. Instead, we had three different inquiries, focusing on different narrow aspects of the crisis, none of which persuaded farmers that a proper investigation had taken place.
That lack of confidence has now been compounded by the revelation of the submission by Mr. Jim Dring. His statement that, if the inspection of the Waugh farm had been more rigorous, the foot and mouth epidemic might never have come about, is clearly immensely important. Mr. Dring has said that he intended his statement to go before the Anderson inquiry. His submission certainly amounted to more than, in the Secretary of State's words,
"musing about the matter, examining his conscience and asking, 'Oh dear—is there more that I could have done'".—[Hansard, 11 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1640.]
That is what she said, though the Minister tried to deny it. At least Lord Whitty has admitted that Dr. Anderson should have received that report—[Interruption.] However, we are now told that the Secretary of State held an internal investigation, which concluded that there was no intention to mislead the inquiry and that that evidence would not have made any difference in any case. As the Western Morning News said in its editorial, the exposure of Jim Dring's evidence served only to strengthen the overwhelming case for a public inquiry into the foot and mouth disaster. That case remains as strong as ever. We agree.
The foot and mouth epidemic was by far the biggest disease outbreak to affect British agriculture, but it is not the only one. My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Flook), for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), as well as Mrs. Lawrence, have all spoken about the crisis resulting from the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The Government's own consultation document predicts that, without major changes in policy, the incidence of TB will go on rising by about 20 per cent. every year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater pointed out the costs to the taxpayer. The Government's own document forecasts that that cost will accumulate, over the next 10 years, to £2 billion, yet they have no answers and say that they are waiting for the results of the Krebs trials, which may not be available for several more years.
Several of my hon. Friends suggested that we simply cannot afford to go on waiting. Just a few weeks ago, the report by Professor Godfray called for immediate publication of the interim results and said that we could not afford to wait for the trials to be completed. He suggested that policy had to be based on the assumption that badgers were involved in disease transmission, but the Minister's only response has been to extend the period of his Department's latest consultation. The Minister has to grasp the nettle and act to stop the spread of the disease now.
We are also seeing worrying signs of the presence of other animal and plant diseases in this country. Last week, we saw the first outbreak for 10 years of brucellosis in cattle. Happily, it was quickly contained. This week, we have heard about the danger of blue tongue virus entering this country if temperatures continue to rise. We are also aware of the dangers to human health if avian influenza is allowed to enter the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire both raised concerns about the lack of large animal practice vets and consequent difficulties, particularly in respect of preventive measures. The Government need to address that serious problem.
In plant health, we have suffered the first-ever outbreak of potato ring rot in the UK. Luckily, the responsible attitude of the farmer, Mr. John Morgan, and the quick action of the Department's officials, meant that that was contained. However, it has cost Mr. Morgan well over £500,000, with no possibility of compensation. I share the concern expressed by Mr. Williams that that seems deeply unjust. It also raises the real fear that other growers will be highly reluctant to report any suspicions about a further outbreak.
The campaign by Farmers Weekly called "Keep British Crops Healthy" highlights the fact that we badly need a compensation scheme that protects all growers from the financial burden of early outbreaks of pests or diseases, and which provides an incentive for openness and honesty. Perhaps the most important way to improve our biosecurity is to take far tougher action to stop the illegal importation of food.
The first recommendation of the Devon public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic called for import controls to be tightened to the highest international standards and, if necessary, to be the subject of new legislation. Yet the Government's Animal Health Act 2002, introduced in the aftermath of the epidemic, did not even deal with that issue.
In the past three years, the Australian Government have recruited more than 1,000 extra staff for border operations, doubled the number of X-ray machines used for quarantine screening, and have increased the number of detector dog teams from 33 to 48. We welcome the news from the Minister this afternoon that the UK is to have 10 dogs. However, given the number of points of entry, that does not inspire much confidence that we can seriously contain the problem. It is estimated that, on average, about 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat products are imported to the UK each year, much of it in suitcases and hand luggage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead mentioned the concerns about the risks to the health of people, as well as of animals. Yet, three weeks ago, a Health Minister answered a question from me by saying that the Food Standards Agency does not consider that there needs to be a formal risk assessment of the threat to public health posed by illegal meat imports.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead also referred to the convictions of two people, and the level of fines that were imposed on them. However, as the president of the Farmers Union of Wales asked, what is the point of arresting people for bringing hazardous foodstuffs into this country if magistrates hand out such pathetic fines?
British farming has already suffered one disease outbreak that led to misery for thousands, and the deaths of millions of animals. The industry will not survive another outbreak yet, owing to our failure to take adequate precautions, one could happen at almost any time. The Government should act now, before it is too late.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House commends the action taken by this Government to eradicate exotic plant and animal disease when it occurs, and to control endemic disease; congratulates the Government on its actions that have succeeded in reducing the number of BSE clinical cases to just 184 last year; further congratulates the Government on eradicating a major outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in seven months and on implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Royal Society Inquiries so that Government is better prepared to tackle a future outbreak of a major livestock disease; welcomes the significant progress made to tackle illegal imports both by increasing enforcement activity at the border and by increasing public awareness; applauds the Government on its action taken against other animal and plant diseases, notably Salmonella Java and potato ring rot; and notes the Government's continuing commitment to prevent serious animal and plant disease.