Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 13th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 7:38 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, once again, I am daunted by the expertise shown by Members on all sides of the House during the debate. I was interested in the most thoughtful words of my noble friend Lord Biffen and want to take up one point that he made. He said that sheep in particular were being treated by traders as a commodity. We have recently become only too well aware of that. If sheep are a commodity, why do they have to move around? I understand that these days the usual trade in commodities in done from one computer to another and the produce being traded is never moved. The problem we face here is that the produce is moved, and perhaps that is a matter which will arise after all this is over.

We are without doubt in the middle of a national crisis, and I believe that it is rapidly becoming a national emergency. I do not have very much optimism as a result of the fact that, when the weather is supposed to be much less favourable to the survival of the virus, the number of outbreaks appears to have increased almost day by day and is now double the figure last week. Everybody's priority is to eradicate the disease as quickly as possible. As has been said most clearly by my noble friend Lady Byford, we on these Benches support the Government's efforts to do all that they can, as I am sure they are, to achieve that. However, many questions arise from the outbreak which will need to be addressed at the proper time. Some of those questions may be relevant now.

Perhaps I may put a few questions to the noble Baroness, although I have not given her prior notice of them. The Minister said that no one had yet established the entry point of the virus into this country. Are there any indications that more than one entry point may be involved? That may or may not be significant.

Are the Government satisfied that the way that the campaign against the disease has been run places enough emphasis on keeping groups of outbreaks sufficiently isolated? I ask this because it appears that in the 1967 outbreak, to which my noble friend Lord Biffen referred, the one great success was to keep the outbreaks tightly grouped together in a small area of the country. The incidence of outbreaks in that area was much greater than in any of the groups of outbreaks that we are experiencing at the moment. Can anything be inferred from the present situation as to what may happen in the worst case scenario, which I dread?

The relaxation of the controls on movement in allowing carcasses to be taken to renderers in sealed wagons and cattle to be transported from safe farms to safe abattoirs sounds a trifle risky. I point out that just one human error in one consignment could lead to further disaster.

I understand that today there has been an outbreak in the Loire Valley in France. Are we doing anything about importing meat products from France as a result of that, or do we believe that it is a completely one-off outbreak?

One of the industries that is most affected by this epidemic has already been mentioned several times this evening: tourism. My noble friend Lord Inglewood and the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned it. Tourism businesses are losing many millions of pounds. Rural tourism maintains some 400,000 jobs. I understand that the tourism authorities have advised the Government that tourism business so far is running at some 75 per cent below normal for this time of year. Rural tourism should now be worth around £150 million a week. Cancellations have overwhelmed the industry, and thousands of potential visitors from overseas have cancelled, even those whose destinations were to have been Edinburgh, London and other cities.

We welcome the setting up of the task force to look at how to re-establish the tourism business in the countryside, among other things. It will, however, have a monumental task in this particular area. I agree with the Minister that, by and large, compensation must be limited to those who are directly affected by livestock losses, but is it not possible for compensation be paid to self-catering and guesthouse businesses on farms where foot and mouth has struck, because at the moment they are completely stuck?

The countryside is in a desperate plight for various reasons with which your Lordships are familiar. I am worried about signs of relaxation of certain controls. The use of the phrase "slight risk" worries me, because any risk is to be avoided if possible. I allude specifically to the different advice given by our Chief Veterinary Officer and his Irish counterpart in regard to racing in that country. Surely, they cannot both be right. Is the Army to be involved? There has been a good deal of talk about it. Surely, because speed is of the essence in dealing with outbreaks, soldiers would be extremely useful and fit, which is probably one of the important matters.

As my noble friend Lady Byford said, the situation is dire. I hope that the Government will not relax restrictions until it is quite clear that the disease is overwhelmed and finished.