Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:39 pm on 13th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative 10:39 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the opportunity for this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness the Minister for her erudite and clear opening speech, to which we listened with great interest.

I have to declare an interest as a farmer--I farm in Essex. I was brought up with cattle but I count myself extremely fortunate today because I am not directly involved with them any more. However, my brother runs an exceptional dairy herd and is a past president of what noble Lords probably still know as the Holstein/Friesian Society, although it now boasts the name, Holstein UK and Ireland. It is worth noting that he gave evidence to the inquiry into the 1967 foot and mouth outbreak on behalf of the British cattle breeders, in which my noble friend Lord Plumb was directly involved.

At this hour of the night I do not intend to deal with the wider ramifications of the problems faced by the agriculture industry. For the sake of brevity, I intend to fairly narrowly focus on the origins on this particular outbreak of the disease.

One of the joys of serving in local government is the great diversity of matters for which local government has responsibility. One of the more esoteric matters with which I had to deal was the implementation of emergency plans for industrial complexes under the then Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards (CIMAH) Regulations, which have now evolved into the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations. The purpose of those regulations is to ensure that the emergency services always have in place plans to deal with any major industrial accident from the scale of Chernobyl downwards. Those plans are the responsibility of the major local authorities. They are constantly updated, checked and tested for effectiveness, and, if required, revised. From time to time they are even rehearsed.

Speaking now with all the benefit of that very cheap commodity, hindsight, it seems to me remarkable that such a plan does not appear to have been available to come into operation immediately a case of foot and mouth disease was identified. Although human life is not involved, the need for such a plan is clearly immediately parallel to that for industrial accidents. I hope I am wrong. I shall be very pleased to hear that such a plan did exist. If it did, it seems a pity--and again I speak with the benefit of hindsight--that it did not involve an immediate ban on the holding of markets and the movement of cattle from the first identification of the disease. It is always possible and easy to relax controls. It is much more difficult to do so if you do not have an automatic procedure for starting.

I have reviewed the report of the inquiry into the 1967-68 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I did so because if we want to look forward, we also need to look back to some degree. That report is very instructive. I shall not bore the House with too much of it. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the report into the outbreak of this disease, and the reasons for it, has already been written. It can be read in three volumes in the Library. In a book entitled Reports, Commissioners 7, volume XXX 1968-69, we find under "Recommendations" on page 960:

"a/. The ban on imports of mutton, lamb and pig meat from countries (or areas of countries) where Foot & Mouth disease is endemic should continue. Imports of offal should be limited to that treated in such a manner as to destroy the Foot & Mouth virus. b/. Because there is a high risk of introducing Foot & Mouth into Great Britain by importing carcase beef and beef offal from countries where Foot & Mouth is endemic, on animal health grounds there should be a complete ban on all such imports".

In part 2 of the same report, which appears in a separate volume, Report, Accounts, Papers, 1969-70, volume V, we find on page 247, under "Swill"--and I paraphrase only slightly--

"Swill boiling plants should be licensed for periods of one year. Renewal should be subject to the inspection of the plant with revocation of the licence for contravention of the regulations. Licensing and inspection are the responsibility of the local authority. Ministry vets should continue to assist with inspections".

In another volume from that time, this one entitled Accounts and Papers, Book 6, we find the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer on the origins of the 1967-68 foot and mouth disease epidemic. His conclusion is:

"I have been unable to discover any possible source of the infection other than Argentine lamb".

So he is certain. But the evidence is not conclusive. In her introduction the Minister said that she doubted that the precise cause of this disease would ever be proved. The report of the earlier outbreak also could not prove it, although it could be certain about what had happened. Those recommendations formed the basis of a plan to deal with a future outbreak when it happened. If that was appropriate 30 years ago, what has happened since that time?

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on a number of points. I recognise that governments from both main political persuasions have been in power since that time. But was action taken along the lines of those recommendations to restrict imports of meat and offal? I understand that the report was generally accepted but confess that I have not yet had time to trace and check the detailed regulations and restrictions that would and should have been put in place in the light of those orders.

Having said that, have the recommended restrictions on meat and offal imports been rigorously maintained over the intervening 30 years? That is all the more important the way foot and mouth disease has developed throughout the world over the past 10 years. Finally, is the Minister satisfied that the control and licensing of swill processing has been properly undertaken along the lines proposed? What we have heard tonight suggests that that cannot be the case. I am bound to say therefore that I agree with my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior that swill should no longer be used.

In the light of all that I have said in relation to emergency planning, can the Minister say whether there was a genuine plan in place to deal with a possible future outbreak? If so, was it tested regularly and updated as the agricultural industry evolved? That is what will have to happen in the future if we are not to face a similar problem 20 or 30 years down the line, when many of us will not be around to deal with the consequences.

Of course I accept that a foot and mouth outbreak is very different from the possible industrial hazards that can arise. But the need for proper planning for this sort of situation is well known. Given what we know from the previous outbreak, and the conclusion that the earlier inquiry recommendations have almost certainly not been rigorously applied over the intervening years and amended to take account of the evolving pattern of the spread of foot and mouth disease, the agricultural industry will have some justification for feeling that it has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap food. As the impact of the restriction on movement and other activities spreads, we are beginning to observe the negative effects of the disease across a much wider community. The cost to the country will be far greater than the cost of having in place proper planning and regulation.

I want to raise one other point which is now relevant. During the past 30 years the population of wild deer--in particular, roe deer, fallow deer and muntjac--across England has vastly increased. What steps are being taken to investigate whether those wild populations are infected with the disease? Those wild deer move freely across the country and I doubt whether there is an area which does not carry a surprising stock of them.

I want to pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, about vaccination. I am sorry that he is not in his seat. One of the purposes of the 1967-68 inquiry was to investigate the possibility of vaccination. Those countries where vaccination is regularly used are those countries in which foot and mouth disease is endemic. The two go together. Those countries which are free from foot and mouth disease have a slaughter policy.

It would be ironical if now, when Europe is at last taking up the slaughter policy, this country were to appear to be going the other way. That is not to say that there might not be a scientific development in future, but at present we should be clear--and I am pleased that the Government have made it clear--that the slaughter policy is the only tenable policy. We must live with that, uncomfortable though it is at the present time.