Animal Health Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 7th October 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 5:45 pm, 7th October 2002

This amendment has been tabled because I, too, share the thoughts expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. To me, to start straight into a Bill with a part entitled, "Slaughter" and nothing else seemed foolhardy and unwise in the first instance.

My amendment is lengthy. There is no way that the Government will accept it, although the Minister said that the Government will propose a contingency plan, for which I am grateful. I tried in framing the amendment to reflect certain important matters that the Government may take on board and build on in later amendments. It attempts to incorporate two items identified as important by all three foot and mouth reports: namely, the National Audit Office, the Royal Society and the Anderson reports.

The first plank of the strategy covers contingency planning, where the first priority is to maintain a watching brief on the incidence of exotic diseases. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke of her concern about the closure of the part of Edinburgh University that deals with that. Perhaps when he replies the Minister can tell us more about the plans for that university. More than one comment has been made to the effect that had more attention been paid to the pan-Asian "O" strain of the foot and mouth virus, the UK would have been better prepared. In his report, on pages 42 to 45, Anderson presents maps and commentary on the progress of that strain. On page 44, the Royal Society uses maps to make the spread of that virus leap off the page at any reader. The Royal Society also sounded a serious alarm on page 29, in sections 360 to 367, about the northward spread of bluetongue and African horse sickness. Let us not say in future that the Government were not warned.

A watching brief is no good without an alert for those likely to be affected. There follows a plan of action in which local knowledge is key—all reports reflect that. Knowing what lies ahead and how to fight it, we must then make the contingency plans public and regularly test them to ensure that they continue to be workable. In his response to earlier discussion, the Minister said that he concurs with that. Local authorities' emergency services could produce a book on factors that have disrupted their regular incident simulation: for example, closed roads, buildings in the middle of previously open spaces, diversions of public services and even the removal of telephone boxes have all in their own way caused little hiccoughs. It is no use running simulations or similar tests if there is no thorough review of what went wrong and right and why. That should be followed up by recommendations for improvements.

Once the need arises, contingency plans must be actioned, their implementation monitored and their performance analysed. We are anxious that that analysis should cover performance in the front line and back at base; it must consider all departments, agencies and public and private bodies and individuals concerned. The recent foot and mouth outbreak served only to highlight how many different departments, people, and organisations are involved in coping with an outbreak.

The second plank of any strategy must be vaccination-about which we spoke at length earlier. On pages 87 to 111—a lot of pages—the Royal Society has a great deal to say on that matter and makes four recommendations. In brief, it says that emergency vaccination should be seen as a major tool of first resort, along with the culling of infected premises and known dangerous contacts. We have already spoken about that and agree with it. The report states that, for controlling foot and mouth outbreaks, the policy should be vaccinate to live. That is where we may have moved on since we met and discussed the matter in March.

I know that my noble friend Lord Onslow was specific in wanting the question of vaccination raised at a much higher level. But, if I may say so, we were then struggling with the fact that there was no answer to the question of what happened to vaccinated animals: would they go into the food chain and would compensation be available? It made vaccination difficult at that stage, but from our earlier comments, I think we have moved on, and I hope that in his response the Minister will pick up on that progress. If he can give the House a further indication of the Government's thinking, that will be welcome.

The policy of "vaccinate to live" necessitates the acceptance that meat and meat products from all vaccinated animals should be able to enter the food chain normally. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that there is no reason why that suggestion of the Royal Society should not be accepted, and that no one has raised that as an issue.

Anderson also devotes a whole chapter—pages 120 to 129—to vaccination. He recommends that the Government ensure that the option of vaccination forms part of any future strategy for the control of foot and mouth disease. In his response to our earlier discussions, the Minister indicated that the Government accepted that. The fact that he is nodding his head reinforces that.

Following the production of the EU report into the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, Commissioner Byrne said, on 12th September, that,

"the Commission is of the view that emergency vaccination should be moved to the forefront of the response mechanism in the event of future outbreaks".

Any strategy should cover emergency control, but we should also consider special groups of animals for whom permanent control may be indicated—for example, animals in zoos or wildlife parks, or rare breeds. We touched on that matter in earlier debates. However, I would like the Minister to include a comment about it when he responds.

Since the end of the outbreak, there has been a rash of informed comment on apparent peculiar behaviour patterns. Letters to the Veterinary Record in June and July referred to the possibility that ewes on the point of giving birth and whole flocks immediately after gathering and colostral vaccination are more easily and more seriously affected by foot and mouth disease. On page 20 of its report, the Royal Society makes an interesting and—possibly—highly important comment. It says:

"Infectivity is not readily destroyed by ultraviolet radiation but is particularly vulnerable to acid conditions below pH 6 and alkaline conditions above pH 10. Whereas infectivity might be stable for a few weeks under neutral conditions (pH 7), it survives for only two minutes in a slightly acidic pH 6 environment".

I am no scientist, and I find all that a little challenging. However, the Royal Society has made a suggestion, and the Minister should comment on it in his response. Our amendment is an attempt to ensure that government support for such future investigations continues.

We also consider that vaccination for the permanent control of some—if not all—of the diseases listed in Schedule 2A may become a practical necessity if the spread of those diseases continues. For instance, if African horse sickness were to become endemic, the horse-racing industry might need protection, along with animals involved in eventing, showjumping and dressage.

The amendment is wide-ranging. I do not expect the Government to accept it as it stands. However, having tabled it in September without knowing what the Government's thinking was, I hope that the Minister will highlight some of the suggestions in our list from (a) to (h) and indicate which they might consider including in their contingency plan, which we await.

As the Opposition, we do not have the facility to draft major legislation. However, we feel that the principles behind the amendment are important, and we hope that the Government will take them on board before the Bill becomes an Act. I beg to move.