Foot and Mouth Disease and Bluetongue

– in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 8th October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:45 pm, 8th October 2007

My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement made another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on this summer's outbreak of foot and mouth disease and on bluetongue.

"On 3 August, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in Surrey. In line with the contingency plan, control measures, including a national ban on the movement of susceptible animals, were put in place immediately. The following day, the strain of virus was confirmed as 01-BFS-67. As that strain was not currently circulating in animals, that pointed to the Pirbright laboratory site as a potential source. I therefore commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to investigate the potential release from the site, and Professor Brian Spratt to lead a team of experts in a review of biosecurity arrangements. I am today placing in the Library a copy of those two reports, along with all of the Defra epidemiology reports. "It cannot be said with complete certainty exactly how the virus escaped from the Pirbright site. However, the reports concluded that the most likely route was accidental release from the drainage system. Whatever the route of escape, it should not have happened and we are determined that it does not happen again. I have accepted all of the recommendations in the reports from the HSE and Professor Spratt, and I have called for a review of the regulatory framework for handling animal pathogens led by Sir Bill Callaghan. "A rigorous improvement plan has been developed for the Pirbright site to be implemented before full operations with live virus can recommence and a review, led by BBSRC, is assessing the funding, governance and risk management at Institute for Animal Health. In addition, a safety alert has been issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by a round of inspections. Epidemiological surveillance indicated that it was highly unlikely that the virus had spread outside the Surrey area. Therefore, given that this surveillance went well beyond the European Union requirement; that the 30-day minimum time had elapsed; and that no further cases had been identified, the protection and surveillance the zones were lifted on 8 September. "Unfortunately, as we now know, there was undetected infection outside the surveillance zone and on 12 September foot and mouth disease was confirmed in a third case in Surrey and controls reimposed. There have now been eight infected premises in total. "On 25 September, given that the disease was confined to Surrey, we created two foot and mouth areas in Great Britain, a temporary risk area in south-east England and a lower risk area in the rest of the country where certain movements were permitted under licence. Markets reopened in the low-risk area last Thursday and on a visit to Skipton market I was able to see the difference this will make to the farming industry."The European Union has now confirmed that the export of meat can resume this Friday, 12 October, from Scotland, Wales, and the north and south-west of England. We will continue to work with the Commission to increase the areas from which exports can occur. "Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach to responding to this outbreak and I have listened to the views of industry about what further steps can be taken to alleviate very real economic and welfare pressures. "Because this outbreak has arisen from an unusual set of circumstances, I am announcing today a package of assistance for the English livestock sector, amounting to £12.5 million. The devolved Administrations are proposing to introduce their own schemes. "Subject to the European Union state-aid rules, I intend to make the following available to the farmers most affected. There will be £8.5 million of assistance to hill farmers, who have been particularly hard-hit. This one-off payment will be paid directly to them using the system we already have in place for the hill farm allowance and will be equivalent to just over 30 per cent of their 2007 payment. There will be an increase in the level of subsidy for the fallen stock scheme for farmers in the foot and mouth risk area from 10 per cent to 100 per cent. This will not apply to only existing members of the scheme, but will be available to all livestock keepers in the risk area. It will apply to stock which have had to be killed on farm for welfare or other reasons. I anticipate the cost being less than £1 million. There will be an additional contribution of up to £1 million to the Arthur Rank Centre for disbursement to Farming Help charities. These charities focus on providing advice and practical and emotional support for farming families."The final package is £2 million for the promotion and marketing of lamb, beef and pork domestically and in our export markets. The public sector is a major purchaser of meat and I am asking ministerial colleagues to increase opportunities for small and local producers to tender for their business. "We are also determined to do as much as possible to reduce the burden of red tape on farmers at this difficult time. Therefore, I have agreed for a delay from 5 January 2008 to the end of April 2008 in enforcing the requirement for livestock hauliers to have a certificate of competence for non-export journeys more than 65 kilometres; to seek a derogation from the Commission for grassland farmers to apply above the annual nitrogen application limit of 170 kilograms per hectare, which is one of the requirements for farmers in nitrate-vulnerable zones; and for a one month extension until 13 December for the closing date of the current consultation on the implementation of the nitrates directive."In addition, I would like to draw to the attention of the House to the fact that Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency are not enforcing certain cross-compliance requirements for agricultural environment schemes and the single farm payment where breaches of those requirements are caused directly by restrictions relating to foot and mouth or bluetongue. The Secretary of State for Transport announced last week that to assist movement of the backlog of animals the rules on drivers' hours for livestock hauliers would be relaxed for a limited period as markets reopened. "I also welcome the decision by the European Union on 3 October to raise the age at which the vertebral column of cattle is considered specified risk material from 24 to 30 months, which will facilitate the sale from butchers of beef from animals in this age bracket. This decision is subject to a three-month scrutiny period by the European Parliament. In the mean time, the Food Standards Agency will be undertaking a public consultation. "As if an outbreak of foot and mouth was not enough, on 22 September the first case of bluetongue was found in East Anglia. Bluetongue is very different from foot and mouth disease. It is spread by midges, rather than animal to animal, and we cannot stamp it out by slaughtering infected animals. However, the cases we have seen so far are in a limited geographical area and seem to result from midges being carried over the North Sea on the wind. As this happened in August when movement controls were in place because of foot and mouth disease, this may help to control the spread. By 28 September, the increase in cases indicated that the disease was circulating in our midge population and we confirmed the presence of bluetongue in Great Britain. The bluetongue temporary area was therefore replaced with a control zone and a protection zone."A clear understanding of the spread of the disease is now crucial to help the industry, with the support of government, to anticipate what may happen and what the appropriate response would be. This requires farmers in the zones to be vigilant and for the sake of their industry to report all new cases so that we can monitor whether this spread is occurring. We will keep this approach under review with the industry, not least because the effects of bluetongue movement controls mean that decisions on control should be taken by the industry and not just by Ministers."This has been an exceptionally difficult summer for the farming industry. I know from talking to many farmers and their representatives over the summer just how hard and distressing it has been, and still is, and I am grateful to the industry for its forbearance and support. I would also like to express my thanks to all those people from Defra, the Animal Health Agency and elsewhere whose professionalism, dedication and commitment has helped us to deal with these outbreaks, and I am sure that the House will wish to express its thanks too. I will of course keep the House informed of developments".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:10 pm, 8th October 2007

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State, Mr Benn, in another place earlier today, and I thank him for the courtesy of allowing me a preview of it. Before passing observations on what the Minister has said, I must declare an interest as a member of our family agriculture and horticultural business. Although we have some grazing, the sheep and cattle are not ours, but owned and cared for by a neighbour.

First, I should like to acknowledge the work of the vets, officials, farmers and their staffs involved in the work of tracing the sources of the two outbreaks and, we hope, controlling the situation. I want to say how much I sympathise with the farmers affected by these outbreaks, and I am glad that they have been thoroughly and speedily investigated, and that reports have been produced expeditiously. I also welcome the specific measures announced by the Government to ease the situation, however inadequate they are to meet the losses suffered by the livestock industry.

I am glad that the earlier attempts to spin the blame for the foot and mouth disease outbreak on to Merial have been discredited. It seems to me that the staff at Pirbright have tried over some years to draw attention to the situation that led to this outbreak and that the blame must be laid solely at the door of Defra. The Minister has said that the investigations all show that the drainage system was the most likely route for the escape of the virus. Can the Minister comment on whether the lessons of Pirbright will be carried through the Government's establishments? Experience tells me that if matters are arranged in a certain way on one government complex, they are likely to be duplicated in others. Can he assure me that all facilities which deal with material harmful to people, animals or the environment will be checked to ensure that any similar drainage systems are replaced as quickly as possible in order to separate storm water from effluent that may be contaminated? Is he able to report to the House which establishments pose such risks and what action has been taken?

I welcome the report from Professor Spratt, published on 31 August. Professor Spratt has not minced his words. Point five of his overview describes the,

"old, poorly maintained and defective effluent system".

Point six refers to the,

"poor state of the IAH laboratories, and the effluent pipes".

Those comments are summed up in point 33:

"There has been concern for several years that the effluent pipes were old and needed replacing but, after much discussion between IAH, Merial and Defra, money had not been made available".

In earlier times, I was involved with horticultural establishments not unlike the Institute of Animal Health which lies at the centre of this crisis. The new build is impressive, the technology is first-class, but maintenance is frequently considered a Cinderella. The Treasury induces a penny-pinching approach to the proper maintenance of public assets. What private company would have ignored the connection between biohazardous waste and the rainwater system? When this was made known, how is it that the Government could consider it more important to argue over who would pay to put it right than recognising the danger and doing something about it?

The Minister referred also to the bluetongue outbreak. This second body-blow to the farming industry is capable of being far more damaging than the largely contained FMD outbreak. I hope that we will see Defra contain bluetongue as effectively and as efficiently, and ease the restrictions as quickly, as it did with foot and mouth. Newark livestock market is not far off 100 miles from the centre of the outbreak of this second crippling disease. It finds itself, however, only 100 metres within the zone and is, as such, effectively closed. I cannot see that this is in the public interest. I hope the Minister will attend to this issue without delay.

Are there any proposals to compensate farmers with animals afflicted with bluetongue, which could, if the Belgian experience is anything to go by, be the cause of many cattle and sheep deaths in the future, with huge economic consequences?

The sad story of this summer's FMD outbreak is one of a series of disasters for Defra and one of huge consequences. It is no exaggeration to say that people's lives have been ruined by Defra's negligence. If this sounds angry, I am but reflecting the greater anger that rural communities feel at this whole episode. Where is the shame that the Government should be expressing at their part in this unnecessary tragedy for British livestock farmers? Not even an apology appears in the Statement.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture & Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform 5:16 pm, 8th October 2007

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I, too, declare an interest: I own two tenant farms which again have been affected rather badly by the outbreak of FMD, as they were on the previous occasion.

One of the problems faced by upland and lowland farmers is that the outbreak happened at exactly the wrong time of year. The non-movement of animals has been particularly devastating as keeping sheep on the fells or in the off-land means eating into winter feed, which is an added expense. After the wet summer, when many farmers failed to get in adequate supplies of winter feed, this is a double blow.

Much has been mentioned about responsibility for this outbreak. I know that the Minister and many of those working at Defra have worked extremely hard and cannot be held personally to blame for this. However, the biosecurity at Pirbright is an issue that needs to be addressed. Can the Minister say whether it is believed that the cuts that Pirbright has suffered in its funding over the past few years directly led to the situation with biosecurity? There has been a lapse in biosecurity and if it has something to do with the cut in funding it would seem particularly unfair.

The Minister said in the Statement that £8.5 million will be available to hill farmers—a move that is much welcomed by hill farmers—but how did he arrive at that figure? It is calculated at 30 per cent of the overall payment, but is it £8.5 million because that is what was in the budget, or is it because £8.5 million has been worked out as the cost that will be faced by the hill farmers? It seems quite unfair that lowland farmers are not also beneficiaries of this.

The Statement says that the Minister is taking constructive steps and that the Government buy meat products. Will the Minister make representations to the MoD because it seems particularly unfortunate that meat produced next to Otterburn training area—a very large upland area for sheep farming—is not immediately sold on to the Army, which buys on the international market and not only on the national market?

I turn now to the issue of information and the excellent work conducted by the NFU through its bulletins. This has been a lifeline to many farmers who want information, especially as there is a feeling in the farming community somewhat against Defra at the moment. Bluetongue has been mentioned. I know this outbreak has spread throughout northern Europe and has nothing to do with Defra, whose quick actions are paramount in this area. Recently there has been talk about the bluetongue virus mutating, which would mean that a cold winter would probably not finish off the virus. How much money and resources are being devoted to finding a vaccine for that?

I hope the Minister will look at the issue of the price of cattle and sheep that went to market straight after the FMD outbreak. There was an immediate drop in price. I hope he will look at whether some of the companies involved were profiteering, and will consider actions that could be taken to guard against that if—although I hope it never happens—the next outbreak occurs, because that had a devastating impact on those people outside the area who immediately lost value in their stock.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords who during the course of their remarks have paid tribute to the vets and the staff on the ground. There are literally hundreds of people involved in this, including the State Veterinary Service—or the Animal Health agency, as it is now—and the vets from the NFU, the RSPCA, the police and trading standards. There has been a massive effort, which is still going on. We freely acknowledge that the situation could not have been managed by Defra alone. I can virtually commit that each and every one of the recommendations in the executive summary of Professor Anderson's report about the lessons from the previous foot and mouth outbreak was followed and has been implemented during this unfortunate outbreak, which, as the Statement says, has happened in somewhat special circumstances.

In early August the deputy chief vet said to me, "We will probably never ever get another foot and mouth outbreak like this". It is quite controlled in one area and there is obviously a single source; all the eight outbreaks have been the same strain so it is quite clear that the disease came out of Pirbright somehow. We are not completely certain how, but in all the reports the evidence is that the disease probably came out through that drain, probably because of a loose manhole cover. There had been a lot of flooding on the site. There was also an enormous amount of vehicle movement because there is a £121 million capital programme on the site, so there were lots of lorries on and off the premises. The virus should not have been in the loose-fitting drain in the first place—it should have been killed off—but it was, and it aerosoled out into the air, maybe on to the lorries. It looks as though that was the route out, although one cannot be absolutely certain about it.

I shall try to deal with as many points as possible. What I am about to say is not in any way a defence, but Pirbright is not a government-run laboratory. The CSL at York, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge and the Cefas laboratories at Lowestoft and Weymouth are government-run, but Pirbright is not. The Institute for Animal Health is not government-run; it has its own financial structure and is accountable to the Science Council, while Merial is a private sector company. The Government are a massive customer of the IAH, and there is an organised split between the diseases dealt with by the IAH and by the VLA at Weybridge. It pays not to have all your eggs in one basket, and it was decided many years ago that there would be a split. As well as being a big customer, we are also the regulator. That is implied in the Statement. No one has said to me that there has been a problem of conflict of interest, but it does not look right that the biggest customer is the regulator as well. That is the issue Sir Bill Callaghan, the former chair of the Health and Safety Commission, is looking at.

The facilities needed dealing with, hence the massive programme. I have not visited Pirbright; in fact, I was due to visit it as part of taking on animal health after the reshuffle. I was warned that I must go on a certain day, because I needed five days' clearance after I had been there before I could go off on my week's walking holiday, although in the event I could not go. So there were procedures in place. Anyone who reads Professor Spratt's report will know, however, that it is shot through with lack of care and attention to biosecurity, and we have accepted all its recommendations.

Facilities are being checked around the country. I cannot give Members reports from the laboratories concerned because the checks are being undertaken now. Several laboratories work with pathogen categories 3 and 4, both animal and human, and all of them are being checked. Although the drains were identified as an outlet at Pirbright, we need to check all possible avenues of infection.

We could have done without bluetongue, but we were expecting it—Defra has received weather forecasts virtually every day for some 18 months. I saw the map of a plume of midges and was told that it could have been responsible. We now know that two plumes that came across the Channel on 22 July, 27 July or 4 August may have brought the virus. We updated and published a bluetongue action plan in late July/early August, when the House went into Recess. The disease is totally different from foot and mouth; it cannot be controlled by slaughter, which is why we do not slaughter the animals concerned. It is true that we slaughtered the first few animals that we identified as being infected, but once it was confirmed that the disease was circulating, it was clear that slaughter was not an option. I recognise that slaughter raises issues of compensation: where we slaughter, we compensate; where we do not slaughter, we do not compensate. Those rules are part of plan. I cannot expand on the matter today.

The boundaries between the current zones containing markets and abattoirs—one can see them on maps; they are being regularly updated—are a problem. After two days of the Labour Party conference I had had enough and came back early last week—it was an interesting two days; I must not complain. Due to the bluetongue outbreak, I came back to meet farmers from Norfolk and Suffolk at the NFU's offices in Newmarket and visit farms. It was explained to me that East Anglia is a large cattle and sheep area, but does not have massive abattoir capacity. Some big farms there—I have in mind four companies, but I shall not name them—have contracts that stipulate traceability, so they want to use the same abattoir. I understand that situation; it is an important part of the process. We are looking into the possibility of licensing areas on the boundary or changing the boundary. We have to very careful with the zones because they are set by the EU, but I assure the House that we are looking into the matter.

It has been a bad time of year for the outbreak to occur, particularly in the uplands. More than a million sheep in upland Scotland and Wales would have gone to slaughter and to export, but there is now little market for them in this country. I mean no criticism when I say that the fact that the outbreak occurred while the House was in Recess was in some ways a blessing, because Ministers were not forced to pontificate and speculate daily. Part of the action plan, based on lessons from the previous foot and mouth outbreak, is to make sure that resources are available and that scientists and vets are in charge, taking decisions that are based on the science and not on political pressures. It was crucial that that part of the plan operated. The House being in Recess facilitated it.

How was the figure of £8.5 million arrived at? Discussions took place. The payment is not forward of the hill farm allowance; it just so happens that it is about 30 per cent of what English hill farmers had. The payment has already been made. We wanted to get money to the most seriously affected farmers. All farmers have been badly affected by the outbreak—let us make no bones about it—but those in the hills have suffered particularly because, without question, they cannot diversify as easily as elsewhere. Owing to the way in which we pay the hill farm allowance, we have a list of addresses and know exactly what was paid earlier this year. We hope to make the payments before the end of this month. We will ask other government departments to encourage home purchase in this difficult period. I appreciate that they are wary of their accountants, but we sometimes have to ask them to think about human beings as well.

I pay tribute to the work of the NFU and all those who have given out information. The website and the maps are constantly updated in Defra and we always encourage people to look at that. All the announcements are there—but the work on the ground of the RSPCA and the NFU, as well as the local authorities, has been absolutely crucial.

Work is going on on a vaccine for bluetongue, as the House knows, but it is not available at present. It may take more than a cold snap to affect the situation. I am told that it may take four months of continuous hard winter—and then it may carry over in cattle, rather than the midges. At the present time, when I checked at midday today, the figure was 30 cases, which are still confined to the same area. The disease is mainly occurring in the Ipswich area, although there is the outbreak near Lowestoft as well. However, as the Statement says, now that the House is back we shall do our best to keep the House informed, as we have tried to keep colleagues informed throughout the whole of the outbreak, both in this House and the elected Members in the other place.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister has just mentioned making decisions based on science. Could he explain why Pirbright itself was not made the first infected premises? We knew that no animals were leaving Pirbright and that therefore it would depend on humans and vehicle movements. If Pirbright had been treated as the first IP, the protection and surveillance zone boundaries would have been different and we would not have had the second outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

I understand that a lot of construction work has been going on at the Pirbright premises, as is mentioned in the report. Lorries, JCBs and all sorts of vehicles were going on and off the premises without being sprayed as they went out. There seems to have been a very poor quality of record-keeping as to where all those vehicles went. Rumour has it that some lorries were taking topsoil from Pirbright and delivering it to people for their gardens. Can the Minister say anything about that?

As for bluetongue, there have been reports of outbreaks on the Continent, where animal welfare has been put in jeopardy because people cannot afford to pay to have their animals put down. That particularly applies to sheep, which I gather suffer the most. Will the Minister consider either assisting farmers with the cost of euthanizing their animals—vets fees are pretty expensive, if you call a vet out to put an animal down—or having a team of people who are prepared to come out and euthanize the animals, so that the animals do not suffer and farmers do not have to watch their animals dying because they cannot afford to have them put down?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I cannot answer precisely the initial question asked by the noble Countess with regard to Pirbright and the control zone, but I assure her that when I was telephoned on Friday—and I was not in the country at the time—I was informed that the location of that first outbreak was incredibly close to Pirbright. In other words, the connection had been made virtually as the analysis was being done. Even then, that may well have been locking the stable door. I have not previously referred to this, but when the foot and mouth disease came back again in a third, fourth and fifth outbreak, it is clear from all the evidence that we have that the fifth was not in fact the fifth but at least the third—and it may have been earlier than that. The disease was not reported and the lesions were up to four weeks old in some cases. The chronology is still being worked on by epidemiologists.

On bluetongue, I do not discount the distress of farmers but at the moment there are only 30 cases and one hopes that it will not spread. The disease does affect sheep very badly, but the bluetongue plan—which we updated and published in late July or early August—was agreed with the industry. There was no surprise about this; we had been getting ready for bluetongue for a while. We know what happened in Belgium, where it was rampant before it was discovered. We have the unique situation, because of the movement ban of foot and mouth, of being able to know more about how it may spread. I assure the noble Countess that dozens of scientists and vets are working on this at present. They are in the unique position of being able to find out more about how bluetongue spreads in a way in which they were unable to do in Germany and Belgium.

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative

My Lords, the Minister mentioned his visit to Newmarket to talk to farmers from Norfolk and Suffolk who are of course affected by the restrictions imposed as a result of bluetongue. He will therefore be in no doubt at all about the unworkability of the present restrictions. Everybody understands what the Government have to do, but the fact is that there is no slaughtering capacity for the animals within East Anglia. Will the Minister this afternoon sketch out how he thinks plans for dealing with bluetongue might be developed, in altering the zones or whatever it might be? He has hinted that changes are being looked at. Is he in any position at all to enlarge on that?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

No, my Lords, because then I would be making exactly the same mistake as happened in the last foot and mouth outbreak. As the Minister, I am not qualified to do that. We are aware in Defra at all levels, officials and Ministers, of the difficulties here and staff are looking at this issue as I speak. We are having daily reports on animal welfare and all the issues relating to this. I counted the list one day and there are 42 separate bodies reporting in, both from Defra and external. The welfare one is important, and the mapping one is absolutely crucial.

Our plan is to collapse the zones as quickly as we possibly can, for both foot and mouth and bluetongue. There is no doubt about that; it is in everybody's interests. I have just seen a small map that was brought to my office, which I have not brought into the Chamber with me because I could not really have used it as we cannot use overhead projectors here, which shows where the small abattoirs are in East Anglia. It is not that there are none, but the capacity is not there for the animals. In the main, large numbers of animals in East Anglia go to Devon, Wales and Lincolnshire for slaughter, because they are going to dedicated slaughterhouses for the contracts that those farmers have. That is important. Therefore, there was never a reason commercially to build up the abattoirs; the smaller ones are there but, clearly, we have to do something—either to licence abattoirs or look at the zones. Both those issues are under active consideration. That I can say.

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs

My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister as it is every Defra Minister's nightmare to have a foot and mouth outbreak and the introduction of bluetongue into this country. I have three points to make.

First, on the question of compensation, to my knowledge lambs have been selling at at least £10 a head less than they were at the same time last year—and I think that is probably an underestimate. There have been no reductions in price whatever in the supermarkets. There is still an enormous mark-up. Someone, somewhere, in the middle of the food chain, is making an awful lot of money. Will the Government please address that question? If the retail price at the supermarkets was lower, consumption would go up, which would help to solve some of the problems.

Secondly, on Pirbright and the Institute for Animal Health, it seems wrong to me, as a scientist, that there is a research institute and a commercial company on the same site. I suspect that is as a result of something that goes way back about 15 years, when the then Prime Minister talked about "near-market research". I call that development. I cannot see how an out-and-out commercial company and a research body can be on the same site and there can be adequate control of the site and all the issues with the virus escaping. Why is not the virus sterilised and put in a particular place? Why is it going into the drains? That seems quite extraordinary.

Finally, bluetongue is a very serious disease for agriculture. I make a plea to the Minister that he resists the extension of the bluetongue zones except for those circumstances affecting abattoirs, which need to be addressed. Unless there is another outbreak outside the zone, clearly that should be the only circumstances where the zone is affected because most of the cattle and sheep are in the west and the north of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I shall take the last point first because it hinges on the answer that I gave to the noble Baroness. Even looking cursorily at the zone changes, you cannot bring in an abattoir and a market without bringing in some farms. There is a balance to be struck here and it is not easy. The noble Lord talked about a nightmare for Defra Ministers but I have to say that it has not been a nightmare for Defra Ministers. I am extremely proud to be a Defra Minister during this period. Staff cancelled their holidays and came in the following day because they knew what would happen. Literally hundreds are involved in this 24/7 operation, both at the foot and mouth local disease control centre in Guildford and at the bluetongue centre in Bury St Edmunds. It has not been a nightmare.

A plan was published that drew on the lessons learnt from the previous outbreak, and that plan has been meticulously followed. We are having that reviewed by the person who reviewed the first outbreak. We have learnt lessons. One lesson that we have learnt, which was not in the plan, is that if you start culling in the field, you must immediately put an air control zone around it. Press helicopters were our biggest single problem; they disturbed the animals and the vets could not do their job. We had to introduce air exclusion zones but we did not do so to start with because it did not cross our mind that helicopters would be used and would create serious problems for us.

As regards Pirbright being a joint site, noble Lords are quite right that in the past the reason for that was probably to create a marketing synergy. Although this was not part of the discussions that we had leading to the publication of the report, I am told that there is no good scientific reason why they should be collocated. There are two private sector operations—a very small one as well as the large one. The viruses were not supposed to be put into the drains live; that is the whole point of the exercise. There was a two-stage process and they should have been completely dealt with by the time they got to the point where they escaped. Work is going on there to deal with this issue in terms of heat treatment and everything else, but the situation is not satisfactory. I say to the noble Countess—I did not address this point—that the laxity at Pirbright, to which I referred, is set out in Professor Spratt's report. He refers to the lack of a record of the lorries that went on and off the site. There was no record either of where they came from or went to. There are a lot of lapses in that respect.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as I have rare breed breeding sheep going to Murton market on Saturday and Skipton market on Sunday. Does the Minister agree with me that market staff, as well as the farming community, have also had very many difficulties? Would it not be safer to have the animal research laboratories on town sites rather than near farms? As regards bluetongue, does the female midge spread the disease as the female mosquito spreads malaria?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, on the latter point, I am afraid that I do not know the sex of the midges, but I know that our midges—British midges—have now caused this, hence our announcement after a few days that we had bluetongue. That is why the first few cases did not amount to a bluetongue outbreak. We had to know that transmission was being caused by our midges biting our cattle and that they were giving it to other cattle or to sheep. I freely admit that there has been pressure all round on the industry in respect of the markets. That applies, of course, to those animals that go to market. Not all sheep and cattle go to market. Some people will not have anything to do with markets; they want to go straight from farm to slaughter. Pigs are not dealt with in that way. However, the fact is that the whole of the food chain has been disturbed at that level. As regards whether there has been profiteering, time will tell. People are looking into the issues raised by the noble Lord, which I did not address. I am in no position to do that. Clearly, there has been a drop in the price at the supplier level which has not been reflected in the price in the retail sector. That indicates that someone is taking a larger cut somewhere in the chain.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister not realise that for the breeding people this is the crucial time when the tups are put in with the ewes? It is a question of breeding, not just slaughter.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, even if foot and mouth and bluetongue were put to bed today, this will affect us for months. It will affect us well into next year because it is affecting the cycle of production, and we appreciate that.

Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer in West Sussex, which, as everybody knows, is the county next door to Surrey. Therefore, I am concerned about foot and mouth. I am not affected by it at the moment but my family firm had diversified. We no longer have any animals. We were encouraged by the Government to diversify and we are doing so. That means that a lot of people come on to our farm. Therefore, I am much concerned by the fact that the Minister said emphatically that there is no compensation except for culling. I cannot cull any people who come on to my farm. Therefore, I would look for other means of being compensated if the worst happened and I suffered severely, as I might. I shall write to the Minister for further details about the company that runs the Pirbright establishment and exactly what the relationship is between that establishment and the Government. The Minister referred to a report. It is not entirely clear to me whether that report is published and available to the public or whether it is an internal governmental report. If the report has not already established the liability of the company that runs the Pirbright establishment, will further studies be made?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, on the last point, external lawyers and representatives are looking at these reports. Everything will be published. Nothing will be unpublished. We have published an enormous amount. We published Professor Spratt's report and the HSE report a few days before what turned out to be the second outbreak that we found, so there was a gap.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue of diversification because it gives me a chance to make a further point. I met the three farmers concerned with the first three cases—one of whose cattle did not have foot and mouth but were slaughtered—Mr Pride, Mr Gunner and Mr Emerson. They were the three farmers who had first discovered the disease. All of them are model farmers. They had diversified into all sorts of businesses, which I shall not recite. When I had a brief discussion with them on neutral territory in a farm shop, which was the first time they had all met, I raised the thorny issue of insurance. Mr Pride told me that he was insured. He said that he had his farm shop insured for fire, burglary and all the kinds of risk that you insure a business for. He had even paid an extra premium to cover interruption of business. I never asked him whom he was insured with and I do not know to this day. However, the small print in the insurance stated that anything related to foot and mouth was not covered. I certainly intend to follow this up with the financial institutions and the banks. Mr Pride was sold an insurance policy to cover interruption to business. I do not refer to his farm business. His farm shop was covered for interruption to business. However, he is caught out in the small print. As a Minister I cannot talk about cost sharing and responsibility policy on disease control and animals when people are left in that position. I understand that there is a difficulty with insuring crops in the ground and other issues and with the cost of some of these exotic diseases, but that kind of short-changing is a serious business that must be pursued.

Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative

My Lords, if I may add to what I said, it is very difficult indeed to get insurance for these things. I have insurance for avian flu—that was last year's disease. I got it last year with great difficulty. I am not insured for the other things.

Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. He will be aware, of course, that farmers will be relieved that there is a package of compensation, which I hope will be sent to them as quickly as possible. It is a question not just of money but of the recognition of the enormous problem that exists. It does not just exist in the areas of foot and mouth or bluetongue; it exists in areas where people cannot move their stock, as the Minister fully recognised.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, said that the price of sheep is down as much as £10 a head. I can tell him that even in Wales this morning lambs were being sold at £10 a head. That situation is very grave indeed, because that is the livelihood of those farmers who have lambs on the hills and have just got to sell them. They have no alternative; the lambs cannot be left, because then there would be a massive welfare problem.

I speak as a farmer, but I am grateful that the Statement said that £1 million will be sent to the Addington Fund and, I hope, to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, of which I happen to be president—I declare an interest. The requests that have been made during the past month have been exceptional and we have had to take on people to deal with the problems that have been coming forward. Those problems may seem small, but they are there, and people need to be helped. Farmers will be grateful. The Minister said that the money will be paid to those in greatest need. That may be a problem, because those who will be in greatest need have not yet fully met the problem. That will want a bit of analysis in paying out the money.

I have two points. On bluetongue, the message that I have received from farmers in other parts of Europe where the problem has been growing extensively in recent times is that stopping animal movements is not necessarily a solution. We will probably experience that. Stopping the midges is a solution, but that is much more difficult. I understand that progress is being made on the production of vaccine, and I hope that every support can be given to speed that up. On the other points, those who are suffering are those in marginal areas who are being forced to sell. Sheep migration is necessary, and one realises in that sense that movement must continue. I hope therefore that all relief can be given so that that can happen as quickly as possible.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I have to be brief, because we are nearly at the time limit. I hope that I have covered the central issues that the noble Lord raised on finance, and I have shown that there is a degree of understanding about the pressure on the business. Bluetongue is difficult. It is a new disease, but we are not the first to have it. We have been expecting it. It is almost impossible to deal with because of the way in which it is transmitted. Therefore, the vaccine would be a route and I understand that it is not far away. One of the issues about the vaccine is that, where there is a need, there is a market, and it will be supplied. Therefore it is clear now that, where there was not before, there is probably going to be a market in the northern parts of Europe for a bluetongue vaccine.