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Foot and Mouth

12.31 pm

Mr. Speaker: We now come to written question No. 1.


The Minister was asked--

Foot and Mouth

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): If he will make a statement on the latest developments in the foot and mouth epidemic. [152671]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): At 12 o'clock this morning, there were 104 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom--103 in Great Britain and still just one in Northern Ireland, with a number of cases under investigation. The pattern is consistent with Heddon-on-the-Wall as the oldest known outbreak, with the subsequent spread mainly through the movement of animals, especially sheep. About 90,000 animals have been identified for slaughter, of which 61,000 have been killed. Plans are in hand to render some of the carcases as an alternative to burning on farm.

The Meat Hygiene Service has approved more than 260 abattoirs for the licence to slaughter scheme. Of those, 168 were operating yesterday. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimated yesterday that British pork production was back to 50 per cent. of normal, with beef at 40 per cent. and lamb at 30 per cent.

To relieve emerging animal welfare problems, officials are urgently working on arrangements to allow licensed local movement of animals within farms in unaffected areas, but only where that will not increase disease risk. We hope to have proposals prepared shortly.

The European Union Standing Veterinary Committee met on 6 March. The ban on UK exports of animals and products has been extended to Tuesday 27 March, but from 9 March the UK will be able to export unpasteurised cheeses to some countries. The SVC also imposed a ban on all livestock markets and assembly points in the EU for two weeks and a ban on animal movements except to slaughter or from farm to farm, authorised by the competent authority. All vehicles leaving the UK will have to pass over a disinfectant bath.

The Commission remains supportive of the action taken by the UK to contain and eliminate the disease.

Mr. Atkinson: On behalf of the farmers in my constituency, I thank the state veterinary service for its work in helping to contain the outbreak. It began in my constituency and has, of course, hit it very hard. The question of how it started is under investigation and I believe that ultimately there will be prosecutions.

Is the Minister aware that allegations are being made that the amount of illegally imported meat into the country is far greater than was first supposed? It is not simply a matter of people bringing in a few steaks from a holiday abroad. It appears that there is now a regular supply of illegal meat--especially beef and goatmeat--which goes

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to unscrupulous suppliers in the catering trade. It may well be that that was the cause of the outbreak that struck Heddon-on-the-wall.

Mr. Brown: Of course, I cannot comment on individual cases, particularly if they may come before the courts, although I can confirm that it is still the Government's view that the first outbreak was at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, and that that is the primary source of everything that has happened since.

The Ministry is taking a hard look at the importation of meat for personal use in our review of all the possible causes of the current outbreak. We were already considering the issue in the context of the classical swine fever outbreak. I confirm the commitment that I gave to the House earlier that the views that the Ministry forms on all the slightly longer-term issues will be put into the public domain. There will be full consultation with all those interested. I intend personally to listen to a wide range of views, not just the mainstream ones.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): On behalf of Cumbrian farmers in the Lake district and on the fells, may I thank my right hon. Friend and his officials at national and local level for the work that they have done to contain this terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease? Will he consider specifically the position of hill farmers, as lambing is approaching? They often have large flocks of breeding ewes on unfenced fell land, with unfenced roads across it. There are particular difficulties for those farmers. Will he consider urgently and sympathetically how his officials may be able to bring such farmers more help in the dilemma that they face?

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for the praise that he has given to the state veterinary service. I am sure that his remarks are endorsed by the whole House. The Ministry has the question of continuing support for hill farmers under review anyway. An industry working group is considering how we can make the common agricultural policy support work better to support the incomes of hard-pressed hill farmers.

I am treating the question of lambing and the movement of sheep from their winter grazing quarters back to their home farm as a matter of urgency. It is an incredibly complex problem, as I think I may have said last week, but I hope to have something more to say in a matter of days.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): We are grateful to the Minister for answering this question.

The Opposition continue to support fully the measures already taken to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease. I endorse the appreciation of vets both inside and outside the state veterinary service, and everyone else who is working hard in the front line of this struggle. The next few days are clearly crucial in determining whether the outbreak is coming under control. I welcome the decision announced yesterday to postpone the Cheltenham festival and the announcement that no risks will be taken, even if the situation is improving, with the handling of the crisis.

It is just over two weeks since the crisis began. People will be disappointed that the Minister is still not able to say anything more about compensation. Will the Government now accept in principle that compensation

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should be paid to those farmers suffering unrecoverable losses directly as a result of foot and mouth disease? If compensation remains limited to those farmers whose livestock is slaughtered, many others will simply be driven out of business for all time.

Does the Minister agree that the need to find out how the disease came to Britain is extremely urgent, not least to reassure those who are afraid that it may return, after all the agony of overcoming it this time? The Minister will be aware of the difficulties of farmers who cannot move their ewes that are about to start lambing and of dairy farmers who need to carry out milking. Licensing movement within farms will obviously help considerably, but it will not entirely overcome those difficulties. I hope that the licences will be available soon.

Will the European Union ban on livestock markets prevent the use of markets in Britain as collection centres--an avenue that was going to be important for a number of smaller farmers? Is the Minister aware of reports in some areas about continuing difficulties in obtaining disinfectant and concern about the prices paid to farmers sending their animals for slaughter under licence? Will he consider absorbing the inspection charges payable by slaughterhouses while they are operating under licence? Has he requested help from other Government Departments to ensure timely burning of carcases? Does he agree that all those practical, micro-issues will remain highly important to farmers and others in the industry even after the outbreak is brought under control?

Mr. Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tone and his words of support for the state veterinary service and others who are helping to contain the disease outbreak. He is right about the micromanagement of some of the issues involved. The disease has now emerged in several different parts of the United Kingdom, largely as a result of animal movements, especially in the sheep sector, through livestock markets.

To take the hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order, I am able to call on other Government Departments for help if we need it; the issue is kept under daily review. Charges are now a matter for the Meat Hygiene Service and the Secretary of State for Health, not me, so I cannot announce some new relief or extra payment today.

As for prices in the supply chain, the hon. Gentleman will have heard me yesterday when I urged everybody in the supply chain to treat each other fairly when trade is not carried out in normal circumstances because of the necessary licensing arrangements. The issue is complex, but if people realise that the supply chain must endure--that it cannot be short term, but that relationships have to be bedded in over time--they will see the wisdom of behaving fairly and working together to get through the current disease outbreak.

I have asked officials to check the availability of disinfectant. My understanding is that, although there is no shortage of disinfectant, there is a distribution problem. There is no problem with the manufactured product, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that demand has, of course, increased substantially.

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question about whether the European Union temporary ban on markets will affect our proposals to use markets as collection centres. We are exploring that issue with the Commission, but the main difficulty with my desire to establish

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collection centres, if that can be done without compromising disease control, is the far greater number of outbreaks of the disease with which we now have to contend.

Although the movement of animals can be licensed under special conditions, I, as the Minister responsible, have to be risk averse throughout. We are proceeding with our proposals on collection centres, but there might be some delay in our establishing them. For the avoidance of any doubt, let me emphasise that we need to be risk averse in everything that we do.

The hon. Gentleman asks about lambing, dairy herds and localised licensing. We have been able to get under way a localised licensing scheme within farms, but he is right to say that that does not solve all the problems. A substantial issue remains involving breeding sheep that are in winter quarters and would normally return some distance to their home farm where they might mix with other sheep that are potentially infected during lambing. The Government are carefully considering the best course of action. I explained the problem when I last addressed the House on the subject and it remains intractable, but to do nothing is not an answer.

The current difficulties give rise to serious animal welfare consequences as well as to consequences for the trade. After our meeting tomorrow with the trade to discuss different ways in which to proceed and once we have a proposal--I think that it will only be a matter of days--I shall ensure that the House is informed.

I have no new announcement to make about compensation. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease informed the Government's decision to draw down agrimonetary compensation for the livestock sector, but I accept that such compensation is not compensation for foot and mouth disease. I do not want to engage in political argument now, so I should be grateful if the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) wrote to me to set out precisely his views on what should be paid in terms of consequential loss and how widely the Government should provide coverage in that respect. Of course, consequential loss could, in these circumstances, be very wide indeed. Are we talking about the cancellation of rural visits and the loss to the betting industry as a result of the cancellation of race meetings? I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would oblige by setting out his exact request.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the next few days will be crucial. Of course, the fact that there have been many outbreaks is unwelcome; it makes the job of the state veterinary service harder. However, the good news is that each and every one of those cases has been, or is being, traced back to the original outbreak. It appears that the Government's timely imposition of movement controls throughout Great Britain has worked, and that we have been able to contain the disease to what was already incubating in the national herd and the national flock. That is how it seems today, but the situation may change. I promise to keep right hon. and hon. Members informed.

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