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Mrs. Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend is here and will, no doubt, take heed of what he says. I have pages of listed contacts that different hon. Members have rightly and legitimately made with the Ministry to pass on information and concerns, which may be of help to it. My right hon. Friend is doing everything he can in difficult circumstances to keep the House informed, which I am sure he will continue to do. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's wish to have a dedicated officer. Although the Government take fully into account the concerns of the House and hon. Members, he will know that the Ministry's primary task is not merely to keep the House informed, but to perform its role of dealing with the outbreak. All its offices are doing their best to balance those heavy responsibilities.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): As a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, may I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the scope of, and time allocated to, the motion that we will discuss on the behaviour of those Members who disrupted our proceedings? It was obvious to many of us on the Committee that there was concerted effort to engineer a crisis. Conservative members of the Committee wasted the equivalent of one full sitting on bogus points of order. After the disreputable behaviour of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), she confirmed in the newspapers that their action was part of an organised campaign by Opposition Whips. We now learn that their Chief Whip will defend her and her colleagues in the debate on that motion, but perhaps he should be in the dock with her.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes important points and those matters might be aired in the House. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have to consider carefully their responsibilities to the House as a whole and, not least, to the Chair, whoever that may be. I am concerned, as is Mr. Speaker, about the difficult position in which the Standing Committee Chairman was placed. Members who perform that onerous role undertake great responsibilities on behalf of the House. They spend many long hours and are not remunerated. The least we owe them is to treat them with respect.

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Foot and Mouth

1.18 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I want to update the House on the latest position on the foot and mouth disease outbreak. I also want to set out how the Government are taking forward disease control measures, given our increased knowledge about how the disease has spread.

As at 1 pm today, there have been 240 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom. Some 205,000 animals have been condemned for destruction, of which more than three quarters have already been slaughtered. That is out of a total UK cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million. Out of 160,000 livestock farms throughout the UK, 1,200 have been placed under restriction because of a confirmed or suspected case of the disease. We have been able to lift restrictions on more than 660 of those farms, leaving fewer than 550 farms still restricted.

This is a devastating disease for farming and for the rural communities affected. I express my deepest sympathy for those farmers who have lost their herds and flocks and for the wider farming communities who are going through a time of terrible uncertainty and distress.

I was sorry to learn of a confirmed case in France earlier in the week. I understand that, so far, there have been no further cases on the continent. We have stayed in close contact with the European Commission and other European countries' veterinary authorities. They have all strongly supported the firm action taken in the UK to control the disease and prevent its spread. From the outset, the Government have put firm disease control measures rapidly in place. Every action has been taken on the advice of the chief veterinary officer.

Each day, we have learned more about the outbreak. Epidemiological investigations and the incubation of disease in livestock have revealed the mechanisms by which the disease has spread. As our understanding has increased, I have shared new information with the House and given daily briefings.

The disease has spread mainly through movement of sheep and subsequent mixing of animals at a small number of livestock markets. It is important to stress that the vast majority of disease spread around the country took place before 20 February, when the first outbreak was discovered in Essex.

With increased knowledge about how the disease has spread, the Government have been able to refine disease control measures. In the infected areas, we have intensified controls. Where possible, we have allowed movement; for example, licensed movements to slaughter and short movements for welfare reasons.

The Government are working to five key disease control aims. The first is to keep free of disease those areas of the country still free of it, and the second is to halt the deterioration of the disease situation in Devon. Thirdly, we aim to stop the spread of the disease in the north of England and south-west Scotland. We are increasingly seeing localised spread from sheep flock to sheep flock in Scotland and from cattle to cattle in Cumbria. Fourthly, we want to minimise the spread of the disease from Longtown, Welshpool and Northampton markets, where it has been identified that infection has been present. The fifth aim is to eliminate infection in

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flocks that have passed through dealers known to have handled infected flocks. Of course, we will keep that strategy under constant review.

Taking each of those issues in turn, I shall set out the action that the Government are taking. In areas that are currently disease free, we will establish a new type of controlled area within which we hope eventually to allow a more normal level of activity both in agriculture and the rural community. But in the short term, the priority will be to avoid the risk of importing the disease into those clean areas by movements of animals from areas where there is infection. In addition, we will identify any high-risk movements of sheep that took place before 23 February. Those sheep will be destroyed to ensure that any possibility of infection is removed.

In Devon, the disease has been spreading from farm to farm due to the nature of agriculture, which means that there are many small farms, dense animal populations and movements of people and equipment. The strategy there will be to have an intensive patrol to all farms within 3 km of the infected farm. Each farm will be visited and inspected by veterinary or trained lay staff to ensure that cases of foot and mouth disease are identified as soon as possible to prevent onward spread.

The large focus on infection in the north of England and southern Scotland has been mostly concentrated in the sheep flock, although there is now cattle-to-cattle spread in Cumbria. There are a considerable number of cases in that area, with the potential for rapid spread to adjacent farms and even further afield. In this case, we must still ensure that infected animals are removed as quickly as possible, and to do that it will be necessary to destroy animals within the 3 km zones on a precautionary basis.

We now have clear evidence that sheep from markets in the Welshpool, Northampton and Longtown areas were exposed to disease and there is reason to suspect that, with the passage of time, a number of flocks into which they were imported may become infected. Those flocks will be removed as dangerous contacts. The same approach will be taken to sheep handled during the high-risk period by two major dealers associated with movements of infected sheep.

That is a policy of safety first. We are intensifying the slaughter of animals at risk in areas of the country--thankfully, still limited--where the disease has spread. Provided other areas remain disease free, we can, over the next week to 10 days, consider modifying restrictions in areas that have remained clear. We are deeply conscious of the animal welfare problems posed by the movement restrictions that we had to put in place for disease control reasons. We made arrangements last week for a number of localised licensed movements that, I hope, have alleviated a proportion of those problems. We were not, however, then able to provide for long-distance movements of animals caught in the wrong place, such as sheep on tack on dairy farms in England.

I shall publish later today the principles of a scheme for moving such animals, necessarily under very tight restrictions. The general principle will be that animals can be moved within a currently controlled area, or within currently disease-free areas, or into an area of higher disease risk, but not the other way round. It is my intention that farmers will be able to apply for licences for such movement over the weekend.

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Those arrangements will not, of course, deal with all the welfare problems that animals face. Some animals will be unable to move because of their condition; others will be unable to move because they are in infected areas. Where animal welfare problems cannot be alleviated by local action--meaning husbandry--we shall put in place arrangements for their disposal at public expense. That scheme will apply across the United Kingdom. Payments will be made for such animals, broadly on the lines of those adopted by the Government in East Anglia last autumn for the pig welfare disposal scheme.

I should emphasise that that is a voluntary scheme. It will be for individual farmers to decide whether to offer livestock to the scheme; acceptances will depend on certification by a vet that a welfare problem exists or is about to emerge. The licence to slaughter scheme introduced on 2 March has allowed the meat trade to begin operating again, although on a necessarily limited basis. The latest estimate of the Meat and Livestock Commission is that the pig sector is back to 78 per cent. of normal production, beef is at 68 per cent. and lamb at 30 per cent. of normal production. Veterinary advice does not recommend setting up a system of collection centres, although the option is being kept under review.

The control of foot and mouth disease is a major logistical exercise. In that task, we are drawing on the expertise of many public sector organisations, particularly those with field organisations or specialist knowledge and expertise, including the Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency, the Meat and Livestock Commission and my Ministry's agencies. The Ministry of Defence is deploying a logistic planning team, drawn from Land Command, to provide advice on the planning and management of civil and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food resources. We have also been offered support by a wider range of private organisations. In addition, there has been international support, particularly in the provision of veterinary staff to help with the disease control programme. I am enormously grateful for all that support.

Disease control measures have had a major impact on non-farm businesses in rural areas, particularly the tourism industry. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport explained to the House what the Government are doing to help those sectors. A new taskforce has met to take that work forward. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will make further announcements next week. MAFF will continue to provide targeted advice and guidance from the chief veterinary officer on the risks associated with a range of activities in the countryside.

Movement control measures are keeping the spread of the disease to an absolute minimum. Slaughtering the disease out of infected farms and dangerous contacts is bearing down on it where it exists. An intensified slaughter policy in respect of animals thought to be at risk of developing the disease will add to this effort. As further cases emerge, we will learn more about the way in which the outbreak has developed, and that will inform any further refinements of the control policy as necessary. Of course, I will continue to keep the House informed.

Foot and mouth disease is a personal tragedy for those affected, and a body blow to the livestock industry as a whole. Again, I express the Government's deepest

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sympathy for those affected. I also express my support and appreciation of the state veterinary service, the farming organisations and all the others who are involved in combating the disease and dealing with its consequences. I continue to appeal to the public for their co-operation. It is important to remember that the key risk is contact with susceptible livestock. The precautionary measures should be focused on bearing down on that risk. There is no need to bring all aspects of rural activity to a standstill. While the disease is still with us, I renew my appeal to the public to avoid unnecessary visits to livestock farms, and where visits are unavoidable, to take the precautions advised.

I am grateful for the support of the House for the Government's actions. It is important that we set aside party politics in dealing with this outbreak. If the whole country works together and works constructively, we will get through this.

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