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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Minister for letting me have a copy of his statement about 20 minutes before he made it. I begin by again expressing our warm appreciation of the work of all those who are fighting to contain the outbreak.
As the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease continues its remorseless rise, let no one forget that behind each deadly statistic lies a terrible human tragedy. A farmer--often a whole family--faces the prospect of months of emptiness and inactivity and, beyond that, a very uncertain future. In urging the Government to work harder to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease, I am thinking not only of the mounting economic damage that it is inflicting: my heart is with the men, women and children on farms who sit helplessly as the disease gets nearer day by day and finally strikes.
Let me repeat that the Opposition will continue to back the Government whenever they take timely, effective and appropriate steps, as we have at every stage in the crisis, even when the action proposed was unpopular. That was the case with the cull around Cumbria, which the Government announced 12 days ago. We gave immediate and unqualified support.
On the proposals made by the Minister today, we share the concern about the use of pigswill and the large number of perfectly legal sheep movements and transactions that appear to have occurred. We support in principle the steps that he proposes and we shall examine the details when they are published.
On the origin of the outbreak, I am interested in the Minister's view that Heddon-on-the-Wall was the original source. Does that mean that the Government are now certain that foot and mouth disease was not present elsewhere in Britain before the case in Northumberland? Will he publish all the relevant reports, which may shed light on the possible origins of the outbreak? Can he assure the House categorically that no one--not even officials in his Ministry, either in London or the regions--was aware of a possible foot and mouth disease outbreak before 19 February 2001?
Is the Minister aware of the surprise that many people express when they learn of the continued legal import of meat from countries where foot and mouth disease outbreaks have occurred in the recent past? Although measures to prevent foot and mouth from returning to Britain in future are important for the longer term, does he accept that none of the proposals on banning pigswill, a 20-day standstill period for livestock and carrier liability will do anything to deal with the immediate crisis or to slow down the relentless spread of foot and mouth disease across our countryside?
Does the Minister agree that vaccination is the very last resort and that if the Government decide that some form of vaccination is necessary, they will, in effect, be admitting that their other policies have failed? [Interruption.] Yes. Will he confirm that if Britain is to regain its status as a foot and mouth disease-free nation in a reasonable period, every single animal that is vaccinated would still have to be slaughtered eventually?
Does the Minister agree that the permanent loss of our foot and mouth disease-free status would have profound consequences that would go far wider than the livestock industry? Will he confirm that vaccinated animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption?
Will the Minister confirm that the Government's chief scientific adviser said last Friday that, if the Government did not step up the scale of their measures to prevent the spread of the disease, in the worst-case analysis up to half Britain's livestock would be lost? Will he further confirm that one of the measures that the chief scientific officer described as essential was cutting to 24 hours the time between reporting a case and slaughtering the animal? Will he admit that in most areas the target is not being achieved?
The Minister stated this afternoon that 264,000 animals are awaiting slaughter. Will he confirm that, in the 24 hours that ended at 3 pm yesterday, only 31,000 animals were slaughtered? At the current rate of progress, it will take not 24 hours but more than eight days to clear the backlog of animals, even if no further cases are identified. In those eight days, thousands of animals run the risk of spreading the disease still further. Will the Minister confirm that the Government fell even further behind events because in the 24 hours to 3 pm yesterday, 48,000 more animals were identified as requiring slaughter, but only 31,000 were slaughtered? That means that 17,000 more remain on the waiting list.
Will the Minister confirm that the figures for carcases are scarcely better? Despite the excellent but belated work that the Army is now allowed to do in Cumbria, the total number of carcases awaiting disposal increased yesterday to 104,000. Does the Minister finally realise that the Government's failure to act promptly and adequately in response to the crisis has led directly to the scale of the emergency that now engulfs our nation?
Does the Minister accept that many of the actions that the Government are starting to take are the steps that I suggested at a much earlier date? If the Government had brought in the Army in a hands-on role, as I suggested on 11 March, instead of waiting two more weeks; started on-farm burial, as I suggested on 15 March, instead of
For the Prime Minister to suggest yesterday that the Conservative party had jumped on a bandwagon was deeply insulting to those whose suffering our timely proposals are designed to help, and a hideous distortion of the truth, which demeans his great office. Like other Ministers before him, the Prime Minister claims that foot and mouth disease is being brought under control when, plainly, it is not, and that his policies are succeeding before they have been fully implemented.
In the six days since the Prime Minister said that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, the number of animals awaiting slaughter has increased by two thirds. The dither and confusion in Government have continued and the actions that the Prime Minister's chief scientific adviser described last Friday as essential for curbing the spread of the disease have not been fully carried out.
Mr. Brown: The situation with which we are dealing is unprecedented. I shall not rise to the bait because a serious problem confronts our country and I honestly believe that the best way to approach it is in as bipartisan a spirit as possible.
I shall take one at a time the points that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) raised, but first I express my thanks for his appreciation of the hard work of uniformed personnel and civilians in the field. They are working incredibly long hours to eradicate the disease, and they have to deal with a rising profile of cases, especially in Cumbria and Devon. The rise is remorseless, and the hon. Gentleman was right to describe the situation as a human tragedy. I give this commitment on the Government's behalf--we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the farming community and the broader rural community and do what we can to make the uncertain future to which the hon. Gentleman referred more certain. We will stand in the farmers' corner, not just helping them through the disease outbreak but working with them on a recovery plan afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had stood by me even when I had to make unpopular decisions. If he can think of a popular decision that I can make in these circumstances, I would welcome his advice. There are some very hard choices to be made. There is not one recommendation that does not have a good argument against it, except this--doing nothing is not an option. Some very difficult questions must be addressed.
I met farmers yesterday in the hardest of circumstances in Cumbria, where the outbreak is most intense, and in Devon. I found the farming community very upset and distressed, quite naturally. I heard personal stories that were absolutely heartbreaking. However, the farmers were being brave enough to face up to the difficult decisions and discuss with me unpalatable alternative strategies--as I said, there are no palatable ones. It behoves all of us to do the same and to treat the issue with the seriousness that it deserves.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the consultation on pigswill. On the movement of sheep and cattle, alternatives are set out in the two consultation documents, particularly with regard to how far we should
We believe, and have done since the early stages, that Heddon-on-the-Wall was the original source of the outbreak. There is a whole series of urban legends about officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knowing that the disease was in the country earlier and concealing it for some inexplicable purpose of their own. That simply is not true. I cannot publish what does not exist. There is no report marked "Secret", saying that there is foot and mouth disease in the country but we believe that no one will notice. Such a proposition is plainly absurd.
I cannot publish what is not there, but I can publish what I was told, and when. I asked for a note to be drawn up setting everything out in that crucial week from the first suspicion of the disease being present in Essex to the controls being put in place the following Friday. I am willing to put that in the Library so that people can see what Ministers were told, when, and what actions were taken.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had warned of the weakness of controls over foreign imports. They are the same controls that were in place for 18 years of Conservative government. They have not deteriorated over time. I want a hard look at how they are being enforced. There are two routes. First, is the rule on importation for personal use being abused? If so, how is it being abused and how can we tighten up enforcement? The second, separate, issue is meat products that are imported on containers, either lawfully or unlawfully, being described as something other than what they are. We need to take a hard look at those questions across Government, and I am co-ordinating that work from my Ministry.
The hon. Gentleman asked, perfectly properly, about vaccination. There are two ways, as I said in my statement, in which we might consider the use of vaccination. It would be a very serious step. There are arguments against it, and I want to consult the devolved authorities.
It is not true that in all circumstances the use of vaccination will compromise the disease-free status of the whole of Great Britain. I am determined to restore that disease-free status for the whole of Great Britain. That is the right strategy for the Government to pursue. We should not allow it to be compromised, not even by vaccination, but it may be possible to apply a policy of vaccination on a regional basis, and have the region in which it is applied treated differently. It is not automatic that vaccinated animals would be slaughtered afterwards, but there is a presumption that the Government would pursue such a policy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about our target of 24 hours from recognition of the disease to slaughter of the animals. That is by far the most important single intervention that we can make. We are achieving the target in most parts of the country, but we are still behind in Cumbria. We need to up our game to ensure that we achieve it. I understand the hon. Gentleman's criticisms, but it is a little like a back-seat driver saying, "You should have taken that left-hand turn half a mile back I now