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Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Does the hon. Gentleman now believe that the outbreak is under control? He talks about lifting movement restrictions. If he were Minister, under what circumstances would he lift restrictions completely? Would he wait until there were no further incidences, or for a period after the final outbreak? Under what circumstances would he deem that movement restrictions could be lifted and therefore that the outbreak was under control according to his definition?
Mr. Yeo: I believe that most members of the public would judge whether the crisis had been resolved according to the criteria that I have set out. I share the Minister of State's view that it is impossible to lift all movement restrictions as quickly as some people would like because we rightly do not want to run any risk of a renewed spread of infection. However, it is impossible to say that the crisis has been resolved while those restrictions remain. A significant number of farmers are unable to operate their businesses as they normally would while such restrictions exist, and to claim that everything is back to normal when restrictions of that sort are still in place seems quite unreasonable.
Taking account of all those criteria, I do not believe that it is possible to say, as of today, that the crisis has been resolved or even that foot and mouth disease is fully under control. It is certainly not under control in Devon, to which I paid a visit last week. There, in particular, the problem of carcase disposal is still enormous. That is a symbol of the Government's failure to take control of this problem quickly. In Devon, there is still a huge backlog of carcases awaiting disposal, and it cannot be ignored. To ignore it would be environmentally damaging.
We have said several times--and I remain of this view--that the better option, right from the start, is on-farm burial. That was the clear message of the 1967 report. The Minister of State quite reasonably made the point that environmental concerns have evolved since then. Nevertheless, what should have happened at the earliest stage of the outbreak was immediate consultation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency. The agency should have been asked to identify areas where it would not be possible to have on-farm burial because of a high water table or other factors. On-farm burial should have been the preferred option everywhere else.
On-farm burial allows the problem to be dealt with in manageable proportions. Instead of hundreds of thousands of carcases being transported to one particular site, a number of much smaller-scale sites could be used. Indeed, there could be more than one site on one farm if necessary.
Mr. Luff: I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about on-farm burial. The failure of the Government to implement that policy has landed my constituents near Throckmorton airfield with a mass burial site that will have to take upwards of a quarter of a million carcases, and possibly many more if the absolutely abhorrent proposal to bring carcases from Devon to Worcestershire is pursued by the Government. The Government are not making their task any easier by failing to answer my parliamentary questions on the subject. Before the recess, I tabled about 30 questions and I have had no substantial answers to any of them. My constituents adjacent to that site are extremely anxious.
Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend raises a most important point on parliamentary questions. I have checked, and I have 15 questions to the Minister outstanding, nearly all of which were tabled before the end of March. After the recess, it was quite reasonable for Members on both sides of the House to expect that the questions that they had tabled some time earlier would have been answered on Monday this week.
The other point of which my hon. Friend reminds me is that if there are concerns about on-farm burial, it would be interesting to know whether the Environment Agency has carried out any studies to find out what the long-term effects were of the on-farm burial that was successfully carried out in 1967, and to see whether any damaging effects have occurred.
Mr. Win Griffiths: Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there have been huge changes since 1967? Furthermore, as far as I am aware, the Environment Agency scoured the countryside in the infected areas in Wales to find suitable burial points, and failed to do so. The hon. Gentleman has underlined just how difficult it is to deal with the problem, and he should admit that the Government have done a damned good job in very difficult circumstances.
Mr. Yeo: I do not think that anyone looking at the piles of carcases in Devon could agree with that last sentiment. I understand that the chief executive of the Environment Agency has said that a number of sites that could be used are not being used at present.
Mr. Paterson: The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) may be interested to know that I held a meeting with vets who had worked during 1967 and vets working currently. When large numbers of cattle were buried on-farm in Cheshire and north Shropshire, no detrimental effects on human health were recorded. My hon. Friend is right to ask for an investigation of whether any records were kept for those sites, and what the environmental consequences were. That was the clear recommendation of the 1967 report, and of the vets in Wem four weeks ago.
Mr. Yeo: I entirely agree. I certainly do not consider it adequate, nine weeks into the current outbreak, simply to parrot the objection that on-farm burials involve environmental difficulties, unless it is backed up by proper studies and assessments that reveal risks of which we were not previously aware.
Let me now turn to measures taken to curb the spread of the disease. It appears that, belatedly, slaughter on suspicion--for which, again, we called at an early stage--is now being employed, and that it has been crucial to better progress.
Will the Minister of State explain some things to me? A case that may have appeared to be a confirmed case of foot and mouth disease may not have been recorded as such, because slaughter has taken place before confirmation of the infection has been obtained. If, in such circumstances, there has been a slaughter on suspicion, is there then a cull on contiguous farms, even if the infection has not been confirmed? When a case is confirmed and a cull on contiguous farms takes place, are the animals culled on those contiguous premises tested? If those animals are burned, is it the case that evidence that could show whether foot and mouth is under control or is still spreading may sometimes be destroyed by incineration?
The abiding impression gained by those who visit problem areas such as Devon--this is not just my experience, but the experience of every visitor to whom I have spoken--is that, even now, no one is really in charge. The Ministry is saying one thing, the vets are saying another, and the Environment Agency is saying something else. Unfortunately, when I was in Devon last week the Minister blocked my request to talk to Ministry vets. Two days before my visit I checked with the Minister's private office, and was told that I would not be allowed to enter the regional office in Exeter. I was not seeking any confidential information; if I had been, I would of course have approached the Minister himself. I simply wanted to hear the assessment of vets on the ground in an area where matters are clearly not under control.
Foot and mouth disease is not just a problem for farmers with infected animals; others are threatened too, and I am afraid that the Government's dither over vaccination has not helped. I accept that this is not an easy decision to make--opinion is divided among farmers, among vets and among scientists--but it is the job of Ministers to make such difficult decisions.
Some weeks ago, I set out three tests on which to assess whether vaccination should take place. Will vaccination eradicate foot and mouth disease more quickly than the present policies? Will vaccination reduce the number of animals that eventually have to be slaughtered? Will vaccination bring forward the date on which Britain regains disease-free status? I said then, and I say again now, that if the answer to at least two of those questions is yes, vaccination is clearly the right policy. If the answer to two or more of those questions is no, vaccination is not the right answer. If the Minister accepts that those are the right tests, what scientific advice has been given about them? If the Minister does not accept that those are the right tests, what tests are the Government applying to determine the policy?
It is now nearly four weeks since Downing street said that a decision on vaccination would be made in 48 hours. We are still waiting and the delay suggests confusion at the highest level in Government. Last week, the Government appeared to be edging towards a policy of vaccinating dairy cattle in Cumbria and Devon, without explaining how that would help or how it would work. Now they are backing away from that, in the face of a seeming veto exercised by the NFU. Who is making the policy? Is it the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence--who apparently now chairs the Cobra meetings--or is it the president of the NFU?