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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): We understand that the Government have a busy programme, but surely top priority should be given to an issue that was considered urgent and was promised in the 1997 manifesto but has not yet been delivered. Will the right hon. Gentleman provide the House with an early statement about why the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, which would help to tackle a problem that kills 120,000 people each year and for which the health service needs new recruits, is not mentioned in the Government's programme for the first year, given that it was first promised in 1997? Public health physicians up and down the country are amazed that the Government's priorities are seriously in danger of affecting the health of the nation.

Mr. Cook: It was a disappointment to the Government that we were not successful in securing the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill at the end of the previous Session. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there was some controversy over the proposals and there was not unanimous support for the Bill. As the Prime Minister has said, it is not the position that the only Bills to be put before the House are those named in the Queen's Speech. If time permits, such legislation will be a high priority for us, and we will try to accommodate it in the time available. It will certainly be a high priority for a future Session of this Parliament.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Department of Health has two Bills in this Session, and the health of the nation is well catered for in the priorities set out in the Queen's Speech.

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Foot and Mouth

12.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): With permission, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak. I want to take this, the earliest possible opportunity, to update the House on developments since my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement on Thursday 3 May, and to set out the measures that the Government continue to take.

As of midday today, there had been a total of 1,771 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, including four in Northern Ireland. Yesterday there was only one case. Since my right hon. Friend addressed the House some seven weeks ago, there have been an average of between four and five cases a day. That should be compared with the highest level of more than 40 cases a day at the end of March.

The number of animals slaughtered for disease control purposes has now reached 3.4 million, an increase of 1 million since 3 May. The percentages for each species remain roughly the same: about 80 per cent. are sheep, 16 per cent. cattle and 4 per cent. pigs. A further 1.1 million animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. The total number of animals slaughtered under both headings is about 4.5 million so far, out of a total United Kingdom livestock population of about 55 million.

Let me put that figure in context. Although by anyone's standards a massive number of animals have had to be slaughtered, it is a substantially smaller number than the number that we slaughter for consumption in an average week--some half a million cattle, sheep and pigs.

My right hon. Friend warned the House on 3 May that the epidemiological advice was that cases would continue to occur for some time yet. Sadly, that remains the case. He also warned that we expected that the outbreak would have a long tail, that there would be further outbreaks in some parts of the country, and that the number of cases per day would fluctuate. That remains the position today.

The objective also remains to eradicate the disease as quickly as we can. Let me make it perfectly clear that although we cannot put a definitive time scale on the achievement of that goal, no one is suggesting that it will be in the next few days or weeks. It is therefore hugely important that no one relaxes their guard. Certainly all the resources, both civil and military, that we as a Government need to bear down on the disease will be deployed where they are needed for as long as they are needed.

More than 900 vets are still actively working on the outbreak, including about 80 from abroad. As the number of daily cases has declined, it has been possible to reduce the number of military personnel now working on the ground to about 250, mainly in the north of England. That reduction can, of course, be speedily reversed if the need should arise. Indeed, our immediate response to the outbreak in the Settle area of north Yorkshire showed that we can react rapidly when the situation requires it. And, of course, hundreds of administrative staff remain in place in control centres throughout the country.

My right hon. Friend was able to say on 3 May that there were no backlogs of animals awaiting disposal anywhere in Great Britain. I am pleased to say that we

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have maintained that position ever since, and it remains the case today. A new system, co-ordinated in the headquarters in Page street, London, ensures that carcases are picked up from farms promptly after slaughter, and transported to their final destination without further delay.

Of course, it is much easier to achieve rapid turnaround when there are just four or five cases per day than when there are 30 or 40. Nevertheless, the task of ensuring that many thousands of carcases are collected and disposed of each day is itself a major logistical exercise. Seven or eight cases can involve 30 or 40 farms, including the contiguous premises, and therefore up to 20,000 carcases.

Protection of the environment and human health are our priority for all disposal options. Rendering is the best way of disposing of carcases, and will always be our first choice, but rendering capacity is finite and can quickly become overstretched, at least in the short term, if on any given day the number of cases rises. The Department of Health has advised that the greatest public health hazard would be leaving carcases out in the open, especially in warm weather, so other means of disposal may still need to be called upon from time to time.

If other options are exhausted, we shall on occasion still have to turn to licensed landfills and mass burial sites. I understand the strength of local feelings about burial sites, and I assure the House that a decision to use such a site, even for just one day or for a few lorryloads, is not taken lightly. However, as has been said many times, there are no easy options for disposal, and if the circumstances arise we must be prepared to utilise all the national assets that we have, including burial sites.

Those are the steps taken to deal effectively with the outbreak of the disease. Even more important, however, is preventing further spread of the disease. I cannot emphasise too strongly the continuing importance of high standards of biosecurity--practical precautionary measures to prevent further spread of the disease--on and around farms. We are taking every opportunity to drive home that message, using interviews in the national and local media and advertisements in the local and the farming press.

We have also produced a video demonstrating a practical approach to biosecurity. That will shortly be made available to all livestock farmers and others in the industry, accompanied by a leaflet and letter from Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer. It is essential to drive the message home. I appeal to all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed continued concern and interest in the concerns of their constituents to play their part in conveying that message to those constituents.

As the House is aware, the outbreak continues in a number of areas of the country, but fortunately other regions have had no cases at all, or have had no further cases for a long time and are looking forward to a return to normality. We are doing everything we can to facilitate that, subject, naturally, to the overriding priority not to put the eradication of the disease at risk.

Thirty-seven infected areas have now had that designation lifted. Those are areas where not only have there been no new cases for more than 30 days, but thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken

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place. Some 43,000 farms have benefited from the lifting of restrictions; that is about a third of the farms that have ever been restricted.

As I have said, wherever there is a remaining disease problem, we will put all our efforts into eradicating it. At the same time, I am conscious of the call from the farming industry and the wider rural community for some of the tighter movement restrictions to be relaxed. As ever, there is a balance to be achieved between continuing to bear down on the disease--movement restrictions are an essential part of our armoury for control--and allowing reasonably normal business to take place where the risk of spreading the disease is very low. The restrictions applied must be kept proportionate to the risk.

Therefore, I can announce two significant changes to the rules on the movement of livestock. The industry has been pressing for some time for a relaxation of the licence restrictions to enable more normal trade to take place. Clearly, our first priority is to ensure that nothing is done that puts the eradication of the disease at risk, but the veterinary advice is that certain changes can be made, provided that strict criteria are applied and the animals are otherwise eligible to be moved under existing foot and mouth disease rules.

First, as from tomorrow, Friday 22 June, livestock--cattle, sheep and pigs--from within infected areas will be permitted to move, under licence, for slaughter in abattoirs outside the infected area, both for human consumption and under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. Secondly, also from tomorrow, cattle and pigs from outside infected areas will be permitted to move, under licence, into provisionally free areas on welfare grounds. At the same time, welfare movements of cattle and pigs from one provisionally free area to another will be permitted. The veterinary advice is that a similar easing of welfare movements for sheep would present too high a risk in the current situation.

Relaxation of movement restrictions where reasonable is important for our farming industry, but foot and mouth disease has had a devastating impact on the wider rural economy. As part of our strategy for wider rural recovery, we want footpaths and other rights of way to be reopened wherever that is safe. Considerable progress has been made in recent weeks, with more than half of all paths now open. That reflects real effort and good will on the part of many local authorities, farmers and walkers. However, some local authorities have kept paths shut when it is quite difficult to see that that is justified; the risks have been assessed as very slight. What is also unhelpful is that, even where most paths are open, people are often still confused about which paths are open and which are shut.

I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to examine as a matter of urgency whether we can revoke the remaining blanket closures of paths in the near future. We would keep in place local authority powers to close paths selectively where necessary--mainly within 3 km of infected premises--and we will listen to representations from local authorities and others who may wish to retain blanket closures in particular areas affected by disease. We recognise that that may be the right response in areas where there is or has been a high concentration of disease, and implementing path-by-path closures would be difficult.

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Revoking remaining blanket closures will both increase the number of paths open and, as is equally important, make much clearer which paths are open and which are closed. It will mean that by the summer holidays most of the countryside will be well and truly open, and seen to be open, for visitors and for business.

We are also continuing to take action to help rural businesses, particularly in the worst affected areas, to cope with the impact of foot and mouth. In the past three months, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise have deferred £71 million of tax without interest charges for severely affected businesses. Local authorities have granted or are considering 3,500 applications for hardship rate relief, in addition to deferment of rates bills and applications for revaluation related to foot and mouth impacts.

Furthermore, we have provided additional funding of £39 million for the business recovery fund run by the regional development agencies to add to the resources that they had already been allocated and have themselves reprioritised for such use. In addition to business support, and funding for local and regional promotion, more than 200 businesses have had offers of grant from the fund, and we expect all RDAs to have the fund fully operational with their business links partners by the end of this month.

The disease has been a terrible blow to farmers and to the wider rural community, and for some, recovery will still seem a distant dream. Nevertheless, work to help farmers emerge from the crisis has begun, and it is of course linked to the Government's aims to create sustainable and diverse farming and food industries and to promote thriving rural economies and communities.

In the short term, we have already paid out about £790 million in compensation for slaughtered animals in addition to the £156 million announced for agrimonetary compensation and an estimated total of £230 million under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. Looking to the longer term, members of the rural task force and other stakeholders are already engaged in discussions with my Department and my ministerial colleagues on how best to deliver a sustainable and thriving countryside.

It is clear that we must learn the lessons from the outbreak. Although everyone was trying to do his or her best, it is in the nature of things that some errors are likely to have been made. What is important is not only to identify what we could and should do better next time, but to highlight the many things that went well, and that we should do again if the same or a similar situation should arise.

We also need to examine issues such as the possible future shape of the disease control regime and the changes that might be necessary at EU as well as at national level. Again, a review is planned for the autumn, and we are keen to play an active part in that. I discussed all those points with EU colleagues at this week's Agriculture Council, where other member states continued to be not only appreciative of our efforts but--as my right hon. Friend the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reported to the House--very supportive and helpful to our country and our Government in dealing with the outbreak.

My Department and I are determined to bring the outbreak to an end. I have been tremendously impressed by the commitment of all those working on foot and mouth whom I have met in my short time in office,

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including veterinarians, soldiers and administrative and technical staff, who in many parts of the country are still working very long hours, seven days a week. I am most grateful to those who have contributed to the team effort, not least to our own former ministerial team, and I pay tribute to them all. I myself hope to visit one of the worst affected areas in the north of England soon.

In closing, I ask for us all, on both sides of the House, to continue to work together as we move nearer to our ultimate goal of the complete eradication of the disease from the United Kingdom and a return to normality in farming and rural communities.

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