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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment. I know that she brings to the job wide experience of Government, and also knowledge of the countryside, both at home and abroad, acquired partly at least from her caravanning holidays. I look forward to debating with her the whole range of the responsibilities of her enlarged Department in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday next. I hope that she appreciates the depth and urgency of the crisis in our countryside. Whatever the merits or otherwise of restructuring in Whitehall, what the countryside, farming, tourism and the whole rural economy need is not a new Department but a new Government policy.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has taken this first available opportunity to make a statement on the foot and mouth epidemic, although I have to say in passing that a copy of her statement reached me only five minutes before she started speaking. I also warmly welcome the progress that she has announced on relaxing the restrictions on livestock movements from infected areas. Again, I offer the Opposition's full support for those and any further measures that are needed both to eradicate the disease and to help the industries that have been damaged.
I hope that the Secretary of State will not fall into her predecessor's habit of claiming regularly that the epidemic is under control when plainly it is not, or make claims like those made by the Prime Minister just before the general election, when he said that the Government were on the home straight in dealing with the disease, when plainly they were not.
I hope that the Secretary of State will visit not only one but many of the worst affected areas--in the Yorkshire dales, Lancashire, Cumbria, Devon and Somerset--where she will find that farmers paint a very different picture from that which has regularly been painted by Ministers. For example, in Yorkshire, after the Prime Minister's claim at the beginning of May, the disease spread into previously uninfected areas at an alarming rate. Does the right hon. Lady realise that the damage caused by the disease is not confined to the countryside? For example, in April, the number of visitors to Britain, including those intending to come to urban areas, was down by a quarter.
I am surprised, and very disappointed, that the Secretary of State did not refer to the public inquiry that is clearly needed. The scale of the epidemic makes it essential that a full public inquiry be held to establish how the disease reached Britain and why the Government reacted so slowly--and often incompetently--in those crucial early weeks, and to advise on an effective prevention strategy to minimise the risk of another similar national disaster.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that only a full public inquiry will be acceptable, that former Ministers responsible for handling the epidemic--all of whom seem to have been conveniently shuffled away or retired--must answer in public for their actions, and that the Prime Minister, who said at the end of March that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, must also give evidence? Is the Prime Minister still in personal charge of the crisis? The Leader of the House refused to answer that question earlier.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a full public inquiry need not take anything like as long or cost as much as, for example, the BSE inquiry, because the science of foot and mouth is already better understood and the period of events to be investigated is very much shorter?
Has there been any change in the basis on which the figures for foot and mouth cases are calculated? In advance of a public inquiry, will the Secretary of State arrange for a qualified statistician to undertake an independent audit of the figures produced by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food throughout the period of the epidemic?
I note the Secretary of State's comments on relaxing some of the footpath restrictions. Does she accept that footpaths in or near infected areas should be opened only after a proper and rigorous local assessment of the risks, in consultation with all the interested parties?
Does the right hon. Lady accept that the proposal for a 20-day ban on the movement of livestock, announced as one of her predecessor's knee-jerk responses in April, is unworkable in practice and should be withdrawn and completely rethought?
The Secretary of State did not refer specifically to vaccination. Will she start talks with other European Union member states on whether the EU-wide policy should now be fundamentally reviewed? Do the Government plan to carry out serological testing, and if so, will the results be published, and what will be done with the animals that test positive? Does she recognise that compensation is needed not only for farmers whose animals have been slaughtered but for many others who have suffered unrecoverable losses as a direct result of the epidemic?
When will the Government introduce a full recovery plan for the livestock industry, the rest of the rural economy, tourism and other countryside businesses, including the equestrian sector? How many businesses have benefited so far from the measures announced by the rural task force and, in the absence of the Minister for the Environment this morning, will the Secretary of State tell us who is now chairing the rural task force?
Do the Government accept that the epidemic should never have reached its present scale, and that if prompt effective action had been taken at the outset, as I suggested in the House and as inquiries into the previous outbreak made clear, far fewer animals would have died, far fewer family businesses would have been destroyed, far less damage to farming and the rural economy would have occurred, and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would have been saved? The crisis has inflicted hideous suffering and damage on human beings,
Margaret Beckett: I do not know whether it is gratifying that the hon. Gentleman has emerged from the rigours of the election campaign with his attitudes and his amour propre undamaged by contact with reality. He asked a string of questions and made a string of comments; I shall endeavour to respond to most of his questions.
The hon. Gentleman asked if there had been any change to the basis on which figures are calculated; the answer is no. He asked whether paths would be reopened only after local consultation. I shall come back to that issue in a second. I apologise for the fact that he received a copy of the statement late; he will not receive a statement so late again, but he will appreciate that on a day when there are no ordinary parliamentary questions, there is less time than usual to clarify things and get a copy to him. In view of what he said about accurate statistics, I am sure that he also appreciates that we wanted to make the latest possible figures available to the House.
As I said, the hon. Gentleman asked about reopening footpaths. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will announce today the date on which we propose that the blanket closures should be lifted. In the interim, as I made plain in the statement, it will be possible for local authorities to make representations if, for some reason, they feel that blanket closure is necessary in their areas. Of course, it will also be possible for local authorities to continue to exercise the range of powers that they previously enjoyed. I expect that decisions will be taken with due sensitivity to local situations.
The hon. Gentleman asked about instigating talks with the European Union on vaccination policy. Of course, that remains under consideration, and I have little doubt that in the aftermath of the outbreak, there is bound to be further discussion of all those issues. He asked whether we planned to carry out serological testing. I was not quite sure what point he was making, as the Government are already carrying out extensive serological testing. I cannot recall offhand whether the House has previously been made aware of the fact that when the outbreak began, we inherited a capacity to test some 400 serological samples. I have rather lost track of the latest figures, as they are rising rapidly, but we now have the capacity to test between 60,000 and 70,000 samples. We are continuing to increase that capacity because we perceive the need to carry out thorough and extensive testing.
The hon. Gentleman again asked for compensation for, as far as I could make out, any unrecovered losses by anybody in any circumstances. He will know that, sadly, no Government have felt able to make such a commitment--and this one is no exception. We shall certainly introduce a recovery plan, but I cannot give a date for that at present. I cannot add to what I said in the statement about the number of businesses that are benefiting from the resources that have been made available because, obviously, that is being handled by regional development agencies. The rural task force is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs, which is why he is here now.
I think that I have now covered most of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked. However, he also made a number of observations. He said that the depth and urgency of the crisis was evident; I do not dissent from that at all. He said that reshuffles in Whitehall were irrelevant; of course, the changes that have been and continue to be made have not disrupted the handling of the outbreak, which is still a very high priority indeed for my Department.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman accused my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who is now the Minister for Work, of making certain statements--but he will find that those statements were not wholly accurately reported. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need for a new policy, criticised the Government for saying that we were on the home straight, and made his usual call for a full public inquiry. There is no point in his continuing to pretend that the Government are not committed to having an inquiry when the outbreak is over. We have repeatedly made it plain that we have every intention of having an inquiry--[Hon. Members: "When?"] When the outbreak is over. If hon. Members listen to the "Today" programme, as I am sure they do assiduously, they will have heard the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons giving the interviewer what were, for the hon. Gentleman, all the wrong answers, by saying that the Government were not handling the issue badly and that we should not have the inquiry until the outbreak is over. That remains the Government's view.
There will be an inquiry, but the farming industry and rural communities most want to see an inquiry that is carried out fully and effectively, and uncovers the answers as expeditiously as possible and at as low a cost as possible. It is hard to listen to Opposition Members go on about how disgusting it is that the Government are not pledged to hold a full public inquiry when the Conservatives resisted right to the end of their term in office an inquiry into the BSE outbreak.
The hon. Gentleman said that an inquiry need not take long or cost much, but he continued this morning his practice--which I also observed from my former position on the Front Bench--throughout the outbreak. He and his colleagues spend all their time trying to think of something they can ask the Government to do that they will refuse to do. If he spent more of his time assisting the Government in getting across the messages about what matters in the countryside--to continue to bear down on the disease and to take the precautions that will reduce its spread--he would gain more respect, in the House and outside.