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Mrs. Browning: My constituency had some of the earlier foot and mouth outbreaks. There were delays to the contiguous cull there not because the farmers protested or appealed but because the Ministry delayed for 19 days before turning up to carry it out. That totally defeats the purpose of a contiguous cull.
Mr. Hall: I am happy to accept the hon. Lady's point, and I hope that the "lessons learned" and other inquiries will take it on board. We all want to learn from what has gone on, and ensure that lessons are learned and mistakes are not made should we need to apply the policies again.
The present system allows a farmer who has been informed of a decision to cull his or her livestock to appeal to the district veterinary managerI believe by letter. The vet may accept the appeal. Although the majority of stock saved by that process remained healthy, a minority went on to become infected. That included a case that went to the High Court, in which the farmer's appeal was upheld. So there are clearly risks in the process, and we must make a judgment about what level of risk is acceptable, given that we cannot eliminate risks 100 per cent in human affairs. It is part of our job in the House to weigh up the balance of the arguments.
In the majority of cases, the appeal to the district veterinary manager was turned down. Many farmerspossibly mostaccepted the outcome and reluctantly agreed to an immediate cull of their livestock, but others refused access to departmental vets and officials, who then had to apply to the High Court for an injunction to access those premises to carry out the cull. That was the principal cause of delay in implementing the cull once the system was working more effectively and the administrative problems of the policy had been solved. That delay led to more infection and, therefore, the need to cull more animals. It is that delay that the Bill seeks to eliminate.
Even if the contiguous cull is necessary and even if it is, at best, rough justice, the denial of the right to be heard reduces the element of justice being seen to be done. We must question that. There is nothing wrong with a farmer exercising the right of appeal and seeking to save his or her livestock and livelihood. Indeed, on occasion, such appeals succeed, depending on an assessment of the local veterinary situation, so the system has some flexibility. The enjoyment of a right to appeal should be set in a system that is seen to be fair. The whole process that is triggered by the appeal, including the seeking of the warrant, should be fair and open, and seen to be so.
Some of those who advise the Government as experts on such matters believe that the right of appeal represents too much of a risk, because it introduces delay and because decisions to allow appeals might turn out to be wrong. We know that some premises have become infected in just that situation. I put that point to Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, and his colleague Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, and they confirmed that, from a purely scientific point of view, anything that delays the culling of potentially infected animals is a real risk. Given the awful consequences of living with a higher rather than a lower level of risk, we must ask whether we are justified in retaining the right of appeal. I think that we are, but we must be clear that we retain it on social, legal and political groundsbecause it is the right thing to do in a free societybut we do not do it on the best available scientific advice. We must acknowledge that. The right of appeal is not threatened by the Bill, but I imagine that the logic of some of the advice that Ministers have received is that it could and should be abolished. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to be clear about why he has not accepted that advice or perhaps the strong inference of the advice.
Difficult, controversial and hard as these issues are, there is no easy option. Tough powers are needed to prevent the spread of disease, to get ahead of it and stop matters getting worse, and among all the many groups in society, farmers are those who best understand that. However, it is important that the procedures be effective, open and fair so that they are supported and understood and so that we can all accept that we are trying to make something work in the national interest.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Earlier this year, when I needed to get over to Bentham and Ingleton for my surgeries, the quickest route was to drive up Wensleydale in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Normally, it is a wonderful drive against the sun and along the river, with the dales on each side. However, then FMD arrived in his constituency and the journey became rather sinister.
I wondered how FMD could be in Cumbria and Wensleydale, north and south of my constituency, but not in mine. I spoke too soon, because two days after the Prime Minister announced the general election, we had our first case in Ribblesdale and, by the time that we had finished, we had had more than twice as many as there were in my right hon. Friend's constituency. Indeed, one of the few remaining totally restricted areas is in the Skipton area in my constituency.
I saw at first hand the coruscating effect on people of all sorts and businesses of all descriptions of the countryside being literally shut down. I reflected on what the lessons might be as we tried to learn them. The first lesson is still true today. Ministers frequently announced schemesto get animals to slaughter, to get animals to market, to get animals into processing plants, or to provide welfare for animalsand a week later, I would inquire of the people who had to implement them, often trading standards officers, what had happened. They would say that they did not have the operating instructions yet, so they could not do anything. The gap between instruction and implementation throughout the epidemic has been far too long.
An enormous amount depends on the most recent autumn movement programme, because people in my constituency who are caught with too much livestock up on the hills that they cannot sell are sucking the pebbles dry. However, the DEFRA computer failed. It has continually failed, which has meant that wrong orders have been given, people were cleared who should not have been and farmers were caught in an immensely frustrating, Kafkaesque situation of knowing that they could achieve something if only the machine would provide the right answer. That is still a problem. I recognise that the public sector has a catastrophic record of trying to make information technology work and that enormous strains are placed on it, but a lot of problems still need ironing out.
The second lesson is the fact that there was no central personnel function; I do not think that MAFF ever applied one. A very limited number of the departments in the Ministry supplied almost all the people to handle the epidemic; some departments escaped with almost none of their people being taken. To what extent was somebody at the centre considering whom to send, where to send them and how to bring the teams together? It took a tremendously long time to put co-ordinated management teams in place.
Foot and mouth came to my constituency a long time after it came to Cumbria, Devon and Wensleydale. It was not at the beginning of the experience but towards its end, yet the vets seemed to be in an autonomous organisation, managing themselvesnot very well, because that is not what they are there to do. It took a long time to bring the components together and introduce some sort of integrated management programme.
Because of all that, and because the election was taking people's attention away, the idea grew up in my constituency that the Government did not want people to know about our epidemic. It took place out of the
Even before one professor mentioned the fact to the Select Committee, I thought that the biggest problem was that MAFF was terribly out of touch with the industry that it was in charge of. In my constituency, as well as in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, and in Cumbria, it seemed to have an image of agriculture derived from watching "All Creatures Great and Small". Wonderful and entertaining though that programme was, it was only a partial mirror of agriculture in my constituency. The number of people who commute between different holdings seemed to catch the Ministry entirely by surprise. The industry had moved away from the Ministry's perception of it.
"Agentisation"if that is the right word to describe the acquiring of agency status by the various MAFF organisationscertainly played a part in that. We must now ensure that we have the necessary information about what is happening and where, which is crucial for the future handling of outbreaks.
What I have said so far is just a preliminary, because now I shall turn directly to the Bill. It is not about the prescription of a certain method of fighting foot and mouth disease. It is, we hope, clearing the way to fight that disease more effectively, either by slaughter or by vaccinationalthough there are questions to be asked about the compensation that would be paid in the event of slaughter as part of a ring vaccination scheme. That subject was skated over cautiously, which makes me think that the Treasury did not want to be too precise about what might ultimately be paid. The Minister will, of course, have said from the beginning that getting farmer consent is crucial to combating the disease, and that is linked to a perception that the payments are reasonable.
In pursuit of the goal of rapid slaughterif and where that becomes the policythere is great curtailment of the right to resist. In practice, the right to resist, protest and appeal becomes all but extinct under the Bill.
The key emotional issue has been the contiguous cull. The Select Committee took evidence from Professor David King, Professor Mark Woolhouse and Professor Ray Anderson, and I thought that they made a convincing case that the contiguous cull was a crucial weapon in getting ahead of the epidemic, which had got ahead of the Government and roared out of control. One reason why it was out of controland here I have some sympathy for the Governmentis the fact that they did not take action immediately the first outbreak was detected, during those crucial three days between 20 and 23 February. We have been told that had action been taken immediately, the epidemic might have been cut to between a half and a third of its eventual size.
I can understand that if Ministers see one outbreak, there is some hesitation about the extent to which draconian action must be taken. That is why it would be good to see the papers that were submitted to Ministers at that timeand we would also like to see the papers that scientists wrote for Ministers, and for the Prime Minister, when vaccination was actively being considered. I hope that they will be made available to the inquiry, and that
There was a catastrophic failure to get to grips with the illness in Cumbria. It simply got out of control and the local people could not cope with it. That happened in Devon as well, and it meant that the contiguous cull became, perforce, the instrument by which we tried to catch up.
Of course some farmers were irresponsiblejust as a percentage of any group of people, such as politicians, estate agents or anyone else, will be irresponsible. We have all heard of the famous farmer in Thirsk with seven holdings who commuted freely between them without any effort at biosecurity. However, I do not think that that was the predominant mood among farmers, by any means.
Most farmers were petrified of the disease, although that was against their own economic interests. In my constituencyand, I am sure, in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorksfor the many farmers who are still stuck up on the hills trying to keep on practising agriculture, the irony is that the disaster that overtook them was the fact that their animals did not get foot and mouth disease. Their economic interests would have been better served if their animals had contracted it. Now they are desperately struggling to maintain some form of normal agriculture, which is a testimony to the sheer guts and determination of farmers. What they can do is survive, as they have done for generations, but there is no logical or practical reason why they should carry on. They just hang on in there, because that has been bred into them through generations of farming stock.
If slaughter is the policy, the logic of the Bill is implacable, because 50 per cent. of outbreaks occurred within one and a half miles of the local source outbreak, and it is crucial to be able to kill animals before the incubation periodthree to five daysis up, and the disease can be transmitted. However brutal it sounds, killing the animals quickly is at the heart of the argument once we embark on a slaughter policy.
It is therefore inevitable that many uninfected animals will be killed. There is no guarantee, however, that those animals would have remained uninfected, and the few that might have been infected would have set up other centres for the spread of the disease. We were told that there was a 17 per cent. chance of the disease moving from infected premises to surrounding premises; if slaughter is the policy that we are to embark on, then if it were done, it were well it were done quickly.
The Bill clears the way to do that, but at an enormous cost. It is draconian. If the farmer cannot come to an agreement with the Government's regional vets, in practice he has no further recourse. The Government appeal to the magistrate, and the magistrate issues a warrant. The farmer has no right to appear and state his case before the magistrate, and although there may not be a man waiting outside on a motor cycle, someone will be on the telephone as soon as the magistrate issues a warrant, and the slaughter will take place.