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Mr. Morley rose

Mrs. Browning: I shall say something nice about the Minister in a moment. That being so, I hope that he will ask me a nice question.

Mr. Morley: That is what I call a pre-emptive strike.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that ideally it would have been better to have the Bill on the statute book at the early stages of the epidemic. Some of the justification that has been requested in relation to the contiguous cull and poor biosecurity has become much more evident as the outbreak has progressed. More information has been collected. In those respects the defence case is much stronger now than it was at the beginning of the outbreak.

Mrs. Browning: I am sure that that is true in broad principle. However, in terms of the contiguous cull—I am about to say something very nice about the Minister—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the role that he played in allowing me to see him to refer to three farms in my constituency. He examined the issues and he intervened. I am pleased to tell him that the farms are still running, with the animals on them. They did not get foot and mouth disease and the hon. Gentleman's intervention was extremely helpful. It was also extremely sensible. It was not until 19 days after an outbreak that the farms, which were deemed to be contiguous, were approached on the basis that the animals were to be slaughtered. It is clear that such an approach 19 days after an outbreak defeats the object of a contiguous cull.

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There are problems, and that is why I am concerned that the Bill is being introduced now. The Devon county council inquiry has recently published its preliminary findings under the chairmanship of Professor Mercer. It shows clearly that there are still many questions to be answered about the disease and its spread which should be influencing changes in policy and legislation. I am sure the Minister is fully familiar with these findings.

Paragraph 1.26 states:


That is important if we are to start penalising people, which I do not agree with, for biosecurity breaches. Paragraph 1.20 states:


The Minister will be familiar with the assessment of risk. He and I pored over a large map on his desk trying to identify where the farms that we were discussing were. Every farm has a holding number. The Department has masses of information relating to the integrated administration and control system, for example, but it is not possible to draw a line on the map and say, "Cull here." One may be talking about anything within a 3 km zone. A relevant factor is the topography of the area. That point was picked up in Professor Mercer's preliminary conclusions.

Surely these are the matters that we should be considering before we introduce new legislation that contains extended powers. Such legislation should be based on what is practical and on the experience of those who have had to manage the crisis. That is why I described the Bill as a pre-emptive strike.

I do not feel that the Bill is merely premature. I do not think that it fully takes into account information which I am sure is available and will come forward. Certainly it is not the result of the Devon county council's inquiry alone. I have in mind some of the Government's inquiries, when they are concluded. Like many other colleagues, I deplore the fact that we are not having a full independent public inquiry. However, the Minister is right to say that useful information has already come forward. I am sure that more information will become available as the inquiries continue.

It seems extraordinary—I say this as a former Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—that the details of farms and their topography are not available in map form or on a computerised mapping system. That information would allow for much more practicality in determining the way in which decisions about culling are made.

Most of us have supported the need to act quickly and to create a cordon sanitaire by means of contiguous culls. We all understand that if that action is taken promptly we can contain the spread of the disease. I am not opposed to the principle of the contiguous cull, unpleasant as it is. However, if we are to go down the same route again, either if the existing outbreak flares up or if there is another one in the foreseeable future, we should at least be able to take a different approach to managing the situation from that which has been adopted in the past few months.

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I urge the Minister to try to be as flexible as possible. He said last week in the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee, and in answers to questions, that he wanted flexibility. If he is to maintain flexibility, which many of us have found useful, it is important that when the Bill becomes an Act the hon. Gentleman's hands should not be tied. Flexibility, pragmatism and practical on-the-ground knowledge should be available and ready to be interpreted if any future culling is needed.

I had hoped by now to have seen more information and more specific advice from the Government about a potential vaccination policy. Built into the background to the Bill is the assumption that we may have a vaccination policy in place in future. In an Adjournment debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on 5 July, I asked whether it was the Government's intention through the summer months to collate all the up-to-date information about vaccination policy, not only from scientists in the UK but from valuable information that can be obtained from other countries that have foot and mouth disease and have operated such a policy. I asked that question in July because we all lived in fear of another outbreak flaring up as the weather changed and as we went into autumn, into October and November. Although I wrote to the Minister for Rural Affairs after the Adjournment debate, I have not had a reply to my letter, and it is now November. The subject of my proposal was put to me by local branches of the National Farmers Union in Devon. I had hoped that by now the Government would feel that they had sufficiently researched information on vaccination, especially as they are now giving it recognition in the Bill, and would be in a firmer position to say that they would propose using it if an outbreak flared up on any scale in the near future. I am sure that the decision has been complicated for Ministers. The NFU opposed vaccination, but the Under-Secretary will be aware that its south-west branch was not solidly against it.

Mr. Morley: It was not actually for it.

Mrs. Browning: No, but it felt what a lot of us feel—that we do not have that information in the public domain. I raised that in the debate on 5 July because it is incumbent on the Government to collate information and put it in the public domain; people will then feel better informed. If the Government said, as they might well have done, that they had to vaccinate, people would have understood the basis for their proposal. I have not been an Agriculture Minister for many years and I am out of date on the latest thinking and science on vaccination; it is not for me to say yes or no on behalf of my farmers. All that I know is that the information is out there, and it is the Government's job to put it into the public domain.

Mr. Morley: I can certainly confirm that vaccination was considered several times throughout the outbreak and, as the hon. Lady knows, it has always been an option available to us. Of course, there are detailed questions about it to which people want answers. There are also people who need to be convinced, but it is difficult to do that in the middle of an epidemic. At moment, at the tail end of the epidemic, it is not likely that vaccination will play a role, although the door is still open. We have

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sponsored a conference next month to examine issues surrounding vaccination, and there will be a detailed examination of it in the Royal Society inquiry. Issues arising from that may influence thinking for the future, as well as developments such as new tests which have not yet been validated.

Mrs. Browning: I welcome that. I hope that, when the Minister for Rural Affairs returns to the Chamber, the Under-Secretary will prod him to send me a reply, which is almost four months overdue.

My right hon. and hon. Friends have huge reservations about the additional powers and the fact that the Under-Secretary is introducing the Bill at this particular time. In an emergency, Ministers can call on emergency powers to deal with just about any situation. They may have to get legal advice and a second opinion on that advice, but when it comes to a genuine emergency, Ministers are not usually constrained by lack of powers and can do whatever has to be done, regardless of difficulty. Clearly, we are not in that situation; the Bill is not an emergency measure to deal with a current emergency. As the Under-Secretary acknowledged, it deals with the tail end of the disease—or what we hope is the tail end. I am not suggesting that new powers are not needed to deal with a future emergency, but the required package, of which the Bill may be a part, does not seem to have been thought through and has not been informed by the various inquiries that are being conducted.

I should like to put a hypothetical question to the Under-Secretary. If all the Department's decisions are based on science—this is why I questioned unproven assumptions at the beginning—and if it is still basing its recommendations and legislation on science and scientific advice, why, in the middle of what was a crisis, was there a clear breach of the rules on severe animal health risk, when Phoenix the calf was saved by an overnight change in the rules?


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