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Mrs. Browning: That will not do. I will get really cross with the Under-Secretary if he takes that line. It was clear, however heart-rending that little face was on the front page of the tabloids and however many crocodile tears the Prime Minister felt he had to shed over Phoenix the calf, that it was a matter of animal health in the middle of a genuine crisis and the rules were changed overnight to deal with it.
Mr. Morley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been very generous. In all seriousness, I followed the discussions about exemptions to the contiguous cull. I did not have responsibilities for animal health until this June, but I have always been interested in the issue and, of course, I followed it. Exemptions to the contiguous cull for cattle under certain conditions were changing just before Phoenix the calf was affected. I urge the hon. Lady not to think that it was a sudden decision because it looked good on the television and in the papers, although, indeed, it did.
A culling policy is serious, as the Minister knows, and is not easy to introduce or implement; we know that it causes a lot of hardship. However, one has to stick to proper, proven advice, ideally scientific, particularly in relation to animal disease. That is why there was cynicism and a lack of confidence in the policies associated with foot and mouth. In the midst of chaos and despair, there were examples of policy which, frankly, made people wonder about the motivation or organisation behind the Government's management of more serious issues. I hope that the Under-Secretary will assure us in his winding-up speech that the Department, despite its new title, is basing legislation and decision making on good, sound scientific advice, not on what happens to be on the front of tabloid newspapers. It would be wicked to take decisions on any ground other than good scientific advice, despiteand I am used to thisthe cynicism of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) about the advice of officials from DEFRA or the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He has been getting that off his chest for a long time.
I turn briefly to BSE in sheep, which is another important issue. I was extremely surprised that the Secretary of State suggested that I should turn to the Food Standards Agency to get an answer to a serious statement by Professor Krebs. In an FSA press release of 22 October, he said that if BSE was found in sheep, it was
However difficult it is to deal with those matters, and despite the fact that the FSA is independent, when Members of Parliament raise such issues on the Floor of the House, we deserve a proper answer from the Minister at the Dispatch Box, whatever their seniority. We do not deserve a Secretary of State who shrugs her shoulders and says that she did not know; if she did not, I hope her officials are briefing her tonight. That was a very serious statement from Professor Krebs, and I hope that before the evening is out
Mrs. Browning: That may be so, but we are discussing the contingency plan for the possibility of BSE in sheep, which is clearly part of the Bill, for which DEFRA has ministerial responsibility. We can legitimately expect such matters to be raised in Standing Committee. I know that the Under-Secretary has taken on board the serious point that I am making. Whether or not it is technically a matter for the Department of Health, we deserve an answer, and I should like an answer later tonight.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I support the Bill. That is probably the only part of my speech that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will accept. Coming from Cumbria and representing Carlisle, I can tell the House that we were in the thick of foot and mouth, and I do not believe that we are out of the woods yet. As I said in an intervention, this weekend we killed a large number of sheep in the south of the county, just on suspicion.
People who oppose the Bill probably think that foot and mouth occurs every 30-odd years. We had it in 1967 and in 2001, so they think that it will not recur for some time and that there is therefore no need to rush legislation through Parliament. Anyone who examines the history of foot and mouth will realise that it occurred regularly before 1967almost every yearso there is a good chance that it will come to us again fairly soon. We need legislation in place to deal with that.
The lessons have been learned. We found that the Animal Health Act 1981 was defective. The Minister who put it through is probably in the other place. We found out, for example, that a farmer could deliberately infect a flock and get 100 per cent. compensation. Obviously, that was never considered at the time.
In north Cumbria, one option was that we should have a fire breakthat we should cull the sheep in the north of the county to stop the infection getting on to the fells. That policy would have been illegal, as the Government did not have the powers to implement it. It was ultimately carried out by other means, but if it had been challenged, we would have had serious problems.
The purpose of the Bill is to allow us to get on top of the disease before it gets out of control. We have learned the lessons. I am sad to say that MAFF was not prepared to deal with the disease in March when it struck us in Cumbria. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) presented a catalogue of mistakes made in his constituency. I could have multiplied them by 10 in the case of Cumbria.
The outbreak was dealt with very badly in the early stages, but I do not believe that at that time any Government would have dealt with it any better. I was coming down to the House of Commons and telling Ministers one thing, and they were telling me that their officials were telling them something else, and that no problem existed. It was only when my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), the then Minister of State, came to Cumbria and talked to the farmers one Sunday, having previously spoken to MAFF officials, that she realised the problem that we had.
The disease was out of control. I live right in the centre of my constituency in an urban area. All round the city, one could smell the burning three or four miles away. On the edge of my constituency, a mass grave contains the remains of 400,000 culled sheep. They were taken through the narrow roads, past the local school, and slaughtered on site. It was a mess. The Government learned the lessons.
Reference has been made to the Prime Minister. Progress began to be made in Cumbria when the Prime Minister came up in March. He listened to the farmers, asked searching questions and gave instructions. The Army arrived, the famous brigadier was there and carried out those instructions, and that is when we started to get on top of the situation. The Prime Minister came on two occasions after that. Without his direct support and help, we would no doubt still have a problem.
We cannot pursue a policy of mass slaughter again. The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said that he did not believe that the policy could be carried out in Scotland again; it had got out of hand. It could not be done in Cumbria again. We were fed up with the wanton destruction and death. We felt sick about the total devastation.
That is why I support the Bill, which gives the Government the option of introducing compulsory vaccination and paying compensation. Without it, we would not have that option for the future. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has left the Chamber. Voting for the Bill could mean saving the lives of millions of animals.
I was the first Member of Parliament to ask for a public inquiry. However, I am prepared to allow the Government to have separate inquiries, as long as they are open. I spoke to those undertaking the scientific inquiry when they came up to Cumbria, and others are coming too. If we get the right answers from those inquiries, a new precedent will have been set for dealing with such issues. There must be an advance on the procedure followed in the Phillips inquiry, whereby we take over a set of dusty rooms in south London, hear evidence for three years and produce a report that hardly anybody reads, all at a cost of £30 million. However, I warn the Government that if they try to hide the facts about the foot and mouth outbreak, I will be the first Member to ask for a full inquiry.
We have heard about the problem of contaminated meat coming into the country. Everyone seems to think that it is easy to stop it. If it were so easy, we would have no illegal immigrants and no drugs problem. It is extremely difficult to stop such things.
There is another factor that has been overlooked. We know about the chaos caused by the recent outbreak of foot and mouth. Whatever our views, no one thinks that it was caused deliberately, but an enemy of the country who wanted to create chaos could deliberately introduce the disease. The virus is not difficult to get in the third world. The only way to deal with that will be vaccination.