Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Breed: It is well known that we are talking about only a tiny minority of people here. I call them passive delinquents, in that they often do not breach biosecurity regulations deliberately. Things just happen to them. Perhaps they do not take as much care as they should, but they do not do it deliberately, and I do not think that they should be so harshly dealt with.

In the light of the lessons that we have learned, are there now strategic stocks of disinfectant carefully stored throughout the country? That is the very material that will be required should any terrible occurrence need to be acted on quickly. One of the major lessons that we should have learned is that sufficient stocks should be strategically placed throughout the country.

Mr. Morley: My understanding is that there were always sufficient stocks. The issue was where they were located. When there was high demand in certain parts of the country, the commercial stocks were exhausted quite quickly. There was always plenty of disinfectant; it was just a question of getting it to the right places and meeting that demand. Of course, there is no problem anywhere at the moment, but we need to give some thought to the matter for the future in the light of lessons learned.

I cannot support the new clause, because it singles out DEFRA staff. I repeat that biosecurity requirements apply to everybody. We are not suggesting that we prosecute farmers who are in breach of biosecurity. We are saying that there will be an incentive in relation to compensation payments. Given that the majority of farmers will comply, and that we intend to go out to consultation about the procedures for the assessment, which I believe can be done very quickly, the vast majority of farmers are not going to be inconvenienced.

I agree with the hon. Member for South–East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) that many of the breaches of biosecurity were passive, in that people just did not think about what they were doing. The Bill is an incentive for them to think about that a bit more. So far as our staff are concerned, there were many myths about foot and mouth and some people were always trying to find a scapegoat. It is similar to the question of animal imports; people said that all the problems were to do with imports, that if we could sort them out there would not be a problem, and that no one else was involved.

The theory was that all the problems were to do with DEFRA staff, and if it were not for them, there would not have been a problem, so people felt that they did not have to do anything about it. That was a minority view, of course, but one that is held in some quarters, and I reject it. We have made it clear to our staff that they have to follow good biosecurity. We do not need this new clause because our staff are given those instructions, and we expect them to abide by them.

When complaints were received, every one was investigated. Most of them were found to be untrue, and in many cases there was no evidence. When there was

13 Dec 2001 : Column 1060

evidence, we did not hesitate to take action against the people responsible, and in the case of contractors, that included dismissing them.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: There appears to be a majority view outside, in the countryside and among members of the farming community, not so much that the Government are to blame for everything that went wrong but that the Government are putting them on trial. That is what is causing so much outrage and concern. That lies at the heart of our opposition to the Bill. The new clause is an attempt to shift the balance back a little in favour of the farming community, and to place some burdens of responsibility on DEFRA officials.

Mr. Morley: But it does not; it seeks to criminalise DEFRA officials uniquely, which is one reason why I reject it.

The view that we are trying to blame farmers is a completely false perception, and it comes from some people who think that farmers played no role whatever in disease spread. We know that that is not so, although in many cases, they spread the disease inadvertently. The Government recognise that we have issues to examine. I, as a Minister, have never ducked responsibility or ducked criticism where it was due. We have to learn lessons from a range of issues over the course of the outbreak, but that applies to everybody, not just to DEFRA officials.

Mr. Drew: Would the Minister care to comment on an answer to a written question that I tabled a week ago, which shows a significant increase in the number of people keeping one farm animal, or one to five farm animals? Contrary to the myth that we have seen the death of the small farmer, there has been a significant increase in their numbers. All those problems need to be factored into how we control disease.

4.15 pm

Mr. Morley: That is absolutely right. Ironically, there seems to be a growth in small farms. Those figures include lifestyle farmers and part-time farmers. That raises a number of issues, including registration—do we know where all these animals are?—that we are going to have to address. I am sure that the independent inquiries are also going to have to address those issues.

It is not fair to single out DEFRA staff in this way. Most complaints against them were completely groundless. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) raised the famous issue of the overalls in the deep freeze. We have checked that out, and the farmer concerned is now saying that the overalls have nothing to do with DEFRA. As a matter of fact, he has some rather interesting theories about them. We have asked him if he will let us have the overalls, so that we can test them, but he has refused, saying that they are not in his deep freeze but in someone else's. So we have not quite got to the bottom of that.

I do not want to go into too much detail because the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is not here, so I shall write her a letter with all the details. There was another example of a vet who was said to be a "dirty vet". We checked that out and it was also untrue. A lot of claims are being made, but when we look into the details, they do not stand up to examination.

13 Dec 2001 : Column 1061

I want to make it clear that if there are breaches by our own staff—I accept that our staff have responsibilities, too—we shall not hesitate to take action. That being the case, the new clause is completely unnecessary.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: The Minister has given a full response to the points raised during this short debate on biosecurity and officials. We would agree that biosecurity is a very important issue for everyone, and our objective in tabling the new clause was to point out that it was not just the farming community that had a responsibility in these matters. The Minister said that the officials and subcontractors who work for the Department are—or will be—under strict instructions as to what biosecurity arrangements should be in place. That assurance goes some way to addressing our concerns on this matter, and I am grateful to the Minister for that.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 7

Duty of Ministers to disposal of carcasses

'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 35.
"35A Duty of Ministers to dispose of carcasses
The Minister shall have a duty to dispose of the carcass of any animal slaughtered under the provisions of this Act within forty-eight hours of its slaughter.".'.—[Mr. Keith Simpson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is not in his place at the moment, said that it might be more appropriate to refer to this Bill as the animal slaughter and disposal of carcases Bill, rather than the Animal Health Bill. That sounds, uncharacteristically, a rather crude and vulgar interpretation of the Bill. I have some sympathies with the hon. Gentleman, however, in that we often dress up in euphemisms of parliamentary language rather brutal and unsavoury facts.

New clause 7 comes to the heart of the matter of public health and of beating foot and mouth. Following Second Reading, the Standing Committee, and through the deliberations of the Select Committee and proposals put forward by various outside parties including the farming community and non-governmental organisations, there is no doubt that a common theme has been that the Bill has been pushed through with insufficient lessons learned from the current and previous foot and mouth outbreaks. There is a sense—not only on the Opposition, but on the Government Benches—that the Government have failed to established a public independent inquiry. Only through that would we learn real lessons.

Owing to the way in which the Bill is framed, we had to table amendments either to mitigate against the Minister acquiring unnecessary and, in some examples, inapplicable powers or to propose measures based on what happened on the ground during the foot and mouth outbreak. Given its nature, the Government's initial

13 Dec 2001 : Column 1062

dithering, the failure of early measures and the subsequent spread of the disease, Ministers and officials were overwhelmed by events.

I have some sympathy with Ministers and officials in that the speed and extent of the outbreak and spread of the disease meant that the old MAFF organisation was overwhelmed. This is neither the time nor the place to go into that, but I hope that we shall learn lessons from it. A serious consequence was the unedifying spectacle in many areas of large numbers of slaughtered animals lying in fields, farm yards, close to human habitation and by roads and tracks over many, many days.

That was emotionally stressful for farmers and their families, and it was probably emotionally stressful for the vets and MAFF officials involved in the slaughter and the administration. Of course, it was also stressful for local people who had to move around what were, in effect, killing fields. Ultimately, it had a major impact on public opinion, and the Minister will be only too well aware of the great outrage and revulsion in Parliament.

The Minister knows that the failure to keep up with carcase disposals became a logistical nightmare and, as foot and mouth spread, the carcase backlog became even greater. Apart from the emotional upset caused by widespread scenes of unburied dead animals, increasingly they posed a health risk. We know from those recent experiences, which were graphically illustrated by accounts from hon. Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading and in Committee, that there was order, counter-order and disorder from MAFF and then DEFRA, overwhelmed by events.

Undoubtedly, there was serious confusion over the disposal of carcases: whether to bury or burn and whether they were to be buried or burned near to or far from the culling site. Thousands of carcases were transported many miles, and they appeared to be moved at random before being buried or disposed of with little consideration of the environmental impact. All those examples posed a major health problem and I would argue that they effectively lost the public relations war for MAFF.

The Minister made this clear in Committee:

We still have no definitive proof that vaccination would have alleviated the spread or that it might be the answer for the future. From what the Minister has put on record, I understand that, in the event of another foot and mouth outbreak, slaughter will be the main method of preventing the disease from spreading.

Next Section

IndexHome Page