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Council Services (Dorset)

7 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I have the pleasure of presenting a petition signed by almost 1,000 parents, grandparents and other residents of South Dorset. They express their concern about Government funding for local council services. In particular, they do not understand why the standard spending assessment values the education of a Dorset child at £100 less than that of a child in neighbouring Hampshire. They urge that the review of grant support by the Government address that imbalance.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Foot and Mouth

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.1 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Northumberland was the first county to have a foot and mouth-infected farm, on 23 February 2001, and the last to be declared free of the disease, which did not happen until January 2002. Three quarters of the county's farms were put under restriction, more than 300 were culled out and 230,000 animals were slaughtered. More than 130,000 carcases were buried on one site at the village of Widdrington and 4,000 were burned beside the sand dunes at the nearby beach at Druridge bay.

Farm-related businesses, tourism businesses and other activities throughout much of Northumberland were severely damaged by the effects of the restrictions. It is therefore hardly surprising that there was a universal demand in Northumberland for a public inquiry into the outbreak and much anger when the Government refused to set one up. The county council, largely as a consequence of that refusal and the scale of the damage in Northumberland, set up its own inquiry under the thorough and effective chairmanship of Professor Michael Dower.

However, neither that inquiry nor the three informal ones set up by the Government could summon witnesses on oath so as to get at the truth of the many allegations made about the origins, spreading and handling of the outbreak. That remains a glaring omission. It is also a matter of great regret that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although it submitted a memorandum to the inquiry and answered written questions, refused to attend or to allow either Ministers or officials to be questioned in person. Had it done so, the inquiry would have benefited and DEFRA would have learned something from the atmosphere of the proceedings that, at times, provided a moving and distressing testimony from those who suffered so badly from the outbreak.

So thorough is the inquiry's report and so numerous its conclusions that I can highlight only a limited number of key points. I intend to concentrate on the lessons to be learned and what still needs to be done to put right some of the damage. The Minister's reply must spell out action that will now be taken.

One lesson should have been learned from the Duke of Northumberland's report on the 1967 outbreak, but it was ignored. The recent inquiry concluded that there was no effective system of overall management for the first five weeks of the 2001 outbreak. It criticised the failure of the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to set up a command centre immediately and its refusal to join the Gold command centre set up initially by Northumbria police. We paid a high price for that failure.

Even after the control centre in Newcastle was set up, communications with farmers, agencies and the public remained poor, and the command structure is described as overcentralised and "apparently chaotic". There was a failure to communicate with local authorities, especially the environmental health authority, Castle Morpeth borough council. The report says that DEFRA

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on this matter. It continues:

The inquiry also concludes that substantially more animals were slaughtered than was necessary, and that far more of the culled animals should have been buried on or near the farms. It calls on DEFRA to work with the industry and local authorities to ensure better arrangements for biosecurity. It also calls for contingency plans that are updated every three years, and a clear identification of who will do what in any future such situation, with the training of staff who are likely to be drafted in to do the work.

The report recommends that a handbook of guidance should be ready at any time, and accurate information about farms and available vets should be in the hands of the command centre from the beginning. A blue-box system, which was used effectively in the later stages of the outbreak in the Hexham area, should be developed and used from the beginning. As the report says:

It says that the state veterinary service has been "dangerously reduced" and should be re-strengthened. That view will be echoed by many farmers.

The inquiry details how extensive the damage was to farms that were not culled out, but which could not move livestock. The report argues for compensation for farmers whose cattle lost value owing to movement restrictions and going over 30 months, and for recompense for damage caused in the course of handling the outbreak. It makes extensive recommendations about help for businesses and communities, including the extension of the rate relief scheme for businesses that have suffered loss. It calls for a range of measures to support the recovery of the livestock industry, and to assist farmers to diversify, including extending the countryside stewardship scheme to wider areas.

Tourism was badly damaged, and the report calls for a well-funded programme under the Tourism Development Act 1969. For businesses generally, the report calls for a stepping up of business link services, the enhancement of the IT infrastructure in the county, and the development of vocational and entrepreneurial skills. It points out that a way must be found to channel help to affected parts of the county that are outside the areas qualifying for regional assistance.

I want to refer in particular to the Widdrington and Cresswell areas, where the mass burning and burial were concentrated. They were chosen to suffer this devastating blow because they had already suffered industrial pollution. That is a terrible injustice, and a shocking admission by the Environment Agency representative who attended the inquiry. The report urges the Government, through their regional office and One NorthEast, to join the county council in the discussions with those communities aimed at agreeing a programme for early action to improve the environment and to advance the regeneration of the area.

At the moment, the area is being considered only for European-backed programmes for which it was already eligible before the foot and mouth outbreak. There is still no sign of the additional compensation that the people of

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the area deserve because of what they have suffered, much of which could have been avoided. One project that could bring real community benefit and will need some Government support is a plan to bring natural gas to all the communities affected that do not have a gas supply. The total cost of that will be less than £0.5 million, and it will need some form of Government support.

I am not impressed by the way in which applications from small business in those areas are being dealt with. I want the Minister to give his personal attention to the case of my constituent, who opened a café near to the beach at Cresswell just before the cattle burning at Druridge bay began, when the road was closed. I put his case to the Minister in July 2001, and after a great deal of pressure—the Department was about six months behind with its correspondence—he replied in late September suggesting that my constituent put in a claim to the dedicated claims unit that the Department had established. That resulted in a letter from the largest firm of commercial solicitors in the country, saying that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had not closed the road—it had been closed by the county council.

I tabled a parliamentary question that established that the Department had asked the county council to close the road. The expensive firm of solicitors later pointed out that it had drafted the answer to my question—perhaps the Minister has been contracting out the drafting of answers to parliamentary questions. What he did not know when he answered that question was that, on the second occasion when the road was closed in August, a DEFRA official had put the tape across the road, and no member of the county council staff was present. Yet still the Department is using casuistry and expensive solicitors to insist that it had nothing to do with any of this, and to disclaim any responsibility at all. What kind of attitude is that? It is deplorable, and does not reflect the tone of the Minister's earlier reply to me, which suggested that the claims unit would be the appropriate means by which to examine the very serious damage that was done to that business.

In the time available, it is possible to touch on only some of the conclusions and very little of the detailed argument in the report. I recognise that extremely hard work was done in very difficult circumstances by many civil servants, Army personnel, local authority staff, police, contractors, farmers, farm workers and members of local communities. What a distressing time they had, and how grim some of that work was. They deserve a great deal of credit for the tremendous effort and long hours they put in.

The clear overall impression in the report, however, is that the situation could have been handled a lot better and more effectively, with less slaughter, less consequential damage, less spreading of infection, and less of a breakdown in tourism and other businesses. Do the Government accept all the recommendations in the report that are relevant to central Government? Do they reject any of the recommendations? Do they intend to ignore any of them? What are Ministers doing to bring help to those whom the report identifies as in need of and deserving help, including those in the Widdrington area?

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I secured an initial response from the Minister by way of a written question, and this debate enables him to respond at greater length. In his short reply to my written question, he said:

Well, the other players are getting their act together. One of our leading regional charities has offered funds to the village community near Widdrington to help it set up projects that will secure help for the area. One or two other charitable organisations are also involved. The county council is determinedly playing its part, as are the other local authorities.

Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a delegation from Northumberland county council to discuss the way forward? I welcome the Minister's interest, but in this case the Secretary of State should take a personal interest in the matter, given the severe damage and the need for a lead from DEFRA. I recognise that many other Government Departments are involved, but we need a lead. Northumberland is playing its part, and, as the report proposes, it is planning a major rural conference to take forward a recovery plan. Northumberland will be the feature county at this year's royal show, at Stoneleigh. Now, it is the Government's turn to offer their response. Many parts of government will be involved, but DEFRA must take the lead. It was the Department most fully involved, and it must bear the responsibility—including for most of the things that went wrong during the inquiry. Given that it is responsible for rural areas, we look to it to take the lead in helping the county to recover from that devastating blow.

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