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6 Nov 2002 : Column 285—continued

Foot and Mouth Disease Inquiry Reports

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's response to the foot and mouth disease inquiry reports. That response is being published today.

When the inquiry reports were published in July, I told the House that I accepted that mistakes had been made and that I was determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. The independent inquiry process that concluded in July has enabled us to do that and to move forward quickly to implement the recommendations. We are indebted to Sir Brian Follett and Dr. Iain Anderson, and I pay tribute again to them and to their teams for producing such thorough and useful reports so quickly. The Government accept virtually all the detailed recommendations of the lessons learned report and firmly endorse the lessons that Dr. Anderson draws. The recommendations made by the Royal Society will also play a major role in shaping the Government's work in that area. The Public Accounts Committee is considering a separate report from the National Audit Office.

The Government's response to the inquiries contains a wide range of commitments and actions, including a stronger general framework for emergency preparedness, with special emphasis on response and disease control in an outbreak of animal disease and work on strengthening disease prevention. Alongside publication of that response today, the latest version of our contingency plans is available on our website for comment and consultation.

Inevitably, some of that considerable body of work is work in progress and much requires further development and an open and transparent process of consultation with a wide range of players, including the farming industry, the wider rural community and other key players such as the local authorities.

Dr. Anderson identified three key areas for handling any outbreak: systems, speed of response and the necessity for good science as the basis of that response. As the House may recall from my July statement, some steps, such as the establishment of a civil contingencies secretariat, have already been taken. From next year, they will be supplemented by dedicated contingency planning teams in every region, based in the Government offices.

Plans are being developed for training and rehearsal of contingency plans, together with other players, such as local authorities. In addition, procedures are being drawn up to ramp up organisation should that be required, including the maintenance of a register of staff willing to serve in an emergency, and of their competences and skills.

Both inquiries called for a body to provide advice to DEFRA's chief scientific adviser in emergencies, and for a review of priorities in animal health research. A science advisory group has been set up, some additional funding for veterinary teaching and research has been identified and the review of priorities is under way. The Government are committed to funding necessary research into animal disease and to increasing spending

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on that. Work is also under way on how to identify and manage risks as part of DEFRA's own development plans. In particular, a risk assessment report on illegal imports is in preparation, and I hope to receive it before the turn of the year.

In the meantime, we have secured the agreement of Commissioner Byrne to a ban on personal imports of meat. We have put extra resources into detection and enforcement, including piloting the use of detector dogs, and I can announce today that the Government have agreed that responsibility for anti-smuggling checks on animals, fish, plants and their products, including meat, should be placed on one body, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, as soon as that can be achieved.

No import controls can ever be 100 per cent. effective. That is why both inquiries emphasised the role that animal movement controls can play in checking the spread of disease. The Government have accepted the advice that the 20-day standstill rule should remain in place until a detailed risk assessment and wide-ranging cost-benefit analysis have been completed.

We have commissioned the necessary economic and modelling studies from experts outside DEFRA, with the aim of deciding on a proportionate level of controls, and in particular, whether a movement standstill of 20 days strikes the right balance between the disease control benefits and the costs on the industry and livestock markets. Emerging findings from these studies should be available at the end of this month, to feed into decisions on the shape of movement controls to apply from next February. We expect full and final results in the first half of next year. As the inquiry reports recognise, the farming industry, too, shares responsibility for minimising disease risks and has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity. We will work closely with the industry in following up the inquiries' recommendations in this regard.

We also intend to work closely with the industry in developing a comprehensive animal health and welfare strategy, which has been called for by both inquiries and by the policy commission chaired by Sir Don Curry. It is important that we share an agreed vision, which must cover protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control and animal welfare. Informal discussions with stakeholders are already taking place before the launch of a public consultation exercise later in the year across the breadth of the stakeholder community. The strategy will draw on the inquiry reports and will provide a vehicle for implementing many recommendations.

We will also use the consultation on the strategy as a means to discuss with stakeholders the best mechanism to provide regular reports on animal disease preparedness, so that the lessons learned as a result of the 2001 outbreak and the recommendations of the inquiries are implemented and help to ensure that the experience of 2001 is never repeated.

The House will want to know that else would be different in any future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. A national movement ban would be put in place as soon as the first case was confirmed, as my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced in the summer when our interim contingency plan was published.

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Restricted infected areas, so-called blue boxes, would be declared from the start in a minimum 10 km radius around infected farms, but public rights of way would need to be restricted only in a 3 km radius from those farms.

International and European Union rules are based on the need to eradicate a disease that is unpleasant as well as highly infectious. Hence the basic strategy in all FMD-free countries is that, as a first step, animals infected with foot and mouth disease and animals that have had contact with them have to be culled. But both inquiries are saying and the Government accept that in some circumstances, additional action may be needed to control an outbreak. In that case, emergency vaccination will form part of the control strategy from the start, and this would be emergency vaccination to live, provided of course that scientific and veterinary advice is that this would be the most effective course.

The inquiries point out that the use of emergency vaccination to live raises a number of very difficult issues—scientific, logistical and economic—but the Government are committed to tackling those issues in consultation with interested parties, with the aim of being in a position to trigger an emergency vaccination campaign should the need arise. However, the issues are substantial and that process will take some time to complete.

Sadly, that does not mean that wider culling strategies will never again be needed. We must maintain a full armoury of weapons to tackle the diseases; hence our insistence on the flexibility proposed in the Animal Health Bill and in the lessons learned report to allow for pre-emptive culling to enable us to deal with an outbreak more quickly with fewer losses of animals and least disruption to the rural economy. The Government are consulting on a decision tree on foot and mouth disease control that would set out the factors to be taken into account in deciding the best disease control strategy for different circumstances, but we have to remember that each outbreak is unique and that we cannot prescribe in detail in advance how best to meet it. There will still be a need for scientific and veterinary judgment at the time.

For the longer term, the Royal Society recommended that research was needed on a vaccine that could be used routinely, rather than just in an emergency, against all strains of foot and mouth disease virus and for all species. The Government recognise that that would be a desirable long-term goal and will encourage international collaboration to that end, but the House will appreciate that we are some considerable way from achieving that.

In short, some three months only after publication of the inquiry reports, the Government are today able not only to respond formally to those reports, but to identify a massive programme of work and reform that is under way. Nothing can ever erase the horrors and tragedies of the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease in the

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United Kingdom, but we can all resolve to establish more effective safeguards and, should those safeguards fail, an even more effective response.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for her courtesy in letting me have early sight both of it and the accompanying document published by the Government.

We will obviously want to study the Government's response in detail, but on a first reading, I can say that much of what is proposed seems sensible and welcome and that the proposals include measures that we can support. I hope that the open and transparent process of consultation to which the Secretary of State referred will number Members of Parliament among the key stakeholders and that the Government will make an early opportunity available in Government time for a full debate in the House on their response to the various inquiries.

I should like to ask a couple of questions about vaccination. How long does the Secretary of State anticipate that it will be until the Government are in a position to include emergency vaccination in their armoury of measures for tackling a future outbreak? How does the approach outlined today in the response document relate to the draft European Commission proposals for a new directive on the control of foot and mouth disease?

Much of the document deals with the internal workings of the Department. I hope that she will be able to acknowledge that the Government recognise that one of the lessons from the 2001 outbreak was the need for greater freedom to be given to local veterinary surgeons and officials on the ground, so that they could take decisions quickly without always having to refer them back to head office to be second-guessed there.

Although there is much that we can welcome, I want to press the Secretary of State more critically on three subjects. I was somewhat disappointed to find when scanning the document that it contained only seven paragraphs on the illegal import of meat, compared with 14 on media strategy and communications. Does she appreciate that travellers who have been using British ports and airports in the seven months since the Government's action plan was published have found that even the limited and belated targets that the Government set themselves back in March have not made any difference to their experience when they arrive at a British port of entry?

Is she confident that Customs and Excise will give adequate priority to this important new responsibility when it is set alongside the many other responsibilities and targets set for it by Treasury Ministers? As it is now 13 months since the last case of foot and mouth, and seven months since the action plan was introduced, will her Department undertake to tackle the question of illegal imports with a much greater sense of importance, energy and urgency than it has hitherto demonstrated?

Does the Secretary of State appreciate the irony of the Government saying that it is impossible to have 100 per cent. security at our ports while continuing to insist—through their continued insistence on the 20-day rule on livestock movements—that farmers provide a 100 per cent. safeguard against the spread of disease? Does she understand that many livestock farmers now face a

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stark choice: either they break the law, or they obey it and risk going out of business? Does she recall that both the Royal Society and Dr. Anderson called for urgent and detailed risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses to be carried out? Will she tell the House why we now have to wait until next February or even later for the results of those Government studies that ought to have been commissioned and undertaken a great deal earlier? Farmers are going out of business now; they cannot afford to wait many months more, as the Government seem to expect them to do.

I want to question the Secretary of State about the issues of stock valuation and disease insurance, which were tucked away at the end of the Government's document published this afternoon. The Government describe these areas as work still in progress, but will the right hon. Lady give us an indication of the time scale for decisions on these important matters? Will she give an assurance that she will not try to short-change farmers over compensation—for example, over compensation for the real value of breeding stock that is the fruit of a great deal of effort, sometimes put in over generations to build up a pedigree flock or herd? Farmers often look for a return on such investment over a number of years.

On insurance, do the Government recognise that the level of any disease insurance premium will depend not only on what a farmer does, but on what the market judges to be the effectiveness or otherwise of measures undertaken by the Government, and especially on the market's judgment of the efficacy of the Government's control of the illegal import of meat, given that, in their analysis, that was the cause of last year's epidemic?

Whenever possible, we will try to support the Government in their response to these important inquiries. After our experience last year, however, I believe that both Parliament and the industry will judge the Government not on the promises that they make but on the effectiveness of the measures that they deliver.

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