Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



Mr Jack

  20. You mentioned just a second ago that, in some way, this legislation did not preempt the inquiries nor give some indication as to the future, so why now, as foot and mouth thankfully appears to be coming to an end, have you decided to introduce this Bill? When was it drafted?
  (Mr Morley) It was drafted in late August through to late September. The reason why we are bringing it forward now is that, as the outbreak proceeded, of course with the experience of handling the outbreak, we do learn lessons and of course we changed what we were doing throughout the outbreak in relation to the lessons learned and it became clear that some of these measures would be useful in relation to dealing with the outbreak. As far as the outbreak is concerned, it is true that we have not had any cases for over a month now and I am very glad about that, but what I must point out to the Committee as I suspect you are aware is that, in 1967-8, there was a similar long period with no cases and then the outbreak started again and continued for three months. I hope we do not get into that situation but we are not complacent about where we are. The risks of recurrence remain very high at the present time, particularly with the animal movements. Also, the other part of the Bill is dealing with sheep TSEs. You will be aware that the Food Standards Agency have asked us to accelerate the national screening plan and that is contained within this Bill. The other issue is that, there are three former Ministers on your Committee and, as former Ministers, you will know that slots for legislation are not easy to come across and that when there is the possibility of doing that and when you have issues which I think are important in relation to the range of options, that we have a disease control, if you have the chance of legislation, then of course it is important that you take that chance if you have a bill that is ready to go. I appreciate that that compacts it and that it is not the ideal situation, I would much rather have the detailed scrutiny and I very much welcome coming before the Committee today to talk about this and explain it, but the fact is that even moving forward with the Bill now, it will be in the early part of 2002 before this becomes law. It is a time consuming process and some of these measures are very important and I would really like to have them available as quickly as possible.

  21. Do you not think that it is a bit of a slap in the face to Professor Anderson's work that, all of a sudden, this Bill is parachuted in before there has been some opportunity to have a comprehensive overview of the way in which the foot and mouth disease outbreak was handled and that the lessons were learned? You said that this Bill was drafted in legal terms in August; when did you first get the advice from officials recommending this? I presume that you did not wake up one morning and think, we need this?
  (Mr Morley) No.

  22. Somebody in your department said, "Minister, we think you should be legislating this." When did the bright spark first come up with the idea?
  (Mr Morley) This would have come up on numerous occasions. There were weekly meetings of the COBRA Committee throughout the outbreak discussing the issues of handling and report backs from our senior vets and reports from our vets on the ground that, throughout the outbreak, it became obvious that there were these kind of problems arising. They were brought to our department by our field vets in relation to the difficulties they were faced. So, that happened throughout the outbreak in relation to discussions about what the difficulties were and the reasons for delays. Our objective was to meet the target in relation to the 24 hour/48 hour cull and there are details for the Committee which show on three graphs about how important it was to actually follow those targets and the three graphs demonstrate that, on the worst case scenario which would have been if we had just applied a culling programme, then it would have been a catastrophic, even worse situation than we have now. I think that 50 per cent of all the farm animals in this country would have been affected. There is no doubt from the independent scientific advice that the contiguous cull has made a big difference and there is also the experience on the ground in relation to the Brecon Beacons, for example, where the original decision was taken—and I am not particularly objecting to this because I think it was worth trying—that, rather than go for a contiguous cull, which was opposed by the commoners, there would be blood testing of the contiguous flocks. That did not work and my colleagues in Wales could not get on top of the disease; they were behind the disease all the time and they did not get on top of the disease in the Brecon Beacons until they started to implement the contiguous cull policy. That is just an example, a practical example, it is almost like an experiment if you like, about how the contiguous cull policy did work in terms of bringing the disease under control faster.

  23. You could argue that you are a little late with this.
  (Mr Morley) With the Bill?

  24. Yes, closing the stable door after the foot and mouth has well and truly gone.
  (Mr Morley) No country has experienced an outbreak on this scale. This is the world's biggest outbreak of foot and mouth disease. If we had had this Bill at the beginning, it would have been helpful and I do not deny that, but of course the reasons for the Bill have come from the experience of an outbreak of this type and this scale.

  25. The beef producers on Farmers' Weekly interactive call for consultation, the National Sheep Association, in respect of their part of the Bill, want more time, they do not seem to be much enamoured. Why did you not bother to consult even for a brief period or did you do it quietly behind closed doors so that they never knew about it?
  (Mr Morley) Certainly I did discuss this with the stakeholder group we have from the industry which meets regularly bi-weekly and, at the meeting this Friday, we will talking in some detail about this Bill, but I would like to emphasise that the sheep TSE side of this Bill has been consulted in some detail, so there has been consultation on that. In the consultation, it was always stated that it was our intention to make it compulsory at some stage. There is nothing new about that. As far as the NSA are concerned, we can meet their requirements because we are not going to rush out in relation to the compulsory elements of the sheep TSEs right away. We will be sitting down with the NSA and other industry stakeholders to talk about the timescale and we will do that in consultation with them. There are other aspects of this Bill which are key aspects. For example, the details in relation to the bio-security and the penalties. What we will have to do on that is agree a checklist, a kind of procedure, about how we apply that. We will sit down with the industry and involve them in how we do that, so there is still a fair amount of consultation to do on this Bill and we can do that with the industry and we will do that with the industry.

  26. When will we get the orders because this Bill, as is most legislation nowadays is going to be followed by orders, then we will have the opportunity to look in some detail at some of the orders.
  (Mr Morley) That is correct.

  27. The devil lies in the detail of many of these things as you will recognise.
  (Mr Morley) Can I also say that one of the other reasons for bringing forward the Bill is that we are in a post-Phillips environment and Phillips does say to us that we need to act on lessons learned and to prepare contingencies and take opportunities to do that. So, we are doing that, and, as I say, there is still quite a lot of consultation to do in relation to how these measures are going to work. We are not going to rush into this, we will do it properly and thoroughly with the industry and I can say that some of the measures come in by order and there will be full scrutiny of developments.

Mr Todd

  28. If you had to rank the list of possible problems that led to this outbreak in order, would you not regard dealing with the apparent loopholes on importation of suspect meat products into this country as being perhaps of higher significance than some of the issues that appear in this Bill?
  (Mr Morley) I am not so sure. That is a serious issue and we do take it seriously.

  29. So seriously that the action to date has been to put up some notices at an airport telling people not to do it.
  (Mr Morley) The legal imports were never responsible for this outbreak. We do not really know what has been responsible for the outbreak, but it was probably some form of illegal import. You can step up and tighten your procedures at ports and indeed there is a case to look at our procedures and I absolutely accept that but, if you are dealing with illegal activity, whatever it is, you cannot guarantee that you can stop that completely, no matter how much you spend and no matter what you do. So, in that respect, although that is important, I think the most important question to be learned—and perhaps I should not prejudge the inquiries—is the rate of spread and notice and how we can make sure that, if we do get outbreaks of virus in this country, we can limit rates of spread.

  30. That is certainly true and our discussion last week indicated that there were steps that could have been taken at various points to reduce the rate of spread, but the reason we are focussing on import controls are two: (1) while accepting your point that one can never eliminate risk, you can certainly reduce it and the evidence is that the system is full of holes; (2) to win the confidence of your stakeholders and by pursuing a strategy that emphasises this particular approach while apparently ignoring a matter of concern to them does not seem the best way of proceeding consensually.
  (Mr Morley) We are not ignoring the question of imports, far from it, Chairman. In fact, there has been action to tackle this and we are looking at ways we can do this but of course it is a matter for Customs & Excise, Trading Standards and a range of other organisations and involvements. We are actually doing that at the present time and of course we are taking immediate action —


  31. Some of those would require legislative change.
  (Mr Morley) I am not sure in this case because this is not necessarily a DEFRA issue, so I am not sure whether they would require legislation or not. I would remind the Committee that we took immediate action to ban swill, for example, because it is clear that while we do not know how the virus got into the country, we certainly know where it started and the farm in question is subject to legal action at the present time and I cannot say any more about that at this stage. Yes, imports are an issue and we take them seriously, but to actually say that it is the most important issue in this outbreak and therefore everything should be concentrated on it I think would be a mistake. I think there is a range of important issues.

  32. I have not said that.
  (Mr Morley) But there are some people who do say that and there is always a tendency by some sections to look for scapegoats and to look for blame and this is a complicated outbreak and there are a variety of issues that we want to look at and I for one am not looking to `scapegoat' people or blame people.

  33. The Secretary of State is before this Committee in eight days' time and I am sure we would want to pursue this line. If she were able to let us have a note in advance of what has actually happened about imports because everybody talks about something being done but no one actually spells out what it is, that would be very helpful.
  (Mr Morley) I am sure that could be arranged for you, Chairman.

Patrick Hall

  34. Just to be absolutely clear, Minister, you have stated that the Bill is needed now as soon as possible.
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  35. Or the legislation and the orders are needed as soon as possible to deal with the current epidemic.
  (Mr Morley) Ideally.

  36. Or the possible tail-end of it if that appears, so that statement is clear, but are you also clear that lessons learned in the Anderson Inquiry and other investigations that have not yet been done may lead to the need for amendment, for further legislation or other change and that none of that process that we do not know about yet but anticipate will in any way be incompatible with what the Government are going ahead with now with regard to the Bill?
  (Mr Morley) No, absolutely not. As I emphasised from the very beginning, people should not take what this Bill is saying as our definite response to foot and mouth or indeed any other disease outbreak because this Bill does cover all animal diseases. What I would like to stress again is that it does not preempt the findings of the inquiries because what we are doing here is putting in place options and I am quite sure that those inquiries, the lessons learned inquiry and the scientific inquiry, may well come up with a series of recommendations in terms of handling strategy and in terms of options and of course there is a great deal more that we need to do, a great deal more research that we need to do. We have a conference next month on vaccination; there is a great deal more work that we are doing in relation to better tests in relation to a disease; all these developments can of course influence the various ways that you deal with outbreaks, so all this does is deal with a range of issues in relation to options that we might want to apply but I think that in any kind of disease outbreak, certainly in future foot and mouth outbreaks, it is inevitable that there would be an element of cull. I think it would be very difficult to get away from that. I come back to the point that we want to cull the minimum number of animals that we possibly can and, if we are going to do it, we want to do it as quickly as we possibly can and these measures help us do that.

  37. I hope that, when we do hear from these inquiries and the Government consider the possible action that is needed there, perhaps we will have more opportunity to look at the proposals in draft form and scrutinise them a little more thoroughly than we have the opportunity to do so in this particular Bill.
  (Mr Morley) I think, talking hypothetically, that if the various inquiries come up with different strategies, suggestions or new ideas, hopefully we will not be in the midst of an epidemic. We are not in an epidemic now but I do stress that we are not complacent about it. We think that the risks for a further outbreak remain high, very high, so therefore we are not at all complacent, but that will be a situation where there will be more time to consider these things and of course consult on them.

Mr Mitchell

  38. Can I follow up the point that resisting culling could have spread the disease, a point made to us by several of our correspondents on e-mail in pretty identical terms. I just have one, Alayne Addy, the Exeter based solicitor "who assisted two hundred farmers to resist the contiguous cull, has confirmed that none of these subsequently developed the disease and that all have since been cleared by" laboratory test. In the submissions of Pat Innocent, "The cases on Burgess Salmon's books were also all negative." A further point made Alan and Rosie Beat that you yourself had alleged on World at One "that farmers resisting the cull had increased the spread of disease and that this had resulted in more slaughter overall" and they said, "We know of no such instance, whereas in contrast, there are literally hundreds of premises where the cull was resisted and whose livestock have remained uninfected, such as those examples given above." Therefore, they argue that to make contiguous cull a compulsion is "unscientific, immoral, cruel to animals and their owners, and highly counter-productive in terms of disease control by diverting resources away from the crucial task of culling infected animals as quickly as possible." How do you answer those?
  (Mr Morley) They are people who refused to accept that the contiguous cull has had any role to play within this outbreak. I have demonstrated to you in terms of independent epidemiological advice that a contiguous cull was essential in terms of bringing this disease under control and therefore if you have large numbers of people who are resisting contiguous cull, you will have more outbreaks, you will have more spread and more animals will need to be culled.

  39. But in Devon that was not the case.
  (Mr Morley) What I have been saying in relation to some of the complaints by the Devon NFU is that you should not look at this Bill from a parochial point of view. This is a national policy. It is dealing with a national disease outbreak and a national crisis and it does not take away the right of appeal in relation to the divisional veterinary manager and in fact I would like to see that clarified with perhaps a new protocol dealing with things like pets, dealing with things like sanctuaries, rare breeds and cattle. That can be done; that can be put in place so that an appeal and a handling procedure can be installed alongside the measures in this Bill, so it would be wrong to say that there would never be any consideration or never any kind of appeal in that respect. I have already given you the example of the Brecons. My Welsh colleagues were extremely fearful that the Brecon situation was going to spread south into other sheep flocks. They felt that while they were not doing a contiguous cull and of course they had the threat of legal action initially about that, that they were running behind the disease and that it was in danger of spreading out of control and of course they had to kill an awful lot of sheep on the Brecons. That could have been reduced if they had implemented contiguous cull from the very beginning. So it is not right to say that appealing against the contiguous culls actually meant that fewer animals were killed, there was no evidence for that. I am not aware of 200 legal cases in Devon; I suspect that they are mainly appeals to our divisional veterinary manager and that situation remains the same. There will be appeal procedures within the Bill and we do not have to kill every animal, we do not have to kill every contiguous farm, it depends on the veterinary situation on the ground.

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