Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: I read it on the train this morning.

Mr. Wiggin: Tremendous. The Northumberland report is a good example of how times change, and many of my constituents have told me that it was a shame that the Government did not follow its recommendations. That the Minister reads it on the train every day is a good example of why we must make sure that we build into our legislation the opportunity to move forward as technology changes, which brings me back to considering vaccination before thinking about culling.

I hope that the Committee will vote to support the amendment, which would change the tone of the Bill. It would introduce an element of compassion, but would still allow the speedy response required to beat the disease. It would give the Minister more options and it would reflect what people want: the knowledge that he has the opportunity to think before he acts. Most important of all, the vile images that we saw on our television screens, the devastation caused by a mass cull, the misery of farmers who watched their stock being slaughtered and the horrendous implications for our tourism industry might not be repeated. If we do not have to start killing from the moment disease breaks out, we might see a change for the better in the countryside.

3.45 pm

Mrs. Browning: Amendments Nos. 22 and 23, which seek to address errors and omissions resulting from what I am sure was an oversight on the Government's part, are in fact quite helpful to the Government. All of us, and certainly those in my constituency, experienced the horror of slaughtered animals that were not disposed of for a very long time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster pointed out, if the amendments are accepted, veterinarians will be able to slaughter only if they have the wherewithal to dispose of carcases within 48 hours. That is not only reasonable but highly desirable, and I would hope that quick disposal within a reasonable time limit of 48 hours was an aim that the Government shared. Indeed, they could have included such a provision in the Bill, but they failed to do so.

One assumes that the national contingency plan has picked up on the problems of delayed disposal and disposal options. It appears that the Government might advocate a policy of vaccination in the near future, and amendment No. 23 offers the further option of vaccination where there is delay beyond 48 hours. That is wholly sensible, and the Government should consider the proposal very carefully.

Earlier—I am sorry that you were not here at the time, Mr. Conway—I promised the Committee that from time to time I would dip into that well-known book ``Servants of the People'', by Mr. Andrew Rawnsley. I want to remind the Committee of the conditions in which Phoenix the calf appeared on our television screens.

Mr. Morley: This is the Rawnsley interpretation.

Mrs. Browning: It is up to the Minister to correct it if necessary, and if it is wrong I shall write to Mr. Rawnsley. [Laughter.] This is nothing to laugh at—it is a very sad story. According to Mr. Rawnsley:

    ``The slaughtermen arrived to kill her mother and the rest of the cattle on a Devon farm five days after Phoenix was born. The carcasses were left behind closed doors pending disposal, a scene typical across the country. Five days later, the corpses by then putrefying, more men from the ministry arrived to spray the shed with disinfectant.''

Note that they did not remove the carcases; they simply sprayed them with disinfectant. Mr. Rawnsley continues:

    ``Amidst the stinking carnage, Phoenix rose from her mother's side and walked towards them, mooing.''

The rest is history, as they say.

The point is that that was not an untypical scene on many Devon farms. As the Minister will know, not all the animals were behind closed doors. We had the unedifying sight, and risk, of animals lying in open fields for longer than five days. The Government will want to deal with the issue of disposal immediately after slaughter, and I hope that the national contingency plan will explain how the Government intend to do so. These are not easy options. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster mentioned the problem of carcases going into landfill, and it would be interesting to know whether the Government have identified sites other than landfill in which to bury carcases.

In the Mercer report's preliminary conclusions, Devon county council expressed great concern about large-scale burials and using large-scale pyres. The report states:

    ``We find that large-scale pyres should never be used again''.

I should have hoped that the Government took that into account before legislating. Presumably it is covered by the national contingency plan. However, whatever their preferred options and whatever is in the contingency plan, including the option of vaccination, there may well be a delay in disposal.

The amendments contain pragmatic proposals, and I hope that the Minister will consider accepting them in the spirit in which they were tabled. He should recognise that, if there are no guarantees in relation to widespread culling—for which he is taking powers—practical measures to dispose of animals must automatically follow if we are not to go through the same experience again.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the hon. Lady support Blue Circle Cement's proposal that instead of using its chipped tyres as an alternative fuel it should use carcasses? I assume that the fact that they are burned at 1,400 deg would overcome local residents' concerns.

Mrs. Browning: That may be a good suggestion, but I am not in a position to judge. That sort of issue would be raised in the results of a proper inquiry, and we could then make a valid decision. If there had been a proper inquiry or the Minister's own inquiry had reported before the Bill was introduced, we would have had a much better view of what is and what is not an acceptable way to proceed next time. At the heart of one of the complaints about the Bill is the fact that it was introduced before such an analysis had been properly made and the conclusions put into the public domain. This is a premature Bill, and the hon. Lady's example illustrates that.

Mr. Roger Williams: The Bill gives so many powers to the Minister and his Department that I am prone to support any amendment that would give them responsibilities and duties. If the thread running through amendment No. 22 is that the Minister has a duty or responsibility to dispose of carcasses within 48 hours, I would support that, although I cannot follow why it does not apply to new sub-paragraphs (1A)(a), (b) and (d) as well as (1A)(c). The disposal of carcases was one of the key issues that led to so much dissatisfaction during the outbreak.

Perhaps amendment No. 22 could have stipulated disposal within 48 hours or in accordance with the national contingency plan, whichever is the shorter. The national contingency plan caused many thousands of carcases, which may or may not have been infected, to be transported through my constituency and buried on top of a mountain, leading to the pollution of local inhabitants' water courses and certain rivers that are important for biodiversity. However, I understand that the national contingency plan is now a devolved matter and we will be moving towards a local contingency plan, so those problems will be eliminated.

Amendment No. 22 refers to the disposal of carcases within 48 hours and amendment No. 23 refers to slaughter within 48 hours. Whether we adopt a culling policy or a vaccinating policy for eliminating the disease, it must be done as quickly as possible. We should not delay if we decide on vaccination for animals that have been in contact with the disease or with other animals that have the disease, because that would mean that immunity would not have enough time to work and animals would display symptoms of the disease before the vaccination process was complete.

Although I can support certain elements of the two amendments, I cannot support the thinking that runs through them.

Mr. Morley: It has been an interesting debate, and important issues have been raised about vaccination and quick disposal. I do not have any problem with the principles that have been raised, and the issues must be addressed. However, I do not think that we need to do that in the Bill, and it would make us, yet again, a hostage to fortune.

The hon. Member for Leominster gave us a nightmare scenario—indeed it was. However, anyone who holds a ministerial position has trusty civil servants at their side to advise them on what they can or cannot do in relation to proportionality, the law, and the other frameworks within which we have to operate. The hon. Gentleman must bear that in mind.

Slaughter is the most effective way of stopping virus production, for the reasons that I gave. As soon as the animal is dead, it stops producing the virus. The spread from the carcase is limited by the movement of infective materials. There can be scavenging, and the disease can be spread by the leaking of body fluids. That is why the Department's guidelines say that as soon as the animals have been slaughtered, they must be sprayed with a citric acid solution, which kills the virus and makes the carcases unattractive to predators. They are put off if carcases have been soaked in disinfectant. There are also guidelines on covering the carcases to keep predators off.

Ideally, we want to remove carcases as quickly as possible, but we must consider reality when facing an epidemic on the scale of the one that we have just had. There were practical problems such as getting enough leak-proof lorries and getting them on site. In parts of Devon, even once those lorries had been obtained, they would not go down the lanes because they were too big. Other vehicles had to be used there, and secure transfer stations had to be found, where there were, of course, disease risks. Such practical problems mean that an absolute commitment to a 48-hour target cannot be given. I do not dispute that that target is desirable. Of course we want to get the carcases removed as quickly as possible.

The amendment would give individuals the right to go for vaccination if the slaughter could not be effected in 48 hours. Again, that target is desirable but cannot always be guaranteed. The individual would have the right to demand vaccination, which might take place only on their farm, notwithstanding the interests of their neighbours or the fact that EU approval is needed to use vaccination. Someone using vaccination must also think carefully about how to apply it. At least 80 per cent. coverage of the area is needed to make it effective. Vaccination is not appropriate in all circumstances. When we discussed the contingency plan for vaccinating pig units, the practical difficulties, given the constant production of piglets and their movement from one unit to another—because of the nature of the pig pyramids—were horrendous.

I am not saying that some of those practical problems cannot be overcome. They will be dealt with in inquiries and in future contingency plans. The role of vaccination is serious, but not simple. Sometimes people think that it would solve all the problems of foot and mouth disease, but I regret to say that it would not. Vaccination is appropriate only in certain circumstances.

 
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