Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: The way in which this measure is applied is clearly important. I have made it clear on several occasions that I am not blaming the majority of farmers, who were sensible and responsible in their approach to biosecurity. However, a minority were not sensible, and it does not take many such farmers to spread the disease. That is recognised within the farming community, and I pay tribute to organisations, such as the NFU and Ben Gill, that joined the Department on public platforms to emphasise the need for good biosecurity. We spent a great deal of money sending out to all farmers videos that explained biosecurity measures. The videos were also useful to those who reported the disease, because it helped them identify symptoms.

It is a fact that 80 per cent. of the disease's spread was a function of local spread, which was caused by contact between animals and movement of personnel, vehicles and machinery. Much of that would have been inadvertent, but some of it was the result of irresponsibility, which we know from the blue box restricted zones. I do not want to point at poor North Yorkshire and Cumbria, but we had the blue boxes in place and we have figures on the number of people who were stopped, the number who were cautioned and the number who were prosecuted for poor biosecurity. Although it was a minority, as I keep emphasising, those figures were depressingly high given all the warnings that we gave and the united front that the Department formed with farming organisations to get the message across.

We must therefore consider the majority of farmers who are at risk from the minority, and we take that seriously. I experienced the outbreak from the beginning because I served in MAFF and DEFRA. However, I did not take responsibility for animal health before the general election, although I played a role in the Department. Our officials were in despair. They were working seven days a week on the various committees, including the Disease Emergency Control Centre, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room and the Joint Consultative Committee, with reports coming in on how and why the disease was being spread by a minority of people. That will all come out in the inquiries, because no one has yet heard the views of our officials. That opportunity will come and some of the examples that Members are asking for will be made public. The number of people who are being prosecuted is already public. The figures are available now and I have put them on record in our discussions.

I am not blaming farmers uniquely for the spread of the disease. Other factors were involved, such as vehicles, including milk tankers, although I pay attribute to the dairies. I went to Thirsk where the main co-operative had invested in very sophisticated equipment for cleaning its milk tankers. We worked with the co-operative and put money into an on-board disinfectant system so that each time a tanker went to a farm it could be sprayed with an on-board electric machine. That co-operative took its responsibilities very seriously and I want to put on record my appreciation and recognition of the many people and organisations who worked in partnership with us to deal with the problem.

Mrs. Winterton: On milk tankers, there was a lot of confusion concerning the Page street policy and whether it was implemented throughout the United Kingdom. One of my constituents was involved with a milk processing company and said that in one area each tanker was required to have a spare man to follow biosecurity measures, but in other places that requirement was not made. My constituent felt that it added a huge cost, albeit for good reasons, for some dairies but not others elsewhere. There seemed to be no conformity in the advice and instructions that were given to those companies.

Mr. Morley: There was a standardised policy on the guidance given on milk tankers, feed tankers and other lorries that went on to farms. People sometimes accompanied tankers within the blue box restricted areas, but that was because those areas were very high risk . The measures were taken just within those areas. I do not want to hold those areas out, because the measures were put in place later during the epidemic. That was all part of the experience and information gained from the outbreak. I want to make that clear.

I accept that our staff had a responsibility when going on to farms; I do not shirk that for a moment. Reference was made to the steps that we would take on enforcement and I was asked whether there would be penalties, restrictions and so on. I want to make it clear that whenever we received complaints about DEFRA staff or contractors working for DEFRA, they were followed up.

Many myths have been associated with the outbreak. For example, stories of DEFRA contractors walking around dripping in blood were legion, but when they were investigated the contractors could not be traced and probably did not exist. Such stories spread from person to person. I assure the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that I shall investigate the story behind the overalls and ensure that there is some follow-up. One of the depressing features of the outbreak was the way in which the myths not only spread--that was inevitable--but were promoted by some people and organisations who should have been more responsible. The Western Morning News was one. The former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), talked about a mass cull on 8 June: as soon as the election was over, everything would be culled. The political opponents of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) made great issue of that too. I hope that he has apologised for his ridiculous mythologising and scaremongering.

Biosecurity is a key issue and has been during the disease spread, and throughout the outbreak. That information will come out and will be quantified. There is no argument among those in DEFRA, or in the farming organisations, over the fact that biosecurity is a serious issue, and that we should take steps to ensure that the minority do not jeopardise the majority. The question is how to achieve that.

The Bill proposes that all farmers on infected premises--we are talking only about infected premises, not those that are contiguous or on suspicion--will get 75 per cent. of the market value in compensation straight away. Subject to them passing their biosecurity assessment, a maximum of 25 per cent. can be given in addition. We would have the powers to vary that figure so that, say, 10 per cent. may be withheld.

That should be seen as an incentive measure. I want to make it clear to the Committee that the Government are under no legal obligation to pay 100 per cent. compensation for infected premises. We are therefore paying 75 per cent. right away, and the additional 25 per cent. is the incentive for all farmers to ensure that they take biosecurity into account and to ensure that the minority do not jeopardise the majority. We have already talked to stakeholders about how to apply that, and I propose to consult on a checklist for biosecurity assessments that farmers would have to follow. It would be useful for them to know the criteria--in a checklist fashion--that they must follow. We can design it to be as simple as possible for when our staff go on to premises that are suspected of being infected. The farmer will have that checklist and know what we are looking for, and our staff will be able to carry out the assessment as quickly as possible.

Given that there must be an evaluation and given the time taken to pay compensation, I imagine that the Bill will not inconvenience the vast majority of responsible farmers. Their assessment will be done quickly and, if they pass, that will be communicated to headquarters staff. The processing of claims and payments should not interfere with the 100 per cent. payment.

Mrs. Browning: If compensation is contingent on the biosecurity assessment, will the Minister spell something out to us? Given that breaches of biosecurity could have happened weeks before, and an assessment will not take place until the animals are slaughtered, what comes within the remit of the biosecurity assessment? If a breach has occurred, it will be almost impossible, in some cases, to prove that X happened a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Morley: That is a fair point and we have thought about it. If poor biosecurity took place, it may have been outside the remit. However, under the Bill, a time period can be applied retrospectively, so that we can take evidence into account on whether a breach of biosecurity took place in that period.

Mrs. Browning: Are we focusing only on illegal movements of animals, as opposed to other biosecurity measures?

Mr. Morley: No, but that is an issue in itself. We are focusing on basic steps that a farmer may not have taken, such as using disinfectant baths and mats at the entrance and exit, keeping vehicles clean, how animals and feed have been kept and machinery moved. We shall consult on this issue, which will be transparent, open and made public. There will be a checklist and, in the event of further outbreaks, we shall ensure that farmers have a copy of it and shall publicise it so they can see the measures that we want them to follow. The majority of farmers will not consider that unreasonable.

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The argument surrounding the amendment is how we apply it, and we have given some thought to that. I do not dismiss the reasoning behind the amendment, because we want to apply the measures in the Bill in a proportionate way. This brings us back to the issue of balance--we do not want unduly to inconvenience responsible farmers with the measures that are designed to protect them. However, the problem with the amendment is that it involves paying the 100 per cent. upfront, and then clawing back 25 per cent. As a general principle, it is always harder to get money back from people once it has been given to them. A procedure that requires checking that farmers have complied with the assessment before money is paid to them would be easier.

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