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8 Oct 2007 : Column 39

Foot and Mouth/Bluetongue

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on this summer’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease and on bluetongue.

On 3 August, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in Surrey. In line with the contingency plan, control measures, including a national ban on the movement of susceptible animals, were put in place immediately. The following day the strain of virus was confirmed as 01-BFS-67. As this strain was not currently circulating in animals, that pointed to the Pirbright laboratory site as a potential source. I therefore commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to investigate and Professor Brian Spratt to lead a team of experts in a review of biosecurity arrangements. I am today placing in the Library a copy of those two reports, along with all the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs epidemiology reports.

It cannot be said with complete certainty exactly how the virus escaped from the Pirbright site. The reports concluded, however, that the most likely explanation was accidental release from the drainage system. Whatever the route of escape, it should not have happened and we are determined that it will not happen again. I have accepted all the recommendations in the reports from the HSE and Professor Spratt, and have set up a review of the regulatory framework for handling animal pathogens led by Sir Bill Callaghan.

A rigorous improvement plan has been developed for the Pirbright site, to be implemented before full operations with live viruses can recommence. A review, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will assess the funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health. In addition, a safety alert was issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by a round of inspections.

Epidemiological surveillance indicated that it was highly unlikely that the virus had spread outside the Surrey area. Therefore, given that the surveillance went beyond the EU requirement, that the 30-day minimum time had elapsed and that no further cases had been identified, the protection and surveillance zones were lifted on 8 September. Unfortunately, as we now know, there was undetected infection outside the surveillance zone. On 12 September, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in a third case in Surrey and controls were reimposed. There have now been eight infected premises in total.

On 25 September, given that the disease was confined to Surrey, we created two foot and mouth disease areas in Great Britain: a temporary risk area in the south-east and a lower-risk area in the rest of the country, where certain movements were permitted under licence. Markets reopened in the low-risk area last Thursday. On a visit to Skipton market, I saw the difference that that will make to the farming industry. The EU has now confirmed that the export of meat can resume from this Friday from Scotland, Wales and the north and south-west of England. We will continue to
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work with the Commission to increase the areas from which exports can be made.

Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach to responding to the outbreak. I have listened to the views of the industry about what further steps can be taken to alleviate real economic and welfare pressures. Because the outbreak has arisen from an unusual set of circumstances, I am announcing today a package of assistance for the English livestock sector amounting to £12.5 million. The devolved Administrations are proposing to introduce their own schemes.

Subject to the EU state aid rules, I intend to make the following available to the farmers most affected: first, £8.5 million of assistance to hill farmers, who have been particularly hard hit. This one-off payment will be paid directly to them, using the system already in place for the hill farm allowance, and will be equivalent to just over 30 per cent. of their 2007 payment. I intend to make available an increase in the level of subsidy for the fallen stock scheme for farmers in the foot and mouth disease risk area, from 10 to 100 per cent. The increase will not only apply to existing members of the scheme, but will be available to all livestock keepers in the risk area. It will apply to stock that has had to be killed on farm for welfare or other reasons. I anticipate the cost to be less than £1 million.

I also intend to make available an additional contribution of up to £1 million to the Arthur Rank centre for disbursement to farming charities, which focus on providing advice and practical and emotional support to farming families, and £2 million for the promotion and marketing of lamb, beef and pork, both domestically and in our export markets. The public sector is a major purchaser of meat, and I am asking ministerial colleagues to increase the opportunities for small and local producers to tender for its business.

We are also determined to do as much as possible to reduce the burden of red tape on farmers at this difficult time. Therefore, I have agreed a delay, from 5 January 2008 to the end of April, in enforcing the requirement for livestock hauliers to have a certificate of competence for non-export journeys of more than 65 km. I have agreed to seek a derogation from the Commission for grassland farmers to apply above the annual nitrogen application limit of 170 kg per hectare, which is one of the requirements for farmers in nitrate-vulnerable zones. I have also agreed a one-month extension, until 13 December, to the closing date of the current consultation on the implementation of the nitrates directive.

I should also point out that Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency are not enforcing certain cross-compliance requirements for agri-environment schemes and the single farm payment where breaches of those requirements are caused directly by restrictions relating to foot and mouth or bluetongue. The Secretary of State for Transport announced last week that to assist movement of the backlog of animals, the rules governing drivers’ hours for livestock hauliers would be relaxed for a limited period as markets reopened.

I also welcome the European Union’s decision on 3 October to raise the age at which vertebral column of cattle is considered specified risk material from 24 to 30 months, which will facilitate the sale by butchers of
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beef from animals in that age bracket. The decision is subject to a three-month scrutiny by the European Parliament, and in the meantime the Food Standards Agency will undertake a public consultation.

As if an outbreak of foot and mouth were not enough, on 22 September the first case of bluetongue was found in East Anglia. Bluetongue is very different from foot and mouth disease. It is spread by midges rather than from animal to animal, and we cannot stamp it out by slaughtering infected animals. However, the cases that we have seen so far are in a limited geographical area, and seem to result from midges being carried over the North sea on the wind. As it happened in August, when movement controls were in place because of foot and mouth disease, that may help to control the spread.

By 28 September, the increase in the number of cases indicated that the disease was circulating in our midge population, and we confirmed the presence of bluetongue in Great Britain. The bluetongue temporary area was therefore replaced by a control zone and a protection zone.

A clear understanding of the spread of the disease is now crucial to help the industry, with the support of Government, to anticipate what may happen and what the appropriate response should be. That requires farmers in the zones to be vigilant and, for the sake of their industry, to report all new cases so that we can monitor whether spread is occurring. We will keep that approach under review with the industry, not least because the effects of bluetongue movement controls mean that decisions on control should be taken by the industry and not just by Ministers.

This has been an exceptionally difficult summer for the farming industry. I know from talking to many farmers and their representatives just how hard and distressing it has been and still is, and I am grateful to the industry for its forbearance and support. I also want to thank all those from DEFRA, the Institute for Animal Health and other organisations whose professionalism, dedication and commitment have helped us to deal with these outbreaks. I am sure that the House will wish to express its thanks as well.

I will, of course, keep the House informed of developments.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the relief package that he has announced, although it will go nowhere near meeting the huge economic cost of foot and mouth to the farming and related industries. As the Secretary of State said, this has been a terrible year for the farming community: between them, bluetongue and foot and mouth have effectively closed down the livestock industry over huge areas of countryside at the busiest time of the year. That has caused economic hardship, but we should not underestimate the emotional hardship that it is causing in rural communities, the impact on animal welfare, or the blow to the reputation of farming and the integrity of our scientific establishment.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, by a cruel twist of irony, work on a vaccine to protect against bluetongue has been put on hold because it was taking
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place at Pirbright, the source of the foot and mouth outbreak? When does he now expect a bluetongue vaccine to be available?

Bluetongue may be a misfortune but foot and mouth disease is different. The Government have been caught red-handed and are damned by their negligence. We know that the source of the outbreak was a Government-regulated and licensed laboratory. We also know from Professor Spratt’s report that the most likely cause of the infection was leaking drains. The Secretary of State has attempted to maintain that foot and mouth escaped from Pirbright through an extraordinary combination of circumstances, but the really extraordinary thing was the state of the drains at Pirbright.

The Government’s initial reaction to the outbreak was, I am afraid, characteristic. The Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge and immediately sent his spin machine into overdrive in an attempt to pin the blame on Merial, the private company at the site. That was shabby and dishonest and it smacked of desperation. The reason for the Prime Minister’s desperation to find a scapegoat has since become clear. As long ago as 2002, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stated in an official report:

It recommended awarding funding for biosecurity at the site. What was the reaction from the then Chancellor? In the following two years, funding from DEFRA and other Government Departments to the Institute for Animal Health was cut.

It gets worse. In July 2004, Merial wrote to DEFRA with proposals to replace the drains. Nothing happened for two years. Tenders for repairing the drainage systems were finally received in October 2006. Why did it take so long to obtain those tenders? Why did work not start until July this year? Why were repairs to the drainage system not prioritised? Is it not clear that if the Government had acted in a timely way on the repeated warnings about the integrity of the effluent pipes at Pirbright, the farming industry would not be facing a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds, and the reputation of British science would not have been dealt a body blow?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that among the dangerous pathogens held at the Pirbright laboratories are viruses lethal to humans, such as E. coli, BSE and avian flu? Is it purely a matter of chance that it was the foot and mouth virus which escaped from Pirbright and not some more deadly disease?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's failure to secure the laboratories at Pirbright amounts to gross negligence? What provision has been made for compensating the farming community for the costs that it is suffering as a result of the Government's negligence?

The Pirbright site was last inspected in December last year. What were the findings of that inspection? Why was the licence to operate not withdrawn? Can the Secretary of State confirm that if a dairy farm had been found to have such poor biosecurity, it would have been closed down?

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The Secretary of State states that a safety alert has been issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by inspections. On the basis of the inspection regime at Pirbright, what confidence can we have that they will be thorough and that any recommendations will be acted upon?

I represent a Surrey constituency. I know how traumatic this whole affair has been for Surrey farmers and others in the immediate area, but I have also recently met with hill farmers in Wales. They too are deeply concerned about the viability of their businesses, about the welfare of their animals and about their own families and future. The same is true across the country. People want to know exactly how this disease got into the environment, yet that is the one question that the Government refuse to investigate further. How very convenient.

How many people have been disciplined or removed from their posts as a result of this catalogue of negligence? Who is going to take responsibility? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise? Can we not conclude that if this is what happens when the Prime Minister takes personal charge of a crisis, he is better off out of it and that, if the Labour Government cannot be trusted to deal with the foot and mouth virus, they cannot be trusted with anything?

Hilary Benn: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his conduct during the summer, when we spoke on a number of occasions about the matter, has not been matched by the tone of the points he has made today. I will respond directly to the legitimate questions that he has raised.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Answer all the questions.

Hilary Benn: I will.

I recognise the emotional hardship that this has caused. It is a real blow for the farming industry—I know that from the conversations that I have had with farmers—and people are genuinely worried about the future. I know that some people are angry, too; I acknowledge that completely. What is the best way to help the farming industry to recover from these two blows? The first is to make sure that we make every effort to control the spread of these diseases and to eradicate them. Sixty-six days on from the first outbreak of foot and mouth, we have eight cases, all confined to Surrey. The whole House will wish to keep it that way. Our first line of defence in beating both of these diseases is the vigilance of farmers. I am genuinely grateful to the farming community for the efforts that it has made in that—

Mr. Stuart: What about the drains at Pirbright?

Hilary Benn: I shall come to the drains in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

A vaccine for bluetongue may, we hope, become available next year. It depends on the speed with which those who are working on a vaccine can develop one, the speed with which it can be shown to be safe and effective, and the speed with which sufficient supplies
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of it can be manufactured so that all farmers—not just those in East Anglia but those in northern Europe who have been affected by bluetongue as it has spread across the continent—can have it available.

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) Surrey said that the Government refuse to investigate how exactly the virus got out. With respect, that is not the case. As soon as it became clear that the likely source of the outbreak was Pirbright—we knew what the strain was and that it was not currently circulating in animals—what were the first two things that the Government did? One was to ask the HSE to come in and investigate and the second was to ask Professor Brian Spratt to come in and look at biosecurity, with a commitment to publish in full their reports, which we did on 7 September. With great respect, to advance the argument that the Government have not been interested in trying to find out what happened does not bear examination when the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts.

What do those reports say? They say that it was most likely to have been caused by—they cannot say for sure—an inactivated virus going into the drainpipe, the condition of the drains, the heavy rain and the flooding that brought it to the surface, and the movement of vehicles. Why were there vehicles on the site at Pirbright? They were on the site because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the process of investing a considerable sum of money in upgrading the facilities. The answer to his question is that, in 2002 and 2003, reports were produced. In 2005, the Government decided that we would invest £121 million— [ Interruption. ] I will come to that point in a moment. One of the two reviews that I have established in the light of the reports will look into that fair point.

Why were there vehicles on the site? It is because work is under way to spend the money on renewing the facilities at Pirbright. Some £31 million of that money has already been spent on the site. It is a very fair question to ask and I have asked it too: if people thought that the drains were that much of a problem, why was some of that money not spent? The answer was that until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention, and everybody else’s, as a result of the HSE investigation, nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.

The next question relates to the inspection and licensing regime. I have asked Sir Bill Callaghan to look at the way in which we license, regulate and inspect institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens. Frankly, it is not a good system—reflecting upon it now—to have an organisation that is a significant customer of an institution also the licensor and regulator. That is something for Sir Bill Callaghan to reflect on when he reports back to me by December. My view, subject to his advice, is that we need to have a different system in future. We have taken seriously what happened: not only have we put a mechanism in place for looking at what should happen to the licensing of the handling of animal pathogens, but we have issued a notice to all institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens affecting human beings as well as animals. The review will look at that, as will the second review overseen by the BBSRC; it has responsibility for the Institute for Animal Health, and it will look at the management and governance of that body.

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