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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for updating us about this tragic incident. One hundred and four cases are 104 cases too many. Perhaps I may again express our sympathies to the families who are dealing directly with the problem and to those who have seen their lifetime work destroyed. Perhaps I may also pay tribute to MAFF, the vets and all those working at the front line. They all deserve our thanks.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Byford: My Lords, the Minister mentioned localised movement and I am aware that there is a

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safety factor in whatever restrictions on movement are introduced. However, is the Minister aware that there is increasing pressure and urgency on farmers who have in-lamb ewes?

Secondly, it is taking up to two weeks to confirm whether a suspect case is positive or negative. Can that time be shortened? Having had a case confirmed, it sometimes takes five or six days before disposal of the animals is completed. Do the Government have available to them a sufficient number of vets and so forth? Have they asked for help from, say, the Ministry of Defence?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness. She is right to point out that in any licensing scheme, whether for resumption of trade or for welfare reason, a difficult balance must be struck in weighing the risk of disease spreading by movement and the risk of compromise to animal welfare. We are looking at a localised scheme. Obviously, we are well aware of the difficulties of many animals, particularly sheep away from their home farms about to lamb. We are putting out welfare advice on animals which are away from home.

We are looking at a scheme for licensing movements but I have to say that overall the veterinary advice about minimising the risk of disease spread must take priority. The farming unions recognise that because it is in the interests of the industry as a whole.

As regards the time taken for confirmation, in many cases positive diagnosis of the disease is being made on clinical symptoms only, but when a case needs to go to a laboratory it is being confirmed quickly. Finding a negative result takes longer due to the nature of the necessary exhaustive tests. In some cases, there have been hold-ups in laboratories and we are seeking to smooth those out and deal with any backlogs.

I am aware of the concern about delay in the disposal of the animals. Dispatch of the animals must be achieved within 24 hours. They are then disinfected and the disposal of corpses is arranged. Delays have not been connected with manpower but with getting together large stocks of coal, railway sleepers and other necessary items. That is why we are looking at transport in sealed vehicles to rendering plants. However, for the avoidance of doubt I should say that there is no reason to believe that these corpses are a disease risk; they are treated with disinfectant and are not exhaling the virus.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I agree with the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the excellent work being done by the Minister's staff. I was most moved to hear the noble Baroness this morning expressing genuine sympathy for all the farmers. She drove me to tears at a quarter to six this morning.

I declare an interest as a specialist cheese maker and want to ask the Minister a question of which I have given her notice. I consulted my environmental health officer this morning and know that there is great concern about the fact that in restricted areas, or in

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areas in which there has been an outbreak, there is to be no movement of unpasteurised cheeses. I can tell the Minister that half an hour ago I spoke to Dr Fred Brown, the eminent expert on foot and mouth disease. He advised me that it is highly unlikely that foot and mouth virus would survive the cheese-making process, whether the milk was pasteurised or not. He also advised me that as regards cheeses already made, a spray with a 2 per cent citric acid solution would kill the virus.

What risk assessment was done by her department before that instruction was released? Will it reconsider its decision on the safety of cheese?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess for her comments and for giving me notice of her technical question. If the unpasteurised cheese was made before an area was declared infected, it can be moved freely in and out of the area. After declaration of an infected area, one cannot process unpasteurised milk into cheese. It would not be permitted under the Dairy Products Hygiene Regulations 1995.

I note the point which the noble Countess made about the scientific evidence available. If she would give it to me, I should be happy to put it to the state veterinary service in order to see whether we need to make amendments without compromising the spread of disease.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister on the time taken for testing. I listened carefully to her reply. I understand that the time taken for a positive test is four hours and that the Pirbright centre needs to undertake a further test to confirm a negative result, which takes 96 hours.

However, a test for a case near me at Badgworth near Axbridge was sent off on 28th February and the results have not been returned. Will the Minister accept that, when farmers want to know whether they can take part in a licensing scheme, that wait is very long? Furthermore, is it the target time? Six or seven days is much more than the 96 hours which the test should take.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, if every positive result was found within four hours it would take the same amount of time to find a negative result. It does take longer. While 96 hours is widely quoted, it is the minimum laboratory period required to obtain a negative result in some cases. Depending on the samples submitted--sometimes additional samples have to be taken--it may take longer. I do not disagree with the noble Baroness that hold-ups have occurred in individual cases. We have tried to investigate them and make sure that if there is a systemic problem we address it. We shall continue to do that and deal with any cases that are raised with us.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it was right and proper to table this Question, but that in thanking so many people the noble Baroness forgot to thank Her Majesty's

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Government, in particular the Minister's department, for the efficient and expeditious way in which they have dealt with this matter? Will my noble friend accept from me and my colleagues, and, I believe, noble Lords on all sides of the House, congratulations on the way in which this matter has been dealt with?

Baroness Byford: My Lords, before the Minister responds, I did thank MAFF, which is the government department for which the noble Baroness is responsible.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, no one has been anything other than generous in responding to how the department has dealt with this crisis. We are not through it yet. Noble Lords have used the past tense. I believe that we should all keep our accolades until we have finished.

Social Security Fraud Bill [H.L.]

3.41 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Additional powers to obtain information]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 1:


    Page 2, line 21, at end insert--


("( ) Requests from a fraud inspector in a local authority for an authorised officer to obtain information from any of the bodies listed above shall be made through a central organisation.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I believe that in considering Amendment No. 1 it would be helpful to look also at Amendment No. 2, which is somewhat similar but deals with offices of the Department of Social Security rather than local authorities.

The Bill before us at Third Reading is significantly different from that which your Lordships considered at Second Reading. In many respects the Bill is a great deal better, and a number of our concerns have been put at rest. There remain some concerns, to which I shall refer a little later this afternoon. One of the important concerns is the need to ensure that a request for information from the various outside bodies listed in Clause 1--telecommunications companies, credit agencies, banks and so on--is made at minimum cost and as effectively as possible. We have debated two particular aspects of the matter: first, whether the inquiries will be directed to a central point in the organisation which is asked to provide the information; secondly, whether the request for the information itself should also be centralised.

We made some progress in this matter at earlier stages, but concern is still expressed, for example by British Telecom, that, although there may be one central point through which inquiries are made, there may be a considerable number of authorised officers at each point. Each will need to be authorised, and that authorisation must be checked by the information providers. Therefore, a considerable burden is placed on those who give the department or local authority the information that it requires to try to detect fraud. It would be helpful, therefore, if the Minister assisted

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noble Lords, as she has in relation to many previous amendments, by explaining the extent of the problem that has been brought to our attention.

As I understand it, first, it is proposed that as far as concerns the department's own inquiries the task should be done regionally, but there will be a considerable number of regions, and authorised officers within them, to be validated. Can the noble Baroness give an idea of exactly how many are likely to be involved, and whether it is possible to centralise the whole operation rather than do it on a regional basis as far as concern the department's inquiries?

Secondly, I turn to local authority inquiries. As we understand it, some local authorities will be authorised by the Secretary of State and their own authorised officers will make inquiries. On the other hand, we understand that a number of local authorities will not be authorised by the Secretary of State. Can the Minister provide some idea of the criteria on which such authorisation will be made and the approximate scale of the problem? There are about 400 local authorities. At the moment, we are not clear what percentage of local authorities with their own officers will be authorised and the percentage which will be, so to speak, under an umbrella. At all events, it means that this system is far from the situation in which, say, a bank receives applications for information from a single central point. It will be considerably diffused over a large number of local authorities and a smaller number of DSS regional offices.

It has been suggested that there should be a central clearing office for local authority disclosure requests similar to that which is in effect--perhaps I may have the attention of the noble Baroness--with trading standards officers. Apparently, that is centralised to a greater extent than is now envisaged by the department. Obviously, it is important to reduce costs. As the noble Baroness is aware, in that respect particular concerns are being expressed by local authorities. Before we say farewell to the Bill and it goes to another place, I believe it is helpful to be clearer as to the exact extent to which the Government envisage it will be possible to centralise requests for information either within local authorities or the department itself. I beg to move.


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