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I shall begin by expressing again my warm appreciation of the efforts of all those who are working to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease. I pay tribute to the role of the Army and the work of vets, slaughtermen and many others engaged in that task. Despite their excellent work, the signs are that foot and mouth disease is not yet under control; I shall return to that in a moment. I am sure that the whole House will unite in expressing deep regret at the scale of the human and animal tragedy now occurring.
In many parts of Britain, farmers are witnessing the destruction of their life's work and the killing of animals that they spent nights and days bringing into the world, nurturing and rearing. Alongside that suffering is another rapidly growing problem: the animal welfare crisis affecting 1.5 million animals, whose owners cannot move them because of foot and mouth restrictions--[Interruption.] I am sure that people who are concerned with animal welfare will note with interest the murmuring of Labour Members. There are problems with ewes and lambs in muddy fields and pigs that are in desperately overcrowded conditions; there is real distress as farmers wait for the welfare disposal scheme to start to operate.
On the issue of animals awaiting slaughter under the welfare disposal scheme, will the Minister publish regular figures at least once a week so that the size of that part of the problem can be measured? How long does he expect it to take to cure the large backlog? May I assure him that if special measures or powers are needed for that purpose, we will give our full support to any steps that are likely to be effective?
I do not think that anyone--with the possible exception of the Minister--would try to claim that the disease is under control. Does he agree that if that claim is to be credible, four tests must be met? First, is the 24-hour report-to-slaughter time being met consistently? Secondly, is the geographical spread of the disease being reversed? Thirdly, have the bulk of the movement restrictions on healthy animals been lifted? Fourthly, is the number of confirmed new cases falling steadily? When all four tests have been met I--and, I believe, most others--will agree that the foot and mouth crisis has been resolved. I hope and pray that that day is reached sooner rather than later.
At present, it is hard to judge progress on meeting the first test as the Minister seems to have ceased daily publication of the figures that we need to make that judgment. Until last Thursday, the Ministry published cumulative and daily totals for animals authorised for slaughter; for animals slaughtered; for carcases disposed of; for animals still awaiting slaughter; and for carcases awaiting disposal. Given the Government's readiness to publish figures that contain good news, the suspicion must be that, by failing to update figures daily, they may be concealing the fact that the position is getting worse, not better, especially as the Minister's own figures, which he has just quoted, suggest that the totals are the worst ever in the six and a half weeks since the outbreak was first discovered.
At least 67,000 animals awaiting slaughter last night had been on the waiting list for at least a week. According to the Minister's own targets, no infected animals and no dangerous contact animals should be alive for more than two days. Does he agree that, unless information is available, nobody can judge whether the 24-hour report- to-slaughter target for infected animals and the 48-hour target for dangerous contact animals is being met? Two and a half weeks ago, the chief scientific adviser said that it was essential to meet the first of those targets if the outbreak was to be controlled. Will the Minister confirm that each time he or the Prime Minister says that progress on those targets is being made, they do so on the basis of genuine figures? Will he therefore resume daily publication of those statistics in the five categories that I mentioned? Will he provide the additional breakdown of infected and dangerous contacts that he and I debated in the House last Thursday? Does he agree that as Parliament is starting a 12-day recess tomorrow, daily publication of those figures during the recess becomes absolutely essential?
Does the Minister recognise that there will be great concern at the fact that only 70 per cent. of dangerous contact animals are slaughtered within 48 hours, and only in certain areas? Many dangerous contact animals may contract the infection or be incubating it before they are slaughtered, and the risk of the disease spreading exists from dangerous contact animals, as well as from infected animals.
Turning to the steps that the Government are taking, does the Minister agree that there are frequent reports of delay at the operational level, and of muddle? Does he accept that it would help if an Army commander were put in charge of the slaughter and disposal operation in each region? In this context, will the right hon. Gentleman say
Will the Minister say how many slaughtermen are now being used and whether he is confident that there are enough? How many appeals have been launched by farmers? Does he agree that some appeals may be made because of confusion about what constitutes a contiguous farm? Given that, in some cases, there are reports that, even on a contiguous farm, delays of more than two weeks are occurring before slaughter takes place, some farmers may wonder whether there is any purpose in then slaughtering healthy animals. Surely the purpose of slaughtering animals on contiguous farms is served only if it is carried out quickly.
On vaccination, I understand the difficulty that the Minister has in reaching a decision; it is a finely balanced issue. However, does he realise that he faces this difficulty simply and solely because of the failure of the Government to enforce their previous policy in an effective and timely way? Vaccination is a last resort--an alternative that the Government must now consider because they were too slow in carrying out their own slaughter policy. Will he confirm that it is 10 days since Downing street was spinning that a decision on vaccination would be made in 48 hours?
Does the Minister agree that there are three key questions on vaccination? First, will it speed up eradication of foot and mouth disease? Secondly, will it reduce the number of animals that have to be slaughtered? Thirdly, will it bring forward the date on which Britain's status as a disease-free country is restored? If the answer to at least two of those questions is yes, the case for vaccination is very strong.
Does the Minister agree with those criteria? If he does not, what criteria is he using to decide? Will he publish the scientific advice on which his decision is based? Now that the disease has spread to new, previously uninfected areas--some of which are a long way from existing outbreaks--does he consider that there is a case for using vaccination to create a firebreak around at least one of those areas to help to establish the acceptability and effectiveness of vaccination? While the Government have been contemplating this policy, has a contingency plan been prepared so that stocks of vaccine are in the right place, and have suitably qualified people to administer it been identified?
Will the Government now admit that their own mishandling of the foot and mouth outbreak has contributed significantly to the present scale of the problem? Will the Government recognise that the disease would not have spread as widely as it has if they had taken more prompt and effective action? Will the Minister accept that if he had followed the timely suggestions made by the Conservative party, the situation today would be less serious than it is?
The Government's refusal to learn the lessons of the 1967 outbreak, their neglect of the report of the Northumberland inquiry and western command, their delay in calling in the Army and giving them a fuller operational role and their reluctance to consult epidemiologists about the likely spread and scale of the disease have led to the extent of the present problem.
Together, they amount to ministerial negligence, which has cost thousands of farmers their livelihoods, is day by day inflicting appalling animal suffering, is destroying a sizeable part of Britain's tourist trade and will cost industry and the taxpayer billions of pounds. Against that background, will the Minister share with us, as frankly as possible and as he has promised to do, his views on why the disease is not yet under control? Why do his own figures continue to show a worsening position? Does he recognise, even now, that a more urgent and large-scale response is needed if we are to gain control of this hideous crisis?