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Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the Opposition spokesman, may I say that it is my desire to call every hon. Member who wishes to speak on the statement? However, I need the co-operation of the House and I expect questions to be as brief as possible.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, which was supplied to me in advance. I want to begin by repeating the tribute that Conservative Members have paid previously to everyone in the front line of the crisis--the Army, the vets and the many others who have been working extremely hard to get on top of the disease.
I warmly welcome the improved position that the Minister described. It is very good news that the measures that have been taken--it has to be said that some of them were taken belatedly--are now working. Nevertheless, he should know that the crisis is far from over in many parts of Britain. What he describes as a small number of animals awaiting slaughter was, last night, 107,000--more than three times the number that was awaiting slaughter on the day that I first called for the Army to be deployed in an operational role to bring the crisis under control.
In Cumbria, the situation is still so serious that the Army has just been forced to establish a new crisis management centre in the south of the county. In Somerset this week, the disease has struck in a new part of the county for the first time. In Scotland, the disease is still spreading from west to east in the border country. In the Welsh valleys new areas have suffered infection.
On top of that, there is growing criticism from farmers and vets, in places as far apart as Devon and Essex, that the Government may have changed the way in which cases are counted. In Essex, for example, antibodies were found in sheep at Great Wigborough, but the Ministry decided not to include that as an infected case. If foot and mouth was present in those animals, as local farmers and vets believe, why does the Ministry refuse to classify it as a confirmed case?
Will the Minister explain what changes have been made to the basis on which the daily total of new cases is now calculated? Does he agree that, if cases of infection are not recorded as such, there is a danger that an area may wrongly be assumed to be free of the disease and that that may lead to restrictions being lifted prematurely, and the risk of a flare up of the disease at a later date? Was it not one of the lessons of the 1967 outbreak that the foot was taken off the pedal prematurely?
When the Prime Minister abandoned his plan five weeks ago for an election today, I set out the four tests on which judgment about whether the crisis had been resolved should be based. Good progress has been made towards satisfying two of those tests--the report- to-slaughter time down to 24 hours for infected cases, and the fall in the daily total of new cases. But the other two tests have not been met. The geographical spread of the disease has not yet been reversed, and many farmers with healthy animals are still not allowed to move them, for very good reasons.
How many farmers are subject to movement restrictions on healthy animals and how long does the Minister expect those restrictions to remain? Does he agree that farming cannot return to normal until all those restrictions are lifted, and the crisis cannot therefore be said to be fully resolved until all four of my tests have been met?
In the context of the welfare disposal scheme, I welcome the steps that the Minister has announced this afternoon. How long will it be before farmers with healthy animals within 3 km of an infected place are allowed to move those animals to slaughter for the human food chain? Will the Minister confirm that help will continue to be given to farmers whose premises now require disinfection?
It is now clear that the disease reached its present horrific scale because of the Government's failure to take the prompt action suggested by the Conservative party and recommended by the report to the Northumberland inquiry and the report of western command after the 1967 outbreak. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary says that this crisis is less serious than the one in 1967.
Mr. Yeo: The Minister has just said that, in 1967, fewer than 500,000 animals were slaughtered. In this crisis already 2.5 million animals have been compulsorily slaughtered and the movement restrictions on healthy animals, which have been imposed directly because of the crisis, have led to farmers asking for another 1.5 million animals to be voluntarily slaughtered. We are talking about a loss of livestock eight times that of 1967. That scale of crisis is the result of Government inaction.
Will the Minister confirm that, when the inquiry into the handling of the crisis is set up, independent experts will be asked to assess by how much the spread of the disease could have been reduced, how many animals might have been saved and how many businesses might have survived if the Army had been given the full operational role that we called for on 11 March, and if the policy of slaughter on suspicion had been introduced more promptly to cut the report-to-slaughter time to less than 24 hours at an earlier date?
On compensation, is the Minister aware of the anxiety about the retrospective cut that he announced last week in payments to farmers whose animals had been accepted for the welfare disposal scheme before 27 April? Will he reverse the decision and eliminate the element of retrospection? Will he speed up compensation payments generally? His statement suggests that approximately
I welcome the steps that the Minister announced for dealing with import controls. Is he now ready to introduce long overdue measures to stop meat entering Britain from countries where foot and mouth disease is endemic and to block the importing of other sub-standard meat, which may endanger human or animal health? Will he assure hon. Members that swift action will be taken if the Food Standards Agency decides that controls at ports and airports are too weak? Does he realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised the problem of personal imports through Heathrow, and that the Ministry was asked to take action in May last year? Nothing was done. Only last Sunday 444 kg of fish and meat in 43 bags were discovered on one flight from Ghana. I recently visited the port of Dover, where no controls are exercised on food imports.
Livestock farmers are not the only people who have suffered through foot and mouth disease. Thousands of businesses in tourism and other rural activities such as equestrianism have been devastated. Why has nothing further been heard from the Government's taskforce? Why has the Conservative proposal of offering interest-free loans to affected businesses not been accepted? That proposal was suggested in the House more than six weeks ago, and has widespread support even among Labour Members.
If today's statement is the last to Parliament on the subject before Dissolution, will the Minister confirm that full details of the progress of the disease will be available to all candidates on a constituency basis throughout the election campaign?
The 10 weeks of the foot and mouth disease crisis have exposed muddle, incompetence and delay at every level of Government. Farmers, other businesses and taxpayers will pay a high price for ministerial negligence, especially in the early stages of the epidemic. At each stage, the Prime Minister has acted with his eye on the headlines and not on the problems. First, he played down the crisis. He was afraid that admitting that we were facing a national emergency would wreck his precious election timetable. Now he claims that we are on the home straight, but millions of hard-working men and women whose livelihoods have been put at risk by Government dither are nowhere near it. They face an uncertain and, in many cases, bleak future. They will have listened in vain today for any genuine encouragement and assurance that the Labour Government care enough about the rural communities that they have done so much to damage in the past four years to take the necessary action to ensure their survival.
I shall answer the questions in reverse order. I shall continue to put all the information that I can into the public domain. That has been my policy throughout the outbreak. We will make public and act on any advice that we receive from the FSA.
There has been no retrospective cut in rates under the welfare disposal scheme. It is essential to all those who care about the livestock industry, however, that our introduction of the welfare scheme does not create a false market. In the long term, that would be ruinous for the industry and suck in imports.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) questioned our prompt action--this, incidentally, from a party that took 11 years to get the proper public protection measures into place to deal with BSE--and referred to when the Army were called in. The advice of the 1967 outbreak report was followed. Ministerial correspondence was exchanged in government, and the Army was called in before the first call for its deployment by the parliamentary Opposition.
The House will know that the Agriculture Select Committee has already begun an inquiry into the outbreak, and I have appeared before it twice, so far. There is also bound to be a Public Accounts Committee inquiry. I pledge that whatever inquiries are held, I will co-operate fully, as will my departmental officials, and we will give evidence willingly.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the comparative scale of the 1967 outbreak. In spite of the much larger scale of this outbreak, we have brought it under control and are moving towards a conclusion more promptly than in 1967.
I answered the question about the 3 km zones in my opening statement. The hon. Gentleman also asked how many farms are still subject to movement restrictions. The answer is some 160,000, as Great Britain is still a control zone.
On the question of the compilation of statistics, where infected premises are confirmed as such, they are reported as such. There are no exemptions. If blood tests turn out negative, however, we cannot report such a case as a positive case.
Finally, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the fact that the position has improved and for his support for the public servants--both civilian and military--who are working so hard to bring this terrible disease outbreak to a firm conclusion.