Examination of witnesses (Questions 200-215)
WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001
MEACHER, MP, AND
200. Although we have discussed your difficulty
in giving an accurate steer at this stage as to how much money
the Government may be willing to commit to various help schemes,
I think what people would find of great assistance is some idea
as to when your deliberations on these various matters might be
concluded because clearly for a business in discussion with its
bank trying to develop a survival strategy it would be very helpful
to know if some of these further help schemes you have discussed
are going to happen or not within a reasonable timescale.
(Mr Meacher) I agree with that. We have not got time
on our side. Businesses clearly in significant numbers are going
to be at risk within a matter of a few weeks, I think that is
true, and whatever the Government decides has to be brought forward
quickly. This is what I said earlier. I cannot give a day, I cannot
say this time next week, but it certainly has to be done quickly
and that is my intention
201. One last questionand this may be
hypotheticalwhat mechanism do you have for sustaining the
work of the Task Force and therefore the dispensing of such announcements
in the event of a General Election being called?
(Mr Meacher) I would anticipate that the Rural Task
Force would clearly continue in place, it would continue to have
meetings, it would continue to do everything which it does now
in that eventuality. There is no question of this not taking priority.
202. Making announcements is difficult during
election campaigns. There is a long-standing tradition of Government
announcements, especially ones which involve spending money, not
being made during a time when Parliament is not sitting.
(Mr Meacher) That is true for the obvious reason that
Governments when Parliament is not sitting should not be seen
in an Election campaign to be stealing an advantage over the Opposition
by coming forward with distribution of largesse, however, I think
this is a totally, totally different situation. I do not know
exactly what arrangements might prevail in those circumstances.
I certainly think that we would expect to do this in ways which
had the support of the Opposition. We have not discussed thisand
I am not able to say thisbut this is not something that
I would remotely or any of us would wish to be done in a partisan
manner. This is in the national interest and the arrangements
to ensure that happened would have to be put in place.
203. When I was complaining about Mr Paterson's
viewpoint, I understand that where people really have suffered
and maybe their business is doomed that that is extraordinarily
emotive, but the season has not really started it seems to me.
In many parts of the country Easter is the time when it is really
critical to see where it is starting. It really is, would you
agree, far too early to be talking about the season being wiped
out and it is actually a time to make sure it is not wiped out?
What funds and what attention are you giving to ensuring that
perhaps some money is spent now in trying to get the tourists
in and trying to reactivate the countryside as visitor attractions,
which might be an awful lot better than looking at a lot of pain
a few months downstream? Are you actually addressing that problem
as well as the real pain in the farming community?
(Mr Meacher) Yes we are and I would agree with you
that whilst Mr Paterson's demand for urgency is totally understandable
and right, nevertheless the view that we have lost it at this
stage is wrong. I think there is quite a lot that we can salvage
and recover and I think the Government should responsibly do all
it can to ensure that it does so. On the question of tourism,
both international and national, we are putting more resources
into both. There is a multi-millionI think off the top
of my head it is £12 millionwhich has been earmarked
for the BTA in terms of trying to correct the grossly esoteric
treatment of our country in American newspapers and in the American
media which has been scurrilous and mischievous in its inaccuracy,
which is gross. We are trying to deal with that through the Embassy
and in Post. We are trying to get travel correspondents to see
the true situation here. There are places you cannot go but there
is a huge number of places you can. There are questions like,
"Can we eat in Britain safely? Yes, we know about this tourist
attraction, we know about that, but how do you get from one to
the other?" There are the most absurd questions and we are
putting a lot of effort into trying to correct those prejudices.
With regard to getting our own people (who do understand the situation
broadly) to accept what they can do, under the auspices of the
England Tourist Council we are giving more money to the tourist
boards to promote attractions in their own areas. We are doing
that now because that is the best way, I think, of attracting
our own people into places where they want to go. They will see
that it is being promoted, they will get the message that it is
safe to go. It will certainly encourage them if they still have
doubts to ring up and question and askand I am sure they
will get a positive answer. We are doing all we can in that sense
204. You said that you welcome good ideas. Could
I ask that you publicise a process whereby individuals out there
who definitely do have good ideas that could help the Task Force
can get them to the Task Force both now and in a General Election
(Mr Meacher) Write to me, telephone me, send me an
e-mail, and I promise it will be rapidly taken into account. We
have adopted several ideas which have been put to us by others.
I saw a delegation from an MP yesterdayand I do not want
to encourage everyone to come and see me because I have not time
to see everybodywhich produced six ideas, three of which
I thought were really good ideas that we should follow through.
We are genuinely listening and trying to learn.
205. What is the e-mail number?
(Mr Meacher) We will get that afterwards.
206. Just following your exchange, may I send
you a list of 154 businesses in Shropshire which have been affected.
You are quite right when you said the way to get people back to
the countryside is to get rid of the disease. There is one area
which is under the remit of your Ministry which is the Environment
Agency and they are being blamed in my patch, where 87 per cent
of carcasses were buried on farm last time, and this was a clear
recommendation of the 1969 Report saying the burial of carcasses
was preferable to burning, and yet the Environment Agency's advice
gives a hierarchy of disposal as follows: rendering, incineration,
burning on site, landfilling and burial last. Why have the Environment
Agency ignored the recommendations of the 1969 Report?
(Mr Meacher) I think the only argument that I have
heard from the Environment Agency or anyone else against burial
on site is the risk in certain places of contamination of ground
water. As far as I know, there are no other reasons why there
should not bea further message is coming.
(Miss Lambert) There is also a risk that cattle might
be infected with BSE which did not exist last time round.
207. Not if they are buried six foot under the
earth as they were last time. There are farms in my area which
have got a hideous mound at the back where the last foot and mouth
carcasses were buried, and we have all been drinking the water
in that area and I do not know of any adverse health effects,
but there is a real health effect of leaving 100,000 carcasses
above ground rotting with the disease open to dispersal in the
countryside. That is a major environmental problem.
(Mr Meacher) I entirely accept the point you make.
If the Environment Agency has forbidden burial on site without
just cause I would certainly intervene and ask them to explain
their policy and not to repeat it. I do not think there is necessarily
a hierarchy, they may give it in a certain order and burial comes
last. I think any of those forms of disposal are satisfactory.
The important thing is that none of them should have side effects
which could be polluting or contaminating. And burial on site
can sometimes be. I accept that that has happened more often than
can be justified by that explanation up to now, but I think the
Environment Agency now accepts that burial on site is perfectly
satisfactory unless there is real evidence it could contaminate
208. Is it possible to ring your office if we
have cases where a farmer may want to bury on site? I have had
two cases where the farmers wanted to bury and were not allowed
(Mr Meacher) I do not think ringing my office, who
are not experts in this, would help. If the farmer has contacted
the Environment Agency and the Environment Agency has not been
able to give a satisfactory explanation, and the farmer has presumably
complained that the matter should be reconsidered, if that still
does not yield a satisfactory response I would be happy to find
it out and follow it up with the Environment Agency.
209. First, could I express my personal admiration
at your patience and generosity in the face of this festival of
rural whingeing that you have been subjected to. I hope my colleagues
who have been amplifying that whingeing will now join me in asking
for support for the fishing industry where vessels cannot put
to sea because the fishing ports are such a mess of conservation
and all the ancillary industries have gone bust, and have never
been treated with the generosity that rural issues are getting.
The question they want me to ask is simply this: when you come
to compensation of businesses I hope you take into account that
some of the practices of farmers particularly have actually created
the problem and when we read about the merry-go-round of rotating
sheep to top up sheep numbersI think the limit on sheep
that can be claimed for was increased only a few months back so
there must be a large number of sheep going round the country
on a "pre-cooked" tour from farm to farm to top up the
numbers, that is the kind of practice that has helped cause this
and I hope the money will be deducted and these people will be
penalised rather than compensated.
(Mr Meacher) I have read about these practices and
of course it is a matter for investigation which is certainly
beyond the remit of the Rural Task Force. I certainly think that
practices like that do endanger the further spread of disease
and I trust that they have now been stamped out. That is really
a matter for MAFF and its officials to regulate.
210. I would want us to be very clear indeed
on burial. I do feel that the lessons from BSE are that, although
we have not discussed it as a major issue today, we should be
doing major experiments in ensuring and testing out what the vets
have been sayingthat this disease does not affect human
beings. I do hope there is not going be an atmosphere in which
the Environment Agency, against their judgment, are being coerced
into burial where they have concerns about ground water. As the
responsible Minister it is about getting the balance and if I
could ask you to affirm that which I believe you probably will.
(Mr Meacher) I would certainly expect the Environment
Agency, if their officers believe that there is a serious and
significant risk of contamination, to stand by their judgment
and, of course, I would wholly back them. I was only in answer
to Mr Paterson referring to cases which have been alleged and
not directly been drawn to my attention where the Environment
Agency had been reluctant or unwilling to sanction burial on site
without due explanation.
211. If you are not certain, you may not definitely
know it is going to happen, surely the precautionary principle
on protection of human lives should be that where the Environment
Agency do not know it is safe that should be sufficient reason.
They do not have to give firm evidence that it is unsafe. There
is a difference, is there not?
(Mr Meacher) There is a difference but you are trying
to change the onus of proof.
212. I am trying to be clear where the onus
of proof is and I am suggesting to you, Michael, that the onus
of proof must be that it is safe for the ground water and not
that we have to prove that it is unsafe and the reverse is the
(Mr Meacher) The officials in the Environment Agency,
again the local officials who have to exercise their judgment
as best they can locally, it is for them to take a view as to
whether they think there is a significant risk involved in burial
on site. If they do believe that I think we have to back that
judgment. If they do not believe there is a significant risk or
any other reason locally as to why it should not be used then
I think it should go ahead. It is a perfectly appropriate form
of disposal so long as there are not indirect, damaging, contaminating
213. Minister, a final few observations. First
of all representing a very large constituency with a very large
number of sheep, while undoubtedly there are rogues in the farming
community as in any other community, I would not like it to be
thought that this outbreak is to do with fiddling farmers pushing
sheep around the country. I know you have not implied that but
I wish to counter that suggestion in case that were to get out.
If I may make two observations which I do not ask you to comment
on and then a couple of brief questions. The first is this: I
appreciate that the Government wishes to take decisions on this
openly, but sometimes openness can lead to confusion. Let me illustrate
that. We are now talking about the possibility of vaccination.
The statement yesterday made no mention of what was going to be
vaccinated or the circumstances and there is quite a lot confusion
as a result of that. The decision has got to mature to a point
in a sense before it becomes public otherwise it does not help,
it simply confuses. I make that as an observation. The other observation
is that there is a real problem of the interval between the decisions
being announced and implementation in the country. The Ministry
of Agriculture announced on 5 March a longer distance transport
scheme basically to enable ewes to get home when they have been
off on winter holding. I know from my own investigations that
it was a week before any instructions usable by the regional offices
were received to enable the filling in of application forms. It
was between six and seven days before that became operable. We
are now hearing with regard to the welfare scheme, which is very
important and which is run by the Intervention Board in Newcastle,
that the phone lines are ungettable, there are very few faxes,
there is no computer system there, and already there is an enormous
backlog of investigations building up. It is not your responsibility
but I hope you can convey that to the Minister that the consequences
of the interval between announcement and implementation, knowing
the resource problems, are serious. Three small questions, if
I may, just to conclude. There could be a conflict between the
interests of the tourist industry and agriculture in the sense
that if I were running a tourist business I would say, "Let's
vaccinate", because vaccination eliminates the visibility
of the problem and visitors will come back in because I am interested
in visitors coming in to me. A farmer or agricultural industry
could well be interested in getting the exports out and therefore
maintaining the disease-free status and therefore become concerned
about the implications of vaccinations. So there are bound to
be different economic groups which are bound to have different
interests which are not always easily reconcilable, that is just
the nature of the difference.
(Mr Meacher) I would agree with that. The decision
whether or not to use vaccinations is a major strategic decision
about which certain groups and certain parts of the farming community
have expressed extremely strong views, and on which the Department
has held a considered view over a long period of time. Certainly
that decision should be taken solely on the basis of whether it
is at this stage the right policy to try and contain the disease.
The view, of course, has begun to gain ground because in the case
of Cumbria, and to a lesser degree in Devon, there is a degree
of concentration of infectivity in those areas on a scale we have
never seen before, outside anything which happened in 1967-68,
and we are faced with a new situation and the matter has to be
considered on that basis. I do take your first point though, that
it is difficult for Government where these matters of great strategic
significance are being considered. Do you suddenly come out on
a particular day with a new policy or is there some discussion,
consultation, public debate? There are issues about how this is
done. But I do entirely accept that there should be clarity so
far as possible but, again, this is a major issue which needs
to be decided on the basis of what is necessary for containment
at this unprecedented stage in this outbreak.
214. A small question related to vaccination.
Many of us will have little tourist attractions specialising in
rare breeds, they are never going to be eaten, they are never
going to be moved, basically they are there for kids to have a
look at and cuddle, that sort of thing. Would there be a problem,
provided they are segregated from farming stock, if vaccination
was used on them at least to make sure those very special herds
which are historic herdstheir gene pool is very smallare
preserved? In 1967 I think some were physically moved away from
the outbreak so there was not a risk to those particular breeds.
I cannot see why there should be a particular objection to that.
(Mr Meacher) No, I do not think there is, and I think
this issue has been well understood. It is compatible with slaughter
in the sense you can preserve the germ plasm of these special
blood lines even if the cattle are slaughtered, but the alternative
is vaccination or isolation for the preservation of these rather
special herds. That is very much an understood point and I am
sure, one way or another, we do intend to preserve that special
215. Finally, Minister, speculation to which
you are not invited to respond. I wondered idly whether or not
we were seeing a dress-rehearsal for the Minister of Agriculture
and Rural Affairs in the unlikely hypothesis of the return of
a Labour Government. Thank you very much for coming to see us.
(Mr Meacher) For once I am without words!