This is an interim reply to the report of the Committee. The conclusions and recommendations of the report were largely aimed at the two inquiries that have been set up by the Government to consider the recent outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). These are the Inquiry into the lessons to be learned from the FMD outbreak of 2001 and the way the Government should handle any future major animal disease outbreak, chaired by Dr Iain Anderson, and the scientific review by the Royal Society of questions relating to the transmission, prevention and control of epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease in livestock, committee, chaired by Sir Brian Follett FRS. These Inquiries are independent of the Government and will wish to respond to the Committee's report in their own right. The Government intends to give a final reply on all the issues raised by Committee when the reports of the two Inquiries have been received and considered by the Government. This interim reply only addresses those conclusions and recommendations which are addressed in whole or in part to the Government, namely paragraphs 43(a), (c), (g), (h), (i), (l) and (o).
(a) There are strong arguments in favour of holding a full public inquiry, principally that it would have allowed those affected by the outbreak to see that their concerns were being properly investigated in depth. The Government has, however, chosen another approach. The advantage of the Royal Society and the Lessons to be Learned inquiries is that they may more quickly lead to facts being established, and lessons being learned, than would have been the case if a full public inquiry was undertaken. However, that advantage will have been wasted if the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries do not conduct themselves transparently, taking evidence from as many sources as possible in public unless there are very clear reasons not to do so, and if their reports to Government when completed are not published in full and without delay, and are subject to critical analysis and debate. It will also be vital that the Government's response to these reports co-ordinates their findings in such a way as to provide the basis for an improved strategy to counter a future outbreak of foot and mouth or other animal disease (paragraph 10).
The Government agrees that the Inquiry procedure will allow the facts to be established and the lessons learned as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are also satisfied that the process will allow the concerns expressed by those affected by the outbreak to be properly investigated. Both Inquiries have called widely for evidence and have held public meetings to hear some of this. It is expected that their reports will be published in full and without delay after they have been made. The Government is confident that this will facilitate the critical analysis and debate, which the Committee is seeking. The Government will respond to both reports with the aim of developing its strategies for preventing and countering outbreaks of FMD or other exotic animal disease in the future.
(e) We are concerned about the efficacy of the European Union regime which permits imports of meat from 'disease-free' areas of countries where foot and mouth is endemic. We recommend that the Government initiate a review of the operation of the regime. It should specifically examine the procedures dealing with health threats abroad, for example in Zimbabwe as a result of lawlessness in that country, with a view to recommending ways to identify risks and respond to them urgently. It should satisfy itself that the European Union is able to monitor effectively what is happening on the ground in supplier countries (paragraph 14).
The effective operation of EU import policy for meat is primarily the responsibility of the European Commission. Decisions about the policy itself are taken in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (formerly the Standing Veterinary Committee). The Commission undertakes inspection visits to countries exporting meat to the Community, with a view to ensuring that the necessary control procedures are in place to underpin their veterinary certification process. The Government has no reason to doubt the thoroughness of Commission inspectors: they are also charged with inspecting UK systems and facilities, which they do with notable attention to detail.
It is true that limited resources do not allow the Commission to undertake inspection visits to each country very frequently, but in addition to those visits, the Commission has a number of other means by which it monitors the disease situation in exporting countries. It maintains close contact with the veterinary services in exporting countries and can expect to be made aware quickly of any change to a country's disease status. The Commission's representatives overseas will also monitor events on the ground as they might effect animal or public health safeguards. This would be the case for example when social unrest was likely to compromise the ability of the local veterinary authorities to maintain proper control and segregation of disease-free animals. In addition, all the countries where FMD is present and which export to the Community are members of the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), the international animal health organisation which monitors disease outbreaks. Under OIE rules, members are required to notify immediately any outbreaks of serious disease such as FMD. If the situation demands, the Commission will take rapid safeguard action to ensure that imports from any country affected by disease do not pose a risk.
Independently of the Commission's monitoring activities, the Government also maintains contact with the veterinary authorities in exporting countries and British Embassies there monitor developments on the ground. EU law permits individual Member States to take unilateral safeguard action to protect direct imports if a change to the disease situation in any country warrants it, pending action by the Commission leading to changes to Community import rules. UK ministers have taken advantage of this provision on a number of occasions recently to impose import restrictions on products from various African and South American countries.
The 'regionalisation' of countries into areas where disease is present and disease-free areas is an internationally accepted practice, included in OIE guidelines. The UK benefited from just such arrangements during the FMD outbreak, enabling exports to recommence from Northern Ireland when disease was still present in other parts of the UK.
(g) Whatever view is taken of the desirability of a standstill restriction, it is surprising that the Government has concluded that a general twenty-day standstill restriction on livestock movements and restrictions on the operation of livestock markets have no role to play in preventing future outbreaks of foot and mouth without advice from the inquiries it has commissioned into the disease. Nevertheless we recommend that the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries consider what impact a standstill restriction put in place for sheep and cattle would have had on the spread of foot and mouth disease if it had been in place when the outbreak began, and also the role played by livestock markets, and by livestock dealers, in the early spread of the disease, both in terms of sales inside and outside the ring. They should also consider what effect a twenty-day standstill rule and associated changes to the regulations governing livestock markets would have on the activities of the livestock farming industry, and particularly what impact they would have on the ability of farmers to carry on normal commercial practice, which benefits farmers in the uplands in particular (paragraph 21).
The Government has not reached a final view on the role that a twenty-day standstill restriction on livestock movements and restrictions on the operation of livestock markets might play in helping to control any further outbreaks of FMD. The current Interim Animal Movements regime currently includes a twenty-day standstill as a default provision and imposes restrictions on markets. The Government is aware of representations from the cattle and sheep sectors about the impact the 20 day rule has on their operations, and has said it is willing to explore the possibility of alternative approaches which would deliver the same disease control benefits in ways that are less burdensome to the industry. No decisions have yet been taken. Whatever changes may be made to the Interim movement arrangements in the meantime, the Government fully intends to take account of any conclusions in this area contained in the reports from the two Inquiries on the matters to which the Committee have drawn attention before it puts forward proposals for a "permanent" livestock movement regime.
(h) We recommend that the Department urgently construct a single database about the farming industry, based, inter alia, on the most modern mapping techniques, and that landowners be obliged to provide data to keep it up to date. Topographical and stocking information gathered for the purpose of obtained European Union subsidies will be directly relevant in this regard (paragraph 23).
DEFRA has a number of projects under way which will improve access to data about people with livestock and their locations, by combining traditional database technology with geographical information systems. Its ultimate aim is to pull these various databases together to provide a powerful tool for better land and animal management, but before this can be achieved a number of legal, technical and privacy constraints need to be resolved in partnership with stakeholders.
(i) The contiguous cull was a response to a desperate situation, not a premeditated response to a known, assessed risk (paragraph 27).
The Government does not recognise this description of the contiguous cull policy or accept the allegations made in paragraph 27 of the Committee's Report. While it is accepted that the FMD outbreak of 2001 had not been predicted and was unprecedented, the contiguous cull was adopted on the basis of scientific and veterinary advice, as a proportionate response to deal with that situation, in order to get ahead of the disease. Nor is it the case that the policy was administered without regard for local circumstances; provision was made for the exercise of local veterinary judgement in deciding whether premises were indeed contiguous and whether special factors meant that the animals on them had not in fact been exposed to the disease. As the Committee recognises, to be effective the contiguous cull had to be carried out before animals on farms adjoining infected premises became infected in their turn, and the Government believe that the cull played an important role in bringing the outbreak to a close.
(l) We recommend that the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries look closely at the impact that the availability of vets had on efforts to contain the disease. The Government should commit itself to finding the resources necessary either to fund an expansion of the State Veterinary Service if it is recommended by the inquiries or to identify and train a 'territorial reserve' of private vets able to be mobilised rapidly. It should also examine the availability of trained people able to carry out tasks which do not necessarily require fully qualified vets (paragraph 33).
DEFRA will give due consideration to all recommendations about the State Veterinary Service arising from the inquiries. The Department is in the process of reviewing the arrangements whereby private sector veterinary resources were brought into play, and will be discussing the detail with the professional bodies concerned. DEFRA agrees that wherever possible pressure on scarce veterinary resources should be relieved by delegating tasks to suitably trained lay personnel.
(o) We are entirely sympathetic to the difficulties faced by those farmers not directly affected by the disease, but who have nevertheless experienced considerable hardship as a result of the outbreak. We accept, however, that there are limits to what the Government can do to help. Therefore we do not recommend specific compensation for those indirectly affected, but we do recommend that the Government continue to review their situation, and offer whatever further financial or practical support it can, such as continuing help with rates relief and a sympathetic tax regime. In particular the newly-agreed reform of the sheepmeat regime enables the Government specifically to promote programmes to help this sector. We urge the Government to table as soon as possible proposals to do so for consultation. We will wish to address this issue in future meetings with Ministers. We also urge the Government to continue to investigate the provision of insurance for farmers and others affected by diseases such as foot and mouth (paragraph 41).
DEFRA is continuing to offer financial and practical help by the following means:
_ Continuing rates relief - Agricultural property is exempt from business rates. All local authorities also have discretion to grant rate relief to a business that is suffering hardship. For the 2001/02 financial year, the Government increased central funding from the normal 75% to 95% of the cost of hardship rate relief given by rural local authorities to businesses suffering hardship as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. This applied to relief given to businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 and those with a rateable value of £50,000 in the rural local authorities in the areas worst affected by foot-and-mouth. This additional funding increased to 98% where the total amount of relief given exceeds in total 8% of the Council's net budget requirement.
_ Continuing sympathetic approach to tax deferment: The Government's response to the reports of the rural Task Force and Christopher Haskins confirmed that the Revenue departments will continue to take a sympathetic approach - on a case by case basis - to businesses that have been adversely affected by the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The Revenue departments re-confirmed this approach again on 19 March 2002.
_ The core Farm Business Advice Service is currently available to those farmers who have not had animals culled as a result of the FMD control measures but whose businesses have still been affected by the outbreak. The service consists of three days of free one-to-one on-farm business advice and is centred around a business health check. The service culminates in a business action plan signposting farmers to further funding and advice enabling them to put the action plan into practice.
Following the reform of the EU sheepmeat regime, DEFRA issued a consultation letter in January 2002 on the implementation of the sheep national envelope in England. It is now considering the responses and intends to undertake a further round of consultation, on specific proposals, shortly.
As regards insurance, a new animal disease insurance working group consisting of Government officials and representatives from the livestock sector and the insurance industry started work in early March. It is considering a range of options, including insurance, for managing the financial risks of animal diseases. The working group is also looking at the role that Government can play to increase the provision of insurance and to encourage farmers to take it up. Any Government intervention would need to comply with EU state aid rules, which may well rule out direct subsidy.