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Defra: Virologists

11.20 am

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, returns from agency chief executives show that Defra employs 116 qualified virologists who work in the field of virology.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she saying that Defra has no qualified virologists at the heart of the organisation? How many of those virologists are from the veterinary, medical and scientific disciplines? In view of the importance of viral diseases to animals and humans, will Her Majesty's Government consider setting up a separate steering committee to bring together virologists and microbiologists from all the disciplines in order to give the Government proper advice and reduce their reliance on computer modellers?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I shall take the point about computer modellers first. They are an aid to research work, not the core issue. Figures for the number of virologists from the scientific, veterinary and medical disciplines are not available, although the overwhelming majority are scientific and veterinary. I know that the noble Baroness is aware of the international renown of the work done at Pirbright, a facility we are developing and which is a centre of excellence. I am sure that it will look at her suggestion.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, given the vast economic costs of the foot and mouth outbreak and the potential economic costs of bird flu, as well as the increased likelihood of viruses taking hold because of climate change, does the Minister agree that it would be more satisfactory for Defra to take a herd immunity approach along the lines taken by the Department of Health for human health and look at developing a vaccination programme rather than use computer models?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the vaccination programme is obviously kept under review, but as I know the noble Baroness is aware from earlier discussions, if we take as an example avian flu, there is a danger that reliance on avian flu vaccination for birds could spread the disease further and thus be dangerous. Birds could still catch avian flu but the symptoms would be masked. On the work being done, I cannot but agree with the basic premise set out by the noble Baroness, and that is exactly why, together with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in partnership with the Institute for Animal Health and the DTI, we are putting enormous resources into developing the Pirbright facility so that we can respond.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further. What funding has Defra put towards the 116 virologists, and given that there is a great big black hole in the Defra budget, will the level of research be maintained or, as I hope will be the case, increased? I ask that because one of the biggest disease threats to this country is bluetongue.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I do not have a detailed breakdown of the costs relating to individuals in the various government agencies responsible to Defra. Work is going on in fields such as bluetongue and, as the noble Baroness knows, we maintain a constant surveillance in that area. On the issue of the Defra budget and cuts, it is precisely because we share the views expressed by the noble Baroness that we have protected and enhanced this part of the budget so that the money going to the Institute for Animal Health will rise considerably in 2007-08. We have protected this field of work because we share her concerns about the risks.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, the Minister originally said that very large sums are being given to help this situation; she then said that she could not say how much money is being spent. Can she enlighten me?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that it is a very wide question but, for example, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency receives #90 million per annum and the Institute for Animal Health receives approximately #5 million per annum. If the noble Baroness requires a detailed breakdown I will write to her, but it would take a long time to go through all the individual agencies and identify all the different budget areas.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, how many incidents have the virologists in the agencies had to deal with in the past year? What increase do the Government expect to be able to deal with if an emergency arises?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, emergency plans are available. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, we have protected and enhanced this area of the budget, with a major increase in the coming financial year. I do not have the figures in regard to individual areas of research but I can write to the noble Duke giving those figures. A wide range of issues are being studied at Pirbright, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and various other government agencies to cover what is happening. We respond on a case-by-case basis. For example, with regard to the threat posed by bushmeat, some meat found in Leicester was thought to be bushmeat but in the end it turned out not to be bushmeat.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, does my noble friend believe that we would have such erudite questions - and, indeed, answers - if we were to move towards, as some noble Lords opposite would suggest, an entirely elected second Chamber?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, my noble friend draws me into the question of whether the present membership of the House would be enhanced or found to be failing in relation to a hypothetical future House. I find that question impossible to answer. But, purely on the basis of observation, there may be rather more people in your Lordships' House with a greater knowledge of agriculture - for example, the noble Duke and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford - than would be found in a random selection of the population as a whole.