Foot and Mouth Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.1 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Northumberland was the first county to have a foot and mouth-infected farm, on 23 February 2001, and the last to be declared free of the disease, which did not happen until January 2002. Three quarters of the county's farms were put under restriction, more than 300 were culled out and 230,000 animals were slaughtered. More than 130,000 carcases were buried on one site at the village of Widdrington and 4,000 were burned beside the sand dunes at the nearby beach at Druridge bay.

Farm-related businesses, tourism businesses and other activities throughout much of Northumberland were severely damaged by the effects of the restrictions. It is therefore hardly surprising that there was a universal demand in Northumberland for a public inquiry into the outbreak and much anger when the Government refused to set one up. The county council, largely as a consequence of that refusal and the scale of the damage in Northumberland, set up its own inquiry under the thorough and effective chairmanship of Professor Michael Dower.

However, neither that inquiry nor the three informal ones set up by the Government could summon witnesses on oath so as to get at the truth of the many allegations made about the origins, spreading and handling of the outbreak. That remains a glaring omission. It is also a matter of great regret that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although it submitted a memorandum to the inquiry and answered written questions, refused to attend or to allow either Ministers or officials to be questioned in person. Had it done so, the inquiry would have benefited and DEFRA would have learned something from the atmosphere of the proceedings that, at times, provided a moving and distressing testimony from those who suffered so badly from the outbreak.

So thorough is the inquiry's report and so numerous its conclusions that I can highlight only a limited number of key points. I intend to concentrate on the lessons to be learned and what still needs to be done to put right some of the damage. The Minister's reply must spell out action that will now be taken.

One lesson should have been learned from the Duke of Northumberland's report on the 1967 outbreak, but it was ignored. The recent inquiry concluded that there was no effective system of overall management for the first five weeks of the 2001 outbreak. It criticised the failure of the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to set up a command centre immediately and its refusal to join the Gold command centre set up initially by Northumbria police. We paid a high price for that failure.

Even after the control centre in Newcastle was set up, communications with farmers, agencies and the public remained poor, and the command structure is described as overcentralised and "apparently chaotic". There was a failure to communicate with local authorities, especially the environmental health authority, Castle Morpeth borough council. The report says that DEFRA

"cannot shelter behind its contractor"

on this matter. It continues:

"A government department should well know that District Councils have a leading statutory responsibility for the control of air pollution."

The inquiry also concludes that substantially more animals were slaughtered than was necessary, and that far more of the culled animals should have been buried on or near the farms. It calls on DEFRA to work with the industry and local authorities to ensure better arrangements for biosecurity. It also calls for contingency plans that are updated every three years, and a clear identification of who will do what in any future such situation, with the training of staff who are likely to be drafted in to do the work. The report recommends that a handbook of guidance should be ready at any time, and accurate information about farms and available vets should be in the hands of the command centre from the beginning. A blue-box system, which was used effectively in the later stages of the outbreak in the Hexham area, should be developed and used from the beginning. As the report says:

"the outbreak provided, in its two phases, an object lesson in how not to achieve, and then how to achieve, the standards of security required during a FMD outbreak."

It says that the state veterinary service has been "dangerously reduced" and should be re-strengthened. That view will be echoed by many farmers. The inquiry details how extensive the damage was to farms that were not culled out, but which could not move livestock. The report argues for compensation for farmers whose cattle lost value owing to movement restrictions and going over 30 months, and for recompense for damage caused in the course of handling the outbreak. It makes extensive recommendations about help for businesses and communities, including the extension of the rate relief scheme for businesses that have suffered loss. It calls for a range of measures to support the recovery of the livestock industry, and to assist farmers to diversify, including extending the countryside stewardship scheme to wider areas.

Tourism was badly damaged, and the report calls for a well-funded programme under the Tourism Development Act 1969. For businesses generally, the report calls for a stepping up of business link services, the enhancement of the IT infrastructure in the county, and the development of vocational and entrepreneurial skills. It points out that a way must be found to channel help to affected parts of the county that are outside the areas qualifying for regional assistance.

I want to refer in particular to the Widdrington and Cresswell areas, where the mass burning and burial were concentrated. They were chosen to suffer this devastating blow because they had already suffered industrial pollution. That is a terrible injustice, and a shocking admission by the Environment Agency representative who attended the inquiry. The report urges the Government, through their regional office and One NorthEast, to join the county council in the discussions with those communities aimed at agreeing a programme for early action to improve the environment and to advance the regeneration of the area.

At the moment, the area is being considered only for European-backed programmes for which it was already eligible before the foot and mouth outbreak. There is still no sign of the additional compensation that the people of the area deserve because of what they have suffered, much of which could have been avoided. One project that could bring real community benefit and will need some Government support is a plan to bring natural gas to all the communities affected that do not have a gas supply. The total cost of that will be less than £0.5 million, and it will need some form of Government support.
I am not impressed by the way in which applications from small business in those areas are being dealt with. I want the Minister to give his personal attention to the case of my constituent, who opened a café near to the beach at Cresswell just before the cattle burning at Druridge bay began, when the road was closed. I put his case to the Minister in July 2001, and after a great deal of pressure-the Department was about six months behind with its correspondence-he replied in late September suggesting that my constituent put in a claim to the dedicated claims unit that the Department had established. That resulted in a letter from the largest firm of commercial solicitors in the country, saying that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had not closed the road-it had been closed by the county council.

I tabled a parliamentary question that established that the Department had asked the county council to close the road. The expensive firm of solicitors later pointed out that it had drafted the answer to my question-perhaps the Minister has been contracting out the drafting of answers to parliamentary questions. What he did not know when he answered that question was that, on the second occasion when the road was closed in August, a DEFRA official had put the tape across the road, and no member of the county council staff was present. Yet still the Department is using casuistry and expensive solicitors to insist that it had nothing to do with any of this, and to disclaim any responsibility at all. What kind of attitude is that? It is deplorable, and does not reflect the tone of the Minister's earlier reply to me, which suggested that the claims unit would be the appropriate means by which to examine the very serious damage that was done to that business.

In the time available, it is possible to touch on only some of the conclusions and very little of the detailed argument in the report. I recognise that extremely hard work was done in very difficult circumstances by many civil servants, Army personnel, local authority staff, police, contractors, farmers, farm workers and members of local communities. What a distressing time they had, and how grim some of that work was. They deserve a great deal of credit for the tremendous effort and long hours they put in.

The clear overall impression in the report, however, is that the situation could have been handled a lot better and more effectively, with less slaughter, less consequential damage, less spreading of infection, and less of a breakdown in tourism and other businesses. Do the Government accept all the recommendations in the report that are relevant to central Government? Do they reject any of the recommendations? Do they intend to ignore any of them? What are Ministers doing to bring help to those whom the report identifies as in need of and deserving help, including those in the Widdrington area? I secured an initial response from the Minister by way of a written question, and this debate enables him to respond at greater length. In his short reply to my written question, he said:

"The Northumberland inquiry report also outlines a medium term recovery plan for rural Northumberland to be developed within the policy framework of the Rural Action Plan produced by One North East. We have assured the leader of Northumberland county council that DEFRA stands ready to play its part alongside the other players, public, private and voluntary, which need to work together if such a plan is to be successful."-[Official Report, 18 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 1061W.]

Well, the other players are getting their act together. One of our leading regional charities has offered funds to the village community near Widdrington to help it set up projects that will secure help for the area. One or two other charitable organisations are also involved. The county council is determinedly playing its part, as are the other local authorities. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a delegation from Northumberland county council to discuss the way forward? I welcome the Minister's interest, but in this case the Secretary of State should take a personal interest in the matter, given the severe damage and the need for a lead from DEFRA. I recognise that many other Government Departments are involved, but we need a lead. Northumberland is playing its part, and, as the report proposes, it is planning a major rural conference to take forward a recovery plan. Northumberland will be the feature county at this year's royal show, at Stoneleigh. Now, it is the Government's turn to offer their response. Many parts of government will be involved, but DEFRA must take the lead. It was the Department most fully involved, and it must bear the responsibility-including for most of the things that went wrong during the inquiry. Given that it is responsible for rural areas, we look to it to take the lead in helping the county to recover from that devastating blow.

7.13 pm The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and on raising issues that are of particular importance to Northumberland. Of course DEFRA recognises that Northumberland was hit very hard during the foot and mouth disease outbreak. I shall try to respond to some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised, and as he requested I shall spell out the aspects of the report that we recognise and accept. However, there are one or two parts of the report that we do not accept, as I shall make clear.

One aspect that we do not accept is the invitation to join the Gold command centre. We have no record of any such invitation, and we are not aware to whom it was sent. That may be a small point, but it needs correcting. We also reject the argument that we did not respond immediately by setting up a command centre. A centre was set up in the early stages, and I shall give the details in a moment.

I am not quite clear about the claims of excessive slaughter, which do not seem to be backed up by evidence. There may have been a misunderstanding, and I shall deal with that in a moment.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly gave a number of examples of how elements of the rural economy-such as tourism and other rural businesses-have been hit by the foot and mouth outbreak. A number of agencies and Government bodies were involved in the recovery operation, including the tourist board, Business Link, Northumberland county council, One NorthEast and the national parks. There is no doubt that the matter should be approached in a joined-up integrated manner. The strongest point of contact for that is the Government office for the north-east, where DEFRA is represented. The Department's role is to try to co-ordinate things.

I understand that the supply of natural gas is important to rural areas. I represent a rural area, and some years ago that question took on great importance in my constituency. However, gas supply is a matter not for DEFRA alone but for British Gas as well.

The right hon. Gentleman gave detailed examples of some of the cases that he has dealt with. I shall look carefully at those examples. I hope that he will give me details of the cases that he feels have not been addressed properly, and I shall ensure that they are investigated.

I now turn to the recovery programme. Obviously, I cannot speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in connection with the right hon. Gentleman's request that she meet a delegation, but it might be appropriate for his constituents if he were to seek a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs. My right hon. Friend is responsible for co-ordinating the rural recovery, and I should be pleased to speak to him to see whether such a meeting could be arranged. I am sure that he would be sympathetic to any such request.

I appreciate the tributes paid by the right hon. Gentleman to all those who worked during the foot and mouth epidemic in Northumberland. That includes the county council and other local authority employees involved, who worked very hard. DEFRA staff-the vets, office personnel and other workers-are also worthy of recognition. Many DEFRA staff had no connection with animal health or foot and mouth because they were working in other divisions, yet they responded to our calls for volunteers. They were transferred from all the different divisions of the Department, which used to be known as the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and were allocated to Northumberland, where they were asked to fight and defeat the disease.

The logistical operation was enormous, and I freely confess that the Department paid a price for it. One problem was the disruption to correspondence, for which I apologise. That was not satisfactory, and I am glad that we are now back on track after rectifying the problem, and that hon. Members can again receive the service to which they are entitled. We certainly intend to provide it.

We agree that there is a need for lessons to be learned, and that local inquiries have a role to play in that respect. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have set up the Royal Society inquiry, under Professor Sir Brian Follett. He is looking at the question of disease control, although it is inevitable that the inquiry will concentrate on foot and mouth, because it is so topical and its consequences are so far reaching. The other inquiry is the "Lessons Learned" inquiry under Dr. Iain Anderson, who will make recommendations on how the Government should handle any major animal disease outbreak in the future. We are committed to those inquiries, and I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the policy commission on farming and food has already reported. Local inquiries, such as that instituted by Northumberland county council, provide useful local perspective. Their efforts will feed into the work of the national inquiries, and I am sure that the experiences and evidence recounted by people will be very valuable.

We made it clear from the beginning that DEFRA was happy to assist Professor Dower by sending comments on issues that were likely to be of interest to the inquiry. We answered in detail two sets of questions from the inquiry team. However, given our commitment to assist the national inquiries and the need to finish the work of dealing with the disease, it is not possible for us to send staff and Ministers to all the local inquiries in the country.

There have been many county council inquiries. Ministers and staff are also involved in parliamentary inquiries such as the EU inquiry. In contrast with the previous Government, Ministers have attended the EU temporary committee and answered questions in a public forum. I have no objections to doing so; it is part of the democratic process. We have also had to deal with the National Audit Office inquiry and Select Committee inquiries. Those are part of the parliamentary process, as is this Adjournment debate. Ministers are open to public scrutiny all the time, but we cannot take on the whole range of local inquiries and give them the kind of attendance to which parliamentary inquiries, which have a prior claim, are entitled.

We do not accept all the report's findings. It was critical of the very hard work done by my Department and previously by MAFF. It should have been fairer in recognising the commitment and hard work that our people put into controlling the disease. The report also did not recognise that the disease control centre was created at Newcastle as soon as the first case was confirmed in Northumberland.

Mr. Beith: Confirmed.

Mr. Morley: Yes, confirmed. That gradually came online throughout March, not at the end of the month. I had the opportunity to talk to Professor Dower in Strasbourg, so I am not saying anything behind his back or making an unfair criticism. Professor Dower knows my views on the issues. I made it clear to him that we disagreed that there had been greater scope for on-farm burial. We followed the advice of the Environment Agency very closely. Part of the problem of on-farm burial is that we have moved on from the original Duke of Northumberland inquiry because of taking into account water tables and potential pollution.

What we have now that we did not have in 1967 is BSE in cattle. We preferred older cattle not to be buried on farm but in properly managed, supervised and run disposal sites. Professor Dower said that we could line pits on farm, but the costs of digging properly lined pits on farm are enormous, not to mention the logistics. The delays that that would have caused for carcase disposal would have been unacceptable. It would have been unacceptable in Northumberland.

Mr. Beith: The Minister's argument might be slightly more compelling if there were any experience of successfully running large-scale burials in a way that was not devastating to local communities. The Minister does not need the report to tell him that there were numerous examples of vehicles containing carcases leaking over large areas of countryside. After the animals were burned, the ash had to be removed at a later stage in a way that was not initially anticipated. There was not the experience to manage the two sites properly, and that became clear as things progressed.

Mr. Morley: Even with those examples there is a misunderstanding. People talk about the ash having to be cleared, but it was always intended that it would be removed later. It is not as if something went wrong; that was part of the disposal and recovery programme. It was already part of the proposals. I do not doubt that there were cases of leaking vehicles, because we pursued these complaints, but there were only a few. Generally speaking, the lorries were sealed. The sites are properly monitored and engineered and will continue to be monitored for some time to ensure that pollution is not a problem and that they are being managed like proper landfill sites. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of that.

As for the claim that animals were killed unnecessarily, Professor Dower seemed to be under the impression that there was a 3 km cull in Northumberland. There was never a 3 km cull in Northumberland-he is mistaken. There was certainly a contiguous cull in the county, but that is not the same as 3 km cull. The only place where there was a 3 km cull was Cumbria. Professor Dower and his committee may have been labouring under a misapprehension. The most important issue is whether the disease was brought under control-and it was.

That is not to say that there may not be alternative ways of dealing with such an epidemic in the future. We certainly do not rule that out. We are not saying that a culling programme is the only way. We have already made it clear in our interim contingency plan that we would not consider pyres for the disposal of animals. Our top three priorities would be rendering, commercial incineration or landfill. We do not want to go back to using funeral pyres. We accept that.

We also accept the points made about blue-box biosecurity controls. Professor Dower's report strongly commended them, and I am pleased about that. However, we must remember that the outbreak was like no other outbreak; it was probably the world's worst outbreak of foot and mouth. No other country had experienced such a scale or spread. The original 1967 Duke of Northumberland report was not adequate to guide the response for a very different outbreak on a much larger scale and with a much wider spread.

One of the lessons that we learned in the course of dealing with the outbreak was that biosecurity was a key issue: 80 per cent. of the spread of foot and mouth disease was within 1 to 3 km of the original outbreak. Eighty per cent. of that spread was local; it involved animal- to-animal contact, movement of animals, movement of machinery, movement of vehicles and movement of people. It became clear that biosecurity was crucial. We were pleased that members of the NFU and its president shared platforms with us to try to drive home the message that biosecurity was important.

The blue-box zones, successful though they were, were extremely resource-intensive, as I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge. At the height of the outbreak, when we were dealing with hundreds and hundreds of cases, it was simply not possible to make the resource commitment on blue boxes that we were able to give as the number of cases fell. There is no doubt that the strategy was successful and that we need to take that approach in future.

We have certainly already learned lessons. They guided our interim contingency plan. Indeed, many aspects of that plan coincide with the recommendations of the Northumberland county council report. We are already picking up those points and responding to them.

We realise that contingency planning will also include the provision of suitable facilities for the disposal of carcases in any future outbreak. It will need to take into account issues such as the effect on tourism of pyres, public health and nuisance problems in respect of burn and mass burial sites and the major environmental management tasks that need to be addressed in relation to those sites.

The arrangements will be subject to full consultation in advance to try to avoid the problems that arose at sites such as Widdrington-the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of those. It is very difficult to deal with all those problems in the middle of a major epidemic when time is everything. In those circumstances, it is not possible to hold the amount of consultation that would normally be desirable-we realise that.

We can certainly consult on the contingency plans, including the interim one, which is out for consultation now. There will also be responses to the Royal Society report and the Anderson report. Those responses will also guide our future contingency plans, which will be redrafted accordingly. We will make the plans available for public consultation, so that people are aware of our proposals and can have an input.

The Northumberland county council report is helpful in that it gives a local view, and it will be taken into account by Dr. Iain Anderson in his findings. We have already responded to some of the suggestions in the report that we agree with, and I have outlined some that we do not agree with. They are mistaken and do not take into account the changing circumstances. If there are particular points that the right hon. Gentleman would like me to consider regarding the impact on his constituents, I am willing to do so, and I shall carefully consider what he has said tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.