Hansard for October 8th 2007
Foot and Mouth/Bluetongue
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on this summer’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease and on bluetongue.
On 3 August, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in Surrey. In line with the contingency plan, control measures, including a national ban on the movement of susceptible animals, were put in place immediately. The following day the strain of virus was confirmed as 01-BFS-67. As this strain was not currently circulating in animals, that pointed to the Pirbright laboratory site as a potential source. I therefore commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to investigate and Professor Brian Spratt to lead a team of experts in a review of biosecurity arrangements. I am today placing in the Library a copy of those two reports, along with all the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs epidemiology reports.
It cannot be said with complete certainty exactly how the virus escaped from the Pirbright site. The reports concluded, however, that the most likely explanation was accidental release from the drainage system. Whatever the route of escape, it should not have happened and we are determined that it will not happen again. I have accepted all the recommendations in the reports from the HSE and Professor Spratt, and have set up a review of the regulatory framework for handling animal pathogens led by Sir Bill Callaghan.
A rigorous improvement plan has been developed for the Pirbright site, to be implemented before full operations with live viruses can recommence. A review, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will assess the funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health. In addition, a safety alert was issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by a round of inspections.
Epidemiological surveillance indicated that it was highly unlikely that the virus had spread outside the Surrey area. Therefore, given that the surveillance went beyond the EU requirement, that the 30-day minimum time had elapsed and that no further cases had been identified, the protection and surveillance zones were lifted on 8 September. Unfortunately, as we now know, there was undetected infection outside the surveillance zone. On 12 September, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in a third case in Surrey and controls were reimposed. There have now been eight infected premises in total.
On 25 September, given that the disease was confined to Surrey, we created two foot and mouth disease areas in Great Britain: a temporary risk area in the south-east and a lower-risk area in the rest of the country, where certain movements were permitted under licence. Markets reopened in the low-risk area last Thursday. On a visit to Skipton market, I saw the difference that that will make to the farming industry. The EU has now confirmed that the export of meat can resume from this Friday from Scotland, Wales and the north and south-west of England. We will continue to
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work with the Commission to increase the areas from which exports can be made.
Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach to responding to the outbreak. I have listened to the views of the industry about what further steps can be taken to alleviate real economic and welfare pressures. Because the outbreak has arisen from an unusual set of circumstances, I am announcing today a package of assistance for the English livestock sector amounting to £12.5 million. The devolved Administrations are proposing to introduce their own schemes.
Subject to the EU state aid rules, I intend to make the following available to the farmers most affected: first, £8.5 million of assistance to hill farmers, who have been particularly hard hit. This one-off payment will be paid directly to them, using the system already in place for the hill farm allowance, and will be equivalent to just over 30 per cent. of their 2007 payment. I intend to make available an increase in the level of subsidy for the fallen stock scheme for farmers in the foot and mouth disease risk area, from 10 to 100 per cent. The increase will not only apply to existing members of the scheme, but will be available to all livestock keepers in the risk area. It will apply to stock that has had to be killed on farm for welfare or other reasons. I anticipate the cost to be less than £1 million.
I also intend to make available an additional contribution of up to £1 million to the Arthur Rank centre for disbursement to farming charities, which focus on providing advice and practical and emotional support to farming families, and £2 million for the promotion and marketing of lamb, beef and pork, both domestically and in our export markets. The public sector is a major purchaser of meat, and I am asking ministerial colleagues to increase the opportunities for small and local producers to tender for its business.
We are also determined to do as much as possible to reduce the burden of red tape on farmers at this difficult time. Therefore, I have agreed a delay, from 5 January 2008 to the end of April, in enforcing the requirement for livestock hauliers to have a certificate of competence for non-export journeys of more than 65 km. I have agreed to seek a derogation from the Commission for grassland farmers to apply above the annual nitrogen application limit of 170 kg per hectare, which is one of the requirements for farmers in nitrate-vulnerable zones. I have also agreed a one-month extension, until 13 December, to the closing date of the current consultation on the implementation of the nitrates directive.
I should also point out that Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency are not enforcing certain cross-compliance requirements for agri-environment schemes and the single farm payment where breaches of those requirements are caused directly by restrictions relating to foot and mouth or bluetongue. The Secretary of State for Transport announced last week that to assist movement of the backlog of animals, the rules governing drivers’ hours for livestock hauliers would be relaxed for a limited period as markets reopened.
I also welcome the European Union’s decision on 3 October to raise the age at which vertebral column of cattle is considered specified risk material from 24 to 30 months, which will facilitate the sale by butchers of
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beef from animals in that age bracket. The decision is subject to a three-month scrutiny by the European Parliament, and in the meantime the Food Standards Agency will undertake a public consultation.
As if an outbreak of foot and mouth were not enough, on 22 September the first case of bluetongue was found in East Anglia. Bluetongue is very different from foot and mouth disease. It is spread by midges rather than from animal to animal, and we cannot stamp it out by slaughtering infected animals. However, the cases that we have seen so far are in a limited geographical area, and seem to result from midges being carried over the North sea on the wind. As it happened in August, when movement controls were in place because of foot and mouth disease, that may help to control the spread.
By 28 September, the increase in the number of cases indicated that the disease was circulating in our midge population, and we confirmed the presence of bluetongue in Great Britain. The bluetongue temporary area was therefore replaced by a control zone and a protection zone.
A clear understanding of the spread of the disease is now crucial to help the industry, with the support of Government, to anticipate what may happen and what the appropriate response should be. That requires farmers in the zones to be vigilant and, for the sake of their industry, to report all new cases so that we can monitor whether spread is occurring. We will keep that approach under review with the industry, not least because the effects of bluetongue movement controls mean that decisions on control should be taken by the industry and not just by Ministers.
This has been an exceptionally difficult summer for the farming industry. I know from talking to many farmers and their representatives just how hard and distressing it has been and still is, and I am grateful to the industry for its forbearance and support. I also want to thank all those from DEFRA, the Institute for Animal Health and other organisations whose professionalism, dedication and commitment have helped us to deal with these outbreaks. I am sure that the House will wish to express its thanks as well.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the relief package that he has announced, although it will go nowhere near meeting the huge economic cost of foot and mouth to the farming and related industries. As the Secretary of State said, this has been a terrible year for the farming community: between them, bluetongue and foot and mouth have effectively closed down the livestock industry over huge areas of countryside at the busiest time of the year. That has caused economic hardship, but we should not underestimate the emotional hardship that it is causing in rural communities, the impact on animal welfare, or the blow to the reputation of farming and the integrity of our scientific establishment.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, by a cruel twist of irony, work on a vaccine to protect against bluetongue has been put on hold because it was taking
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place at Pirbright, the source of the foot and mouth outbreak? When does he now expect a bluetongue vaccine to be available?
Bluetongue may be a misfortune but foot and mouth disease is different. The Government have been caught red-handed and are damned by their negligence. We know that the source of the outbreak was a Government-regulated and licensed laboratory. We also know from Professor Spratt’s report that the most likely cause of the infection was leaking drains. The Secretary of State has attempted to maintain that foot and mouth escaped from Pirbright through an extraordinary combination of circumstances, but the really extraordinary thing was the state of the drains at Pirbright.
The Government’s initial reaction to the outbreak was, I am afraid, characteristic. The Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge and immediately sent his spin machine into overdrive in an attempt to pin the blame on Merial, the private company at the site. That was shabby and dishonest and it smacked of desperation. The reason for the Prime Minister’s desperation to find a scapegoat has since become clear. As long ago as 2002, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stated in an official report:
“Some laboratories and other areas of the Pirbright estate are not close to the standard expected of a modern bio-medical facility and are well below that expected of a facility of such importance”.
It recommended awarding funding for biosecurity at the site. What was the reaction from the then Chancellor? In the following two years, funding from DEFRA and other Government Departments to the Institute for Animal Health was cut.
It gets worse. In July 2004, Merial wrote to DEFRA with proposals to replace the drains. Nothing happened for two years. Tenders for repairing the drainage systems were finally received in October 2006. Why did it take so long to obtain those tenders? Why did work not start until July this year? Why were repairs to the drainage system not prioritised? Is it not clear that if the Government had acted in a timely way on the repeated warnings about the integrity of the effluent pipes at Pirbright, the farming industry would not be facing a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds, and the reputation of British science would not have been dealt a body blow.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that among the dangerous pathogens held at the Pirbright laboratories are viruses lethal to humans, such as E. coli, BSE and avian flu? Is it purely a matter of chance that it was the foot and mouth virus which escaped from Pirbright and not some more deadly disease?
Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's failure to secure the laboratories at Pirbright amounts to gross negligence? What provision has been made for compensating the farming community for the costs that it is suffering as a result of the Government's negligence?
The Pirbright site was last inspected in December last year. What were the findings of that inspection? Why was the licence to operate not withdrawn? Can the Secretary of State confirm that if a dairy farm had been found to have such poor biosecurity, it would have been closed down?
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The Secretary of State states that a safety alert has been issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by inspections. On the basis of the inspection regime at Pirbright, what confidence can we have that they will be thorough and that any recommendations will be acted upon?
I represent a Surrey constituency. I know how traumatic this whole affair has been for Surrey farmers and others in the immediate area, but I have also recently met with hill farmers in Wales. They too are deeply concerned about the viability of their businesses, about the welfare of their animals and about their own families and future. The same is true across the country. People want to know exactly how this disease got into the environment, yet that is the one question that the Government refuse to investigate further. How very convenient.
How many people have been disciplined or removed from their posts as a result of this catalogue of negligence? Who is going to take responsibility? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise? Can we not conclude that if this is what happens when the Prime Minister takes personal charge of a crisis, he is better off out of it and that, if the Labour Government cannot be trusted to deal with the foot and mouth virus, they cannot be trusted with anything?
Hilary Benn: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his conduct during the summer, when we spoke on a number of occasions about the matter, has not been matched by the tone of the points he has made today. I will respond directly to the legitimate questions that he has raised.
I recognise the emotional hardship that this has caused. It is a real blow for the farming industry—I know that from the conversations that I have had with farmers—and people are genuinely worried about the future. I know that some people are angry, too; I acknowledge that completely. What is the best way to help the farming industry to recover from these two blows? The first is to make sure that we make every effort to control the spread of these diseases and to eradicate them. Sixty-six days on from the first outbreak of foot and mouth, we have eight cases, all confined to Surrey. The whole House will wish to keep it that way. Our first line of defence in beating both of these diseases is the vigilance of farmers. I am genuinely grateful to the farming community for the efforts that it has made in that—
A vaccine for bluetongue may, we hope, become available next year. It depends on the speed with which those who are working on a vaccine can develop one, the speed with which it can be shown to be safe and effective, and the speed with which sufficient supplies
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of it can be manufactured so that all farmers—not just those in East Anglia but those in northern Europe who have been affected by bluetongue as it has spread across the continent—can have it available.
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) Surrey said that the Government refuse to investigate how exactly the virus got out. With respect, that is not the case. As soon as it became clear that the likely source of the outbreak was Pirbright—we knew what the strain was and that it was not currently circulating in animals—what were the first two things that the Government did? One was to ask the HSE to come in and investigate and the second was to ask Professor Brian Spratt to come in and look at biosecurity, with a commitment to publish in full their reports, which we did on 7 September. With great respect, to advance the argument that the Government have not been interested in trying to find out what happened does not bear examination when the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts.
What do those reports say? They say that it was most likely to have been caused by—they cannot say for sure—an inactivated virus going into the drainpipe, the condition of the drains, the heavy rain and the flooding that brought it to the surface, and the movement of vehicles. Why were there vehicles on the site at Pirbright? They were on the site because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the process of investing a considerable sum of money in upgrading the facilities. The answer to his question is that, in 2002 and 2003, reports were produced. In 2005, the Government decided that we would invest £121 million— [ Interruption. ] I will come to that point in a moment. One of the two reviews that I have established in the light of the reports will look into that fair point.
Why were there vehicles on the site? Because work is under way to spend the money on renewing the facilities at Pirbright. Some £31 million of that money has already been spent on the site. It is a very fair question to ask and I have asked it too: if people thought that the drains were that much of a problem, why was some of that money not spent? The answer was that until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention, and everybody else’s, as a result of the HSE investigation, nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.
The next question relates to the inspection and licensing regime. I have asked Sir Bill Callaghan to look at the way in which we license, regulate and inspect institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens. Frankly, it is not a good system—reflecting upon it now—to have an organisation that is a significant customer of an institution also being the licensor and regulator. That is something for Sir Bill Callaghan to reflect on when he reports back to me by December. My view, subject to his advice, is that we need to have a different system in future. We have taken seriously what happened: not only have we put a mechanism in place for looking at what should happen to the licensing of the handling of animal pathogens, but we have issued a notice to all institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens affecting human beings as well as animals. The review will look at that, as will the second review overseen by the BBSRC; it has responsibility for the Institute for Animal Health, and it will look at the management and governance of that body.
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On compensation, I have made an announcement about support. We can best support the farming industry to recover from this very difficult time by controlling the disease, winning the confidence of Europe and reopening farm-to-farm movements. We must also reopen markets, which we have done: despite the difficult history, last week we got an agreement from the EU that meat product exports will resume. All the farmers I have spoken to have said that the single most important step that can be taken is the resumption of meat product exports, and we are determined to help make that happen, but it depends on persuading our European colleagues.
Finally, am I sorry that this has happened? I have already said that I am. Nobody would have wished this to happen, and I repeat that it should not have happened. But when something like this goes wrong—as it has—what is the most important thing that we should do? We should learn the lessons, sort it out and make sure that it does not happen again.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): It was very interesting that the Secretary of State mentioned the vaccine for bluetongue. As he is aware, Cumbria was in the middle of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which was a major outbreak. There was a lot of debate at that time about vaccination. That was rejected then, and it appears that vaccination has been rejected once more. Will the Secretary of State tell me why it has been rejected and under what circumstances we will use vaccine in the future?
Hilary Benn: The contingency plan for foot and mouth stated that we would consider whether vaccination had a part to play in helping us to control the disease after the first measures were taken, such as the use of protection and surveillance zones and the culling of infected animals and of dangerous contacts. Extensive surveillance has been undertaken by the vets and the staff of the Institute for Animal Health—and I know that some Members present have met some of the teams that have been working so hard since the beginning of the outbreak to make sure that we have the necessary information to discover whether the approach we are taking will work. On both occasions—the first and second parts of the outbreak—we stood up vaccination capacity and made an order for vaccines, but in both cases we have decided that the measures we have taken appear to have contained the outbreak: there have been eight cases in Surrey 66 days on. If we were to reach a point where we thought that vaccination was necessary to help us control the spread of an outbreak, I would be willing to consider it, but that has not so far proved necessary.
Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The source of this outbreak of foot and mouth was the Pirbright laboratory, which is regulated, monitored and licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In short, a facility designed to protect British farming from infection was responsible, to quote from the DEFRA report, “beyond reasonable doubt”—which is, after all, the test in a criminal case—for the infection, and DEFRA was in turn responsible for its biosecurity and safety. Do the Government now accept that they have a legal obligation, and certainly a moral one, to compensate those whose businesses have been damaged by the outbreak, and what is the Government’s estimate of the losses to British farming?
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What is suggested for hill farmers is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Also, what support does the Secretary of State propose to give to lowland farmers across England? What about farms within the control zones? Why has a similar scheme to that proposed in Scotland and Wales, giving a minimum price per animal, not been proposed in England? English farmers are on the brink, too, and DEFRA’s incompetence has put them there.
The second key point is that the Secretary of State must end the culture of impunity in his Department. We saw that with the fiasco over the Rural Payments Agency, and we now see it again with the Pirbright scandal. How long did it take the Department to establish biosecurity at Pirbright once the foot and mouth outbreak had occurred? When was the Secretary of State satisfied that there was no further risk of a leak of dangerous virus from Pirbright?
We know that specifically the drainage system—not merely the general state of Pirbright—was a subject of concern from correspondence from July 2004, so DEFRA had known about the health and safety issues at Pirbright and Compton for at least three years. Who was the most senior official, or Minister, to be informed of the problems with the drains at Pirbright? Why was work on dangerous pathogens not stopped as a result of these concerns? Will those responsible now be held to account, and will they resign? Will the Secretary of State name the official responsible for the licensing of Pirbright, and state whether that official is still in post? If they are—if they are not held to account—what encouragement does the Secretary of State think that that gives to anyone else in his Department to perform creditably in future?
So far, the reports from the Health and Safety Executive and Professor Spratt have given us a snapshot of the problem, but not an analysis of the organisational failings. Will the Secretary of State set up a public inquiry into how this débacle could have happened—an inquiry that will make recommendations to ensure that it never happens again?
Hilary Benn: On the question of legal obligations, in the end, that is a matter for the courts to determine. We are aware that some of those affected by this outbreak are consulting lawyers, so it is only right and proper that we should await any proceedings that anyone may choose to bring in those circumstances.
Secondly, the best help that we can give to those in the lowlands is to do what we have been doing: to try to get economic activity restarted. The single most important thing that we can do is to allow farmers to trade again, which is why so much effort has been devoted to that, and why we divided the country into a risk area and a low-risk area, regionalising the country in order to try to allow farm-to-farm movements and the resumption of markets as quickly as possible. In effect, we put a bigger buffer zone around the protection and surveillance zones in Surrey—Europe said that it wanted to add an extra buffer, which is why other counties have been brought in—thereby enabling a decision to be taken on the resumption of meat product exports. I hope that before long, the matter is in the hands of the Commission and of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, not
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me, and that the size of that buffer zone can be reduced, so that more farmers in more counties can benefit from the steps that have taken place.
Why have we not introduced a welfare disposal scheme? One reason is that I have not received representations from the National Farmers Union and others saying that that is the single most important thing that we should do in England. I recognise that the situation is different in Scotland and Wales, which is why they are proceeding with such schemes. Indeed, the farmers’ leaders whom I have spoken to have stressed the importance of getting economic activity started again.
With respect, I reject what the hon. Gentleman says about a culture of impunity within DEFRA. There is a very important point that he needs to bear in mind, particularly in relation to the drains. DEFRA’s role is as licensor and regulator. The consultation that took place with it, as licensor and regulator, was about whether, if the drains were changed, a new system would be adequate for the purposes of licensing and regulation. DEFRA was not at any time asked for funding to replace the drains. Why not? For the very simple reason that it is the licensor and the regulator. A factory that had a problem that the HSE identified would not say to it, “By the way, you are the licensor and regulator—can we have some money to put it right?” The proper place to go is of course the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is the organisation responsible.
The second point concerns what I said to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who speaks for the official Opposition, about the considerable amount of money that has been put into this site already. I share with him the question as to why, if it was so important, some of that money was not directed to it. The answer is that people did not think that it was as important as it turned out to be. That is the truth.
Will there be a public inquiry? No, there will not. What am I doing in addition to the two inquiries that I set up immediately we discovered the likely source of the virus? In addition to those two inquiries and the reviews by Bill Callaghan and the BBSRC, we have asked Iain Anderson, who reported on the 2001 outbreak and therefore appears to be the most appropriate person to do it, to reflect on how this outbreak has been handled. He can look into all the matters that he wants to and then he will report back to us. The report will also be published.
In other words, there will have been two inquiries, two reviews and another inquiry led by Iain Anderson. I hope that the House will agree that that shows that the Government take their responsibility seriously. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to point fingers at individuals: I am much more interested in putting things right.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Had it not been for the fact that a third outbreak was detected on 12 September, we would have been much more advanced than we are today, and perhaps many would not have felt their plight so severely. When my right hon. Friend mentioned that case, he spoke of undetected infection. Is he able to tell the House how long that undetected infection had lain there before it was picked up by anyone at all?
Hilary Benn: Yes. The epidemiological report that was published suggested that the lesions in the animals at infected premises 5 could have been three or possibly four weeks old. That gives us part of the answer to the question that we all asked on 12 September—where has the virus been for a month and a bit? The answer was that it had been outside the original protection and surveillance zone, undetected and, as a result, unreported. That reinforces the point that inspection is the first line of defence and it fills in a gap in the timeline. That is what has transpired, and I am not interested in pointing a finger at anyone else in relation to this issue: as I said to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), I want to fix it.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): In paying tribute to the fortitude of the farmers, the smallholders and the villagers of Normandy in my constituency, where the foot and mouth outbreak began, and of Pirbright, the home of the two much respected organisations of the animal health institute and Merial, may I also thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw) for their kindness in keeping in touch with me so regularly as constituency MP during the crisis? It was much appreciated.
Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the problem has been resolved, as far as Surrey is concerned? Can he guarantee that the investment in the institute at Pirbright will continue and improve over the next few years? Finally, can he be specific about the compensation that he has in mind and how it can be obtained by local farmers and smallholders in the Surrey area?
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and his support and interest during what has been a very difficult time for his constituents. In truth, I cannot guarantee that it is over. I can simply tell the House that, 66 days in and after eight cases, there has not been one for a week. I am sure that the House will understand if we say that in the light of the experience that we have all been through this summer, I am inclined to be a bit cautious about trying to predict the future, but I am working as hard as I can to try to safeguard the present.
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the investment that the Government had previously announced—and that has already started to go into Pirbright—will continue. It is important that we have first class facilities. Old is not necessarily unsafe, which is the point that Professor Brian Spratt made in his report. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the vital role that Pirbright plays in protecting us from animal disease more generally and the role that it has played in turning round test results really quickly, which has enabled us to take quick decisions about how to deal with it in the circumstances.
On compensation, we have of course compensated all the farmers who lost animals through culling and we paid for primary and secondary disinfection in all the infected premises, but if farmers wish to pursue further compensation cases, I refer the House to the answer I gave a little earlier.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I am pleased that the Secretary of State has listened to farmers and done something about the terrible plight
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that they face this year. The outbreak happened at the worst possible time of the year for hill farmers and when I talk to farmers in the Lune valley they point out many of the same concerns that the Secretary of State has raised. The resumption of exports was extremely important to them, as was an aid package for hill farmers. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the aid package will be paid quickly, and can he give me some idea of the time scales, because cash flow is important to farmers?
Hilary Benn: I hope that the payments will be made by the beginning of November and, like my hon. Friend, I am anxious that that should happen as quickly as possible. The outbreak did indeed happen at the worst possible time, especially for hill farmers, which is why I have announced the package of support today. Hill farmers—some of whom I met on Thursday—have bills to be paid and decisions to make about when to take their animals to market to sell them, so the support will give farmers slightly more opportunity to see how the market unfolds and take decisions about what is best in the circumstances. At Skipton market on Thursday it was heartening to see that although prices were down they were slightly better than some farmers had feared. I hope that remains the case.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): Quite rightly, the focus of attention today has been on the economic damage to the livestock farming industry and the terrible trauma suffered by some of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who have been directly affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but as the Secretary of State knows, the area affected is not primarily a livestock farming area. Is he aware that the movement restrictions in the protection zone are having a serious impact on other, non-agricultural, businesses and can he tell the House what measures he is considering to support businesses, some of which are under extreme pressure? Will he please not tell the House in response that owners of other affected businesses will have to look to taking legal action against the Government to get compensation or support for the loss they are suffering?
Hilary Benn: I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but as he is aware, it has been the policy of Governments—not just this Government, but other Governments—that compensation is not paid for consequential economic loss, so I can give him no comfort on that score. The nature of the area in which the outbreak occurred has meant that it is relatively lightly stocked, which is an advantage, but it has also meant that animals kept there are not necessarily on the registers, which is one of the difficulties that vets and animal health staff have faced. We ease restrictions where it is right and proper to do so, having taken account of the veterinary risk. I know it is tough and difficult, but the one thing the House would not forgive me for would be if I were to lift those restrictions—on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, which I have taken on every occasion—in a way that undermined our chance of containing and ultimately eradicating foot and mouth.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend advise the House whether he has any plans to pass to the Scottish Executive responsibility
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for all decision-making processes affecting livestock movements and associated matters relevant to future foot and mouth outbreaks in Scotland?
Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend is aware, a lot of those decisions already fall to the Scottish Executive and one of our tasks in dealing with the outbreak has been to make sure that we work in partnership with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government. My hon. Friend’s question gives me the chance to pay tribute to them for the co-operation and support we have received.
The outbreak has thrown into sharp relief for me the issue of cost and responsibility in the industry. I cannot help reflecting on the fact that some of the decisions that it falls to the holder of this office to take during the course of the outbreak are ones that, in a different way of doing things, might fall to the industry or some form of organisation representing stakeholders. I say that because last Thursday afternoon when I talked to farmers in Newmarket affected by bluetongue, I saw that there was a difference of interest between those caught by the bluetongue control area and farmers in other parts of the country. Once this is all over, I for one will come back to discussions about cost and responsibility in a new light because in future we ought to be looking at different ways of taking decisions about how restrictions are put in place and lifted.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I, too, thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for keeping me closely posted of developments. Does he accept that the outbreaks of both foot and mouth and bluetongue raise wider issues about biosecurity on farms in this country? As part of the inquiries he is holding, will he include an assessment of how well prepared farmers are in terms of the effectiveness of their on-farm biosecurity arrangements, especially taking into account the fact that in the livestock sector they are under economic pressure, they cannot always afford the best veterinary or biosecurity advice and there is an overall shortage of vets with large-animal experience?
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I will pass on exactly what he has said to Iain Anderson. He has a very wide remit, but the right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will ask Iain Anderson to look at it as part of his work.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about involving farmers and stakeholders in wider discussions about biosecurity and about the need to look at insurance-based risk policies. I congratulate him particularly on learning the lessons from the 2001 outbreak, by declining to close the countryside to visitors, because it is the value of people using our footpaths, pubs, shops, restaurants and attractions that keeps the rural economy going. We need to be clear that, although farming makes an important contribution to the rural economy, other drivers are there as well.
Hilary Benn: I agree, particularly with the last point. In the end, we have to strike a balance, and we have all been at great pains to emphasise that the countryside is open, although there have been concerns about footpaths
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in the protection zones in Surrey—an issue that a number of Members who represent constituencies there have raised with me—and we have found a sensible way forward in those circumstances.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to look at some of those wider considerations in relation to the industry, because these are fundamentally diseases that have a very severe economic impact. That goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about what more can be done to try to anticipate such things and to find out what kind of insurance might be available and, bluntly, to work out how the cost of dealing with this will be shared in those circumstances. Those are precisely issues to put into the discussions about cost and responsibility once this is over.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): As a humble and active crofter, I declare an interest. In Scotland, we have 250,000 lambs stuck on hills or slowed from moving from hills or islands. The export market has been closed for the crucial two months of the autumn, resulting in massive grazing pressure. Of course, the situation is similar in Wales. Following advice from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the chief vet on welfare concerns for livestock, the Scottish Government have responsibly prepared a sheep welfare scheme, details of which will be announced tomorrow. However, as Westminster still exercises powers to collect Scottish taxes and given that this emerged from a Westminster Government laboratory, will the Government live up to their responsibilities and fund the Scottish and Welsh schemes fully? A proper welfare scheme is, of course, needed to offset the loss of millions of pounds suffered by Scottish and Welsh crofters and farmers. Will the Minister please remember the crucial point that sheep numbers across the nations of the UK do not follow normal Barnett percentages?
Hilary Benn: I am indeed conscious of the last point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, as he says, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are developing their own schemes to deal with the circumstances. I grant entirely the point that he makes about the hills in Scotland and Wales, where the pressures are particularly acute, given the weather and the time of the year, and it is for each Administration to decide on the most appropriate way forward. We do not yet know the total cost of dealing with this outbreak, and there is a genuine debate to be had about the extent to which welfare disposal schemes constitute an animal health issue, as opposed to support for the industry, which is facing real economic difficulties. One of the issues that I must address in time, once the total cost is known, is whether it can be managed within my budget and, if not, there are traditional routes that one turns to, including conversations with the Treasury, and the devolved Administrations can, of course, do the same.
Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): A number of colleagues have already referred to this happening at the worst time
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possible for the farming industry and for the impact that it has certainly had on the sheep sales of hill farmers in Wales. However, the solution is clearly to get trade back to normality as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend’s statement did not refer to the possibility of resuming live exports, particularly of sheep and calves, which are a mainstay of the dairy industry. Although it is welcome that a compensation package is in place in England, Wales and Scotland and that meat exports will resume from Friday onwards, can he tell the House any more about what pressure can be brought to bear on the European Union, so that we return to normality with live exports?
Hilary Benn: The resumption of live exports is some way away yet; that will depend on the passage of time following the confirmation of the last case—currently, the eighth infected premises. Exports to the rest of the world will follow later, because of international animal health organisation rules. Product exports are worth about £40 million and live exports about £2 million, so the single most important thing that we can do is support the resumption of product exports. That is what the Commission has agreed to do for large parts of the country from this coming Friday. As I said earlier, I hope that the area from which such exports can come will increase with time.
The losses suffered by the livestock industry absolutely dwarf the compensation scheme that the Secretary of State has announced today. Lack of marketing opportunities, increased costs and a dramatic fall in the price of breeding stock and stock for slaughter have caused those losses. Will the Secretary of State commission an independent review on the losses that have been suffered by the agricultural industry, so that the Government can be in a position to offer a realistic compensation scheme when those losses are known?
Hilary Benn: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with our current best assessment of what we think those economic losses are. I undertake to put a copy of that letter in the Library. Clearly, the situation will change over time; as product exports resume, losses that might otherwise be incurred may not be.
As I have learned during the past couple of months, farmers face really difficult decisions in deciding whether to sell now or not; they are wondering where the market will be in a week’s or a month’s time. In truth, we do not yet know what the full economic impact will be; nor do we know how much it might be possible to recover some of that because of the changes in movement, markets and product export that are about to come upon us. That is why we do not yet know the full answer to the fair question that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
The bluetongue virus is a worry for sheep farmers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware. Does he believe that a hard winter could eradicate the virus in the UK, or that it would lie dormant, only to reappear early next spring? If the latter were true, the pressure would be about where it would appear next. That is the first part.
Secondly, I should say that the issue is about money that farmers need, and my right hon. Friend is right about that. However, we ought to push supermarkets and the middlemen to pay fair prices and ensure that farmers can survive, rather than be squeezed, as they have been in the past 15 years. Please, let us put pressure on the supermarkets and the middlemen—fair farm-gate prices are the future for farming.
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes a good point. At the beginning of this outbreak, I spoke to the heads of all the main supermarkets to make that point—“Farmers are having a difficult time; anything and everything that you can do to assist would be much appreciated.” That is why money for promotion and to help with exports is part of the package that I announced today; those are practical steps that we can take to try to get the market operating again.
On the bluetongue virus and the winter, I cannot predict how cold or otherwise the winter will be, but as the weather gets cooler there will undoubtedly be less midge activity. The evidence from Europe last year was that the midges with the virus did overwinter and came back with a bit of a vengeance at the start of this year. So winter may provide a temporary respite, but if the experience of northern Europe is anything to go by, the virus will be back next year. That is why the development of a vaccine is so important.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his visit to Skipton market in my constituency and for the package of measures he has announced today. If he wished to do a little extra, he might look at the veterinary fees that auction marts have to pay when they are in session. He will know that upland farmers make a significant part of their livelihood from sales to the lowland. In Skipton next week, the most crucial sales of the year—sales of stock for breeding and fattening to the lowland—begin. Many farmers do not have a great deal of choice about whether they sell, because there is no grass or keep left. But they do not know whether there are going to be any buyers, because many of the buyers are in the bluetongue zones in the south of England and they do not know whether they can afford to buy.
The Secretary of State might wish that somebody else would take the decision, or that there was another means of taking the decision, about the extension, maintenance and life of the bluetongue protection zone, but if the sales are to be economically effective, it is crucial that people know where they stand. Please will he recognise the urgency of taking the decision about the bluetongue zone? The fortunes of foot and mouth disease-struck farmers depend a great deal on that.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for joining me at Skipton market last Thursday, where he made the very good point that the
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market is not just crucial to the livelihood of his constituents, but is an important part of their social networks. I saw that for myself. He is absolutely right. As I travelled down to Newmarket, I encountered exactly the point that he has raised.
I want to be frank with the House about the dilemma that we face as far as the bluetongue zones are concerned. By putting the zones in place in the way that we have, we are trying to restrict the movement of bluetongue to other parts of the country. But the price of that is that the farmers I met in Newmarket said, “Well, I’m not sure that we are going to go to the sales in Skipton and elsewhere next week because, while we can buy the animals and bring them into the bluetongue zone, we’re not sure that we can ever get them out again because of the restrictions that you’ve put in place.”
The dilemma for the industry, and for us—let us be frank about it—is that we are balancing trying to minimise the likelihood that bluetongue will spread to other parts of the country, which would be the consequence of widening the zone to allow greater movement and trade, and a passage to abattoirs, against trying to minimise the economic impact for both the hill farmers that the right hon. Gentleman represents and the farmers in East Anglia who would be buying. The right place to have that conversation is with the industry. In the end, yes, we will have to take a decision, but it is a real dilemma. Those conversations are taking place now and it is important that, as Members, we all contribute to them, because it is a tough choice to make.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): On foot and mouth, the Secretary of State mentioned the contamination of the drains and the spread of the disease by vehicles. Can he confirm that his investigations have either ruled out, or are at least looking at, the possibility of the disease spreading through watercourses from the spoil that was excavated from the drains on the Pirbright site? I ask because I have had letters on the subject. Clearly, there was a second outbreak, further on, and I understand that it is possible that if spoil had got into the watercourse, it could have contributed to the latest outbreaks.
Hilary Benn: The Health and Safety Executive went over the Pirbright site with a pretty fine toothcomb and, as the hon. Lady can read in the report that it produced and which I published on 7 September, the HSE’s best assessment is that the route of transmission was the one that it describes. I am not aware—but I will go back and check the report again—that anybody thinks that movement of the virus directly from watercourses to other parts of Surrey could possibly be the route. However, the reason I said earlier that one cannot be 100 per cent. sure is because that is what the two reports said. The explanation is the most likely one, but we cannot be 100 per cent. sure. Professor Spratt reinforced the point that we are also learning about the extent to which the virus can survive out in the open, depending on the climatic conditions.
One of the lessons that we will have to learn from this—not just in the UK, but in other countries in Europe—relates to protection and surveillance zones. Since this is not the first time—if I remember rightly, there was a case some years back of a virus escaping from a laboratory in the Netherlands—are there lessons that we need to learn about the nature of the controls that we put in place in case there is an outbreak from such a source? I undertake to go away and reflect on the points that the hon. Lady has raised.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given that the bluetongue virus has been at large on the continent for several years, is there not an extensive body of research and best practice that we can draw down from our continental partners, so that we can learn more quickly how to either eradicate the midge, or create a proper vaccine? Surely we do not have to reinvent the wheel on our own.
Hilary Benn: No, we do not. The hon. Gentleman makes a really good point. I discussed that precise issue with the deputy chief veterinary officer earlier this afternoon. We had a control plan in place, because we and the industry anticipated that at some point the wind would be in the wrong direction, and that the virus was likely to come across the channel or the North sea, and that appears to have transpired. The countries in northern Europe that have been badly affected are learning how to live with the problem, and are considering what variations one can make within the controls that Europe lays down. In answer to an earlier question, I set out one of the dilemmas that we face. We will indeed draw on the experience of other countries, because they had the virus first, and I am sure that we have a lot to learn from them.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Bearing in mind the impact that the devastating market conditions are having on Northumbrian farmers, who struggled to rebuild their businesses after the 2001 outbreak, is it really enough to advise Departments that it might be a good time to buy a bit more meat?
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Ought not the Government to consider the purchase of meat, particularly lamb, for cold storage on a systematic scale?
Hilary Benn: I know that there have been such schemes in the past. The right hon. Gentleman will, in fairness, recognise that the question of what the Government can do to buy, what supermarkets can do to purchase, what meat individuals choose to buy, and the issue of financial compensation and so on is part of a contribution, although it is not enough, and it is not the only thing that we are doing. Instead of putting the meat into storage purchased by the Government, I would much rather that it went into the supply chain, with us having got economic activity back up and running. That is what we, with Europe, are concentrating on trying to do.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Bluetongue has the capacity totally to devastate the livestock industry, not just in East Anglia but throughout the country. Has the Secretary of State looked into a possible compensation scheme for farmers who are affected, and for those who could well be affected in future?
Hilary Benn: No, I have not. I accept entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the nature of the threat, having looked at the death rates among sheep affected by bluetongue in northern Europe, but it is not the only disease that has to be dealt with by the farming industry and those who keep livestock. It is fundamentally a severe economic problem for the industry. The industry feared that it would arrive, and obviously we will have to see how things unfold. Of course, the best route for preventing the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes is to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible, and to make sure that it is used to protect livestock.
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