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21 March 2001

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200001/cmhansrd/vo010321/debtext/10321-09.htm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Minister will know that two of my constituents spoke on the radio today on the timing of the notification of the outbreak. One of the people, Mr. Mike Littlehales, said that he had been called up by a lady in MAFF who wished know how it could update its records in case of a further outbreak of foot and mouth. Mrs. Fran Talbot had a similar point to make.

If we do not know exactly when the outbreak began--it having started and first been notified in Essex, but having apparently originated in Northumberland--and if it turns out that there was notification at an earlier stage, that

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would be very serious. Will the Minister be good enough to ensure that we have full published transcripts and details of the operational plans, so that the suspicion that the outbreak started at an earlier stage will now be made clear?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech.

Mr. Brown: If I misled the House in the way in which the BBC misled the country this morning, I would have to come here and resign. I shall make that point to Mr. John Humphrys when I next see him.

The first case of foot and mouth disease in this country of which I was aware was that in the Essex abattoir, and the case on the farm adjacent to it. I was notified on the Tuesday night during our week's recess that there was a suspected case. I understand that my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman had also been notified. The following morning--the Wednesday morning--that case was confirmed to me. On the Thursday night of that same week, I was told that there was a suspected case in Northumberland, at Heddon-on-the-Wall. That case was confirmed on that Friday. I telephoned the Prime Minister, who was in the United States of America, and later on that Friday we imposed complete and absolute movement restrictions by declaring the whole of Great Britain a controlled area by 5 o'clock that same day. That is the sequence of events. Officials in my Department, and Ministers, were not aware that the infectivity was present in the country for an earlier time period for the simple reason that it was not.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Brown: Perhaps it will be easier, Mr. Speaker, if I deal with this urban legend at the appropriate point in my speech, because urban legend it is.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Brown: There are times, Mr. Speaker, when I think that I am talking to myself. What I said was: perhaps it would be easier if I dealt with this in the appropriate passage of my speech. I will then take interventions on the point, if anybody wishes to perpetuate the myth, or, indeed, raise another one. Perhaps the Martians have visited us, or something like that. But for the minute, I will make some progress because I want to deal with the perfectly proper points that have been raised by the Leader of the Opposition and by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I would like to consider the way in which the Government are dealing with the disease, and I will take interventions that arise from what I say. However, I ask the House to let me say it first.

From the outset, we rapidly put in place firm disease control measures.

Mr. McLoughlin rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister has said that he wants some time before he gives way.

Mr. Brown: That action, and every action since then, has been taken on professional advice, and, in particular, on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, Mr. Jim Scudamore.

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I want to deal with that famous urban legend--the question of MAFF having known about the outbreak in January on the basis of inquiries made by MAFF staff about supplies of railway sleepers. I understand that there is a similar legend about disinfectant supplies from another supplier company, and the answer is the same. The rumours that we knew in January are completely untrue. The Government first learned about a possible outbreak on 20 February. The first case was confirmed on 21 February.

I understand that, in January, my Department's animal health office in Staffordshire carried out a regular foot and mouth disease contingency planning exercise. This is conducted every year; there is nothing unusual about it. Staff were contacting vets, slaughtermen, disinfectant suppliers and suppliers of railway sleepers for incineration. It is sheer coincidence that the exercise took place a month before a genuine outbreak, but coincidence it is. If the question is why we rang that particular supplier after other suppliers had been rung--I understand that that is a caveat to this urban legend--the answer is that the Department was checking prices.