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Foot and Mouth Disease

Volume 465: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s response to the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease; and if he will make a statement. (160570)

We put our contingency plan into operation as soon as there was confirmation of foot and mouth disease. Two and a half months on, it has been contained in a small part of the country. Nevertheless, we are committed to learning the lessons from this and all disease outbreaks, and we have therefore asked Dr. lain Anderson, who conducted an inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, to chair a review.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that rational and helpful reply. My constituency of Macclesfield is a predominantly livestock farming area. Livestock farmers have sustained huge losses. A little earlier this month, he announced a compensation package of £12.5 million. How widely do the Government anticipate that the package will be distributed? Will it adequately recompense livestock farmers throughout the United Kingdom for the huge losses that they have sustained?

I recognise the real difficulties that the livestock industry in particular is facing as a result of the outbreak, which could not have come at a worse time of year. The support that I announced to the House when we returned after the summer recess was for those who have been most adversely affected, who are, indeed, the hill farmers. As well as containing the disease with a view to eradicating it, we have tried throughout to get the market working again. In all parts of the country, except the remaining small risk area, all the restrictions that have been put in place domestically have now gone. The ones that remain are the result of the European Union rules, but we have already seen in the past two weeks a further easing of those restrictions to allow exports to resume. I am clear in my mind that the best thing that we can do is help the industry recover, but I know that it is going to be very tough and extremely difficult.

In last week’s debate on foot and mouth, I referred to the pig sector and the problems that the outbreak has caused for it. I asked for assistance for that sector, perhaps through storage aid or a sow disposal scheme. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who responded to the debate, said that the team would be working closely with pig industry leaders to try to assist them. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress since?

I can tell my hon. Friend that that discussion with representatives of the pig industry and of all parts of the livestock industry has been a very strong feature of the way in which we have tried to handle the outbreak. A decision was taken on Monday at the Agriculture Council meeting to open a scheme for private storage in respect of pigs, following a request from Poland, which it made because of the difficulties that it is facing. I repeat what I said a moment ago. With the easing of restrictions and the lifting of all those put in place domestically, I hope that the industry will find that it now has the opportunity to recover, albeit that it will take time.

Following on from last week’s debate on compensation and so on, may I press the right hon. Gentleman on one question? If the Agriculture Minister in Wales were to apply to the Treasury for special funding in these special circumstances, would the Secretary of State lend his weight to the application and support it?

As I told the House when I made the statement, it is open to each of us—I have to manage the cost of the schemes that I have put in place and the assistance that I have given in relation to England—and to the devolved Administrations to have that conversation if they wish. However, it is not unreasonable in the circumstances, given that we do not yet know what the full cost of the outbreak will be, for each of us to bear the costs for the time being of the schemes that we think are appropriate for the parts of the country for which we have responsibility. That is what I have done for England, and the Welsh Agriculture Minister has done the same in Wales, as have the Scottish Executive in Scotland.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem impacted even on largely industrial constituencies such as mine? The company Devro, which exports sausage skins to many parts of the world—Europe, Africa and so on—and has locations in both Moodiesburn and Bellshill, clearly needed certificates of clearance. His Department was enormously helpful. Given the horrendous demands that must have been placed on it, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you on the company’s behalf.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words. I take this opportunity to echo those thanks—to the Department officials, vets and animal health staff who have worked phenomenally hard in the past two and a half months to deal with the consequences. They have worked not only to contain the outbreak but to give every assistance to those caught up in it. The reopening of the meat product export market to the rest of Europe—exports to the rest of the world will take some time to resume—has probably been the most important step. Those exports are now gradually happening.

The hill farm allowance supplement is an average £850 for an individual farmer and the average hill farmer in my constituency has lost in the region of £10,000 to £20,000 in the past few weeks. Given that the Government are culpable for the outbreak, does the Secretary of State feel that the additional support that they have provided is sufficient?

I recognise that the support will not help to meet all the costs, but it is not this Government’s policy—it has never been any Government’s—to provide full compensation for economic loss.

Why did I take the decision to help hill farmers? I did that because, as was said a moment ago, hill farmers have faced the greatest difficulties as a result of what has happened. The £8.5 million will provide some additional assistance and, I hope, give hill farmers slightly more options, albeit in very difficult circumstances. We should recognise that the markets are operating again—that includes the resumption of exports to Europe—and that that has released the most important blockage that the hill farmers were facing.

The Secretary of State has just stressed the importance of learning from disease outbreaks. One of the lessons of the 2001 outbreak was that the decision to close the countryside to visitors led to enormous economic consequences. Does he understand that although farming is important, the value brought by people who visit rural communities and boost the rural economy is more significant?

They are both significant and both extremely important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have sought to learn the lessons from 2001, which include the advice given by Dr. Iain Anderson. That is why he is entirely the right person to come back and say how we have all done on this occasion.

My hon. Friend is right to say that rural communities benefit enormously from such wider economic activity. We have handled the footpath closures in the protection zones correctly, but, like the industry more broadly, we have been clear about sending out the message that the countryside is open for business. It is important that people continue to enjoy the countryside and bring economic activity to it, to help those who would otherwise be affected in addition to the farmers, who have suffered so much.

I telephoned a leading farmer the day after the foot and mouth outbreak was announced, and was surprised to find that I was the one informing him about it. Given that, for years, automatic electronic telephone calls have been used to sell financial services, when will the Department make sure that they—not only text messages—are used to give farmers the earliest possible information about notifiable disease emergencies?

We have been using both text messages and automated telephone messages. Furthermore, we have been delivering information packs to affected farmers in the protection zones. However, we have to recognise that the media are one way in which we all get our news; I would be surprised if many farmers in the country had not been aware, first, of the outbreak, and secondly, of the imposition of movement controls. We all have a part to play, and I pay tribute to the efforts not only of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs staff but of the National Farmers Union and other organisations, including those representing different sectors. They played an important part in reinforcing the message to their members.

At one stage of the outbreak, the chief veterinary officer declared that the UK was free of foot and mouth. If that had not happened, many of the hill farming industry’s problems would not have occurred. Was that declaration made because the surveillance area was not great enough, and will the Government learn the lessons?

Of course we will reflect on the lessons. That is why we have been so quick to invite Dr. Anderson to establish the review. In my view, the decision taken on 8 September was absolutely right in the light of our knowledge at the time; it was a month and a bit since a case had been confirmed, and the decision was confirmed by the European Union, which looked at all the evidence.

Why was there the further case? As we now know from the epidemiological report, which we published at every stage, in the interests of openness, the animals on one of the premises—infected premises No. 5, as it is described—had had foot and mouth and the lesions were between three and four weeks old. That reinforces our point throughout that the first line of defence in overcoming the disease is farmers’ vigilance. That case went undetected for whatever reason, and was therefore unreported. Had it been reported, the situation would have been different. Our decision at the time was right in the light of the evidence that we had.

This outbreak has already, at the latest estimate, cost English farmers well over £100 million. Two weeks ago, as we heard, the Secretary of State announced a package of £12 million. On Monday this week, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), told me that no conclusions had yet been reached on cost sharing or the estimate of the element of those costs falling to farmers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the comprehensive spending review clearly states that an increased share of responsibility and cost-sharing will save DEFRA £121 million over three years, which is £40 million in extra costs to farmers each year—more than three times the package that he announced?

Yes, I am happy to confirm that that is the case. I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman—we need to change the system. There are already different approaches in relation to different parts of the livestock sector. The truth is that if one was designing a system from scratch today, it would not look like the system that we have; we all know that. The deal to be done is to give the livestock industry much greater say over how the controls on animal disease outbreaks affecting animals only—not zoonotic diseases because we, as the Government, have a public health interest—are applied and lifted. We have worked in partnership with the industry in dealing with this and in, in return for that, there should be recognition that the costs of dealing with preventing disease and coping with outbreaks should fall more upon the industry. I think that that is the right way to go. This is very difficult anyway—especially so in the circumstances that we have just been through—but dealing with these outbreaks over the past two and a half months has brought it home to me that we should have a different system, and that is what I want to try to get agreement on.