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Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

A number of EU member states have been affected by the current outbreak of bluetongue, but the UK was first to place an order for vaccine. Until the 22.5 million doses of vaccine begin to be delivered, probably in May, we will contain the disease as far as possible through movement controls. Those will be stricter when the vector-free period ends on 15 March.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), I recently met the east Northamptonshire branch of the National Farmers Union at Weekley near Kettering. Its members were extremely concerned about the threat posed by the disease. What are the Secretary of State’s forecasts for the size and spread of the carrier female midge population now that the weather is warming up? Will he guarantee to this House that there will be enough vaccines in place in time to contain the spread of the disease?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as will all right hon. and hon. Members whose constituents are affected by this terrible disease. It is for precisely that reason that I cannot, in all honesty, give him a forecast of the likely nature of the spread. All we need to do is to look at how bluetongue spread across northern Europe and arrived in the UK last summer. As of 7 March, the disease has been identified and confirmed on 101 premises. Vaccination is the only answer, because by definition we cannot do anything about the vector, and the fact is that we were the first northern European country to place the order for the vaccine and we have worked closely with stakeholders in the industry. I pay tribute to the contribution that they have made, and in particular to the NFU, which will lead a campaign to encourage farmers to take up the vaccine.

The vaccine will become available as soon as it can be produced and shown to be safe and efficacious, and then the supplies will arrive and the farmers can buy them and get on with the vaccination process. That is the way to do it. The fact that we have worked together in partnership thus far and will continue to do so in future is, I think, the best comfort that we can offer farmers about how seriously we are taking the problem, along with the practical steps that we have put in place to help them to beat it.

That is all very well, so far as it goes—I do not for a moment dispute the Secretary of State’s personal commitment—but I met farmers in Staffordshire last week and there is real concern about whether the vaccine will be on stream in sufficient quantities at the right time. The Secretary of State did not give the guarantee for which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) asked, so what can he do to give confidence to our farmers throughout the country who are faced with this dreadful disease?

The guarantee that I cannot give relates to the precise date at which supplies of the vaccine will become available, because that is down to the companies that are researching and manufacturing that vaccine. The House will be well aware of the way in which we have placed our order. I can offer the assurance that we will take all the necessary steps open to us to use our influence to ensure that the vaccine gets out as quickly as possible. That will depend on the science, the production capacity and the speed at which the supplier with which we placed the order can deliver. The ultimate demand, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, will depend on the take-up of the vaccine by farmers. The decision, rightly, will ultimately rest with them if they want to protect their animals.

The comprehensive spending review plans to cut £120 million a year from the animal health budget through cost-sharing for the control of bluetongue and other diseases, yet an answer yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), suggests the amount might be only a third of that. Given that disease control already costs the farming industry huge sums of money, can the Secretary of State explain how he has arrived at the figure to be obtained through cost-sharing? Does he agree that if farmers are to share the cost of disease control they should be confident that the Government will fulfil their obligations to keep disease out of our country and inside their own laboratories? Otherwise, as Professor Anderson showed on Tuesday, does it not simply look like farmers paying for DEFRA cock-ups?

In relation to bluetongue—the hon. Gentleman is not advancing that argument—we are working in partnership with the farming industry, including sharing responsibility for taking decisions about how we are to beat the disease. The farming industry said, “We want a voluntary approach to vaccination.” We said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do if that’s what you want.” As for farmers paying for the vaccine, I think that is a fair sharing of the costs in the circumstances.

In relation to the Anderson report, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, that release should not have happened and I am determined that it shall not happen again. That is why we have taken steps since then, including changing the regulatory system applying to institutions such as Pirbright and getting on with investment to improve the facilities there, because as he acknowledges it is a world-class facility and we need its expert science to help us to beat the diseases that are in the country at present and those that may arrive in the future.

Given the nature of the bluetongue virus and its method of transmission, the problem will continue to face DEFRA and the livestock industry in years to come. The 22 million vaccine doses that the Government have ordered will not be sufficient for blanket vaccination in the time necessary. Will the Secretary of state take advice and make a risk assessment—an epidemiological assessment—to ensure that the vaccines are used in the places where they will best prevent the spread of the disease rather than on a first come, first served basis?

I certainly will. I have been taking advice on precisely that subject. The core group working on the issue is overseeing the strategy for getting the vaccination programme going. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it clearly makes sense to start the programme in the places where it should start first and then roll it out through the rest of the country, which is what we shall do.