Animal Health Bill

Commons Hansard
12 Nov 2001

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): First, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill is putting in what was left out of the Animal Health Act 1981? For example, a farmer who deliberately infects his sheep or cattle would, under the 1981 Act, get 100 per cent. compensation and not be prosecuted.

Secondly, with reference to the Devon inquiry, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why Conservative- controlled Cumbria county council has not asked for a public inquiry when Cumbria was the worst affected area?

Mr. Ainsworth: Public inquiries seem to be breaking out all over the country in the absence of a national one. Shropshire is now holding one, and I have no doubt that Cumbria is considering the matter carefully, although I am told that it is concerned about the cost to its council tax payers. The issue should be handled and sponsored by the Government in a proper and considered way. On what the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said, a public inquiry does not have to take two or three years but can be conducted far more quickly if given the right instructions.


7.41 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I support the Bill. That is probably the only part of my speech that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will accept. Coming from Cumbria and representing Carlisle, I can tell the House that we were in the thick of foot and mouth, and I do not believe that we are out of the woods yet. As I said in an intervention, this weekend we killed a large number of sheep in the south of the county, just on suspicion.

People who oppose the Bill probably think that foot and mouth occurs every 30-odd years. We had it in 1967 and in 2001, so they think that it will not recur for some time and that there is therefore no need to rush legislation through Parliament. Anyone who examines the history of foot and mouth will realise that it occurred regularly before 1967 - almost every year - so there is a good chance that it will come to us again fairly soon. We need legislation in place to deal with that.

The lessons have been learned. We found that the Animal Health Act 1981 was defective. The Minister who put it through is probably in the other place. We found out, for example, that a farmer could deliberately infect a flock and get 100 per cent. compensation. Obviously, that was never considered at the time.

In north Cumbria, one option was that we should have a fire break - that we should cull the sheep in the north of the county to stop the infection getting on to the fells. That policy would have been illegal, as the Government did not have the powers to implement it. It was ultimately carried out by other means, but if it had been challenged, we would have had serious problems.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow us to get on top of the disease before it gets out of control. We have learned the lessons. I am sad to say that MAFF was not prepared to deal with the disease in March when it struck us in Cumbria. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) presented a catalogue of mistakes made in his constituency. I could have multiplied them by 10 in the case of Cumbria.

The outbreak was dealt with very badly in the early stages, but I do not believe that at that time any Government would have dealt with it any better. I was coming down to the House of Commons and telling Ministers one thing, and they were telling me that their officials were telling them something else, and that no problem existed. It was only when my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), the then Minister of State, came to Cumbria and talked to the farmers one Sunday, having previously spoken to MAFF officials, that she realised the problem that we had.

The disease was out of control. I live right in the centre of my constituency in an urban area. All round the city, one could smell the burning three or four miles away. On the edge of my constituency, a mass grave contains the remains of 400,000 culled sheep. They were taken through the narrow roads, past the local school, and slaughtered on site. It was a mess. The Government learned the lessons.

Reference has been made to the Prime Minister. Progress began to be made in Cumbria when the Prime Minister came up in March. He listened to the farmers, asked searching questions and gave instructions. The Army arrived, the famous brigadier was there and carried out those instructions, and that is when we started to get on top of the situation. The Prime Minister came on two occasions after that. Without his direct support and help, we would no doubt still have a problem.

We cannot pursue a policy of mass slaughter again. The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said that he did not believe that the policy could be carried out in Scotland again; it had got out of hand. It could not be done in Cumbria again. We were fed up with the wanton destruction and death. We felt sick about the total devastation.

That is why I support the Bill, which gives the Government the option of introducing compulsory vaccination and paying compensation. Without it, we would not have that option for the future. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has left the Chamber. Voting for the Bill could mean saving the lives of millions of animals.

I was the first Member of Parliament to ask for a public inquiry. However, I am prepared to allow the Government to have separate inquiries, as long as they are open. I spoke to those undertaking the scientific inquiry when they came up to Cumbria, and others are coming too. If we get the right answers from those inquiries, a new precedent will have been set for dealing with such issues. There must be an advance on the procedure followed in the Phillips inquiry, whereby we take over a set of dusty rooms in south London, hear evidence for three years and produce a report that hardly anybody reads, all at a cost of £30 million. However, I warn the Government that if they try to hide the facts about the foot and mouth outbreak, I will be the first Member to ask for a full inquiry.

We have heard about the problem of contaminated meat coming into the country. Everyone seems to think that it is easy to stop it. If it were so easy, we would have no illegal immigrants and no drugs problem. It is extremely difficult to stop such things.

There is another factor that has been overlooked. We know about the chaos caused by the recent outbreak of foot and mouth. Whatever our views, no one thinks that it was caused deliberately, but an enemy of the country who wanted to create chaos could deliberately introduce the disease. The virus is not difficult to get in the third world. The only way to deal with that will be vaccination.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. He seemed to think that it was impossible to do anything about illegal imports of meat, drugs or whatever. One cannot guarantee anything in life, but if measures can be implemented in America and New Zealand - which I know that he has visited - to protect their populations from the importing of animal and plant disease, surely we can take a stab at it. At present, we have wide open doors.

Mr. Martlew: If the hon. Lady had been a Minister four years ago, she would have said that our policy obviously works, as we have not had an outbreak. Of course we must consider measures to tighten up on imports, but there is no panacea to stop illegal asylum seekers or drugs coming in, so we must always assume that imported meat will come in illegally.

I come now to a problem that was mentioned by several hon. Members, although I do not think that any of them offered a solution. At the beginning of the outbreak we were hampered in Cumbria and everywhere else by the small number of vets. We all know that the size of the veterinary investigation service was reduced by the previous Government. There may have been a good reason for that. The changes that had occurred may have meant that the vets did not have much work, and they would not have stayed if that was the case. Perhaps we should consider introducing the equivalent of the Territorial Army for veterinaries and the possibility of establishing a reserve on which we can call when a crisis occurs.

Mr. Wiggin: We had enough trouble persuading the Government to bring in the Army, let alone the Territorial Army. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is practical.

Mr. Martlew: I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. I was trying to make a serious point. If he wants to make party political points, that is fine, but when he has been in the House longer, he will learn when to intervene and when not to.

I have sought an Adjournment debate on Lord Haskins's report. It is a very good report and I have a lot more to say about it, but I point out now that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary must deal with pet animals. There is no doubt that much of the anguish that was caused to individuals in the crisis related to pets. In my constituency, someone rang me anonymously, in case I contacted MAFF, to say that he was concerned about two pet goats. He asked me what to do. I said, "Hide them." Of course, I also told him to have good biosecurity. He never got back in touch. I hope that he took my advice.

The situation was a real problem and a public relations disaster for the Government. That is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). We should not run our approach on scientific grounds alone. If we had culled Phoenix the calf - I am sure that it would have been done only for scientific reasons - public support for Government policy on culling would have disappeared. That would have had more effect on getting on top of the disease than saving one calf.

Mrs. Browning: Constituents of mine also owned two goats that were saved. Much as I sympathised with the fact that they were pets and lovely animals, I believed that it was right for them to be subjected to a blood test. If they had tested positive, they would have been just as much a risk to the farming community as any other animals, pets or not. Difficulties arose only when blood tests were refused. I could not understand why that happened in some cases.

Mr. Martlew: I would not disagree with the hon. Lady on that point.

I shall support the Bill's Second Reading, as the alternative is not to give the Government powers to vaccinate compulsorily and to grant compensation. That will be the way forward in any future outbreak.

7.53 p.m.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB