Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

The 2001 Outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease

Public Accounts Committee 3 Jul 2002

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Examination of Witnesses


Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When we get to this stage in the meeting all the arguments have been put. It is now up to me to make a decision whether you are guilty or not. I have listened to the evidence and I find you not guilty actually. I think it is all very well and good blaming the Department for lacking hindsight and what you should have done, but the fact of the matter is that you were not to blame. I honestly believe that. It seems to me that there are people to blame and certainly things could have been done better, but the Report shows me that many farmers were responsible for a lot of the spread anyway. It has now been conclusively confirmed, that Waugh's pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall was clearly where it started. He was found guilty of feeding unprocessed pig swill, failure to notify the disease and disgusting animal cruelty. That is right, is it not?

Mr Bender: That is correct.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If Waugh had followed the law and notified the authorities when he knew what was happening on his disgusting pig farm, and we have all seen pictures, particularly in the North East, of what it was like, what would have been the consequences if this man had kept to the law?

Mr Bender: There is a prior consequence which is that if the pig swill had been treated properly, the pigs would not have had the disease in the first place. If he had notified it promptly, then I would be confident that our contingency plan would have been adequate because it would have been more like a repetition of the classical swine fever outbreak, which I recognise was very difficult for the people of East Anglia, but was controlled.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I come to the conclusion that although you have taken some stick this afternoon and you have taken some stick in the press over the last year almost, a lot of responsibility should fall on the farmers themselves. In my view they have a clear responsibility. Why have you not robustly put this across? I get the impression that you have been on the back foot all the time and been taking, as we say in Durham, "a bat on the gob" all the time when you should have been coming forward and admitting you did have problems and it was a huge exercise, but if the farmers themselves had been more responsible we would not have had the situation we had. Why have you not done that more robustly?

Mr Bender: Some of that has happened. I know Elliot Morley has gone onto the attack several times, including when he presented the Animal Health Bill in the Commons and the week before last over the unmarked pigs. Undoubtedly farmers have a responsibility, but I would not duck the fact that so do the authorities and therefore my Department have a responsibility to try to ensure that the law is respected and enforced, and that if there are breaches, as there were, we have plans to deal with them.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I got very cross last weekend because the Farmers' Union in particular still seem to be adopting the same attitude that they adopted when it was first announced what the problem was. I listened to the President of the NFU on television last week, when Waugh had been found guilty and I was coincidentally reading the Report at the time. I noted down things he was saying. Although he grudgingly said that yes, he condemned Waugh for what had happened, he seemed to be more interested in putting the blame on the Government and saying if the Government had ensured that illegal meat had not come into this country we would not have had the problem in the first place. That is just ducking the issue, is it not?

Mr Bender: It is largely, in the sense that there is more that the Government are doing to try to minimise the risk of illegal imports coming in, but that risk is never going to be zero. It is a question of risk management. Ultimately we do need farmers to have the right behaviour on biosecurity and that comes back to a discussion I had earlier about the balance, that Government are going to have to decide very soon about this 20-day movement restriction. It is a very heavy regulatory burden on the industry, but on the other hand, all the advice which Ministers are getting from scientific and veterinary experts, is that it is a precautionary measure which needs to be taken. That is the balance with an industry which has been through a very difficult time and is financially in crisis.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is financially in crisis but it has not done badly out of the taxpayer over the last 12 months, has it? Listening to the President he said that the Government should have taken stricter measures in preventing the illegal importation of meat. The Government have a problem stopping hard drugs coming into the country, they have a problem stopping illegal immigrants coming into the country, therefore they have a huge problem stopping piles of meat coming into the country illegally. That is really ducking the issue and not taking their responsibilities seriously. He seemed to forget that if Waugh had not broken the law in the first place, this would never have happened. You talked about the pig swill. Has pig swill now been banned?

Mr Bender: It was banned in May last year by the Government. It was one of the early lessons we learned during the disease outbreak.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Did the NFU support the banning of pig swill?

Mr Bender: Yes, they did. There were some pig swill users who protested, one or two of whom were wearing T-shirts at the Royal Show this week. The NFU did support it.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Good; at least that is positive. At the moment it is a self-regulating industry and Mr Scudamore said it was very, very difficult not to run it in such a way. Is it not really about time now that the livestock farmers were licensed or registered in order to control the rogue farmer such as Waugh?

Mr Bender: This is a difficult issue and Ministers in my Department have been reflecting on it and discussing it. Don Curry's Policy Commission Report on the future of farming touched on it, but was not calling for obligatory licences. What we are trying to explore at the moment in the Department is an approach where there will be a risk-based inspection and enforcement regime of farmers on a whole farm approach and one which would ideally be driven by farm assurance, so that the farmer's route to market would pull them in the right direction as well, rather than moving down a kind of excessive regulation, licensing route. At the moment, no definitive decision has been taken by Ministers on these issues.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): At the moment it seems to me that the whole of the argument is that the Government and the taxpayer should take the whole of the risk. It does not matter what happens but the taxpayer should fork out and the taxpayer has forked out something like £3 billion. What evidence is there to show that the farmers themselves are in a position to share risk with Government? Is there any evidence at all?

Mr Bender: There is not much evidence that they are yet ready to, but the discussions I referred to earlier are being actively pursued by my Department with the insurance industry and with the livestock industry, to get that risk shared in some way or another. That is something which you will not be surprised to know the Treasury are fairly keen on as well.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It was also mentioned that there was a scare in a Midlands abattoir with a pig two or three weeks ago. My understanding is that you were unable to trace the holding of the original pig.

Mr Bender: Yes, it was unmarked.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What would have happened if that pig had had foot and mouth disease?

Mr Bender: We would have had a serious problem. We had traced 34 potential farms where we would have taken action, where we had already put movement restrictions around those farms and would have introduced the national movement ban. The farmer in question, he or she, was breaking the law and if we can find them, then we would assume - and this is a local authority responsibility not a DEFRA responsibility - some action would be taken.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So we can honestly say, after almost a year since the most horrendous disease outbreak that this country has seen in animals for 30 years, they have learned nothing.

Mr Bender: In this particular case that was a depressing conclusion that my Ministers reached two weeks ago.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): We say it is just one farmer. But it was one farmer who caused the original one, Waugh. Here we have, a number of months later, somebody doing exactly the same thing, no lessons learned. Why is that? Shall I tell you why it is?

Mr Bender: Please.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I shall tell you why it is. It is because they are not bothered, because they know at the end of the day that the taxpayer is going to pick up the bill. They know that at the end of the day if anything goes wrong Joe Soap will have a penny put on his income tax and that will cover the costs. The industry has learned nothing. In my view a system must be brought in where they have to share the risk of a serious problem such as this. Do you think I am right?

Mr Bender: That is why my Department is pursuing this. May I say one thing about the industry? We are talking about tens of thousands of individual business people, many of whom are very conscientious, hard-working, able farmers and some rogues.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Absolutely, but it only needs one rogue, does it not?

Mr Bender: It only needs one rogue.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): We have had one rogue at Heddon-on-the-Wall, we have had one rogue there though we do not know who it is and it could have been a rogue where we could have had exactly the same situation over again within less than a year because they broke the law. In terms of risk sharing, it is all to do with insurance. I did some research, it did not take much, and found out how many farmers bother to insure. I shall do a Duncan Smith here. Do you know how many insure?

Mr Bender: It is a small proportion.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I shall tell you. It is 10%. 10% of farmers insure. Has there not got to be a movement towards saying, right, there has to be risk sharing, insurance has to be the way?

Mr Bender: That is my personal view. That is what my Department is pursuing at the moment in discussions with the livestock industry, the insurance industry and the Treasury. I hope we will get there.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): My understanding also is that - if I am wrong you will tell me and I shall go off the point - the Government have absolutely no obligation to do the cleaning and disinfecting of farms, they do that on a voluntary basis. It could be passed to the farmer. Is that right, or am I wrong?

Mr Trevelyan: We have an obligation to ensure the disinfection, but, as our colleagues in the Netherlands have demonstrated, it is possible to leave the clean-up to the farmer and that does radically reduce the cost.

Mr Bender: It also increases the risk of the disease emerging again which was one of the things which went wrong in 1967-68.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You take the point that Geraint was making, perhaps a little bit more strongly than I. He was saying we should go in with the Army and kill the cows and then give them the compensation afterwards. Surely the scenario is pretty much the same. You could go in, disinfect and give them the bill for disinfecting. Is that possible?

Mr Bender: I think it is legally possible.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): They should be told this. You are just too soft. The problem is that you are such a nice man, they should be told.

Mr Bender: Would you like the CVO to comment on your question rather than on your comment?

Mr Scudamore: The situation is that with other diseases which are less likely to spread and less likely to infect other animals, like tuberculosis or brucellosis, the farmer is expected to clean at his own expense. The reason with foot and mouth disease is that we are concerned because it is highly virulent and it is resistant so we cannot risk leaving the farm with the virus on it. We do the preliminary disinfection, which we are required to do, but after that we do it for security reasons. The question of who pays is a good question.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): In terms of insurance you explained to us that they cannot insure for the livestock and therefore they did not get paid twice for the same thing. What struck me was that if somebody has a ram which is worth £50,000, I should have thought they would insure that regardless, because it might get knocked over by a bus and killed. Why should they not insure?

Mr Bender: Presumably some of your 10% do insure for that sort of reason, but if the animal is slaughtered under the Animal Health Act, then it is the taxpayer who pays rather than the insurance company in those circumstances. This is what we need to bottom out and pursue in the continuing discussion.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I hope so. My last question is to do with burial sites. The Tow Law site is very close to my constituency and in fact the river which runs through my constituency has feeders from Tow Law and that particular area. As you are well aware, there was great concern about the burial site in the first place regarding the possibility of leachate from the site. I know that a lot of my constituents have written to me and I have written to the Department and they are very, very worried that in future years there could be leakage from this particular burial site into the drinking water and the rivers and through my constituency and the river Wear. Can you give me a 100% guarantee that this is not going to happen?

Mr Trevelyan: That would be rash, but it is an extremely well engineered site. It benefited from the experience we had had with one or two of the earlier sites and it is under constant monitoring. I cannot give you the number of monitoring posts we have at that site. All the leachate which is coming from the carcasses is being tankered away and treated so that it is on exactly a par with all the other mass burial sites which are all quality sites and they are all being monitored and fully engineered.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You are waffling; you are not going to give me a 100% guarantee, are you?

Mr Bender: That answer is that we take the issue very seriously, we are monitoring actively and we are looking at restoration plans to return it possibly in the first instance to heather moorland. On the question you asked, no-one can say there is an absolutely zero risk in anything. We take the risk seriously, we have engineered it to the highest standards, we monitor it actively and continue to monitor actively.

Chairman: Thank you very much. We have been going for three hours and you will be relieved to hear there are no more questions for you to answer.


The full report may read from the House of Commons website

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