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May: Threat of another outbreak of a disease like foot and mouth is ever increasing

"Mr Speaker I beg to move the motion standing in my name and that of my Right Honourable and Honourable friends.

Mr Speaker I received a letter this morning from the Rural Affairs Minister explaining that the Secretary of State was not available to respond to this debate because she is attending a meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development in the United States. He told me that the Minister of State was also at the same conference - two ministers and staff in America at the taxpayers expense. He then told me that he himself was not able to respond to the debate because he is speaking at a rural affairs conference at the request of the Irish Government and wants to take the chance for a private chat with the Irish rural affairs minister.

Mr Speaker the Government had a week's notice of this debate. For one minister to be unavailable is perhaps understandable. For three ministers to fail to be available to come to this House to respond to a debate on a subject which threatens the livelihoods of British farmers and others is not only treating this House with contempt but also gives a clear message to farmers that this Government is simply not interested in them or their future. Once again this Government is letting down British farmers.

I don't know if the House will want to hear from the Honourable Member for Exeter twice in the same debate. We shall have to see how the debate unfolds.

Mr Speaker the year 2001 was possibly the blackest period in modern history for British agriculture. Our green and pleasant lands became scenes of death and destruction. Our television screens were filled with imagines of funeral pyres and rotting carcases, the air filled with smoke. The pain and suffering caused to Britain's rural communities was etched on the faces of those farmers who saw a lifetime's work destroyed by a contiguous cull on a massive scale.

As a result of foot and mouth disease, 10 million animals were slaughtered, our countryside put up the closed signs, and some were forced not just to the point of bankruptcy, but to suicide. For our farmers, it seemed like the end of the world as they knew it. For many that was the case.

The subsequent report from the National Audit Office said the outbreak cost Britain £8bn, £3 billion cost to the public sector and hence the taxpayer, and more than £5 billion cost to the private sector. The Institute of Directors put the cost higher - at £20bn. What we all understand is that outbreaks of diseases such as foot and mouth affect not just our farmers, but the wider economy, the service industry, all those involved in tourism. We owe it to them all to ensure that this can never happen again. It is our duty, and the duty of any Government, to ensure that this can never happen again.

Yet I and my colleagues have yet to meet a farmer who believes that we are better prepared for a future outbreak.

The Government have lost the confidence of our farming industry in their ability to prevent disease from entering Britain. That is in no small part due to their decision to deny a full and independent public inquiry. Of course, we have seen a number of Commissions and reports into the outbreak, but Government have steadfastly refused to conduct a transparent inquiry into the events and circumstances leading up to and during the course of the outbreak. The only public inquiry into the Foot and Mouth outbreak was a result of pressure by Conservative Members of the European Parliament and was opposed tooth and nail by Labour MEPs.

Since it became public knowledge that we were holding this debate today my staff have been fielding a constant stream of telephone calls, emails and messages from people across the country. Each of them feels strongly about this issue, each has something to say, each of them has information, another piece in the jigsaw of uncovering what actually happened during the outbreak. What this shows is that far from reassuring the public, far from answering the questions and concerns, the Government has simply chosen to ignore them. But they will not go away.

Of course, we had the Lessons Learnt Inquiry headed by Dr Anderson. But have we really learnt any lessons? Following the 1967 outbreak, we knew not only how the disease came into the country, we also knew the very yard where it happened and how it entered the food chain.

Yet despite all of the improvements in science and forensics, the leaps forward in DNA testing, we still do not know how this virus came into the country or why.

The obvious concerns of the public will not be allayed by the recent revelations concerning the Vet responsible for inspecting the premises on in Heddon-on- the Wold where the outbreak is suspected of starting - Jim Dring.

Mr Dring is an honourable and conscientious man. He concluded that the foot and mouth crisis "would never have come about" if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been "more rigorous".

But he said he had been "hamstrung by a lack of veterinary resources".

Mr Dring states "Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waughs' patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 FMD epidemic would never have come about."

This is not about one man's mistake. Thanks to Mr Dring's courage and honesty, we now know of at least one piece of vital evidence that was withheld from Dr Anderson's inquiry.

That a man under pressure should make a mistake is understandable. What is not understandable is how the Government could allow the pressures to get to that point knowing the risks that entailed. And what cannot be forgiven is that Government should not make this evidence known to the inquiry which was trying to establish the lessons that needed to be learned. Surely the key lesson from Jim Dring's evidence is that Government should have given more priority to ensuring there were adequate resources for the state veterinary service to do its job rigorously.

This is not a question of anyone wanting to blame Mr Dring and it is not a political game. It is about getting a definitive answer on how the 2001 FMD epidemic started and ensuring that its lessons are fully learned.

Ministers told this House that the document was an "aide memoire". 26 pages and 11,700 words - that's a pretty hefty aide memoire.

Dr Andersen of course has told us that this document would not have changed his conclusions. But this report leaves many more questions unanswered, not least whether the fact that this information did not reach him invalidates the claim that the Anderson Inquiry fully considered all the facts in coming to its conclusion. If this particular document, critical of the pressures our Inspection service were under and stating that staff shortages at the time led to the cutting of corners was not given to the inquiry could there not be others, equally important which failed to reach the eyes of Dr Andersen?

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty told colleagues in another place (Hansard 24 March 2004 Col 701) QUOTE

Yet to say that to release it risked prejudicing the trial does not stand up to scrutiny. Mr Waugh's trial was over before the Anderson inquiry reported and even if it had been delayed the report could have been put back until the risk of prejudice had passed.

How is the farming community to have confidence that the government has genuinely provided them with the truth, when such information comes not from Ministers, not from DEFRA, but from the pages of the farming press? It is an understandable response that our farmers should question why, if one damming piece of evidence could be withheld, others may not also be hidden in Ministry filing cabinets.

We now learn of course, that an internal Defra investigation has cleared Ministers and officials of any wrongdoing or attempt to mislead. An internal investigation, I might add the existence of which was only made public after it had concluded that everything was above board and squeaky clean. That will give no reassurance to the many farmers who want to get to the truth.

It is after all, only a few weeks ago another internal investigation cleared another Government Minister of any wrongdoing, only for her to be forced to resign after fresh evidence came to light a few days later.

I would be willing to give way to the Minister if he wants to rise to give a guarantee to this House today that no other information has been withheld and that Dr Anderson received absolutely each and every piece of relevant information relating to the outbreak.

If he cannot give us that assurance, then he must agree with me that the only way to restore our farmers' confidence in the process is to submit to a full public inquiry. We must have some plain and honest answers to some plain and honest questions.

Because what we must all realise, is that the threat of another outbreak of a disease like foot and mouth, or others equally virulent, is ever increasing.

With the increase in air travel, the flow of people and goods makes the transmission of potential hazardous products all the more likely. In recent times we have suffered swine fever and foot and mouth. And yet over the past six months we have seen a growing number of diseases entering our shores.

In the South West we have had the first outbreak of Brucellosis in England in 10 years. The previous case in the UK was an outbreak in Scotland, caused by infected cattle from France. Yet to date, we still have no idea where this outbreak came from. One thing is sure however, this and other diseases are not native to Britain. They are foreign diseases that enter our country from overseas.

And it is not just animal diseases we have to consider. In recent months we have had outbreaks of both brown rot and Ring Rot, the most contagious disease to effect potatoes, which recently caused devastation when it took hold in the United States of America. We have also seen Sudden Oak Death, or Phytophthora ramorum, as it is known. This may sound like a spell from a Harry Potter book, but it is a serious disease that has taken hold in this country, threatens our oak and beech tree populations and has caused the destruction of rhododendron plants, some up to 150 years old.

As gardeners are constantly looking for more exotic plants and indeed are encouraged by gardening programmes and magazines to introduce more exotic plants the pressure is there to bring in ever more non-native plants. How many people realise that that trip across the Channel returning with plants for the garden may bring in disease that could destroy plants and trees in the UK. Isn't it time people were made more aware of the risks of what they are doing?

We must also bear in mind that with the enlargement of the European Union taking place on Saturday of this week, our borders become wider and more difficult to control.

Of course, we expect our farmers to be vigilant, to look out for signs of disease, and to put in place the necessary bio security measures. Yet we must also play our part. It is all very well to ask farmers to improve bio-security, but the single most effective way to prevent disease from spreading across our country is by preventing it entering in the first place. We must put in place the kinds of measures seen in other countries around the world. What a difference between our lack of import controls and the strict import checks and controls seen in countries like the USA, New Zealand and Australia.

Australia is anxious to protect the health status of its industry. New Zealand takes similar precautions. Recently a tourist from Somerset was surprised at being fined £1,500 after being arrested at Perth Airport for taking an apple, a pear and five tangerines into Australia

Why are we so lax when we see other countries, quite rightly, taking strict measures?

We welcome the new government campaign against meat smugglers, whereby posters and leaflets are circulated at air and ferry ports, to make travellers aware of the "potentially devastating consequences" of illegally imported products. But leaflet campaigns are superficial.

This is not a subject that should take the Government by surprise. I would like to pay tribute to the work done by the Hon Member for Brent North in raising the issue of bushmeat imports.

Illegal meat imports pose a major threat to the health and bio-security of the nation. What we are talking about here is not a ham sandwich bought in by an unsuspecting tourist in their handbag, or a half eaten foreign delicacy. The trade in illegal meat is a multi-million pound a year criminal trade being run in an organised and systematic manner.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of the views of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and independent consultants SafetyCraft, which conducted research undertaken for DEFRA estimating that an average of 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat products are imported into the UK every year, a figure greater than the combined legal imports of beef into the UK from France, Uruguay and Argentina. This may amaze some colleagues, but they should not be shocked. The research also said that the figure could be as high as 17,500 tonnes a year.

It is reported that baggage handlers at Heathrow Airport have repeatedly raised concerns over personal luggage arriving on flights from Africa which are full of bushmeat. Luggage has been found covered in maggots and some have left a trail of blood in the arrival halls. Often, the meat is detected by nothing more than its pungent smell.

I would recommend that the Minister speaks to Mr Clive Lawrance formerly of Heathrow-based Ciel Logistic or at least looks at the website of the Bushmeat campaign. It says there that Mr Lawrence has witnessed seizures of between 400 and 500 kilos of illegal bushmeat from just two passengers entering the country from Africa.

Look at the statistics. According to the Department for Transport, 64 million passengers landed or departed Heathrow airport in the year 2000 alone. Of course approximately half of these are leaving the country, rather than coming in, but nevertheless, these are numbers on a massive scale. Yet according to the Customs and Excise Annual Report, in 2002/3 they searched 10,528 people coming in to the UK in total, for all forms of smuggling.

Illegal meat imports can be anything from beef, pork and chicken to exotic products such as monkey, antelope, grasscutters (which I am reliably informed are giant rats), porcupines and bushrat.

Very real concerns have been raised that bushmeat could potentially be infected not just with animal diseases such as FMD and swine fever, but also with diseases such as Ebola and monkey pox which could have a devastating impact on human health in this country.

We should also not underestimate the dangers posed by avian flu, a highly contagious disease in poultry which has caused devastation in the Far East. In the last few months, tens of millions of chickens and ducks have been slaughtered across Asia as the outbreak hit Vietnam, China, South Korea, Cambodia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Laos and Japan. Sadly, this Bird flu has also killed 22 people in Vietnam and Thailand.

This is a disease threat that must not be underestimated. Nor is it a disease restricted to foreign or distant lands. Last year, 10 million chickens were culled in the Netherlands in an effort to stop the spread of an outbreak of the disease, at a cost to the Dutch industry of an estimated 200m euros. This is a disease that has already struck in mainland Europe. We do not have any guarantees that it will not enter the British isles. And the implications could be far worse than foot and mouth disease. Only last week, Dr John McCauley, of the Institute for Animal Health, said the virus could be 20 times worse than the 1918 flu pandemic. Dr McCauley said there was a realistic chance of the current avian flu virus evolving to threaten people directly.

It is important that we discuss such issues in a calm and considered manner. The last thing our farming industry need is another food scare. But whilst we must not cause a public health or a food scare, we must also be sure not to take this issue lightly.

As Gareth Vaughan President of the Farmers' Union of Wales said only last month.

QUOTE

The trade in illegal meat not only threatens the risk of further disease, it poses a serious threat to highly endangered wildlife in Africa and across the globe. The world's leading scientists have stated that species such as gorillas will face extinction within a generation unless immediate international action is taken. The necessity to deal with this problem is not only economic, it is environmentally and ecologically right to put an end to this trade.

But is a lucrative and an organised trade, worth up to an estimated £1 billion per year. And it is easy to see why, a grasscutter rat can be bought in an African bushmeat market for a few pounds, but in the UK each carcass can command a price well in excess of £100.

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency calculates that roughly 85 per cent of the bushmeat entering the country illegally comes in via personal luggage, 11 per cent is smuggled in ship containers, three per cent via transit sheds and the remainder by post and courier. Eastern Europe, West Africa, Southern Africa, Eastern Asia and the Near and Middle East account for 83 per cent of the total flow of illegal meat into this country. Once here it is estimated that 55 per cent is intended for commercial use, distributed through wholesalers, street markets and other traders. The majority is therefore not for the personal consumption of those bringing it in but is sold on at a vast profit.

DEFRA has invested £25 million in a three year action plan to tackle the illegal trade. That is welcome news. This initiative includes a new frontier enforcement strategy involving Customs and Excise; four new national strike teams of Customs officers to detect meat and animal products; continuing intelligence gathering and publicity drives. And wait for it, increasing the number of sniffer dogs from two to six.

Six sniffer dogs! The UK has 110 ports of entry. As we have heard, Heathrow alone deals with over 64 million passengers a year, and the Minister is offering us 6 sniffer dogs to deal with the problem.

I do not believe that the Government has taken this threat seriously enough or that adequate resources are being committed to the task by the Government. A 10 per cent nationwide reduction in frontline Customs staff - rising to 40 per cent in some parts of the country such as Wales - means that some ports of entry are left unmanned. Strike teams and improved intelligence gathering have replaced, rather than supplemented, the existing service.

It may be worthwhile to consider the different approaches to food crime in the UK and other parts of the world. While the Government intends to spend £25 million over three years to address illegal meat imports, Australia, with its rigorous border controls, is spending £246 million in 2004-05 to counter threats from exotic pests and diseases such as foot and mouth, and in addition, the Australia Quarantine and Inspection Service also receives £116 million. Is it any wonder that our farming community have no confidence in the Government's commitment to disease prevention?

However, this lack of resources is evident in one further area, prosecution rates. It is the reason that only two prosecutions have been brought against people caught bringing illegal meat - including bushmeat - into the UK since the Customs and excise assumed responsibility for the task in April 2003. An estimated 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat is entering our country, yet there have been only two prosecutions in 12 months. And even when there are prosecutions, the courts are so lenient that it acts as little deterrent.

The first case was a 48-year-old woman who was charged with illegally importing 186 lbs - more than 13 stones - of fish, goat meat and snails from the Gambia through Gatwick Airport. She was fined £150 with £140 costs at Mid-Sussex Magistrates Court. The second, an American man, was fined just £300 with £140 costs at Uxbridge Magistrates Court. What sort of message does the Minister believe that this sends out to the organised gangs involved in commercial smuggling?

I began this debate by referring to the scenes of devastation in our countryside in 2001. That wasn't just about pictures on the television screens. That devastation was felt by many people in their lives as farmers watched years of painstaking work destroyed before their eyes and many farmers and others saw their livelihoods vanish.

We all have a duty to try to ensure that this cannot happen again.

Sadly the Government is failing in that duty. This Government's failure to deal with illegal meat imports, its lack of import controls is putting British farming and potentially the health of the nation at risk.

Its time the Government listened to farmers and others including those on their own backbenches who have been highlighting this risk. Its time the Government took the issue seriously.

Their failure to act is letting us all down. "

Ends

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