Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported today on the progress made by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in implementing recommendations made by the Committee of Public Accounts following the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. Good progress has been made on most of the recommendations made by the Committee but some key areas remain where further work is needed.
Foot and Mouth Disease is still common in many areas of the world and high levels of international trade and travel mean that another outbreak is possible at any time. The Department has taken steps to reduce the risk of the virus entering the country through illegal meat imports, to prevent livestock from coming into contact with the virus, and to slow the potential initial spread of infection by improved farm biosecurity and restrictions on the movements of animals. The Department has also taken steps to put in place sufficient veterinary resources to deal quickly with a sizeable outbreak, and has negotiated with over 200 contractors for the supply of essential services at agreed prices. It has not, however, finished work to upgrade its computer systems to help manage an outbreak.
The Department has improved its capacity to deal with future outbreaks of livestock diseases and its contingency plan is one of the best available, and has been the subject of wide consultation with the farming industry, local authorities and other rural interest groups. The plan is, however, relevant mainly to central government and more work is needed to engage with local authorities and others to facilitate a co-ordinated and co-operative approach should another outbreak arise.
European Union policy requires the rapid cull of all animals in an infected place and of animals in dangerous contact with the virus. Animals on neighbouring (contiguous) premises will be culled where a possible route of infection is identified by veterinarians or if initial efforts to control the epidemic are unsuccessful. Scientific opinion on the relative effectiveness of vaccination and cull of contiguous premises remains divided, and Defra has commissioned further studies using improved computer models. Defra has significantly increased its stock of vaccines and in future will be able to begin vaccination within five days of an outbreak – but the decision to vaccinate would have to be taken in the face of many uncertainties.
The European Commission generally reimburses 60 per cent of a Member State’s eligible expenditure on controlling livestock epidemics. However, the Commission concluded that UK culled animals were valued at between two and three times the Commission’s assessment of the likely market value, and other costs incurred in 2001 were significantly higher than necessary. As a result, the Commission has agreed to reimburse some £350 million – approximately one-third of the Department’s initial claim for £960 million.
Defra has consulted on a new compensation scheme for all animal diseases which would apply standard rates based on average market values prior to an outbreak. In the meantime, Defra has drawn up a list of 280 approved valuers and any who give significant cause for concern will be removed from the approved list. It has also improved its guidance to valuers but decided not to provide benchmark valuations as a guide to valuers. The Department is still considering proposals to share the cost of an outbreak with the farming industry.
The Department has paid 97 per cent of invoices totalling some £1.3 billion submitted by contractors since 2001 but has not agreed a final settlement with 57 contractors pending the results of its investigations. A number of cases are awaiting legal action. The first cases to be tested in court were heard during 2003 with the first judgement in January 2004. Nine cases are now in the High Court and one case is the subject of ongoing Police investigation. A further case has been referred to the Special Compliance Office of the Inland Revenue.