08 November 2001

S1M-2409 Foot-and-mouth Disease (Public Inquiry)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 8 November 2001

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

Foot-and-mouth Disease
(Public Inquiry)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party debate on motion S1M-2409, in the name of Alex Fergusson, on a public inquiry into foot-and-mouth disease, and two amendments to that motion.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The SNP amendment calls, properly, for a focus on the regions that were most affected by the outbreak. However, as Rhoda Grant said, the financial impact spreads far beyond the areas where sheep and cattle had to be slaughtered as a result of infection or proximity to it.

I will make one or two points about Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde axis. In a sense, we were comparatively fortunate that the outbreak happened in spring when the flow of beasts and sheep was north to south. In the autumn, a move to the north would have been in full flood and the effects on the economy of the north could have been considerably worse.

We had some narrow squeaks. What turned out to be frostbitten feet on sheep at Fyvie had us on tenterhooks for several weeks. Travel by a farmer in the far north to infected farms in the south was punished, properly, by slaughter of his animals.

However, freedom from infection does not mean freedom from impact. Our marts were shut. Sheep that were over-wintering could not be moved or sold and the beasts could not move on to the parks that were occupied by those sheep. Winter feed became exhausted while the beasts remained isolated in the barns from the new grass, which was being eaten by the hoggets. The spring export market, which would usually take 70 per cent of the crop, was closed.

When movement became possible, the restrictions to lifts from a single location meant that the small number of over-wintering sheep on a typical farm represented a transport cost per head that was far in excess of the market value of those sheep. We moved from vets destroying stock on disease grounds to farmers destroying stock on economic grounds. All this was happening hundreds of miles from the nearest infection.

Ross Finnie: Will Stewart Stevenson be gracious enough to concede that, at all stages, the movement controls that were imposed and the extent to which they were unfolded was done consistently on veterinary advice in relation to the risk associated with foot-and-mouth disease?

Stewart Stevenson: I am happy to accept that. I acknowledge that it was entirely proper that those restrictions were in place. I am not disagreeing with Ross Finnie; I am highlighting the fact that the impact in areas far from the disease was severe, just as it was in the areas that were directly affected. I thank the minister for that intervention.

Alex Fergusson referred to consequential compensation. Transport company vehicles, already suffering from exceptionally high fuel prices, lay idle in their yards. When relaxation came at last, the burden of disinfection was another problem for the hauliers; it was a double whammy for them.

Tourists, encouraged to do so, properly, by Government campaigns, stayed away from rural areas in droves. Some unscrupulous landowners in the Highlands even printed off official-looking signs from the Highlands Council website and used them to instruct people to keep off their land. Only the individual action of a council employee, in the past month, has seen many of those signs removed.

In my constituency, day visits to the area are a staple of our tourist industry. Already hard hit by the closure of toilets throughout Aberdeenshire, which nudged older visitors to other areas, tourist attractions such as the excellent lighthouse museum at Fraserburgh, which celebrates the work of the Stevenson family, have had to lay off staff.

The effects of the crisis will last for years. That is not to say that there are easy solutions—we do not pretend that there are—but that we must work together to win fairness and justice for those who are affected across a range of industries and throughout Scotland. Politicians, industry and the general public must work together to learn the lessons, minimise the chance of recurrence and improve our response to the disease. We can do that only by working in public.

Elaine Murray says that a public inquiry would take too long.

Dr Murray rose—

Stewart Stevenson: At least, Margaret Beckett says that it would take too long. If it takes too long, that is because there is a big problem and we must learn big lessons. We need a proper, rigorous interchange, in public, between investigators and those giving evidence. That is why we seek a public inquiry—convened in Scotland, for Scotland—to discover the facts in partnership, to develop solutions together and to rebuild public trust.


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