William Hague: We must not have an election until this crisis is under control

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'I propose four tests to see whether the epidemic is sufficiently under control to justify elections'

The Government is introducing a Bill before Parliament to postpone the council elections scheduled to take place on 3 May. Two weeks ago, my party offered to co-operate with the Government in passing legislation to postpone local elections in the areas worst affected by foot-and-mouth. At the time, this bipartisan offer was rebuffed by the Government, but I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has at last decided to do what people from all parts of the country and of all political persuasions have been urging him to do for weeks. So Conservatives wholeheartedly support the central principle of the Bill.

But if it took until last Friday for the Government to be able to decide that it was not appropriate to hold elections on 3 May, it is impossible to see how, four days later, they can be confident that it will be possible to hold them on 7 June. The Government has itself admitted that the scale and spread of the foot-and-mouth crisis has caught it by surprise. The official figures show that the epidemic continues to run out of control, and that the action to contain it is inadequate.

When my colleague Tim Yeo, the shadow agriculture minister, first called for the Army to be deployed to control the crisis on 11 March, there were around 30,000 animals awaiting slaughter. There is now a backlog of over 10 times that: 379,000 animals have been authorised for culling but remain alive. The slaughter backlog has doubled since the Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, and increased by another 10 per cent since he decided to postpone the elections at the weekend.

Every day of delay spreads the crisis to more animals, on more farms, in more parts of the country. That is because until an infected animal is slaughtered, it is breathing the disease into the air, spreading infection on the wind. At the current rate of slaughter, it would take well over a week just to clear the backlog. So it is impossible to believe that the Prime Minister can be confident today that the foot-and- mouth crisis will have been brought under control, still less that the disease will have been eradicated, by 7 June.

That is why I think that it is a mistake that the Elections Bill should specify now the date of 7 June. Indeed, it is clear that the date of 7 June has been chosen not because the local elections need to be held within a month of their original date, nor because it is foreseeable that the foot-and-mouth crisis will be under control by then. Rather, having reluctantly conceded that a May general election was beyond the pale, Labour is determined that the country should go to the polls at the next available opportunity.

Despite his protestations about giving his full attention to the foot-and- mouth crisis, electoral calculation has not been far from the Prime Minister's mind. The Government's term of office still has over a year to run. The fact is that there is no need for the countryside to be made to jump through the hoop of a premature election just because it suits the Prime Minister, especially when the timetable could well be at the expense of bringing the foot-and-mouth crisis effectively under control.

So, while we agree with the principle of the Elections Bill, we think that, as currently drafted, it is flawed. That is why we are laying down amendments today that would allow the elections to be scheduled at a time other than 7 June, if it became clear that the foot-and-mouth crisis had not been resolved.

There is no need for ambiguity as to whether this condition has been met. I propose four objective tests that should be used to determine whether or not the foot-and-mouth epidemic is sufficiently under control to justify holding elections.

First, the standard report-to- slaughter time has been reduced to 24 hours in all parts of the country. The Chief Scientific Adviser described this on 23 March as being essential for bringing foot-and-mouth under control. Until this target is met, each new outbreak of the disease risks spreading the infection further, and special precautions will continue to be needed that restrict the movement of people and animals in the countryside.

Second, the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed. One of the signs that the disease is out of control at present is that it continues to spread beyond previously infected areas. This week, for example, new cases were reported in Cornwall, Cheshire, South Devon and Bristol ­ all outside the black spots of Cumbria, Devon, Dumfries & Galloway and the Welsh Borders. Only when this spread has been reversed, and previously infected areas are being declared clear, will the foot-and-mouth crisis start to be resolved.

Third, movement restrictions have been lifted from most farms. The crisis will continue while many uninfected farms are subject to restrictions on animal movements that impede normal farming practice. Until these restrictions have been lifted, the crisis cannot be said to be over and many farmers will remain unable to run their businesses freely .

And fourth, the trend in new cases is clearly downward, with fewer than 25 new cases a day for at least a week. The number of new cases per day has been a guide to the progress of the epidemic. In the early stages of the crisis, around 10 cases a day were being reported; in week four, there was an average of 24 new cases per day. During the last week, the number of new cases reached 42 a day. Until the number of new confirmed cases begins to decline substantially, it is impossible to say that the progress of the epidemic has been arrested.

In order to be clear that a downward trend has been established, and that a much slower rate of infection is the norm, the Government should look for a week's evidence to show consistently that many fewer cases per day are being reported.

If Mr Blair genuinely put the interests of the country first in postponing the local elections from 3 May, he must accept that he cannot know now whether the crisis will have abated by 7 June, still less by the week of 7 May, when he would need to call a general election for the 7 June.

Rather than be caught (again) in the dazzling headlights of his spin doctors and party managers in a month's time, the Prime Minister should set out clearly and objectively the conditions that need to be met for June elections to be justified.

The writer is Leader of the Opposition

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