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Column 293with the Bill, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament, provided that the Agents for the Bill give notice to the Clerks in the Private Bill Office not later than the day before the close of the present Session of their intention to suspend further proceedings and that all Fees due on the Bill up to that date be paid ; Ordered,
That on the fifth day on which the House sits in the next Session the Bill shall be presented to the House ;
That there shall be deposited with the Bill a declaration signed by the Agents for the Bill, stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill at the last stage of its proceedings in this House in the present Session ;
That the Bill shall be laid upon the Table of the House by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office on the next meeting of the House after the day on which the Bill has been presented and, when so laid, shall be read the first and second time and committed (and shall be recorded in the Journal of this House as having been so read and committed) ;
That all Petitions relating to the Bill presented in the present Session which stand referred to the Committee on the Bill, together with any minutes of evidence taken before the Committee on the Bill, shall stand referred to the Committee on the Bill in the next Session ;
That no Petitioners shall be heard before the Committee on the Bill, unless their Petition has been presented within the time limited within the present Session or deposited pursuant to paragraph (b) of Standing Order 126 relating to Private Business ;
That in relation to the Bill, Standing Order 127 relating to Private Business shall have effect as if the words under Standing Order 126 (Reference to committee of petitions against Bill)' were omitted ;
That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the present Session ;
That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : I beg to move That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 4183/89, 4839/89 and 5057/89 relating to the animal health aspects of trade in certain animals and animal products ; and supports the Government's intention to negotiate satisfactory arrangements to ensure effective safeguards against the introduction of animal disease.
I welcome this early opportunity to outline the Government's position on three very important proposals. They are the first of 20 or more measures that the Commission intends to publish this year on animal-health aspects of trade in animals and animal products. Let me say at the outset that the Government have no intention of jeopardising our current high health status. Let me also thank the hon. Members for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who sought me out yesterday and today to ask me about this important measure.
The three proposals should be seen as part of a wider process of rationalisation leading to the eventual completion of the Common Market. The Government's general position on animal health matters in the context of the single market is clear : we fully support the overall objective of harmonisation of Community health requirements and are committed to the eventual removal of trade barriers, but--as I have said--we have no intention of jeopardising our current status. We therefore welcome the Commission's frequently declared intention of ensuring that the completion of the single market is achieved without giving cause for animal disease to spread into areas where it is not currently prevalent.
To the extent that the Community achieves uniformly high health standards, the need for controls over the movement of animals and animal products between member states will, of course, eventually diminish. In the meantime, the progress towards achievement of such standards must not be put at risk by a premature relaxation of existing safeguards. For geographical and historical reasons, the position of different member states on animal disease varies considerably. Safeguards are needed to protect the health status of the regions that are relatively free from disease--including, of course, the United Kingdom.
I know that those general principles are widely shared by many interested organisations that we have consulted. With them in mind, let me now deal with the three specific proposals that are the subject of the motion.
The proposal concerning intra-Community trade in, and imports from, third countries of bovine embryos has been discussed in detail at official level. It is likely to be presented to the Council of Ministers in the week beginning 24 July, which is why we are having this debate this evening. As matters stand, after the Council working-group discussions, intra-Community trade in bovine embryos will be subject to a common set of rules covering the animal-health status of donor animals and the conditions under which embryos are collected, processed, stored and transported.
Embryos will be permitted to be moved from one member state to another only if they are accompanied by an official health certificate confirming that they comply
Column 295with the prescribed health requirements. Designated embryo collection teams will, under veterinary supervision, be responsible for carrying out collection, processing and storage of embryos. Imports of bovine embryos from third countries will be permitted only from countries, or parts of countries, approved by the Community. Approval will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will depend on animal health in the country concerned, the structure of its veterinary service and its ability to respond to and control outbreaks of disease. Where approval is granted, all consignments will need to be accompanied by an official health certificate, under conditions that are specific to the country or areas concerned. In line with intra-Community trade requirements, the collection, processing and storage of embryos will have to be carried out by officially approved collection teams under veterinary supervision. As explained in the explanatory memorandum, submitted on 22 March 1989, the proposal, if adopted as it stands, will provide protection against foot and mouth disease for the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland which do not vaccinate against the disease and therefore have fully susceptible livestock populations. Article 4 allows imports of fresh embryos to be prohibited from member states where vaccination against foot and mouth disease is practised and, in the case of frozen embryos, for pre-export virus isolation tests of flushing fluids for the foot and mouth disease virus. There has been some pressure from other member states at working group level for a less stringent provision, but we shall continue to resist any measure that does not provide adequate guarantees against the introduction, even remotely, of foot and mouth disease.
We are satisfied that bovine embryos, imported under the conditions that I have briefly described, would provide the same high level of protection against the introduction of animal disease as is currently the case under our national import rules.
The sheep and goats proposal, No. 4612/89, also covers trade between member states and imports from third countries. Sheep and goats would have to be accompanied by official health certificates confirming compliance with prescribed health requirements. Member states could seek approval to demand guarantees over and above the minimum laid down if they have, or propose to have, national disease control programmes which require the same guarantees for movements within their territory. Therefore we could lay down stricter conditions, provided that we were willing to impose the stricter conditions in our own country. We already do so and we shall continue to do so. As with cattle and pigs, we should be able to require post-import quarantine against foot and mouth disease.
Imports of sheep and goats from third countries would be subject to the same set of rules as already apply to the import of cattle and pigs from third countries under directive 72/462. Imports of sheep and goats would only be permitted from those countries, or parts thereof, that had been approved by the Community. All animals would have to be accompanied by an official health certificate and would be subject to an official animal health inspection immediately upon arriving within the Community. The list of diseases in directive 72/462 would be enlarged to include those significant epizootic diseases of sheep and goats.
Unlike the bovine embryos proposal, the sheep and goats proposal would not provide the same degree of
Column 296protection against the introduction of diseases as the current national rules. For example, in the case of contagious agalactia, which is prevalent in many South American countries but absent from the United Kingdom, the proposal requires animals to be six months clinically free in the herd of origin, but we require three years of freedom and pre-export testing. Because of the chronic nature of the disease, we believe that the proposal as it stands could significantly increase the chances of it being imported. If that happened, affected animals would have to be destroyed, which would be extremely costly. We understand that it costs Spain about £26 million a year.
The sheep and goats proposal has been discussed by national experts in a Council working group. My officials expressed our concerns. It became clear that other member states are also concerned that the proposal is deficient in several respects. There is a lot of work to be done. We shall continue to press for the necessary level of protection.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I do not think that the Minister referred to the extent to which the eventual legislation will be decided by majority or unanimity voting. The motion refers to the Government's intention to negotiate satisfactory arrangements. The Minister has referred to the fact that other member states are unhappy. Complete satisfaction can be assured only if there is unanimity. If there is less than unanimity, satisfaction cannot be guaranteed.
Mr. Thompson : If the majority is against it, we shall be satisfied. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these measures will be decided on a qualified or a proper majority. He knows that not every country has the same number of votes. We have 10, Ireland has three and Luxembourg has two. The hon. Gentleman was instrumental in urging us to hold the debate so that the concerns of hon. Members could be put before Ministers and their officials. He has just put one of those great concerns before us. We fully understand that we shall have to work very hard to ensure that health status is preserved.
Directive 5057/89 relates to the poultry and hatching eggs proposal. Its main provisions for intra-Community trade require that all export consignments must originate from premises approved by the member state and in accordance with plans approved by the Commission, that special provisions be made for exports from member states that vaccinate against Newcastle disease to those that do not, that any voluntary or compulsory disease control programme in force, or introduced by member states, must be approved by the Commission and that each member state must designate a national laboratory responsible for co-ordinating disease diagnostic methods. As for third country trade, imports would be permitted only from countries approved on the basis of, first, their animal health status, secondly, their freedom from classified diseases and, thirdly, their veterinary service structure and ability to guarantee compliance with the prescribed import conditions. In addition, as with the other two proposals, consignments would be subject to a check at the first point of entry into the Community.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : The Minister will recollect that he gave me a most courteous and constructive hearing when I went to see him in his office on 18 May regarding the importation of poultry, but particularly parrots, and especially Amazonian parrots. Can the Minister report any developments that have
Column 297occurred in the past two months? He was full of good will at the time and I have no doubt that he is doing his absolute best on this difficult subject.
Mr. Thompson : Knowing that the hon. Gentleman would be in his place tonight, yesterday my officials sent me a letter on the four points that he raised. I was not entirely satisfied with the thoroughness of that letter so I sent it back as I felt that we could get closer to what the hon. Gentleman and I seek regarding the importation of exotic birds into this country, their despatch from their country of origin and the way in which they are looked after here before they go into the retail trade. I knew that the hon. Gentleman would be here, but I was not prepared not to go as far as I could.
Mr. Thompson : I would not wish to suspect that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had not read the document. It mentions single birds and perhaps the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was worried about single birds.
Mr. Thompson : We had better not argue with Mr. Deputy Speaker any longer as we have a long time to go and we shall need him later. Quarantine would be permitted for imports from third countries only if disease were suspected. The proposal is scheduled for a first reading by a Council working group later this week. With the support of the House, my officials will press for our genuine concerns about the implications for the health of our national flock to be taken fully into account.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : The memorandum provided by the Select Committee on European Legislation states on page 9 : "The trade criteria which third countries would have to meet in order to export to the Community have yet to be defined, but Member States would have the general power to impose post-import isolation on third country birds or hatching eggs suspected of being diseased."
It continues :
"This could be too late to prevent the spread of Newcastle disease".
Is the Minister satisfied that the trade criteria which third countries would have to meet would be of a sufficiently high standard to prevent the onset of such diseases?
I shall move on to a subject that worries many people--rabies. Hon. Members on all sides of the House have written to me on this matter. The Government naturally support action at a Community level for the eradication of rabies but we would resist any suggestion that the Community should commit itself to any particular date for the elimination of quarantine. The Government's position is that the elimination of quarantine can be considered only when quarantine is no longer necessary to exclude the disease. Although the Government support the Commission's revised proposal that member states should implement
Column 298eradication programmes before the end of 1989, we believe that eradication will take longer to achieve than the three years originally provided for. It is therefore likely that quarantine will remain necessary beyond 1992.
The United Kingdom, in common with a majority of member states, believes that we must retain the right to take urgent safeguard action against imports from other member states when a serious disease threat arises from that quarter. At present there can be no reason for confidence that the Commission would be capable of taking rapid and effective action in such circumstances. Speed of response can be crucial if the spread of a serious disease is to be prevented.
That is one reason why the Government attach considerable importance to quarantine, which is a necessary measure in relation to particular diseases while zones of different health status remain. In some cases, such as Newcastle disease, quarantine at the point of destination has proved to be effective, but in the case of foot and mouth disease, for example, quarantine needs to be applied at the point of entry, and isolated from native animals, to avoid the spread of disease. In the United Kingdom, quarantine facilities are largely provided by the private sector. We must make sure that the private sector is willing to pay for adequate safeguards to maintain the standards necessary for our successful import and export of animals. 8.55 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : I hope that the House will be completely united in demanding the development and the maintenance of the most effective measures possible to prevent the spread of animal diseases. Rather earlier than he expected, the Minister has moved his take note motion which
"supports the Government's intention to negotiate satisfactory arrangements to ensure effective safeguards against the introduction of animal disease."
Just this once, we shall give the Minister the benefit of the doubt, but we shall demand a full debate on the final proposals when the negotiations in the European Community have been completed. It would be interesting if the Minister were to give us some idea of the timetable which the Government and the European Commission have in mind.
The House must reserve its right to vote on a matter of vital national importance. For once we can use the word "vital" literally, as it is a matter of life and death.
Mr. Spearing : I agree with my hon. Friend that it is proper for us to debate the substantive legislation when it appears, but I hope that he is under no illusion that the resolution of 30 October 1980, under which the debate is being held on the recommendation of the Select Committee on European Legislation, gives no guarantee that such a debate can take place. Such a debate would occur only through the willingness of the Leader of the House or the use of a precious Supply day. I hope that my hon. Friend is under no illusion that a debate on this important and vital matter is assured or automatic.
Mr. Home Robertson : The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for his work in these matters. Technically he is quite right, but I was trying to obtain from the Minister an undertaking that in due course the House will have an opportunity to debate and vote on this vital matter of life and death. The House must retain and establish its rights
Column 299and I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that the Government will provide time for such a debate in due course. I am more than willing to give way if he wishes to deal with that point now.
We have at present--
I want to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is suggesting that we shall be able to amend any future Westminster legislation if it is derived from the directive? Surely he understands enough about the European Community to know that that will not be possible.
Mr. Home Robertson : I understand that clearly, and the hon. Gentleman is right. We have plenty of time for this debate ; I understand that we can continue until 11.30 pm. However, I do not want to take too many interventions, because Front Bench speeches can go on interminably in that case. I simply seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be a debate and a vote on the subject in due course.
We have admirably effective safeguards for animal health at present in the form of the North sea, the Irish sea, the English channel and the Atlantic ocean, combined with rigorous controls at ports and airports, and effective quarantine regulations. However, sadly, the Commission regards any frontier controls as anachronistic obstructions to the internal market, which must be swept away in 1992.
I am a long-standing supporter of the principle of European unity, so I hope that I shall be allowed to say, in the best communautaire spirit, that this proposed extension of the European principle may turn out to be fraught with unjustifiable dangers which should and must be avoided. No political or economic ideal can justify measures that would lead to the avoidable spread of disease, and surely frontier health controls are one manifestation of national sovereignty which is wholly justifiable in international terms. We urge the Government to forget about Britain's sovereign rights to opt out of the social charter or to pollute the sea and instead to concentrate on protecting our livestock and people against imported diseases.
The House is indebted to the House of Lords Select Committee on European Communities for its report entitled "1992 : Health Controls and the Internal Market", which sets out the background to the proposals with admirable clarity. We must recognise that there is a wide variation in the pattern of animal health in different parts of the European Community and I will give three examples.
Column 300Foot and mouth disease, to which the Minister referred, is common in Italy, sporadic in Germany and non-existent in the United Kingdom, among other countries, largely thanks to the combined effects of quarantine controls and the policy of the slaughter of affected herds whenever outbreaks have occurred in the past. That policy has been supported by the farming industry and Governments of all parties. However, that policy could be at risk under these proposals. My second example is Aujeszky's disease in pigs. It is endemic in most other European Community countries, but it has been virtually eradicated in Britain, largely thanks to concerted action by the British pig industry. That achievement is protected at present by the application of health standards on imports. What guarantee can there be that such protection will remain in place if the proposals go through as they stand?
My third example is rabies, to which the Minister referred. He knows that hon. Members of all parties and the British public are alarmed by the possibility that rabies could be reintroduced into the United Kingdom in future. Rabies is endemic in wild animals in most of the European mainland. It is an ever-present, potentially fatal risk to farm animals and humans. Britain has been kept free of rabies because of our natural advantage as an island, combined with quarantine regulations and great vigilance at our ports.
I could cite many more examples of different diseases, but the fundamental point is that it would be a costly and tragic disaster if diseases such as foot and mouth, Aujeszky's disease or rabies were to return to Britain because of the ill-considered relaxation of frontier controls to meet political deadlines in 1992-93. Let us not overlook the rights of other countries to protect themselves against the problems that may arise in Britain, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a disease which is new to the world as far as I know, and new to Europe, and which crops up in many parts of the United Kingdom. We must recognise the right of our European Community partners to take steps to prevent the spread of that disease on to their territories.
The framework of national controls to isolate diseases wherever possible has worked well, especially in the islands or peninsular states of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark. It would be downright reckless to relax those controls unless they were to be replaced by measures that were at least as effective--or, wherever possible, better.
We can sum up the Commission's present proposals as follows. It proposes first to raise animal health standards throughout the European Community. It then wants to go on to rely on the authorities in the regions from which animals are being moved to certify that their health is up to the standard of the region to which they are being consigned. I am sure that we all support the objective of raising health standards and we are genuinely impressed by the efforts being taken to eradicate rabies, for example, on the European mainland.
I am sure that the House would want to support the efforts of our European partners in that campaign, which will be costly and difficult and take a long time. There should be no question of dropping our guard until it is certain that the risk has gone. Neither rabies, foot and mouth disease, Aujeszky's disease, BSE nor any of a long list of animal diseases will be eradicated from the territory of the European Community by the end of this millennium, let alone by 1993. That cannot be done.
Mr. Cryer : My hon. Friend is making a powerful case and giving a competent exposition of the dangers. Ray MacSharry, the Agriculture Commissioner who has signed one of the European Community documents, said in May in the Assembly in Strasbourg that there would be complete freedom of movement of animals by 1992. He is determined to press ahead with these proposals, in spite of the dangers that my hon. Friend is setting out so well.
Mr. Home Robertson : My background on the general debate about European issues is rather different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I have consistently supported the principle of European unity. It is, however, daft to concede some points in these circumstances. The House should be united. I am astonished that responsible people such as Mr. MacSharry propose doing away with safeguards that could put an important industry in his country, the Republic of Ireland, at risk.
We may be able to legislate to abolish frontier controls, but surely the House understands that, powerful as we may be in this great Parliament of ours, viruses and bacteria are not susceptible to legislation. We have controls that can prevent the spread of these diseases and keep them in place. Meanwhile, there can be no substitution for the protection of our veterinary surgeons and environmental health officers monitoring and controlling imports. In an ideal world, officials at a point of departure could be relied upon to act in the best interests of the point of destination, but strange things can happen in transit. Many of us remember that someone must have authorised the dispatch of at least 20 consignments of nasty meat from Ireland last year into the United Kingdom, which were detected only by a vigilant environmental health officer in Cornwall.
Let us keep our environmental health officers and our vets in position, with the powers that they need to protect the health of our animals and our people. The House should heed what they say about these proposals. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers has said :
"We believe that the Commission's desire to remove barriers to trade prior to 1992 is taking precedence to public health and that the Regulations are designed to protect producers and encourage trade rather than to protect the consumer."
Surely, if the Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have learnt nothing else during the past 12 months, they have learnt that it is time that the Government and the European Community understood the need to protect the interests of the consumer. The consumer is not prepared to put up with lax standards from the Government or anyone else.
The British Veterinary Association has said :
"Given the differing health status of the member states the time is not ripe to dispense with existing frontier controls." The BVA went on to question the Community's ability to achieve uniform high standards of veterinary controls in the short term. It pointed to the fact that the proposed new system
"will require considerably increased resources in money and veterinary manpower at the Commission and in the UK."
Government agencies have been threatening to cut veterinary education at Cambridge and Glasgow and the Government have been cutting expenditure on the state veterinary service, yet we are debating a new system of controls that will require the services of many more vets.
Column 302What do the Government say about that? Will they make provision for more vets to make the new system work when and if it comes into effect?
The British Veterinary Association also referred to the animal welfare aspects of the proposal to expand trade in live animals. Occasionally we see alarming reports of sheep or calves being transported across several countries in conditions even worse than those at Heathrow or Gatwick in July. It is not a laughing matter. Many of our constituents are deeply concerned when they see television film of sheep that have been kept tightly crammed into cattle lorries with little access to food or water for long periods while they are in transit across mainland Europe. Do we really want to encourage the transport of live animals and poultry to and from every point between Crete and Donegal? I suggest that, with the exception of the specialist trade in quality breeding stock, we should concentrate our efforts on reducing the avoidable stress on live animals in transit by encouraging the alternative trade in meat on the hook.
The documents refer to poultry and eggs. I remind the Minister that some months ago his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to respond in rather difficult circumstances to respond to the emergence of evidence of the risk of salmonella in eggs. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not exactly cover itself in glory but, after much clucking and scratching around, the Ministry is now applying better controls to guard against salmonella in the British poultry industry. Grave shortcomings remain, however, in our ability to enforce similar standards in respect of imported eggs. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for letting me see a copy of the letter dated 10 July from the Parliamentary Under-Secre-tary of State for Health, referring to the importation of eggs and the difficulty of enforcing the new high standards of salmonella protection that we have in this country in respect of eggs imported from the European mainland :
"Port Health Authorities are undertaking systematic sampling of imported eggs for the presence of invasive salmonella. It is not practicable to hold up importation while the tests are carried out but any positive finding is referred to the European Commission and to the country of origin so that action can be taken to deal with the problem at source."
I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker : tests are carried out on eggs, but if the authorities discover something wrong with those eggs, the rest of the consignment is put on the market in the United Kingdom nevertheless, and a written report sent to the European Commission and to the authorities in the country of origin. That means that our farmers, who are being asked to apply stringent and costly controls and to maintain higher standards on their poultry and egg farms, are having their position undermined by unfair competition from across the water. That is not a reassuring background against which to debate the documents.
Finally, let me register our alarm at the categories of animal diseases outlined in the Commission's initial proposal. Three separate groups were listed--three separate categories of diseases and the different ways in which they were to be dealt with. Group I was the group of diseases that were to be subject to compulsory notification and were recognised as a serious threat to the Community economy. Group I included foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever, swine vesicular disease and Newcastle disease ; so far, so good.
Group II covered contagious diseases to be notifiable on a herd basis. That group included tuberculosis and
Column 303brucellosis, which ought surely to be subject to the tightest possible controls in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Community.
Then we come to Group III, which included diseases that were to be subject to discretionary notification and voluntary eradication in individual herds. It was to include, amazingly, not only serious animal diseases such as Aujeszky's disease, but rabies. Are we really to believe that, not long ago, the Commission was proposing that rabies should be a category III disease subject to voluntary eradication? It is against the background of that lackadaisical approach that we are being asked to sanction the relaxation of frontier controls.
Of course, as the Minister acknowledged, other important diseases, such as sheep scab, were not mentioned in those initial lists. In a written answer on 17 February, the Minister told me that those lists were to be reviewed and that rabies, in particular, would go on the agenda. We are thankful for small mercies. However, with an agenda whose background owes more to politics than to any scientific consideration of animal health--followed by those absurd initial proposals in the list--we now find ourselves moving towards negotiations that could threaten a century of achievements in animal health.
Mr. K. W. Wilkes, a former head of the animal medicines division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and now a consultant to the British Veterinary Association, reported on a recent session in Brussels in the 15 July edition of the Veterinary Journal. He said :
"the determination to remove frontier controls was considerably greater than the likelihood of securing the necessarily uniformly high health standards by the end of 1992."
That is an alarming prospect. This is a serious debate, and I hope that the entire House will be united. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will go to Brussels and negotiate in the certain knowledge that people in Britain and the British Parliament are not prepared to tolerate the watering down of such essential and literally vital standards. The House will expect the Government to introduce a far more responsible approach to these affairs in those coming negotiations.