Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. The future of this scheme is one that intrigues me. Have you got any reason to doubt the Government's intention to wind it up after the outbreak? I think in your evidence you said in paragraph 2.5: "Finally it"—that is you—"was concerned that the scheme would be used as an excuse for the government to offload its current responsibilities, and to avoid argument as to its responsibilities in the future." Can you explain that for me so I can get a better understanding of your reservations and also to have the benefit of your views as to what you think the Government are going to do when the scheme has done its job.
  (Mr Sheldon) We remain extremely wary about what the Government's attitude will be to this scheme after the swine fever problem is resolved. We have received assurances that it is not the Government's intention to use it as a way of absolving itself of any responsibility, but we remain wary. In particular, they remain dogmatic that funding any of the cost of movement restrictions is not the responsibility of government and we fear that the next time movement restrictions are imposed, for whatever reason, yes, they will merely indicate our scheme and say, "It is nothing to do with us and you have your development scheme to take care of these costs." That remains a fear and I dare say it will until such time as their actions demonstrate otherwise.

  41. This is maybe a naive question, but why do you think the Government should be responsible for funding movement schemes? Obviously you had to negotiate on the basis that something was better than nothing, but the sense I get is that you feel that the responsibility stops with government.
  (Mr Sheldon) Our belief is that the quickest, surest and cheapest way of resolving an outbreak of a notifiable disease such as swine fever is for the Government to take immediate action to destroy the animals that need to be destroyed and to absolve the producers of any direct cost. The argument for that is not necessarily that the producers deserve compensation or anything like that. It is quite simply that faced with oblivion or carrying on, some producers will carry on and thereby the risk of the spread of disease might be increased. Our argument is that it is the cheapest way of doing it and we said that right from the start.

  42. Do you think there was a worry in the Government's mind that they were getting involved financially in potentially quite a big way, as they would see it, in a sector of agriculture that is basically non-subsidised? In other words, it is an area that does not merit any kind of subsidy schemes for the regular part of its activity under the CAP and here is part of the industry which hit a real crisis. Do you think they were worried about precedent?
  (Mr Black) I believe they were worried about where this scheme may fit in relation to the total European context and potential state aid implications if they were to turn round and get involved. At least, that was partly what we were being told in the early days—that in the past in outbreaks like this in Europe aid was only ever paid if the outbreak was large, and they felt that this outbreak was small by context.

  43. If I have understood it, if it had not been contained it could have become catastrophic?
  (Mr Black) Yes.
  (Mr Houston) Which is precisely Mike's point.
  (Mr Godfrey) I would also like to draw your attention to our point in 2.2 where it says that the "... United Kingdom authorities"—this is what they said with the Northern Ireland situation—"do not accept that the sudden total inability of a producer to sell a product in his usual market at any price, owing to circumstances unrelated to the market situation without any change in levels of consumer demand, coupled with the almost total inability to transport this produce for sale at any price in other markets"—which applied in classical swine fever—"due to restrictions on animal movements, can be considered to fall within the normal parameters of entrepreneurial risk." So the Government do now accept, because they applied for a state aid application on that, and they appeared to accept then that if you could not move pigs because of outside problems, it was not a "normal entrepreneurial risk". I think that is a very important point.

  44. You have had to tread that very difficult path as a representative body in advocating members' wishes combined with your much more natural anger to say to the Government that they are being a bit nit-picky and a bit mean. Did you feel at the time that they were being unfairly or unnecessarily harsh on you at a time when your industry was facing yet another straw that could break the proverbial camel's back?
  (Mr Godfrey) Yes.

  45. In some other evidence that was sent to us by Mr Philip Richardson he reminds the Committee about the way the Dutch approach it. He tells us: "Instead, they have arranged a facility from the Banks, which allows a large sum of money to be available for disease control while the mechanism for repayment can be set up." Was that type of mechanism something you discussed with MAFF in this context or not?
  (Mr Houston) This may come at a later stage but that mechanism is later and after the Dutch swine fever problem. We have a problem of getting cash to producers now. There is a group chaired by Neil Thornton which will address those sort of problems and the NPA has an input into that group.

  46. In terms of cash, just refresh my memory, you have not yet had any money from this scheme?
  (Mr Black) The Government's proportion of the pay-out has been paid, but the top-up payment which will come as a result of the producer levy has not yet been paid.

  47. Has that money gone to pig producers, individual enterprises?
  (Mr Black) It has. There was a question mark over some parts of that funding because the Government have progressively upped the amount that they paid and the early payments were made at the lower rate. There was a question mark as to whether all producers from the early stage had received their top-up to the Government limit. Our problem the whole way through this has been that the Government could, if they had wished, turned round and paid the money on day one and sorted out the arguments within Europe later on. We believe that some of our competitor countries would have seen that scenario where their governments would have made the payments in the early stages and sorted out the bureaucracy of the issue later.

  48. Do you have a precedent to support that position?
  (Mr Black) I believe that that was what took place in Holland in the initial stages.

Dr Turner

  49. Could I just ask when the last outbreak of this disease was in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Houston) There was a very small outbreak in 1986 and the previous recognition of the disease was in the late 1960s when it was eradicated.

  50. 1986 was the last outbreak?
  (Mr Houston) That was very small.

  51. What was the precedent there? Was it done there as you are asking now?
  (Mr Black) No, because it was in a different part of the country where the pig population was not as intense as it is in East Anglia.

  52. So you were in unprecedented country in arguing your case?
  (Mr Black) Yes.

  53. I am trying to understand the cause of this because one of the things that caused a lot of concern in East Anglia was not just the fact that there was an outbreak, but a whole set of them, and as soon as they were able to get freedom to move then another outbreak occurred and many of the same people were caught. You were arguing that the whole thing arose from an import of disease. What about all the further outbreaks that really caused so much problem? If it had been limited to the first one—and your paper argues perhaps more robust measures were required—why did it spread?
  (Mr Black) It appears that it was due to a certain amount of lateral spread from units that were not initially part of the outbreak. So initially there was one herd in Quidenham which had been infected and pigs had been moved from there to a number of other herds before the disease had been discovered and, therefore, we started off with five cases initially and most of the rest of the outbreaks are linked to those original five cases either by movement of vehicles or by movement of stock or personnel.

  54. You have asked for a review of the handling of the outbreaks by the Government. Is there a case for extending that to look and see how the industry was behaving? Do you think there are measures that possibly need to be addressed there as well?
  (Mr Black) We welcome the opportunity to look more closely after the eradication.

  55. What are the main issues you have suggested the Government should look at in its behaviour and response to the outbreak?
  (Mr Houston) Mike is a member of Neil Thornton's group.
  (Mr Sheldon) Right the way through the period we have sought to improve the processes of making payments, the processes of communication. We have sought to increase the level of aggression with which the State Veterinary Service has acted in terms of killing out animals at risk of the disease. We have done that and the State Veterinary Service have made a number of moves based on those discussions. At this stage we are at a point where we are saying we know we are going to have a review of how it was handled (to everybody's advantage we hope) and we will wait until that is appropriate.

  56. How did the Dutch outbreak compare in scale to the one we had in East Anglia?
  (Mr Sheldon) The Dutch outbreak was much much bigger. There were hundreds of cases. I do not recall how many exactly.

  57. Is it completely obvious that there were lessons which necessarily carried across from handling a very big outbreak to a modest one? Are you sure there were lessons to be learned which were not?
  (Mr Sheldon) The one major one we tried to carry forward was to initiate 3 km kill-out zones from the outset.

  58. Yes, you make that point in your memorandum.
  (Mr Sheldon) The post mortem of the issue will show what difference that would have made.

  59. You very kindly, I think, used words which talk about "poor communication". One correspondent said: "The past 11 weeks have been a roller coaster of misinformation and lack of communication, resulting in immense stress and strain on our whole farming operation." Have you collectively made a summary of what the experience was of your members in terms of information flow or the lack of it?
  (Mr Black) We are in the process of putting that together and it will be part of the submission that we make when—

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