Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (M15)

  At her appearance before the Agriculture Committee on 11 December, the Minister of State, Joyce Quin, undertook to supply further information on a number of topics of interest to the Committee. This is set out below.

Has the UK Government changed its position having supported EU help for Dutch pig farmers?

  No. It is true that when this issue came up in Management Committee in 1997-98, the UK supported European Commission proposals on exceptional support for the Netherlands. However, there was no change of policy nor any inconsistency in the UK's approach. The Dutch pig market had totally collapsed following the swift spread of CSF through the pig herd, ending up with over 500 outbreaks. Introducing exceptional market support measures was therefore appropriate. As difficult as things have been for those caught up in the East Anglian outbreak, the UK market has not been distorted by the 16 outbreaks we have suffered. Indeed, market prices have continued to rise in line with seasonal trends. Had distortion taken place, perhaps as a result of more outbreaks, then an approach to the Commission would have been an option open to the Government.

  Two further points are relevant, although not conclusive. The cost of exceptional support measures are now divided 50:50 between the EU budget and the national exchequer (the split in 1997-98 was 75:25). As a result of the Fontainebleau rebate, this means that 82 per cent of the cost would fall on the UK taxpayer. Also, the control of these support measures is very bureaucratic and burdensome and would not be welcomed by the industry. Even under the less burdensome rules applying in 1997-98, the Dutch government is still in dispute with the Commission on whether the controls were correctly applied.

Will the Development Scheme have an end date?

  By its nature, a Development Scheme would tend to be long-term so that it was available for other purposes should the need arise. It is clear that the PW(D)S top-up payments will have first call on the levy collected but the scheme will continue until such time as its trustees decide to end it. What has also been made clear by Nick Brown is that the scheme could and should change if the working party looking at the commercial impact of animal disease controls recommended a substantially different approach.

Does the Minister have the power to kill any or all the pigs in an infected area?

  The Minister may, in the case of swine fever, only cause to be slaughtered an animal which is affected or suspected of being infected with disease or one which has been exposed to infection of swine fever (Section 32(1) of the Animal Health Act). These powers cover the slaughter of confirmed cases and dangerous contacts.

  The Minister declares an infected area when he is satisfied that swine fever is prevalent within the area. The purpose of the infected area is to prevent the spread of disease by restricting the movement of pigs within that area. In the case of swine fever we do not believe that all animals in an infected area are infected or exposed to infection. The Minister cannot therefore slaughter all of them and pay 100 per cent compensation. We do, however, believe that some of the pigs in the area may have been so infected or exposed but, when the infected area is declared, we do not know which pigs have been infected or exposed. The infected area movement restrictions and procedures allow us to determine which pigs have been infected or exposed. This approach has been borne out by the current outbreak. For example there was an estimate that in mid October there were 1.1 million finished pigs restricted by infected area Orders but to date we have only slaughtered some 75,000 (7 per cent) for disease control purposes because it was believed that they were either infected or exposed to infection. There is no rational or scientific basis for believing that all pigs in an infected area are infected or will be exposed to infection.

What contingency planning took place after Dutch outbreak?

  The principles of animal disease control are similar whether it is foot and mouth disease, swine fever or other epidemic disease for which we have a slaughter and compensation policy. As part of the process of training its staff and in order to inform the emergency planning process the SVS carries out animal disease simulation exercises on a regular basis. From 1994 to 1999 it carried out 84 simulation exercises. (1994-23; 1995-10; 1996-11; 1997-10; 1998-16; 1999-14). In addition, MAFF headquarters has a nominated emergency team, which carries out regular exercises on HQ procedures including the designation and drawing up of infected areas.

  The disease controls in place clearly work as the major outbreak of CSF in the Netherlands in 1997-98 spread into Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain but not into the UK.

Why agree to a 16 per cent reduction in capacity under the restructuring scheme?

  EU state aid rules say that for a restructuring scheme to be acceptable under the Treaty, it must include a provision for the beneficiaries to reduce their businesses by at least 16 per cent. (No doubt the 16 per cent reflects an EU compromise). The rules were largely designed to deal with applications for restructuring aid from large individual companies (eg Rover or Air France) rather than with an overall (agriculture) sector that has a large number of individual businesses.

  The Outgoers element of our scheme sets out to achieve this requirement by reducing sow capacity (not actual sow numbers) by 16 per cent compared to June 1998. Although we argued strongly that this part of the scheme alone met the rules' requirements, the Commission did not agree. It insisted that larger pig businesses benefiting from Ongoers must also contribute a 16 per cent capacity reduction (small agriculture enterprises (SAEs) are exempt from this requirement).

  The Government believes that we had no choice but to accept the requirement in respect of Ongoers, as 95 per cent of pig producers can benefit from that part of the scheme without reducing capacity (the alternative was to abandon the scheme). Larger producers will have to make a decision about whether or not it is worth their while to participate, given the need to sign up to a reduction in capacity.

19 December 2000

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