Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100-119)



Mr Todd

  100. Looking at the longer term issues, clearly the sector will suffer from an export ban for quite some considerable time and this will distort the marketplace for many months. What steps are we taking to look at price support mechanisms that will preserve a marketplace that is viable?
  (Mr Brown) These are precisely the issues that I am looking at in the recovery plan. The recovery plan has to be tailored to the market circumstances for the foreseeable future. If we are going to look to a longer term export market, and this issue is particularly important in the case of the sheep sector, then we do need to have a very firm grasp of the time frame. It seems to me that re-establishing the export market for sheep is going to take longer than I think perhaps people have realised so far because, of course, there is the breeding cycle to be considered as well as the opening up of the markets.

  101. Bearing in mind that a lot of farmers will be facing a clean sheet of paper position essentially in which they can review the future of their business because they have now had losses, is this not an opportunity to engage with farmers on other potential futures?
  (Mr Brown) Yes is the answer to that.

  102. What are we doing?
  (Mr Brown) I am hoping that we will be able to pull together the work of the Hill Task Force, work that we have under way on support mechanisms in the Sheep Premia, the Hill Farm Allowances and the marketplace. There is other work that we are examining with the sheep sector which the Select Committee has looked at, including the genotyping programme. It does seem to me there is an opportunity to draw these different strands together and create an industry that is more effectively supporting farmer income rather than sheep numbers.

  103. There may be farmers who may wish to see a future outside farming altogether who may need assistance to diversify as well.
  (Mr Brown) That is a perfectly clear point. I have always been a supporter of the early retirement scheme. Like every other minister in the European Union who did not already have such a scheme as part of the social security arrangements we found it impossible to introduce such a scheme under the Rural Development Regulation because of the deadweight cost. I do wonder, and I can go no further than this, if such a scheme might play a part in our response to the very specific circumstances that now confront us.

  104. Are we making sure that the social security advice is available to farmers on a proactive basis? There are many farmers who are facing despair and have little experience of claiming benefits. Are we ensuring that social security is brought into the loop of farm assistance?
  (Mr Brown) I hope so. I have seen the advice that has been distributed around Government and I hope that that is going out to the appropriate agencies.

  105. Is "hope" enough?
  (Mr Brown) We are doing what we can. The front line advice is certainly there.

  106. Just getting the timescales for when farmers can start to restock. Can someone, either you or Jim, run through exactly when a farm may be able to restock?
  (Mr Brown) I will get Jim to run through the veterinary constraints and then perhaps say something about broader market considerations because there are two aspects to this.
  (Mr Scudamore) On the veterinary side we would destroy the animals and remove the carcasses either by burning or burial or rendering and then there would be a preliminary cleaning and disinfection which is to dampen down any weight of infection to make sure it has disappeared. The problem then is we have to get contractors in to thoroughly clean the property from top to bottom. That is what we are not doing at the moment. We are having to concentrate on dealing with the ever increasing number of outbreaks. What we would have to do is we would have to have the whole premises cleaned. It would require steam cleaning of buildings. It is a very intensive cleaning because the virus can last for a long time, for example faeces, dung or even dried blister material. Once that was completed—and that time would vary depending on the type of farm, some of the farms you are seeing would take a long time to clean up, others would be quite quick—we would then want to leave the farm empty for a period and again this would depend, I think, to a large extent on the type of farm. If it was an indoor unit and it was cleaned and disinfected then it could be restocking quite quickly. An outdoor unit, the survival of the virus on pasture for example varies tremendously so it could be 28 days in the winter, it could be three days in the summer, so the virus itself can remain around for quite long times in some situations. We would then want the farmer to restock. He would be allowed to restock gradually. We would put what are called sentinel animals in to make sure that the restocking did not result in more disease. Again in 1967-68 some of the outbreaks were what we would call recrudescence where the animals went in to a farm and then picked up a disease from the farm itself. I have not actually answered your question because it is variable, depending on the type of farm and the length of time it takes to clean it up to a satisfactory level which would have to be inspected and we would have to be clear that it was absolutely spotless and there was no virus.

  107. You will be aware the farmers are asking exactly that kind of question.
  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  108. At the moment they cannot receive any further guidance on that.
  (Mr Brown) That is right.

  Mr Todd: What about farmers who have not actually been infected that are in an infected area?


  109. Because, of course, there has been a precautionary kill or where animals have been killed but as part of the firebreak process.
  (Mr Brown) Yes, I understand, you want the restocking protocol. I will ask Jim to give you that and then I will talk about some of the commercial considerations.
  (Mr Scudamore) I have given you the general principles but we are actually working on the restocking protocol because I accept that farmers need to know what the rules are going to be for infected farms, dangerous contact farms, which are within the infected areas. We hope to get something finished and available. Dangerous contact farms I think we will treat in the same way as infected farms because the reason we have killed them is because we believe the animals are potentially infective. The question there is whether we treat them exactly the same because there has been no disease on that farm, whether we can do less of a disinfection on those farms. With respect to the infected area, the requirements are that I think it is 30 days from the time that preliminary cleaning disinfection is completed on the farm we are eligible to lift the infected area, but at the same time we would want to do some form of serological surveillance to make sure we have not got sub-clinical disease in sheep in that area. At the moment it would be 30 days after the preliminary cleaning or disinfection on the farm, not the five for cleaning and disinfection, and with an assurance that there is no disease in the area, then we could lift that infected area. What is happening with quite a lot of these infected areas, they are all running together so the clock does not start ticking until the last case has occurred.

Mr Todd

  110. What about abattoirs where a case has been confirmed?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. One of the constraints the abattoir industry told us with moving back to slaughtering animals was that if they received animals direct from farms and they had evidence of disease they were concerned they would be put under restriction and left under restriction for 30 days. In order to get the industry moving, because we do not believe there is any risk, if animals arrive at an abattoir and they are direct from a farm, under the licensing arrangements they are due to be slaughtered very quickly and if disease was found in those animals, we would put a restriction on the whole of the abattoir and then we would look at the risks, in the lairage, in the slaughter hall, in the cutting room, and if it was only in the lairage we would reduce the restriction just to the lairage and then we would kill the animals. We would hope to have the abattoir back in business in about 24 hours.


  111. Could I have a clarification. It is a very important issue. For example, in North Yorkshire there is a cluster of outbreaks at Hawes but there are no other outbreaks in North Yorkshire at the moment.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes.

  112. Farms up to 25 miles away are under restriction in infected areas. Now, have I interpreted your words correctly that restrictions on those farms will not be lifted until the total disinfection procedure has been carried out on the farms which did get the disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) No, the restrictions would not be lifted until the preliminary disinfection. That is the big difference. With the preliminary disinfection we remove the animals for slaughter and then we spray the premises with disinfectant or material to dampen down the virus weight. Once that is completed then the clock starts ticking for the 30 days. Complete and final disinfection can take a great deal of time in premises where it is really dirty and where there is a lot of manure and a lot of problems. It can take a great deal of time to clean those up. We are looking at preliminary cleaning and disinfection and 30 days from that. Equally, if we have a very big infected area and we are content that the disease does not exist in that area we can alter the size of infected areas as well.

  113. I realise that they are not hard and fast rules but it would be terribly useful to have them written down because it is a question that we are constantly asked by farmers.
  (Mr Brown) Let me try to get this set out in the briefing note that MPs get. As I say, it is available in the Library as well as in the Whips Offices.

Mr Todd

  114. We are also hitting some issues which farmers really do need to be told about in formal terms. When I raised the issue of another mailing, we are seeing some of the contents of that.
  (Mr Brown) I am willing to do another mailing out. I want to talk to the President of the NFU about what it is that farmers would like information on. I do not want to send a generalised note, I want something of practical help.

  115. Can I check on the export ban as to what our view is of how soon it might be that we might be able to see that lifted? I recognise that it is a matter for our trading partners as well as ourselves.
  (Mr Brown) We may be able to regionalise the outbreak in the United Kingdom and seek the lifting of the ban on some parts of the United Kingdom before others. The prospects in Great Britain—

  116. Take the example of Northern Ireland perhaps.
  (Mr Brown) Northern Ireland is a very good example. There is one case, it is contained and it has been just one case for three weeks now. There is every hope that Northern Ireland will be a disease-free zone soon and in those circumstances of course we would try to get trade resumed, at least for Northern Ireland. It is too early to set a timescale for that. Our trading partners are going to be risk averse, just as we would be if it was the other way around. That does not apply just to the European Union but internationally. There are international protocols and they talk about three months and they talk about six months. Even when we can demonstrate that we are disease-free, and as the Chief Vet says the clock starts ticking, it is still going to be some time. For the sheep sector they will also need to restock and then there is the breeding cycle to be considered before there are actually products to export. At least in some sectors we are in for a very long haul.

Dr Turner

  117. I want to ask a question about the origins again. Are we likely in due course to know what the origins of this outbreak were?
  (Mr Brown) We are doing everything we can to provide—

  118. Is it likely to remain a mystery or is the advice that we are likely eventually to know?
  (Mr Brown) We are certainly likely to have a very good idea. I think I would perhaps like to leave it at that. Jim, do you want to say anything more explicitly or is "a good idea" enough?
  (Mr Scudamore) We are still doing the investigations. The outbreak looks as if it started in swill in Northumberland and obviously we want to make sure that there are no other possible outbreaks or any other source. If it remains that one then the question is where the meat that would carry the virus came from, so that is under investigation as well.
  (Mr Brown) We are trying to get a take on that issue as well.

  119. You said it was highly likely that it was because of illegal activity.
  (Mr Brown) It is very difficult to see how it could have been legally brought into the country given the law. I am not saying knowingly, that is a slightly separate point. It is perfectly possible to unknowingly commit an illegal act.

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