Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 200-215)




  200. Although we have discussed your difficulty in giving an accurate steer at this stage as to how much money the Government may be willing to commit to various help schemes, I think what people would find of great assistance is some idea as to when your deliberations on these various matters might be concluded because clearly for a business in discussion with its bank trying to develop a survival strategy it would be very helpful to know if some of these further help schemes you have discussed are going to happen or not within a reasonable timescale.
  (Mr Meacher) I agree with that. We have not got time on our side. Businesses clearly in significant numbers are going to be at risk within a matter of a few weeks, I think that is true, and whatever the Government decides has to be brought forward quickly. This is what I said earlier. I cannot give a day, I cannot say this time next week, but it certainly has to be done quickly and that is my intention—

  201. One last question—and this may be hypothetical—what mechanism do you have for sustaining the work of the Task Force and therefore the dispensing of such announcements in the event of a General Election being called?
  (Mr Meacher) I would anticipate that the Rural Task Force would clearly continue in place, it would continue to have meetings, it would continue to do everything which it does now in that eventuality. There is no question of this not taking priority.

  202. Making announcements is difficult during election campaigns. There is a long-standing tradition of Government announcements, especially ones which involve spending money, not being made during a time when Parliament is not sitting.
  (Mr Meacher) That is true for the obvious reason that Governments when Parliament is not sitting should not be seen in an Election campaign to be stealing an advantage over the Opposition by coming forward with distribution of largesse, however, I think this is a totally, totally different situation. I do not know exactly what arrangements might prevail in those circumstances. I certainly think that we would expect to do this in ways which had the support of the Opposition. We have not discussed this—and I am not able to say this—but this is not something that I would remotely or any of us would wish to be done in a partisan manner. This is in the national interest and the arrangements to ensure that happened would have to be put in place.

Dr Turner

  203. When I was complaining about Mr Paterson's viewpoint, I understand that where people really have suffered and maybe their business is doomed that that is extraordinarily emotive, but the season has not really started it seems to me. In many parts of the country Easter is the time when it is really critical to see where it is starting. It really is, would you agree, far too early to be talking about the season being wiped out and it is actually a time to make sure it is not wiped out? What funds and what attention are you giving to ensuring that perhaps some money is spent now in trying to get the tourists in and trying to reactivate the countryside as visitor attractions, which might be an awful lot better than looking at a lot of pain a few months downstream? Are you actually addressing that problem as well as the real pain in the farming community?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes we are and I would agree with you that whilst Mr Paterson's demand for urgency is totally understandable and right, nevertheless the view that we have lost it at this stage is wrong. I think there is quite a lot that we can salvage and recover and I think the Government should responsibly do all it can to ensure that it does so. On the question of tourism, both international and national, we are putting more resources into both. There is a multi-million—I think off the top of my head it is £12 million—which has been earmarked for the BTA in terms of trying to correct the grossly esoteric treatment of our country in American newspapers and in the American media which has been scurrilous and mischievous in its inaccuracy, which is gross. We are trying to deal with that through the Embassy and in Post. We are trying to get travel correspondents to see the true situation here. There are places you cannot go but there is a huge number of places you can. There are questions like, "Can we eat in Britain safely? Yes, we know about this tourist attraction, we know about that, but how do you get from one to the other?" There are the most absurd questions and we are putting a lot of effort into trying to correct those prejudices. With regard to getting our own people (who do understand the situation broadly) to accept what they can do, under the auspices of the England Tourist Council we are giving more money to the tourist boards to promote attractions in their own areas. We are doing that now because that is the best way, I think, of attracting our own people into places where they want to go. They will see that it is being promoted, they will get the message that it is safe to go. It will certainly encourage them if they still have doubts to ring up and question and ask—and I am sure they will get a positive answer. We are doing all we can in that sense as well.

Mr Öpik

  204. You said that you welcome good ideas. Could I ask that you publicise a process whereby individuals out there who definitely do have good ideas that could help the Task Force can get them to the Task Force both now and in a General Election environment?
  (Mr Meacher) Write to me, telephone me, send me an e-mail, and I promise it will be rapidly taken into account. We have adopted several ideas which have been put to us by others. I saw a delegation from an MP yesterday—and I do not want to encourage everyone to come and see me because I have not time to see everybody—which produced six ideas, three of which I thought were really good ideas that we should follow through. We are genuinely listening and trying to learn.

  205. What is the e-mail number?
  (Mr Meacher) We will get that afterwards.

Mr Paterson

  206. Just following your exchange, may I send you a list of 154 businesses in Shropshire which have been affected. You are quite right when you said the way to get people back to the countryside is to get rid of the disease. There is one area which is under the remit of your Ministry which is the Environment Agency and they are being blamed in my patch, where 87 per cent of carcasses were buried on farm last time, and this was a clear recommendation of the 1969 Report saying the burial of carcasses was preferable to burning, and yet the Environment Agency's advice gives a hierarchy of disposal as follows: rendering, incineration, burning on site, landfilling and burial last. Why have the Environment Agency ignored the recommendations of the 1969 Report?
  (Mr Meacher) I think the only argument that I have heard from the Environment Agency or anyone else against burial on site is the risk in certain places of contamination of ground water. As far as I know, there are no other reasons why there should not be—a further message is coming.
  (Miss Lambert) There is also a risk that cattle might be infected with BSE which did not exist last time round.

  207. Not if they are buried six foot under the earth as they were last time. There are farms in my area which have got a hideous mound at the back where the last foot and mouth carcasses were buried, and we have all been drinking the water in that area and I do not know of any adverse health effects, but there is a real health effect of leaving 100,000 carcasses above ground rotting with the disease open to dispersal in the countryside. That is a major environmental problem.
  (Mr Meacher) I entirely accept the point you make. If the Environment Agency has forbidden burial on site without just cause I would certainly intervene and ask them to explain their policy and not to repeat it. I do not think there is necessarily a hierarchy, they may give it in a certain order and burial comes last. I think any of those forms of disposal are satisfactory. The important thing is that none of them should have side effects which could be polluting or contaminating. And burial on site can sometimes be. I accept that that has happened more often than can be justified by that explanation up to now, but I think the Environment Agency now accepts that burial on site is perfectly satisfactory unless there is real evidence it could contaminate ground water.

  208. Is it possible to ring your office if we have cases where a farmer may want to bury on site? I have had two cases where the farmers wanted to bury and were not allowed to.
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think ringing my office, who are not experts in this, would help. If the farmer has contacted the Environment Agency and the Environment Agency has not been able to give a satisfactory explanation, and the farmer has presumably complained that the matter should be reconsidered, if that still does not yield a satisfactory response I would be happy to find it out and follow it up with the Environment Agency.

Mr Mitchell

  209. First, could I express my personal admiration at your patience and generosity in the face of this festival of rural whingeing that you have been subjected to. I hope my colleagues who have been amplifying that whingeing will now join me in asking for support for the fishing industry where vessels cannot put to sea because the fishing ports are such a mess of conservation and all the ancillary industries have gone bust, and have never been treated with the generosity that rural issues are getting. The question they want me to ask is simply this: when you come to compensation of businesses I hope you take into account that some of the practices of farmers particularly have actually created the problem and when we read about the merry-go-round of rotating sheep to top up sheep numbers—I think the limit on sheep that can be claimed for was increased only a few months back so there must be a large number of sheep going round the country on a "pre-cooked" tour from farm to farm to top up the numbers, that is the kind of practice that has helped cause this and I hope the money will be deducted and these people will be penalised rather than compensated.
  (Mr Meacher) I have read about these practices and of course it is a matter for investigation which is certainly beyond the remit of the Rural Task Force. I certainly think that practices like that do endanger the further spread of disease and I trust that they have now been stamped out. That is really a matter for MAFF and its officials to regulate.

Dr Turner

  210. I would want us to be very clear indeed on burial. I do feel that the lessons from BSE are that, although we have not discussed it as a major issue today, we should be doing major experiments in ensuring and testing out what the vets have been saying—that this disease does not affect human beings. I do hope there is not going be an atmosphere in which the Environment Agency, against their judgment, are being coerced into burial where they have concerns about ground water. As the responsible Minister it is about getting the balance and if I could ask you to affirm that which I believe you probably will.
  (Mr Meacher) I would certainly expect the Environment Agency, if their officers believe that there is a serious and significant risk of contamination, to stand by their judgment and, of course, I would wholly back them. I was only in answer to Mr Paterson referring to cases which have been alleged and not directly been drawn to my attention where the Environment Agency had been reluctant or unwilling to sanction burial on site without due explanation.

  211. If you are not certain, you may not definitely know it is going to happen, surely the precautionary principle on protection of human lives should be that where the Environment Agency do not know it is safe that should be sufficient reason. They do not have to give firm evidence that it is unsafe. There is a difference, is there not?
  (Mr Meacher) There is a difference but you are trying to change the onus of proof.

  212. I am trying to be clear where the onus of proof is and I am suggesting to you, Michael, that the onus of proof must be that it is safe for the ground water and not that we have to prove that it is unsafe and the reverse is the case.
  (Mr Meacher) The officials in the Environment Agency, again the local officials who have to exercise their judgment as best they can locally, it is for them to take a view as to whether they think there is a significant risk involved in burial on site. If they do believe that I think we have to back that judgment. If they do not believe there is a significant risk or any other reason locally as to why it should not be used then I think it should go ahead. It is a perfectly appropriate form of disposal so long as there are not indirect, damaging, contaminating side effects.


  213. Minister, a final few observations. First of all representing a very large constituency with a very large number of sheep, while undoubtedly there are rogues in the farming community as in any other community, I would not like it to be thought that this outbreak is to do with fiddling farmers pushing sheep around the country. I know you have not implied that but I wish to counter that suggestion in case that were to get out. If I may make two observations which I do not ask you to comment on and then a couple of brief questions. The first is this: I appreciate that the Government wishes to take decisions on this openly, but sometimes openness can lead to confusion. Let me illustrate that. We are now talking about the possibility of vaccination. The statement yesterday made no mention of what was going to be vaccinated or the circumstances and there is quite a lot confusion as a result of that. The decision has got to mature to a point in a sense before it becomes public otherwise it does not help, it simply confuses. I make that as an observation. The other observation is that there is a real problem of the interval between the decisions being announced and implementation in the country. The Ministry of Agriculture announced on 5 March a longer distance transport scheme basically to enable ewes to get home when they have been off on winter holding. I know from my own investigations that it was a week before any instructions usable by the regional offices were received to enable the filling in of application forms. It was between six and seven days before that became operable. We are now hearing with regard to the welfare scheme, which is very important and which is run by the Intervention Board in Newcastle, that the phone lines are ungettable, there are very few faxes, there is no computer system there, and already there is an enormous backlog of investigations building up. It is not your responsibility but I hope you can convey that to the Minister that the consequences of the interval between announcement and implementation, knowing the resource problems, are serious. Three small questions, if I may, just to conclude. There could be a conflict between the interests of the tourist industry and agriculture in the sense that if I were running a tourist business I would say, "Let's vaccinate", because vaccination eliminates the visibility of the problem and visitors will come back in because I am interested in visitors coming in to me. A farmer or agricultural industry could well be interested in getting the exports out and therefore maintaining the disease-free status and therefore become concerned about the implications of vaccinations. So there are bound to be different economic groups which are bound to have different interests which are not always easily reconcilable, that is just the nature of the difference.
  (Mr Meacher) I would agree with that. The decision whether or not to use vaccinations is a major strategic decision about which certain groups and certain parts of the farming community have expressed extremely strong views, and on which the Department has held a considered view over a long period of time. Certainly that decision should be taken solely on the basis of whether it is at this stage the right policy to try and contain the disease. The view, of course, has begun to gain ground because in the case of Cumbria, and to a lesser degree in Devon, there is a degree of concentration of infectivity in those areas on a scale we have never seen before, outside anything which happened in 1967-68, and we are faced with a new situation and the matter has to be considered on that basis. I do take your first point though, that it is difficult for Government where these matters of great strategic significance are being considered. Do you suddenly come out on a particular day with a new policy or is there some discussion, consultation, public debate? There are issues about how this is done. But I do entirely accept that there should be clarity so far as possible but, again, this is a major issue which needs to be decided on the basis of what is necessary for containment at this unprecedented stage in this outbreak.

  214. A small question related to vaccination. Many of us will have little tourist attractions specialising in rare breeds, they are never going to be eaten, they are never going to be moved, basically they are there for kids to have a look at and cuddle, that sort of thing. Would there be a problem, provided they are segregated from farming stock, if vaccination was used on them at least to make sure those very special herds which are historic herds—their gene pool is very small—are preserved? In 1967 I think some were physically moved away from the outbreak so there was not a risk to those particular breeds. I cannot see why there should be a particular objection to that.
  (Mr Meacher) No, I do not think there is, and I think this issue has been well understood. It is compatible with slaughter in the sense you can preserve the germ plasm of these special blood lines even if the cattle are slaughtered, but the alternative is vaccination or isolation for the preservation of these rather special herds. That is very much an understood point and I am sure, one way or another, we do intend to preserve that special stock.

  215. Finally, Minister, speculation to which you are not invited to respond. I wondered idly whether or not we were seeing a dress-rehearsal for the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in the unlikely hypothesis of the return of a Labour Government. Thank you very much for coming to see us.
  (Mr Meacher) For once I am without words!

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