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6 Nov 2002 : Column 334—continued

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 13, after clause 4, to insert the following new clause—20-day livestock movement restriction rule—

Mr. Morley: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 45 and Government amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

Mr. Morley: The Bill is important. It deals with crucial animal health issues. In light of that, I am sorry that the Lords made the amendment. No one disputes the fact that there are serious problems of movement control and stock movement. However, I emphasise that the 20-day standstill rules are supported by firm scientific and veterinary advice and represent the Government's current best view of an appropriate precautionary peacetime control. The main purpose of the Lords amendment is to protect against future outbreaks, rather than deal with the aftermath of past ones. That is one of a number of reasons why we strongly disagree with the amendment, which seems to imply that movement controls should be applied only in the course of an epidemic. That is not the way that the Government see it and it is not the way that the independent reports see it. Furthermore, it is not the way that the majority of those in the livestock industry see it—they recognise that there is a sound argument for movement controls.

There is a legitimate debate about the extent of the controls and how they should be applied. In my experience, however, the vast majority of people in the livestock industry accept that there is a case for such controls as a routine measure to reduce the risk of disease.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I agree that the Lords amendment is flawed in that respect, but there is a principle behind it. The Minister mentioned the need for movement controls and, in principle, I agree. Does he accept, however, that the present 20-day rule is a restriction, not just a control? It is an overhang from the previous foot and mouth outbreak. Will he take this opportunity to give advance notice to the farming industry of how he sees that control system working? We cannot have a restriction that is so deadly, in particular to stock rearing and to the sheep industry?

Mr. Morley : I sat down with industry representatives during the summer to talk about the implications of the

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20-day rule. The hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that that rule was strictly applied during the epidemic as a disease-control measure. However, the way in which it is being applied at present reflects changes that I agreed with the industry—a range of relaxations have been put in place and we have tried to strike a balance between my recognition of the industry's concerns and the detrimental impact that the rule can have on them, which I and the Department try to take into account, and the need to reduce the risk of disease spreading.

A large percentage of the livestock industry can work within the rules that we have amended. Some sections of the industry may find it difficult to do so. We take those issues seriously. We want to examine them and we will do so in the light of the independent risk assessments, which will be published towards the end of the month. That will allow us to consider movement controls in time for the spring movement regime and to put whatever recommendations are made in place.

Mr. Curry : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the problems with the controls and the way in which farmers see them is that, in practice, they seem leaky and contradictory? For example, I can buy sheep and put them in a field next to my neighbour's sheep, separated by a bit of wire fence, and I am stuck with them for 20 days, but he can sell his sheep on. Farmer Morley and Farmer Curry can take sheep to market and they can be in adjacent pens talking to each other. I can take Farmer Morley's sheep home but, because I have put them in quarantine, they are not caught by the 20-day rule. I cannot take my own sheep home without being caught by the rule. Those are the contradictions that bring the measure into disrepute. Those are the problems that the Minister has to solve if he is to get farmers to consent willingly to accept a measure that we all agree is necessary.

Mr. Morley: As always, the right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, although there is supposed to be a separation distance between the fields as part of the isolation conditions. I accept that there are anomalies that need to be addressed. It is a case of balancing the risk and of taking measures to reduce risk. Whatever the regime that is put in place, there are likely to be a few anomalies. We have to try to square those anomalies while achieving an adequate balance. The independent risk assessment from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency will help us to deal with that issue.

Paul Flynn: The report makes it clear that if a 20-day movement rule had been in place when foot and mouth came to this country, the disease would have been confined to a tiny area. There were only a few cases of airborne infection; the rest resulted from animal movements. There are about half a dozen deadly diseases that could come into the country at any moment. It would be too late to impose a movement ban once they had done so; we must have the ban in place now.

Mr. Morley : My hon. Friend is right. If we had had the 20-day rule in place when the incident took place in Heddon-on-the-Wall—the outbreak in the pigs there

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and the fact that it was not reported—the disease still would have spread, because of the two-week delay, but the consequences would not have been anywhere near as bad as they were as a result of the huge movement of sheep that took place. It is a question of trying to reduce the chances of that happening.

There has to be some sort of movement control. The principle is not hugely controversial. A minority will always want to return to the situation before FMD. I have made clear that that is not an option. We are not going back to the situation before FMD. Many of the measures in the Bill—vaccination, compensation and a range of other issues—are a recognition that, after FMD, the situation has changed for ever and that we must try to minimise the impact of dreadful epidemics. I am not talking only about foot and mouth: we must be on our guard against other exotic diseases. The control of animal movements is one of the tools in our armoury. We must accept that.

Mr. Simon Thomas: The Minister is elaborating on the thoughts behind the present movement restrictions. Does he accept, nevertheless, that the millions of animal movements that took place prior to the outbreak were perfectly legal and reflected the market livestock at the time. There may be flaws in that market. Many of us want a market that is much closer to home—that will minimise the transport of meat, whether live or on the hoof. Nevertheless, that market was legal. If it is his view and that of the Curry report that we have to open up markets for farmers—if farmers are going to have to be more commercial, to sell their produce more directly—that must be squared with the right of farmers to move their livestock and get the best value out of it.

Mr. Morley: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—the vast majority of those movements were legal and no criticism should be made of the people who were moving livestock because it was their legal right and they were not breaking any laws. On the periphery, there were concerns about traceability and out-of-ring sales—wider issues that need to be tackled. I am glad to say that we were successful in obtaining funding, in our bid in the 2002 spending review, to develop more sophisticated traceability and sheep-tagging systems. We want to move to electronic tagging and to develop that in conjunction with the industry. There is much support in the industry for that as well as for improving traceability. Those are all issues to which we must apply ourselves. That does not get us away from the fact, however, that the lessons learned inquiry recommended that the 20-day standstill should be retained while a wide-ranging cost-benefit analysis and a risk assessment was carried out, and that is what we are doing.

I find it puzzling that although the other place suspended progress on this Bill to allow consideration of the independent reports, it ignored one of the key recommendations in the reports—the stop on movement. I emphasise that we are applying the 20-day standstill with variations and exceptions to recognise the needs of the industry, as an interim measure until we have the risk assessment and the cost-benefit analysis. When we have those, we will reconsider the issue and decide what is most appropriate in terms of risk of disease, taking into account the impact on the industry. We must presuppose, however, that there will still be a standstill period.

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Mr. Curry: Will the Minister spell out the timetables for the assessment and the possible responses? As he said, people understand that it is important to make sure there is no recurrence of the disease, and that it is important to deal with the conditions that may have contributed to the spread of the disease. However, the hon. Gentleman will equally appreciate that the movement of livestock is an integral part, especially of upland farming and breeding. If people feel that there is a programme of evaluation followed by policy responses, I am sure that they will accept circumstances more willingly than if they think they are just knocking their head against a back wall, while the sheep are sucking the pebbles dry.

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