Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. If I can move on, finally, then to the issue of livestock markets, my nearest market, Gloucester, is seeking to relocate. What advice would you give them on whether that is going to be a sensible move?
  (Margaret Beckett) Far be it for me to give advice to some individual market. It is not clear to me, from what you are saying, David, whether or not they were seeking to relocate anyway because of their long-term plans or whether they were relocating as a consequence of—

  21. I think what I was asking, Secretary of State, was: is there a future for livestock markets?
  (Margaret Beckett) That, too, is part of the general discussion that people will have. It is hard to envisage that there will not be some form of future for livestock markets. I am reluctant to speculate, but certainly these are issues that people will have to discuss. If you look, for example, at the early suggestions that one of the areas that caused difficulty was the recording of sales outside markets, that suggests that the recording and the tracing facility that they offer has some value. Again, the degree to which livestock markets have developed and are developing is related to the underlying position of animal movement and that is related to farming methods and the approach to farming. Some people would argue that goes back to the nature of the CAP regime, which, as you know, we would like to see changed.

Mr Mitchell

  22. I want to talk about exports, but can I just, first of all, Chairman, go back to something Jim Scudamore said? You said that on investigation, I think, four flocks in one category and two flocks in another category were found to have been infected but to have developed antibodies. Was that antibodies to the present infection or to something that was earlier endemic? Do we know?
  (Mr Scudamore) The evidence we have got is that it was linked to the present outbreak. So the flocks we have looked at—28 in the protection zones and 4 in the surveillance zones—where we found the presence of antibodies, all the indications are that those antibodies are as a result of contact with foot and mouth disease virus in the last five or six months, since February.

  23. If flocks were curing themselves, as it were, on that kind of scale, does it not indicate we went in for excessive over-kill, you might say, and a degree of panic which was not justified?
  (Mr Scudamore) As I said, two of the flocks we did get virus back from. The other problem we have with sheep is that if susceptible sheep move into a flock, or if the management structure of the flock is such that the virus may move slowly round the flock, the virus can stay within flocks. Most of the flocks that have had disease we have killed out because we have identified the presence of antibodies in them. These are flocks that either had a low level of disease or they have had disease which has not been noticed, and they appear not to have virus in them at the moment. The difficulty is that there might still be one or two flocks that have been through that process and where the virus is still circulating in that flock. So the difficulty we have with these flocks is knowing whether they are clear or whether they have still got virus in them. We cannot take that risk.

  24. So it was still precautionary.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, it is precautionary, but as I say the difficulty with this disease is if there is virus still in a flock and you put in some more susceptible animals the disease can flare up again. In fact, in some of the flocks we have looked at, we have looked at various management groups to a flock and we have had different stages of disease in different groups. So in one group they are all positive to antibodies, in another group in a different field some of them are positive and they also have virus in them. The concern we would have is that if we left these flocks we would never know whether we still had the virus or whether the virus was circulating. Then if animals moved out of those flocks we could be back where we started.

  25. Thank you. Now exports. Exports from Northern Ireland resumed on 1 July. When do you intend to seek permission for exports from areas within England which have been declared free?
  (Margaret Beckett) At the moment we are not remotely in that position, although we have, as I am sure you know, got permission to move pig meat now. It is a matter for the European Union to look at and to assess what the position is. At the present time, given that we have autumn movements and that that is a very clear risk, and given that it is only 16 days so far (which is very welcome) that we have been without new cases of the disease, I think we are some distance away from being in a position to make that application.

  26. Are you going to leave it to them rather than push?
  (Margaret Beckett) I did not say we are going to leave it to them, I simply said we are not in that position yet.

  27. The Scottish Executive is already making its case in Brussels for the resumption of Scottish exports. Were you consulted on that? What consultation has there been about that unilateral attempt?
  (Margaret Beckett) Of course we were consulted and we keep in touch about the different positions and about the circumstances of a particular area. I completely understand the position of the Scottish Executive, given that Scotland has a wide area that has been disease-free.

  28. So the UK Government, as a whole, supports the case for resuming exports from Scotland?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is for the Scottish Executive to make their case, but we are not opposing them or trying to impede their making their case.

  Mr Mitchell: A good example of devolution. Thank you.


  29. Policing internal boundaries is actually quite a big job, is it not?
  (Margaret Beckett) All of these things present considerable difficulties.

  30. You expect that the authorisation which has been given on pig meat will take effect and we are in a position to be able to deliver on that?
  (Margaret Beckett) We certainly hope so, yes.

Mr Breed

  31. Could we turn to look at restocking? Many farmers are trying to rebuild their lives, rebuild their livelihoods and are undertaking some restocking. How successful will they be, and how will they know whether they are doing the right thing in terms of what they are going to restock their farms with and to what extent, if they do not have an understanding of what the Government's overarching strategy for British agriculture is? In fact, a strategy for the whole rural economy. How will they know that what they are now reinvesting this money in is going to ultimately produce for them a profitable business and part of a successful agricultural industry for the country?
  (Margaret Beckett) Where we are in terms of restocking is that of the 9,556 premises where compulsory slaughter took place some 686 are now eligible for restocking, because restrictions have been lifted. As to the issue of what the overarching strategy is, of course, this is why when we set up the inquiry process, which has three separate but independent strands, in some ways I think the most (without disrespect to the other strands) important part from the point of view of the farmer is the Policy Commission. Obviously, they have a very major and serious job to do and that is why we have asked them to try and report by the end of the year because we are very mindful of the fact that within days of being in this post farmers were beginning to say to me "When this is over we hope we will be getting a better picture of what the Government sees the future of British agriculture as being". These are the ones who had not fallen into a pitiful despair and thought there was not a future and that the Government had deliberately set out to destroy British agriculture. They were saying to us, "You will have a clearer picture of where you think farming is heading and, indeed, the wider rural economy." As I say, that is why we set up a Policy Commission. Also, of course, over the summer in a variety of contexts we have been highlighting both that we wish to see CAP reform in general and, also, the framework of reform that we would like to see as a Government, indicating, for example, that we would like to see a separation between production and payment. We would also like to see much more substantial, not just modulation, but money going in a much more flexible and easy-to-use way so that we can look at things like rural development. This is partly related to the nature of farming, the capacity and scope of farming in the future, and it is also partly related to diversification. So we are beginning to sketch out some themes of the approach that we see, but also seeking to foster a national debate and get some input about assessing this whole picture.

  32. Thank you for that. Over the summer there was a series of seminars and advice sessions for farmers to come along and gain some understanding of what they think the Government's thinking is on this. What would be a success rate in terms of the numbers of people coming to those seminars and being able to understand where they are going to run their businesses from? It appears not to have been very well attended, at least initially, and 686 out of 9,500 is still a relatively small proportion. The vast majority have still yet to come. As they are now contemplating themselves, they are going to have to wait until the Policy Commission has come forward, then the Government has got to look at it. Are we talking about, perhaps, another six, nine or twelve months before people really have an understanding of what they are going to do in terms of restocking their businesses?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I hope not. As I say, we have deliberately asked the Policy Commission to report by the end of the year so that people can get a flavour of the approach that is being adopted. With regard to the advice sessions, I am afraid I do not have up-to-date information on that, but I will be happy, if I may, to let the Committee have it. The one thing I will certainly say, from a little earlier in the summer, is that I do know that a very disappointingly small number of people have been coming forward to take advantage of business advice. I know that people have been encouraged to do so and I very much hope they will because, as you have rightly identified, many farmers recognise that we are now in a changing situation for the environment and for agriculture, and not just in the United Kingdom but certainly across the European Union and more widely. For people to not want to come forward for discussion and advice, or not to have thought of doing so, suggests that perhaps they are not thinking as clearly as they should be about things which are changing and they may not return to what was before.

  33. Of course, very often farmers only know what they have been doing, and they are almost bound, in the absence of anything else, to return directly to what they have been doing in the very hope that they will be able to get back to the sort of business that they had prior to foot and mouth. Finally on the blood testing, do I understand it that blood testing is going to continue in some form for quite some time to come, first of all, to provide early notice of any future problems and, secondly, to maintain direct evidence that we have got, hopefully, the disease-free status that we need?
  (Mr Scudamore) That is right. First of all, we have to have a disease-free status. Then we have to demonstrate a virus-free status. The question of how we can demonstrate a virus-free status would fall to a number of different ways. One is to continue blood testing on farms so we are absolutely sure that statistically we have a very low probability of virus being present, but there are alternative methods of undertaking surveillance. One of those is doing it through abattoirs, so we collect samples in abattoirs from batches of animals and we can look at those samples to ensure they are all negative. What we are doing at the moment is finishing off the surveillance zone and protection zone work, we are reassessing a number of the counties to see whether we need to do any more work, and then we are going to have to look statistically to see whether there is any more routine surveillance we need to do for another year or so. There are a number of ways of doing it. One is to do it on farms, another is to do through abattoirs, collecting samples and screening those.
  (Margaret Beckett) Can I just say, in answer very briefly to the point you made, Mr Breed, about people hoping they can get back to where they were before, first of all, farming has changed dramatically over recent years and decades, so it is not an industry that is without change. Also, I am extremely conscious of the fact that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with where they were, and I do not think anybody would say the farming community was a happy bunch of bunnies before foot and mouth broke out. So I think a beneficial change would be good for everybody.

  Chairman: My intervention was that the description of farmers as a bunch of bunnies is not that of this Committee, but one we will no doubt—

  Mr Drew: A very quick point on the progress of advice. Can you look again at the way in which you are very restrictive in who can go on farms to offer that advice? It has been reported to me that through Business Links they have got people willing to go out and advise farmers but they are being told they are not allowed to go into holdings. With the best will in the world you cannot advise a farmer unless you can see literally what that farmer possesses and what they do. Would you look at that as a matter of urgency?


  34. Secretary of State, it is true, is it not, that farmers who have had foot and mouth on their premises have received compensation for the compulsory slaughter, which I think most people agree has been relatively generous. For the older ones, perhaps, that gives them a more honourable, almost, exit from the industry than perhaps they might have had in the prevailing economic circumstances to which you have alluded. It also allows those who are staying in the industry to, perhaps, farm in a different way. Would you give some thought to the farmers who have not had foot and mouth disease and are desperately trying to keep going? They are the ones with the least options of being able to change and just get by in circumstances where the business is under pressure, the land is under pressure and the animals are under pressure. They are the ones for whom it has been against all their economic interests not to get foot and mouth disease and they are the ones who have a desperate struggle ahead of them.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am, I think, more conscious of that than almost any other aspect of this appalling situation. I am very mindful indeed of the people who are affected and, as you quite rightly say, in farming it is true just as it is true in the wider world, of the people who are affected but who the consequences of dealing with the disease do not assist. There is a limit to what we can do to help them but we do continually try to think whether there are things that can be done that will ease their position at all.

Mr Borrow

  35. Moving on to what we have just touched on, you asked the one question, Chairman, about the effect on the wider rural economy. The Prime Minister set up the Rural Task Force seven months ago this week to look into the implications of foot and mouth disease for the wider rural economy. What conclusions have been reached so far on the scale of the impact of foot and mouth disease on the rural economy?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not want to anticipate the report on the work of the Rural Task Force but certainly someone said earlier on—I cannot recall who it was—that there may be some opportunities that come out of what has been a terrible situation, and I think the focus on the wider rural economy and the harsh necessity to re-assess that economy and the place of farming within it will in the very long term perhaps be seen as something beneficial that has come out of this terrible crisis. As to the scale, I think there will be as many different estimates of the scale of the impact as there are people looking at it, but I do not think anybody is in any doubt that the impact has been quite dramatic, whether on the parts of the rural community that are directly related to farming or indeed very indirectly related. In some areas I think it has brought people together in recognising their mutual dependence, perhaps in a way that was not quite there before. That too will form part of the backdrop to the enquiries that are being undertaken and to the ideas that people will have to look at for the future.

  36. As I understand it, the Rural Task Force is not just looking at the impact of the disease but is also coming forward with recommendations as to what needs to be done to make the rural economy stable and sustainable in the future. Have you any idea when that report with those recommendations is likely to be published, and would it be right to assume that that report will also include perhaps some of the statistics that you are not able to give at the moment in relation to the scale of the impact of the disease on the rural economy as part of the backdrop to those recommendations?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think this report will be published quite soon and yes, I think they have tried to give as good an assessment as they can of the state of the rural economy.

  37. A couple of months ago the Prime Minister appointed Lord Haskins as the Rural Recovery Co-ordinator. I think the assumption was that he would be looking at the effect of the disease in Cumbria and to see if there were lessons to be learned from the Cumbrian experience both for the future and in terms of recovery in all parts of the United Kingdom. I think the assumption was that he would be reporting to Alun Michael by the end of September. On the assumption that he has done so are you in a position to find out what he has reported to Alun Michael and whether those or any recommendations that he has made to your colleague will be acted upon and when they will be acted upon?
  (Margaret Beckett) Lord Haskins was asked to look at these issues particularly in Cumbria and in the context of Cumbria because that was, as I understand it, a request made from Cumbria where the disease hit so very hard. Eric is nodding so I think I must have that about right. I understand that he has let it be known that he hopes to publish his report on Thursday.

  Chairman: I was noting, Secretary of State, that, having threatened a large number of your colleagues to go and listen to the Prime Minister at the Labour Party meeting, you are doing a very good job of maintaining a much better alternative here.

Mr Todd

  38. Is there anyone co-ordinating all the studies and task forces that are currently taking place into the implications of foot and mouth on the rural economy, on farming. We have three inquiries that were set up to look at the implications of the disease. We have the Rural Task Force which was in being already, supposedly examining at least parallel subjects. We have Lord Haskins who, although he has a focus on Cumbria, nevertheless was invited to give his opinions on the broader implications for everywhere else. Is someone pulling all these strands together?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  39. If so, who?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is within the department. Yes, Lord Haskins has reported to Alun Michael and to the Prime Minister throughout. So too has the Rural Task Force. A lot of that work is being co-ordinated in that way. Obviously it is a separate set of people.

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