Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER 2001
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.
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
at28 in the protection zones and 4 in the surveillance
zoneswhere 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,
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
(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
(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
29. Policing internal boundaries is actually
quite a big job, is it not?
(Margaret Beckett) All of these things present considerable
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.
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.
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 onI cannot recall who it wasthat 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
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.