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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-177)



  160. So sheep traceability will be completely computerised?
  (Mr Morley) On the eradication programme. I have got a feeling that what this person is talking about is that at the present time for the whole national flock in relation to traceability, there is not a computerised database. That is certainly something, Chairman, I think we are going to have to look at, and we are going to have to look at things like electronic tagging. That is to come, really. It might have interest for the Committee.

  161. You are saying it is not there yet?
  (Mr Morley) No.

  162. To run this properly you do need that degree of traceability.
  (Mr Morley) This system will be computerised. Because it is very much focussed on the rams, it is the rams that are micro-chipped and the rams which are on the computer database. What people do is log on the database in order to get a ram. We will extend that gradually in terms of looking at the range of animals which are resistant and susceptible, but we need to discuss the timescale for that with the industry.

  163. The key issue here is at what stage do you start intervening to make a decision that you are going to stop sheep which are susceptible to TSEs from breeding. Are we talking about now? Are we talking about a year in the future? Are we talking about years in the future?
  (Mr Morley) We are looking at years because we cannot do this overnight. What we are trying to do is to reduce substantially the current projection of 10 to 15 years. We want to reduce that quite a lot.

  164. The final question is something which has been raised before, which is the subject of can bovine TSEs in animals that have been taken out still get into the human food chain? Are you going to stop animals that have been prevented from breeding and which are susceptible to scrapie from going into the food chain?
  (Mr Morley) There is no need to do that at the present time because the situation remains, as I was saying, Chairman, that we have no evidence that scrapie presents a risk to people. It has been around for hundreds of years, so therefore there is no reason to prevent animals from going into the food chain. As a precaution, as you know, for animals over 12 months the head and spinal column is removed as a belt and braces precautionary measure. We are not looking, at this stage, to preventing scrapie animals going into the food chain.

Mr Jack

  165. You rightly and properly paid tribute to John Thorley, and I, too, would salute his efforts. The briefing which the Committee received from the National Sheep Association contains a paragraph which does not exactly sound like a glowing endorsement of what you are saying. Paragraph 7 (and I quote) says: "The whole of the success or failure of this section depends upon the time which is given to each breed to achieve a high standard of resistance. It might be more profitable if greater effort was put in by Government to help breeders to develop resistant genes by using artificial insemination and embryo transfer in carefully controlled programmes. It is vital that breeds are given adequate time." If you salute Mr Thorley, why do you not back his approach, as laid down here?
  (Mr Morley) I do back that approach, but the fact is that we made it very clear as part of the extensive consultation with the sheep industry that at some stage we would make this compulsory, and that is what we are doing in line with the consultation. There was not an adverse reaction to that stated long-term aim. I absolutely accept that what he is saying is that there are issues about timescale to talk to the industry about, and we shall do that. As to the role of embryo transfer, we will also have a look at that.

  166. He says here, in another commentary on Powers of Enforcement: "We would make the point that this attempt to force people to go down a route which they were already going down voluntarily needs to be handled with great care. The industry was already moving as fast as possible bearing in mind it has only just been supplied with appropriate technology!" Here you have the industry saying "We are going as quick as we can" and you are saying "You are not going fast enough." Who is right?
  (Mr Morley) What he is saying there is that he wants time to talk about how we can extend that and take it forward. Again, I do not disagree with that. What I would say, Chairman, is that the take-up has been a bit lower than we expected, and that is on a projected 10 to 15 year period. We feel that is too long.

  167. What, technologically, gives you the impression you can speed this thing up? The people who know about sheep do not exactly seem to think that you are going down the right route.
  (Mr Morley) I believe that we can speed that up and we will involve the sheep industry fully in the way that we do that.


  168. Are some breeds genetically more susceptible to scrapie, so we might see the disappearance of some breeds? Or are you confident that the breeds which we have at the moment can all enhance their resistance to scrapie?
  (Mr Morley) There are some breeds which are very resistant to scrapie. One of the interesting things, of course, is that scrapie does not exist in New Zealand or Australia, yet those sheep would probably have originally come from this country. The belief is that the particular breeds that were taken to New Zealand and Australia were breeds that were very resistant. In fact, we have imported some live New Zealand sheep as part of the studies which are being carried out by the Institute of Animal Health in relation to the understanding of scrapie. There are likely to be some primitive and rare breeds which do not have those genes. As I say, Chairman, there is provision within the Bill to take measures to deal with those, because we do not want to eradicate particular blood lines.

  169. When the Bill says that the Minister can, in exceptional circumstances, justify allowing sheep to be used in breeding, the chances are that is because—
  (Mr Morley) That is right, because of certain specialist breeds. There are certain blood line issues and I think they can be resolved in relation to certain breeding programmes. There are certain rare breeds that we may have to exempt. There are one or two very rare breeds that do not go into the food chain, so it is not a problem in that respect. We need to look at the different circumstances. What I want to say is that we understand some of the points that were raised in the consultation with the industry, and the measures reflect that.

Mr Jack

  170. If I can just raise one another, rather irreverent, point? You said earlier, Minister—and, again, I personally agree with that—that there is a very good future for the UK sheep industry.
  (Mr Morley) Yes, I believe that.

  171. On the other hand, Lord Haskins, in his report on Cumbria, advocates a reduction in the size of the UK sheep flock. Some people with a conspiratorial mind might just look at the powers in this Bill and say "This is rather a good way of getting Lord Haskins' wish to come true", in terms of reducing the size of the sheep flock. Would you care to comment on that?
  (Mr Morley) I can certainly say there has been no shortage of conspiracy theories in the course of this outbreak, Chairman.

  172. This is about scrapie.
  (Mr Morley) This is about scrapie, I know. There is no contradiction in terms of debate on what is the optimum size of the national flock. There are issues in relation to the size of the national flock and in terms of what the market demand is—good quality, upland management. These are all perfectly reasonable issues. There is no contradiction in saying that I think the sheep sector has got a good future and Lord Haskins saying there is an issue in relation to the stocking levels and what should be the most appropriate stocking levels.

  173. What is your view about Lord Haskins' view? Secondly, can you say for the record whether or not there is a way of achieving a reduction in the sheep flock by this? Is that part of the purpose of this, or not?
  (Mr Morley) No, not necessarily. This is not necessarily going to result in a reduction in the sheep flock, because it is about scrapie eradication and not in terms of controlling numbers. It does not come into that at all. What I think should be the guiding level for the national sheep flock is the market, in terms of market demand. If you produce too many sheep then, of course, you will collapse prices, and that has happened in this country. It has happened in Cumbria, which is what Lord Haskins was looking at. There are certain parts of the country where there is a grazing issue which needs to be taken into account. I actually think we can address some of these issues through our agri-environment programme. We can design programmes to help some of our more vulnerable upland sheep farmers in relation to management, and the way to do that, of course, as we have said many, many times, is to move away from the production subsidy route and to give us more flexibility in relation to the rural development programme. That is the way we want to address the sheep industry.

Mr Martlew

  174. Being a Cumbrian MP, I have met with Lord Haskins on several occasions. The impression that Lord Haskins received, I think, from Cumbria is that the number of sheep on the fell were creating serious problems from over-grazing and no natural regeneration of trees. Could that have been a reason why he would put that in his report?
  (Mr Morley) I suspect the principal reason for what Lord Haskins was saying is that traditionally within the sheep industry when prices are down there has been a tendency to increase the output, to make up for the fall in prices, which of course get the industry locked into a vicious circle. There are the environmental consequences of that. There are a number of factors in relation to the size of the sheep flock, and it is a serious issue that needs to be thought about very carefully.

Mr Drew

  175. Given the number of sheep that are produced for export, and presumably the rest of the EU principally are concerned about scrapie, have you looked at the contingency that importing nations could set very high standards themselves to try and prevent the importation of scrapie? What would be the implications then for the national flock?
  (Mr Morley) We do not think that there is an implication (?) for any country which would want to put any kind of restrictions on sheepmeat exports, and we do not believe that will happen. I know it is not quite allied to what you were saying, but you will be aware that we did make public our contingency plan should BSE ever be identified in sheep. I have to say, Chairman, having made that plan public, most people who looked at it simply went straight to the worst case scenario and did not look at the fact that the contingency plan contained a level of steps that you would take in relation to what the Food Standards Agency might recommend on level of risk if it was identified. I might say, Chairman, even if the experiments from the Institute of Animal Health had not been shown to be seriously flawed in terms of bovine material (although we have not had the full study of that yet) I do not believe that the FSA would have recommended the slaughter of the whole national flock. I just do not believe it. It is a disproportionate response. It is quite wrong for people to jump to conclusions all the time that if there was any identification of BSE the whole national flock would be slaughtered. That is not the case, and the contingency plan does not say that. I just want to get that off my chest, Chairman.


  176. That takes us neatly, as a curtain raiser, to tomorrow's session with Professor King, where it would not surprise me if we were to begin with some questions about brains. Thank you very much indeed for coming today, it has been an extremely useful session and I think it demonstrates that pre-legislative scrutiny can actually help everybody.
  (Mr Morley) I agree, Chairman.

  177. I regret that we are not going to be able to go a little bit further down that road because of the vacillation of the Bill, but hopefully on future occasions we will do that. We will want to look at the regulations when they start to appear. Thank you for that, and I would invite my colleagues to be in the Boothroyd Room tomorrow where we will be touching on some of these themes again. Thank you very much. I have no doubt we will see you at the Dairy Trades Industry lunch.
  (Mr Morley) Thank you, Chairman.

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