TSE (England) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I thank the Minister for his detailed response and I accept his apologies for the typographical errors. Attention to detail in statutory instruments, which seem to be on the increase—this is the third statutory instrument that I have considered this week—is extremely important, if we are successfully to review legislation. I hope that he will convey my remarks to his Department to ensure that as few errors as possible occur in future.

The Liberal Democrats—I suspect that this may also be the view held by the official Opposition—have no qualms about trying to eradicate BSE and scrapie from herds and flocks in the UK. In fact, the sooner that is achieved, the better. Most farmers and the rest of the agriculture industry recognise that and will co-operate. I think that the confusion arose, whether by conspiracy or cock-up, largely because of the way in which the Government handled the Animal Health Bill. From Second Reading through the Committee and Report stages, not one dot, comma or word was changed. We tabled a considerable number of amendments in the spirit of reasonableness, trying to

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work with the Government to achieve what we all wanted to achieve.

Mr. Morley: That is not very fair of the hon. Gentleman, who generally does speak fairly. I introduced the concept of a detailed protocol that would be written into the guidelines given to our divisional veterinary managers in relation to future slaughter, in a way that did not exist under the Animal Health Act 1981. He will also recall that in the final stages of Third Reading, the Opposition raised points that I undertook to take away and consider for debate in another place.

Mr. Breed: I accept that that was said on Third Reading, but we saw little evidence of it happening in the other place. Perhaps because of that background, the Government have been suspected of introducing through the back door some of the provisions that we found obnoxious in the Animal Health Bill.

Notwithstanding that, there are clearly significant differences between foot and mouth and TSEs. First, the time scales for dealing with them are different. We recognise that speed was of the essence in the passage of the Animal Health Bill, because we had to stop the spread of the disease. That is not the case with susceptibility to TSEs, because there is enough time for proper notice to be given for inspection of cattle and for appeals and evaluation processes. We would like that to be reflected in the legislation. I have no other real qualms about the methods taken to eradicate BSE and scrapie.

The problem may lie with me rather than with the report, but the 29th report says that regulation 9(2), which is presumably on page 13, begins with the words:

    ''Subject to paragraph (3) below''.

I could not see that it said that, in fact, so I am not sure whether there is not an error in the list of errors. That particular point may not make a great deal of difference, but it shows that it may be possible to create a whole series of errors, which would add to the lack of confidence in the process.

Regulation 45, on page 33, about the prohibition of the removal of the spinal cord, states:

    ''No person shall remove the spinal cord or any part of it from the vertebral column of a bovine animal aged six months or more''.

We accept that, but the French position retains a requirement that it be removed from every animal. Given that the regulations are supposedly EU-compatible, will the Minister explain the situation? We have accepted the period of six months or more, but the French insist that it be removed from every animal, which seems adjacent to their view on banning our beef because of BSE. What discussions have we had with the Standing Veterinary Committee concerning the French stance in that respect?

The Minister referred to the over-30-month scheme, which has significantly improved our reduction of BSE cases. It is pleasing that the number of animals with BSE is declining, although the number is not falling as fast as we had hoped it would. It may be flattening a

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little but, as the Minister says, we should bear in mind the fact that it is rising in other countries. However, is it not time to review the OTMS, as we have gone beyond the time scale for achieving what it was introduced for? It is still very costly and a substantial number of animals are being slaughtered and disposed of that do not need to be. If we could get cross-EU support, so that these regulations and animal health regulations in general could be accepted across the EU, that would do much to help farmers to feel that they are operating on a level playing field.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): To reinforce that point, beef producers in my constituency tell me that they can put a product on the table in the UK that meets very stringent requirements and with which they are satisfied but which we cannot export. However, we can accept imports from countries that do not have anything like the same standards and in which very soon the BSE incidence will probably be higher than in this country. In the context of the review, should we not be pressing for a uniform EU system, which would give a practical fillip to beef exports? The truth is that even if the French were to lift the ban tomorrow, we would probably not sell them much beef until we had the same conditions as they have.

Mr. Breed: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which is indicative of our desire for a practical approach to the eradication of BSE and scrapie. We want to use a level playing field of regulation to end their effect on our farmers' performance and our ability to export into the EU. I am happy to support the view that we need appropriate regulations to eradicate BSE and scrapie. I hope that when the Animal Health Bill reappears in the future, there will have been a rethink. There have been rethinks in other Government Departments recently, where they have recognised an existing strength of feeling. I hope that the Bill will come back in a form that we will all be much more capable of supporting.

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Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a few questions about the regulations, because I recognise that they do not affect the voluntary removal of scrapie from the national flock. I have some questions that arise from part II(4)(2)(a), which deals with the inspection of TSE-susceptible animals. The measure will give the inspector the right to go in and look for susceptible animals. The Minister is shaking his head, implying that that is not the case, but I have grave concerns because of the situation in my constituency, where scrapie testing has been going on.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of my constituent Sue Farquhar of Hansnett farm, who had her whole flock tested for scrapie. The results did not comply with what should have happened according to the breeding of that flock. I recognise that TSE and scrapie are not the same, but I raise this issue because of the potential for masking encephalopathy, which can come from scrapie. The science of scrapie testing, which may be questionable, will be reinforced by the monitoring process. That is a matter of some concern to me, as I hope that the Minister appreciates.

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My other question is whether Krebs, when he reported on the stakeholder inquiry into the potential for BSE in sheep, required this statutory instrument to be introduced. His report seemed to tell people that they could continue to eat sheep, lamb and mutton with impunity, but—I thought that this was rather unhelpful—that the removal of the gut could lead to some risk. As he would not quantify that risk, his remarks might have contributed to a fall in the popularity of lamb and particularly mutton.

I hope that the Minister will address those two concerns. I am sure that he recognises that a statutory instrument of this size looks like a Bill and that people are nervous of seeing the remains of the Animal Health Bill regurgitated. Perhaps that is why rumours have been circulating.

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Mr. Morley: I am glad to respond to the points raised by hon. Members. First, to respond the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, scrutiny Committees are very important and their views are taken very seriously by the Department and the Government. I am pleased to say that, on occasion, some scrutiny Committees have been very complimentary to DEFRA on our presentation of European regulations through the European Scrutiny Committee and on the way that we have bound and indexed them, making them easy to follow.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the French insistence on the age of sheep and the spinal columns being removed from those under six months old. We strongly object to that and do not believe that there is any justification for it. There is concern in the French agricultural sector about the proposals and now that a new Government are in place—it has been difficult in the interim period—we will be seeking to clarify those points with the French authorities.

That also applies in relation to the current ban on British beef. We believe that it is heading towards its final stages in relation to the workings of the EU Court. I should emphasise that the French are in breach of Community regulations. That is why the Commission is bringing proceedings against the French Government. It has been quite robust about doing that and I understand that a reasoned opinion is to be issued to the French Government that will give them two weeks to reply. If they do not act on the Court's ruling, there will be further stages that could result in a daily fines to the French Government. We are confident that the Commission will pursue that and we are pressing both the French authorities and the Commission to resolve the issue.

It is logical to review the workings of the over-30-month scheme as the number of cases in this country declines. The number is already declining entirely within projections and I am glad to report that the Food Standards Agency, whose opinion we will seek on the matter, is currently conducting such a review. We look forward to its recommendations but there is no doubt that, in due course, we will be able to relax those regulations as BSE cases fall. We very much welcome that.

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The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) asked a number of questions about the statutory instrument, which is primarily concerned with BSE in cattle and scrapie in sheep, which is a TSE. It is not the vehicle for addressing any finding of BSE in sheep. He will be aware that we published a detailed contingency plan on what the Government would do if BSE were ever found in the national flock. I should stress that we would not necessarily slaughter the lot.

We have started putting contingency plans into the public domain, which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would never have done in years gone by. In doing so, we are following the guidance of the Phillips report that we should prepare for worst-case scenarios, that we should trust people's judgment and be open and transparent. So we do that—we hold a press conference and explain to the press exactly what the plan means and of course the headlines read, ''National flock to be slaughtered.'' That is a bit depressing, because the contingency plans step up the response according to detailed and sophisticated risk analysis in different scenarios.

The hon. Gentleman's comments about scrapie testing as part of the monitoring programme exhibit some confusion. It is dealt with in the EU regulation relating to an examiner looking at sheep's brains for TSEs, which is designed to give us an idea of the scale of TSEs in the national flock. Genotyping comes under the national scrapie plan, which is completely separate from these regulations. The plan is up and running and we said in our consultation on it that at some stage it would have to be compulsory. There would be no point in having such a plan and 90 per cent. of the sheep industry getting involved in it if there were still an element of scrapie in the national flock, because we would lose all the benefits of a scrapie-free flock. We shall probably have to make the plan compulsory at some point, but we are talking with the sheep industry about what would be a reasonable time scale for an eradication programme. The industry is working closely with us, and we are happy with its co-operation and support and with the progress that we are making.

As I have said, I very much regret the blood-testing problems experienced by the constituents of the hon. Member for Leominster. All that I can say—it is not much by way of mitigation—is that those problems arose at the beginning of the blood-testing programme. There were faults in the laboratory, and one of the automated systems failed. That problem has been rectified, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had no further blood-testing errors even though the scheme has expanded greatly since his constituents participated in it. I am pleased about that, and I apologise for the problems that his constituents had.

I appreciate that the Food Standards Agency made a recommendation on sausage skins, which are made from sheep's intestines. The whole idea is that the FSA should be an independent body and say things that the Government might occasionally find uncomfortable; that is what an independent agency is all about. The FSA consults the industry, and has independent staff to give advice. We are entitled to question its

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recommendations and to ask it to explain them, but we must take them seriously, and we do.

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