Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Wiggin: When the Minister goes to the conference he may have a chance to research the prophylactic vaccination programme in Uruguay,

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which has been extremely successful, especially in cattle. I hope that he will meet Dr. Paul Sutmoller, who is an expert on the subject, and compare notes with him.

Mr. Morley: We will have discussions with a range of international experts. My information is that prophylactic vaccination in Uruguay failed to eradicate the disease, and it is still endemic. We may discuss the reasons for that, along with many other matters.

We want disease-free status in this country, and I strongly believe that vaccination is a perfectly reasonable tool to consider among a range of options. I do not want to give the impression that we rule out vaccination or that we think that the widespread culling that took place in the recent epidemic is desirable in future epidemics. We need to look for alternatives in a responsible and considered way, and the Bill gives us the range of options to do so.

Mrs. Winterton: I seem to recall that vaccination was used in two outbreaks in eastern Europe, one of which was in Macedonia, and it brought the epidemic to a grinding halt. Has the Minister any knowledge of that?

Will the Minister say something about compensation for animals slaughtered after vaccination? That is an omission about which many people want to be reassured.

Mr. Morley: Yes, I am aware of the Macedonian vaccination programme, but I do not know whether foot and mouth is still endemic there.

I repeat that vaccination is a very important option which we should not rule out, and we do not intend to do so. Indeed, there may be opportunities for new policies in the future. Even then, one would want to use the new clause not in a piecemeal way, but in a controlled way as part of a proper disease control strategy.

The Bill provides the power for compensation for vaccination and slaughter if required. At the moment, we do not have the power to pay compensation. It does not rule out full market compensation, but it may sometimes be necessary to consider a range of options and it is important that the options remain open to the Government. One option might be that for classical swine fever, for which 100 per cent. compensation is not paid in all cases. We need to consider the different circumstances and we do not want to paint ourselves into a corner on any one option. We want the freedom to discuss with the relevant stakeholders the most appropriate way forward.

Mrs. Winterton: Although the Minister is making a sound point from his point of view, his comments will provide no reassurance to the farming community because it knows that at the end of the day the Ministry has the upper hand. Does he not believe that reassurance on compensation should be provided in the Bill? That has been done elsewhere in connection with compulsory purchase and this is not a dissimilar situation.

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Mr. Morley: It very much depends on the circumstances in which a slaughter policy is used. It depends on disease control circumstances and on negotiations that might have taken place with those affected. Nothing in the Bill rules out full market compensation, and it should be negotiated in the circumstances in which such a measure is used. The NFU and other organisations have been very successful in getting a deal for their members and looking after their interests. I am sure that that will continue.

Taking everything into consideration, although vaccination is a respectable tool in disease control and a matter to which we must give further thought as technology and science progress, the new clause is not workable and I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw it.

Mr. Wiggin: Will the Minister consider carefully the research that has been done on vaccination? I am not yet completely convinced that the Dutch policy was started with the understanding that it would continue to slaughter. The Minister alluded to EU intervention. I suspect that that is why the Dutch continued down the slaughter-after-vaccination route.

The situation in Uruguay is not clear and I should be grateful for any research to be made available, perhaps through the Library, so that we can discover how effective vaccination is in Uruguay. My impression is that it is effective and has prevented the disease from becoming endemic. We import meat from Uruguay, so it is essential to ensure that the policy is effective; if it is not, that could be a source of the infection. It is essential that the research is carried out and I hope that it will take place in the near future.

Mrs. Winterton: Despite the Minister's reassurance and clarification, we shall press the new clause to a vote.

The Chairman: The new clause is being discussed with clause 4 stand part, so a Division on the new clause will take place at the end of the Committee's consideration of the clauses in the Bill.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.

Division No. 14]

Ainger, Mr. Nick
Atkins, Charlotte
Cunningham, Tony
Drew, Mr. David
Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick
Morley, Mr. Elliot
Organ, Diana
Reed, Mr. Andy

Bacon, Mr. Richard
Breed, Mr. Colin
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

<<179>>Clause 5


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Clause 5 gives effect to schedule 2, which is an addition to the 1981 Act and specifically covers scrapie. Although I support in broad principle the Government's strategy to reduce scrapie more rapidly from the national flock, I have some concerns about that part of the Bill.

According to the DEFRA website, scrapie, which is a notifiable disease in all EU countries, is still prevalent throughout the world. It may be useful to the Committee to know that although it has been compulsory since 1993 to notify scrapie, in recent times it has been reported in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. It is also a notifiable disease in about 50 per cent. of non-EU countries--that is significant, because they include countries that are waiting to join the EU--such as the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Switzerland, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Moldova and Norway. Cases have been reported in Poland and Hungary, which, like the Czech Republic, are waiting to join the EU, and in many other countries.

It is worthy and commendable for us to be engaged in a plan to eliminate scrapie from the national flock, but I have reservations on several counts. We seem to be proceeding apace while there is no suggestion that the Government have sought and obtained similar activity in other EU countries, or addressed the problem that countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary will join the EU shortly. They are big farming countries and the EU should be discussing the problem with them if they are about to become part of the common agricultural policy. Will the Minister give us some information on what discussions he and his colleagues have had with our EU partners about the countries about to join?

As a former agriculture Minister, I recall clearly that in 1996 the suggestion that BSE might have entered the sheep flock was subject to much consideration. There were orders to remove sheep and goat heads and offal; it was thought prudent to exclude those from the human food chain. It was a matter of concern not just in the UK, but in the United States, where research had taken place, albeit on around 20 strains--there are many more than 20 strains of scrapie--and in France, where the Dormont committee, the French equivalent to our Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, advised the French Government to press ahead with measures in the EU. I am not making any complaint about that, but my clear recollection as a Minister was that the issue was seen as an EU-wide problem. I would have expected not just that unilateral action was being taken in the UK, but that the Minister could update us on the science and research in other EU countries and America, which has a keen

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interest in the matter. We know that New Zealand has eliminated scrapie from its national flock. We should examine what has been done there.

I am concerned because this part of the Bill is relevant to farmers, their incomes and their competitiveness. During an earlier sitting, I had a short exchange with the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. He has, very quietly, just accused me of having a senior moment—just like a young upstart. This, however, is a serious point. The hon. Gentleman clearly said at column 6 of the record of this Committee that he felt it appropriate for the UK to take a lead and go ahead. I have reservations. The NFU note on this part of the Bill says:

    ''The NFU supports the current voluntary plan for the eradication of scrapie in the sheep flock. The provisions in Schedule 2 are intended to reduce the likely time horizon''.

We all agree with that. The NFU, however, adds caveats, saying that that would mean that

    ''farmers could have to pay for additional sampling and testing of their animals''.

11.15 am

We all know the problems of the farming community and farm income. The question of compensation is important. It applies especially to those who have paid a lot of money for breeding stock that is a valuable part of their farm assets, only to find that the rams are devalued because they have been identified as genetically susceptible to scrapie. We must consider how much compensation should apply in such cases, because the problem has an impact on farm income.

British farmers would be at a competitive disadvantage if they were not properly compensated or faced additional charges when such procedures were not in place in other countries. If the problem is found to be prevalent and there is a huge reduction in breeding stock, there may be a need to import breeding stock. I am concerned at that, because it may not come from a country that is as vigilant as us in eliminating scrapie from its national herd. I am concerned about several read-acrosses, rather than the general principle incorporated in the Bill, and yet again about how the Government implement their intentions.

Another matter concerns me. I am not saying that the Minister is personally responsible, because it is probably his boss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who feels the need to put out constant warnings about sheep and human health. I know that the Minister will want to defend her, but I would like to read something from the regulatory impact assessment that applies to the clause. Under the section entitled ''Option 3. Making genotyping compulsory'', the direct beneficiaries of putting compulsory genotyping in place are flagged up. They would include:

    ''Government in terms of being able to safeguard human health and . . . to safeguard the future of the sheep industry as an integral part of the rural economy.''

Another beneficiary would be:

    ''Consumers in terms of safety of produce''.

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Again, the Government are taking powers that cannot be described simply as precautionary. Precautionary measures are already in place where sheep carcases and human health are concerned. We have just gone through a three-year experiment that was probably one of the worst cock-ups ever to come out of a Government Department, and have still not had a full explanation of why cattle brains were examined instead of sheep brains. That has set decision making in this area back by several years.

According to the Government, the clause relates not only to the elimination of scrapie but to the read-across into potential BSE in sheep and the implications of that for human health. Of course, there must be a precautionary measure, but in their own document associated with the Bill the Government suggest that the measure should be implemented on the ground of safety of produce for consumers. If that argument is so compelling that the measure needs to go into the Bill, why has the Minister not taken additional measures to remove from the human food chain products about which he has grave reservations, but not the science to back them up? The measure is more than just precautionary but it does not have the backing of science.

That matter is being looked at by scientists not only in this country, but throughout the world. None of the research—not even from the British experiment that went wrong, the Dormont committee, or the American bioassay experimentation—has been brought into the public domain or consulted on by the Minister, yet here he is claiming, and praying in aid, that the measure will safeguard human health.

I am concerned that the measure is about more than removing scrapie from the national flock. It is clearly stated that it is a human health issue. If it is and the Minister genuinely believes that, he has a duty not just to the Committee but to the general public to put into the public domain the information that will explain what he is saying in the documents associated with the Bill.

I fully understand—no one understands more than I do; I was at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1994 to 1997—that when Ministers receive scientific advice, even as a precautionary measure, they have to act on it. That has been the history. We could discuss at the margins of another debate what has happened in the past over BSE, but it is a fact that every piece of advice that SEAC gave the previous Government on what needed to be done for human health was carried out, certainly during the time when I held office at MAFF.

I am having difficulty because I cannot see where the science behind the measure is. Decisions should be based on science. I am the first to admit that science can be flawed, that scientists are not perfect and do not always have the answers and that science develops over years. What was the case five or 10 years ago changes, because scientific work progresses and new techniques and technologies come into play enabling more accurate information to be put into the public domain. However, I cannot see where the science for this measure has come from—nationally or

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internationally. I cannot see how it is in the public interest for the Government to say that the measure has been introduced for consumers' health without backing that up substantively with the science that has led them to believe that.

We could all pluck out of the air 101 pure guesstimates about what might or might not be a dangerous situation. If the Minister is concerned about human health, that is even more reason to include in the Bill measures to prevent imports coming into the country. They are a real risk to human health, which we all can see.

I would like the science that justifies the Minister's wording of the measure and other parts of the Bill that follow on from it. I am not opposed to removing scrapie but, yet again, the Government have not thought through some of their proposals, the consequences for those on the farming community and its competitiveness, or the clear signal that they are now giving consumers about the potential danger of eating sheep meat.

On Second Reading, I raised a query about the wording in the Food Standards Agency's bulletin about the measure and its consequences for milk and milk products from sheep and goats. I am grateful for the detailed letter that the Minister sent me on that, but if he genuinely believes that there is a risk, he should quantify it. It is extraordinary. A Government advisory committee has flagged up that it may wish to ban milk and milk products from sheep and goats, but the precautionary measure does not apply to that, although it applies to scrapie in general.

I should like a lot of information from the Minister on the science behind proposals relating to the consequences of BSE's infecting sheep through scrapie. I should also like him to tell us about scrapie eradication and research findings in other countries. For example, is the Dormont committee still concerned about the problem, and if so what research has convinced it that the problem is on-going? Have the Americans produced any new evidence in the past four or five years to suggest that such an approach is justified? We must have such scientific justification.

However much people criticised the actions of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the previous Conservative Administration, and even though we sometimes took flak publicly, I believe that we were right to base ministerial decisions on the best scientific advice available at the time. At the moment, however, we appear to be witnessing not scientific decision making but political decision making. I offer the Minister these words of advice. As soon as one departs from the science, however imperfect, and one starts to take political decisions, it becomes difficult to resist the pressure to do the same in other areas. In making such a departure, one opens a Pandora's box for all future ministerial decisions. Decisions should be based on science, and I should like the Minister to explain the scientific basis for this one.

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