Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Ann Winterton: The Committee is reassured by what the Minister said about co-operation with the industry and the timing of the introduction of the scheme. However, there are two important points to take into account. First and foremost, it is important that other European countries undertake the same type of programmes as we do. It is hardly likely that we will import much sheep meat because we produce so much of our own, which is of the highest quality, but we do not act unilaterally in respect of marketing, so what we do here should also apply to other European countries. The Food Standards Agency, which looks into the wholesomeness of food produced in the United Kingdom, cannot look into food that is imported into this country, although I understand that it is trying to widen its remit in that regard.

Mr. Morley: The FSA does have a role in relation to the quality of all food in our country. Of course there are food regulations within the single market, but that does not mean that the FSA cannot comment on any particular issue. As far as other European economies are concerned, I know that the EU Standing Veterinary Committee is looking seriously at TSEs, and may well want to pursue these matters on an EU-wide basis. I strongly support that, but it does not stop us taking action. Historically, we have the biggest problem with BSE in Europe, so we cannot ignore the potential risk that the kind of feed that is believed to be linked with BSE, could have been fed to sheep in the early 1990s.

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A range of experiments is continuing. The reasons for the failure of the Institute of Animal Health experiment are set out in the independent audit, which is in the Library. It explains what went wrong with that particular experiment. We should not be too hard on the Institute of Animal Health, however. Generally speaking, it is a good organisation that does first-class work for the Government. It has an international reputation and it has expressed some doubts about the providence of that particular experiment, given that it involved a brain-pool collected in the early 1990s. Basically, the experiment was conducted on a jar of brain paste. It is probably not so easy to differentiate between a jar of bovine brain paste and a jar of ovine brain paste, although I accept that the independent audit rightly pointed to issues of labelling and traceability, which the independent audits quite rightly pointed out.

In relation to the general principle, I understand the concerns that have been expressed and can reassure Committee members that we want to proceed with scrapie eradication with the co-operation of the sheep industry and we are confident that we can achieve that.

Mrs. Browning: I have two questions for the Minister. First, having decided to proceed at such a pace—I say that not as a criticism—he seems to be rather uncertain about what is happening in the rest of Europe. There must have been discussions with the Agriculture Commissioner and the Commission's veterinary committees. Can he give us more tangible information? Have other EU countries decided to take a different approach? Is that why we are not moving forward together?

Secondly, in the light of the results of the Institute of Animal Health experiment, how do the Government intend to replicate that experimentation? I do not mean that they should necessarily carry out the same tests—things may have moved on—but there is concern about the lack of science in establishing whether or not BSE has entered the sheep population. What will happen next in terms of experimentation?

Mr. Morley: That point goes beyond the scope of the Committee, but I shall be happy to send the hon. Lady details of the five-point action plan on sheep TSEs that I have announced.

With regard to other European countries, I have already said that the French are considering taking exactly the same steps as we are taking. I am not aware of the latest up-to-date situation in all the countries, but I know that they have been discussing the matter, as has the Standing Veterinary Committee, and I will be pleased to update the hon. Lady on the progress that has been made.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's comments, especially in the light of the Meat and Livestock Commission's lamb lunch the week before last. The sheep farmers there shared his sentiments about eradicating scrapie from the national flock and showed a typical bulldog—perhaps I should say sheepdog—spirit in doing so.

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It was incumbent on the Government not to lump such an important measure in with the foot and mouth-preventing legislation. That sends out a damaging signal to people abroad, who may think that the Bill is designed to eradicate not only foot and mouth disease, but scrapie and anything else. That might appear to be a rash marketing move, given the images that people have seen on television of bodies being burned and the huge cost to our countryside and tourist industry. We should try to do everything that we can to encourage people to buy British and not to think that everything here is diseased, which of course it is not. Huge steps have been taken in marketing light lamb. It is a great shame that that was necessary, but in terms of the impact of foot and mouth on our exports it represents one of the minor success stories.

A matter that arises later in the Bill but is relevant here is the electronic identification of scrapie genotype-sensitive sheep. In my limited experience of sheep, they tend to lose almost any identification tag unless it is a bolus injected into them, and even those can be lost. That worries me, given that the Bill generally takes a draconian attitude to people who in any way deviate from the straight and narrow, regardless of whether it is their fault. Owners who have lost electronic tags through no fault of their own may be placed in a difficult position.

In the light of the foot and mouth crisis, it would be difficult for a voluntary scheme for the eradication of scrapie to have been as successful as the Minister might have hoped, especially as at any stage a farmer could expect his animals to be contiguously culled. Eradicating scrapie may have been placed lower down the priority list than it should have been. The overriding commercial advantage of not having scrapie is not being punished for having another disease. I therefore welcome this part of the Bill, but to legislate before consultation and discussion puts people at a disadvantage in respect of speed of progress. I am sorry that the Minister was not more accurate in his predictions of how quickly scrapie will be removed under the Bill.

I am also concerned that, once again, we will be dealing with the dodgy science that gave us the image of a Minister feeding a hamburger to his daughter; perhaps we will see a Minister feeding a kebab to his cat. I hope that significant steps are taken to encourage people to eat lamb that is now scrapie-free and that it is not simply lumped with earlier foot and mouth images. I wonder what steps the Government will take to encourage people to eat more lamb. Perhaps Tim nice-but-dim will appear on television more frequently—he has been advertising how simple it is to cook and eat lamb.

Mr. Breed: We have had a useful debate on the principles behind the Bill and I thank the Minister for his helpful comments.

The terminology and wording of the parts of the Bill that deal with the provisions for scrapie are in stark contrast to the rest of it. The Minister said that the scrapie regulations would be the product of a mixture of consultation and the stick and carrot method and that there would be a backstop element. That is

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reasonable, and the word ''reasonable'' even appears frequently in the Bill. It makes me wonder when that was written compared with the rest of the Bill. The rest is anything but carrot and stick: it is all stick, and a big stick at that. The provisions for scrapie regulations are written in a much more reasonable manner, and are in stark contrast to other provisions.

Mrs. Browning: I do not think that we have received the reassurance that we sought from the Minister on the economic arguments and the impact on farmers. There has been broad approval for the thrust of this part of the Bill, which will speed up the eradication of scrapie from the national flock. I support the clause but I look forward to reading the Minister's bundle of letters that he has now promised me—I hope that they will be tied up with a nice ribbon.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2

Adjusted compensation

Mrs. Ann Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 148, in page 15, line 23, at end insert—

    '(e) provide for the Minister to defray any costs of the keeper in respect of the identification and testing of any sheep;'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 43, in page 16, line 42, leave out sub-paragraphs (c) and (d).

Mrs. Winterton: These are small but important amendments. Amendment No. 148 aims to assist owners and establish that those who have their sheep tested for scrapie should not have to meet the costs of any tests, bearing in mind that it would be a statutory scheme and not voluntary. Comments thus far suggest that most hon. Members support moves to hasten the eradication of scrapie in the national flock. However, concerns have been expressed, so we seek clarification on having provisions for the Minister to defray any of the keeper's costs for the identification and testing of sheep.

12 noon

Under new section 36B, regulations can be made to genotype sheep and to keep a record of that. The new section also refers to electronic identification devices, which I assume are the boluses of which my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) spoke. There may be considerable costs, but if the Government and the Department introduce a national scheme, costs should be brought down to the minimum. Nevertheless, the Government should pay for them. I am glad that they will ensure that electronic identification devices are used because tagging is not an option and the new plastic ear tags for cattle have proved extremely difficult to use because they come out so easily. New boluses and technologies should make the scheme much cheaper to run.

New section 36B(2)(d) refers to requiring

    ''the issuing and keeping of certificates recording the genotypes of sheep.''

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If one uses the new electronic devices, it should be possible to keep the resulting certification and paperwork to a minimum. The farming community are literally going under because of the amount of paperwork that must be dealt with. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when setting up the statutory scheme.

Amendment No. 43 seeks to omit sub-paragraphs (c) and (d) under the appeals structure and refers to the period after an appeal has been granted. The amendment would omit sub-paragraph (c), which requires the appellant to meet reasonable costs of carrying out further samples or tests, and sub-paragraph (d), which refers to the recovery of such costs. It is extraordinary that such a position arises only after a farmer has appealed to an assessor and the assessor has allowed the appeal and directed that a further test should be carried out on the sheep. It is fundamentally unjust that successful farmers should be penalised in such a way, so the two sub-paragraphs should be dropped from the Bill. To bear such costs is a disincentive to the farmer to carry on and I hope that the Minister will look on the amendments favourably.

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