Column Number: 003
Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 15 September 2003
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Animal By-Products Regulations 2003
The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that the regulations are not about the export of animals or animal products, which is covered by other regulations.
Andrew George (St. Ives): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Animal By-Products Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 1482).
It is important that the Committee consider the regulations because the discussion of and preparation for them has been controversial, to say the least. The industries that have been or will be affected by them have complained to many Members of Parliament from all angles. Many aspects of the regulations are matters for significant debate. I shall cover some of those matters, and I am certain that other hon. Members will add their voices.
Last Thursday, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and I, with others, debated the common fisheries policy with the Minister, and expressed our concern that he had accepted a poisoned chalice. We felt that, because of the industry's concern about where it was going and the crisis that it was experiencing, it would be unsympathetic to his difficulties. In relation to fallen stock, he has again accepted, in rugby terms, a hospital pass. Many of the mistakes with the time scale and the manner in which the European regulation has been prepared for implementation occurred before his watch. It is not possible to allow regulations that have a significant impact on a number of industries simply to pass without debate, although there is no question but that the assumptions made by the Government in preparing for them have created an impetus that makes them all but unstoppable.
Although I am not here simply to criticise what has happened in the past, I have many misgivings about the way in which the regulations have been drafted over past months and years and about their likely impact. However, lessons must be learned by the Department. First, the European regulation was implemented in an unco-ordinated and inconsistent way: it was implemented across Europe in May 2003; the devolved Administrations—certainly Scotland—will implement it in October; and the UK Parliament implemented it for the rest of the country on 1 July.
Secondly, there are the experiences of brave optimism on the part of the Government. Having already debated the issue, I raised the matter with the Secretary of State and asked whether she was satisfied that she would meet the deadlines required for implementation on 1 May. She replied:
''It is absolutely possible for the regulations to be implemented on the due date.''—[Official Report, 3 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 1060W.]
Column Number: 004
As we have seen, the regulations were not laid before Parliament by that date, and therefore could not be implemented—the industry had not been properly or fully consulted.
Over the summer, there was a great hiatus within the industry and concern that the Government had mismanaged the proposals for a fallen stock collection scheme. Clearly such a scheme must be implemented, and the industry is keen to work with the Government. However, there are deep concerns about how that is being done.
Others, like me, have doubtless received a briefing from the National Farmers Union on the consultation prior to implementation of a national fallen stock collection scheme. In that briefing, the union says:
''Despite a 3–4 year run in period, DEFRA sent out very little and very late guidance to the industry in terms of advice on the legislation and how to comply. It will not be until January 2004 that we will actually have a national scheme up and running that will ensure that all farmers have the ability to comply with the legislation and send animals that die on their farm to a legal disposal route.''
The union has expressed much disquiet about the assumptions made by the Department and about evidence that, because of staff shortages or a lack of resources or for other reasons, a hasty approach had been taken.
We and the industry want to learn from the difficulties in which the Department found itself when preparing for a national collection scheme. The industry wants better consultation and more co-ordination. There clearly is adequate potential for a lead-in time in preparing for the regulations; that time should be used properly rather than, as in this case, consulting the industry for the first time at the eleventh hour. We are dealing with the past, and others may want to make further points about that, but I hope that the Department will take it as constructive rather than destructive criticism, and will learn from it.
I now want to address current problems that we believe exist with the scheme. The question has to be asked why the regulation is being implemented on a blanket basis. The assumption is that the risk is evenly spread across the EU. In fact, the potential for infective material running through watercourses and within water tables between holdings is greater in certain parts of the rural and farming environment than in others.
The Scottish Executive have sought a derogation for the highlands and islands, supported by Parliament and Ministers. I made a strong case for a derogation for the Isles of Scilly in my constituency; I am pleased to say that it was granted and has been incorporated in the regulations. I note that Lundy is also mentioned as a site where such regulation would be inappropriate. As with the Isles of Scilly and much of the highlands and islands of Scotland, there are practical difficulties in implementation. It appears that the need for variable enforcement is accepted, although on the basis not of risk—on the Isles of Scilly and in the highlands and islands there are a number of livestock farms and therefore there is still a potential for infective material to go from one to another—but of practical implementation.
Column Number: 005
On what basis could a blanket approach be applied? If, as I believe can be argued, the risk varies according to the type of rural environment, perhaps the Minister would reflect on that and consider whether further derogations might be possible in other remote areas. If so, what is he doing to pursue those possibilities? What opportunities will there be for Members of Parliament or affected farming communities to make a case for further derogations? Alternatively, is the door now firmly closed, and does the Department say that there is nothing further to be learned about the practicalities, or impracticalities, of implementing the regulations and establishing fallen stock collection schemes?
If, albeit at the eleventh hour, there has been consultation of farmers, to what extent have the fish processing industry, caterers, small abattoirs and those running composting schemes been consulted? They are also affected, but some may not be fully aware that the regulations apply to them. They may fear, because of items in the press or other information that they come across, that the regulations will have a draconian impact on them, when in fact they might not. What assistance will the Department provide to sectors outside the farmed livestock sector, which have perhaps not been given enough consideration? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website, which was recently updated, today made very little reference to those other industries likely to be affected.
The basis of and justification for the European regulation is concern about a significant outbreak in the farmed livestock sector. Yet the regulation provides for a derogation to allow the Government to suspend it during a significant outbreak such as foot and mouth. It is recognised that, for example, fallen stock collection schemes could not operate effectively in such circumstances because there would be potential for additional biosecurity risks, rather than a lessening of them. Perhaps the Minister would reflect and comment on that fact and on whether it makes the regulation superfluous; if something serious should happen, the regulation would be inappropriate, and would do nothing to reduce the biosecurity risk to farms.
On a number of occasions before the Minister was given his job, I asked Ministers about an inconsistency that may arise with respect to landowners' or farmers' responsibility for fallen wildlife on farms. Such wildlife—it might be a badger, a rat, a squirrel, or something else—may be infected, perhaps with tuberculosis. Fallen wildlife that might be infective would be lying unburied on the farm. It would be a biosecurity risk, yet the farmer would presumably not be responsible for it, and might well not even know about it. What advice do we have about that?
On 7 May, the Minister then responsible, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), replied to my question about fallen wildlife, saying:
''No formal assessment has been made of the bio-security risks of fallen wild animals in the countryside. The carcases, or parts of carcases, of wild animals will be exempt from the scope of the Animal By-Products Regulation unless they are thought to be diseased or are used to produce game trophies. Although the Regulation places them under no legal obligation, owners of
Column Number: 006
property on which there are dead wild animals are advised to contact their local authority for advice on appropriate disposal methods.''—[Official Report, 7 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 711–712W.]
Therefore, although they are advised to do so, they are under no sanction or compulsion. The effectiveness of the regulations could be undermined if they do not apply to wildlife. Similarly, on those farms where there are farmed deer, the farmer is responsible for the farmed deer but not the wild deer on that holding. There is potential for inconsistency, and the Minister has to accept that that rather seriously undermines the effectiveness of the regulations.
What assessment has the Minister made of the cost to farmers so far, prior to the establishment of a national fallen stock collection scheme? Given that the Government have set funds aside to assist the farming industry with the costs of meeting the obligations, and given that the Department is not expending funds at present, and that it probably will not do so until well into next year—it claims that it will start in January—will it assist those farmers who are currently having to meet costs in order to meet the requirements when disposing of fallen stock on their farm?
I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak, and I would not wish to detain the Committee unnecessarily. Earlier, I mentioned the potential impact on small abattoirs. As the Minister knows, that is a matter of deep concern across many rural areas, particularly remote rural areas, where a number of small abattoirs are hanging by a thread, by the skin of their teeth. They provide a very important service to their surrounding rural communities, and are appreciated for their benefit to animal welfare as well as for their significant contribution to the local rural economy. As I understand it, the Government are considering making funds available to support small abattoirs in meeting the regulations. I am not sure how far that proposal has progressed, as we looked for but could not find a breakdown of any figures on the DEFRA website.
One striking detail about these regulations is that of blood disposal, which was never covered in preceding legislation, but must now be dealt with. The result is a rise in the cost of blood disposal, from £16 to between £60 and £80 a tonne. That is a significant increase for small abattoirs, which are already over-regulated in the view of many hon. Members across all parties. The impact of the regulations has dealt a further blow to those abattoirs. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that impact, and what he and his Department will do to ensure that small abattoirs are not adversely affected.
On the fallen stock aspect of the regulations, will the Minister say when the national collection scheme will start? As of today on the DEFRA website, question No. 4 of the questions and answers on the fallen stock scheme asks when the new scheme will start. The answer suggests that the scheme may not start in January. It states:
''We are hoping that a scheme could be up and running by the start of the New Year but there is a lot of work to do to get the administrative arrangements in place.''
Given the rather brave confidence that we have experienced in the past, which has not borne fruit, how
Column Number: 007
confident is the Minister that a national fallen stock collection scheme will be in place by January? By which date is he confident that such a scheme will realistically be in place?
Finally—I am sure that many hon. Members will be pleased to hear that word—much of what I have said leads to a significant question. Should the Government have been more robust in Europe about these regulations in toto, as the likely effect of potentially infective material leaching through watercourses—groundwater—and affecting other holdings is relatively small? There has been no proper risk assessment on that—certainly not in any of the background reading that the Government have provided. Nor is there any proper justification for the legislation. The Government appear to have gone along with the idea simply because the rest of Europe has told them that that is what it intends to do.
In the low countries and other areas where watercourses travel some distance and the potential for infectivity is great, there may be a justification for identifying risk areas, just as there are nitrate-vulnerable zones in other designations with an appropriate definition of where a risk area begins and ends. However, simply to swallow the European regulation whole, as the Government have, and to take a blanket approach but then to permit derogations as an afterthought smacks of deep inconsistency.
The Government and the Commission accepted in the derogation available at times of significant biosecurity concern, such as a foot and mouth outbreak, that the scheme could result in wagons going hither and thither up and down farm lanes collecting animals that could be left out in the open, for days in some cases, despite the optimism of the Government and those involved in the collection scheme, and could add to the problems of biosecurity on farms rather than resolving them, just as the industry fears. Of course, the vehicles would be washed, and no doubt every effort would be made to ensure that they are clean, but there need be only one slip for infectivity to be carried from one holding to another. Many thousands of trips are made between farms in rural areas. We are talking about dead animals, so it is easy to imagine that those most likely to be infectious are those that have been left on the farm for hours or even days. One must therefore question whether the regulations will add to problem rather than resolving it.
I look forward to the Minister's response. It is a serious matter for farmers and those in the catering and fishing industries—and for many others, including small abattoirs.