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Public Bill Committee Debates

Cattle Identification Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Joan Humble
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Godsiff, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard (North Essex) (Con)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Smith, John (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Neil (Wigan) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Glenn McKee, Sara Howe, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 22 May 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Cattle Identification Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Cattle Identification Regulations 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 529).
We did not pray against this statutory instrument as a matter of principle. Clearly, cattle identification is, as some people might say, a bit of a no-brainer, given the problems that we faced with bovine spongiform encephalopathy and then foot and mouth disease. It is essential to have an effective system of identifying and tracing our bovine population. The principle is right, and I am sure that the Minister will be anxious to point out that the statutory instrument consolidates and revokes a number of other statutory instruments and regulations, and is welcome. However, it provides a good opportunity to discuss a number of issues that have been raised with me—I am slightly surprised to learn that they have not been raised directly with the Government—on the basis of many anecdotal stories, which are nevertheless important.
Before addressing the specific issues, we must understand the fundamental point that I have just mentioned: the purpose of requiring cattle to have passports and identity tags is to know precisely where they are at any particular point and to be able to trace them back if there are problems with disease and so on, whether they arise when the cattle are alive or in an abattoir. It is important that that fundamental principle, about which there is no dispute, is not obscured or jeopardised by what some people might describe as petty authoritarianism by those who enforce the regulations. The issues that I want to raise with the Minister relate to problems that have arisen on farms and in some cases at abattoirs, involving those who enforce the regulations and sometimes penalise farmers.
The first, fairly general point was raised with me by the National Farmers Union, so I am slightly puzzled that the Minister has not heard about it because I am assured that it was raised as part of the consultation. It concerns the quality of ear tags. It is now some time since the form of ear tags—to which paragraph 2 of schedule 1 to the regulations refers—was approved. It is important that the Government periodically reassess those tags, not just to ensure that the logos and numbers are right and that the computer systems backing up the records are in place, but to ensure quality. A major problem facing farmers is cattle that lose their tags. Ensuring that tags are durable is important, and I hope that the Minister accepts the need for regular checking and review of the quality standards of tags to ensure that retention is maximised.
I am sorry, Mrs. Humble, I omitted to declare that I possess a few cattle. That is declared in the Register of Members’ Interests, but I should have reminded the Committee.
If cattle have particularly long hair, it is often difficult to see whether they have a tag without catching and examining them. The 28-day period is fine, and I have no dispute with it. Then, however, we come to the issue of cross-compliance under the single farm payment system. That then brings in the issue of proportionality, which, again, I am told that the NFU has raised with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A small farm with a relatively small number of cattle may have lost a few tags or even one per animal—I am not suggesting that an animal is not identifiable—but that will represent a huge proportion. If the same number of animals—say, three or four—are short of a tag in a herd of 50 or 100, that will represent a much smaller proportion. However, the penalty imposed under the single farm payment system and the cross-compliance rules will be dramatically higher for the smaller herd, even though the same number of animals may be without a tag.
I referred to animals missing one tag, and that is at the root of the problem—it was what I was getting at when I talked about the fundamental purpose of the regulations. If an animal still has one tag, it is, frankly, identified—there can be no dispute about that. Although animals are required by regulation to have two tags, it damages the whole cause to persecute a farmer because an animal has only one or because tags have not been replaced on time, with over-zealous inspectors rejecting animals that have only one tag. If an animal has one tag, the purpose is still met, because the animal is identifiable and traceable, and I hope that the Minister will agree that inspectors should accept an element of common sense and proportionality in imposing penalties if they find that the regulations have been breached in the letter, but not the objective—in other words, when an animal is identifiable and traceable.
The next issue relates to the rule requiring animals to be tagged within 20 days of birth. Although I do not suggest that the Minister has responsibility for Scotland, I want to ask him about the situation there because the English and Scottish farming press said last week that the Scottish NFU had come to an agreement with the British Cattle Movement Service. Under the agreement, the 20-day rule may occasionally be flexible where there is a risk of injury to owners or herdsmen, particularly of suckler calves, who are trying to tag an animal. There have been a couple of tragedies in Scotland, where farmers and herdsmen have been killed by irate mothers while trying to tag a cow. The proposed concession has therefore been introduced, and I hope that the Minister can tell us that it will also apply in England.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): In one case that came to my attention, the farmer’s wife had been given the form early, but forgot to post it when she got to the post office. It was left in the car for three weeks and did not get posted, even though the farmer had filled it in correctly. That is the sort of mistake that we all make in moments of absent-mindedness, and I am sure that the farmer should not be penalised. The farmer is perhaps also tempted to register twins when the next cow calves, which would go against the objective of having animals identified.
Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend is right. I know of forms that have accidentally not been posted or that were not received by BCMS despite people swearing that they have posted them. I referred to my own interest, and, to be honest, I do my forms on the net and have never had a problem. However, I am a small producer who registers only one or two a year.
The principle to which my hon. Friend refers is right. When this House introduces any form of regulation, we must examine the issue of compliance and enforcement, and whether or not the unscrupulous individual can find a way round it. He has put his finger on the temptation to be deceitful or dishonest, whatever one cares to call it, by next time registering twins, even though the animals may have been born at different times—who is to know, because after a little while these things blur?
That is a problem, which is why I return to the need for flexibility on the 27-day period. I suspect that the Minister will tell the Committee that this is laid down in black and white in European legislation and that the Government do not have any flexibility. I beg to differ. I believe that, within sensible limits, the BCMS could adopt an element of flexibility in what it does and does not accept. I am not suggesting that it could accept a registration six months later, but where there are apparently genuine reasons for a delay in registration, it should accept them.
I come to the question of localised movement. I am trying not to stray too far from the motion, but let us consider sheep. I believe that sheep producers are able to move sheep within five miles of their base without a panoply of rules and regulations applying. Such producers simply have to make a more general declaration.
This is the time of year when large numbers of cattle are going out to rented grazing, where the land may not be owned by the owner of the cattle. He has to go through all the rules and regulations involved in informing BCMS about every animal, because the regulations are clear in respect of different holdings. Again, that seems highly bureaucratic. There should be a way of finding flexibility in the system, particularly in regard to the immediate locality.
The six-day movement rule has been raised with me on several occasions, both by colleagues who have livestock markets and by farmers and operators of markets on my frequent visits to them, so I want to raise it with the Minister. It means that one is not allowed to move animals back into a market within six days of their being in that market or in any market. If I have the rules right, it also means that one is not allowed to move animals on to a farm within six days of others moving on to it. Again, the point that has been raised with me is that the system is inflexible and causes many problems. I confess that I understand the reasons for it, but I would be grateful if the Minister would address that.
The penultimate issue that I want to touch on is the Dobbin case, about which the Minister and I had a brief conversation in another place this morning. I know that the case is subject to a High Court judgment, so I do not want to go into the detail. The reports are that although a large number of animals clearly were not properly tagged, that number did not constitute the whole herd. The implication is that DEFRA required the compulsory slaughter of animals that were properly tagged, given that the whole herd had to be slaughtered. I hope that, within the rules of sub judice, the Minister will feel able to assure us that whatever the rights and wrongs of the case generally, there is no justification in slaughtering an animal that is properly tagged and traceable with a passport.
That brings us back to the flexibility of the 27-day rule. If a person finds that their animal has not been registered within 27 days, it becomes a non-animal and valueless to the owner. It cannot be sold, so either he shoots it and buries it quietly without telling anybody—that is wrong, but one can understand the temptation—or it is lost from the food chain. It is 11 years since the date at which animals were last kept out of the food chain; pre-1996 births are out of it. It therefore seems somewhat over the top to continue to keep them out just because they do not have a tag.
My final point is on appeals. When the Government consulted on the regulations, there was considerable discussion about an appeals mechanism. Indeed, the “Cattle Keeper’s Handbook”, published by the BCMS, refers to an appeals system, including the use of DNA to prove the link between a calf and its mother—its alleged dam. There is nothing in the regulations to allow for an appeals mechanism, and if one does exist I am at a loss to understand why it does not appear. One would have thought that if there is an appeals mechanism, as there appears to be, it should be laid down in statute so that it is obligatory and its conclusions must be applied. Will the Minister explain why, to my best examination, there is no reference to such a mechanism? That seems important.
I am grateful to the Government for arranging for the debate. I apologise if I have produced a list of issues, but they have all been raised with me and, as we have heard, at least some of them with other hon. Members. They need to be addressed, as they have in common the fact that they could bring the sensible objectives behind the regulations into disrepute and, in some cases, ridicule. I am sure that none of us want that, given that we want proper traceability of our cattle for the reasons that I have given. I hope that the Minister will respond to my points and I am sure that, if he cannot, he will be courteous enough to write to me. I hope that he will seek to answer them in the spirit in which I have raised them.
4.48 pm
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I apologise to you, Mrs. Humble, and to other hon. Members for being late for the start of our proceedings. I was attempting to be called to speak in respect of the statement on Remploy in the Chamber, but unfortunately time was too short.
I wish to raise with the Minister a number of the issues that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised. First, however, I should like to pay a compliment in respect of a number of the changes in the regulations, and particularly the reduction in the cost of replacing lost passports. That has been an issue for a number of people, with some passports lost in the post and some applicants claiming never to have received them. Although interventions by Members of Parliament have occasionally enabled such passports to be replaced without cost, cattle owners have sometimes had to pay large costs of £50 a passport for replacements. Sometimes the loss has occurred in unfortunate circumstances such as fires, robbery or theft from offices. The regulations make a real move forward in that respect.
On balance, doing away with the temporary calf passport is a good thing, because it has been the cause of a number of late applications. The rate of late applications for temporary calf passports is 1.4 per cent., whereas the rate for the ordinary type of passport is less than 0.5 per cent.
On late registration, we still have difficult cases. One that I encountered involved a person who had sent a number of applications off in one envelope, and when it arrived at BCMS it was returned because it was 1p short of the required postage. It was then sent by Royal Mail to somewhere in Ireland that deals with packages without the correct postage. It was some six weeks before it got through the system and back to the applicant. I am pleased to say that that case had a happy outcome, but it has caused a huge amount of stress and consideration for the person involved.
Like the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I should declare an interest in that I am a cattle keeper, although I keep those cattle in Wales and the regulations apply only in England. However, I am sure that similar measures will be put forward by the Welsh Assembly when it gets around to forming a Government—something that is occupying a number of us at the moment.
A great number of tags are lost. Not only is that an inconvenience, with the possibility of cross-compliance problems, but it has a cost. A replacement tag can cost £4 or £5, and people often lose 80 or 90 per cent. of their large plastic tags in the lifetime of an animal. Any help that the Minister can give to encourage the manufacturers of the tags to make them more resilient and maintainable over the lifetime of the animal would bring him great credit with the farming community.
The last issue raised by the hon. Gentleman was the six-day movement rule. I remember that immediately after foot and mouth, a 20-day movement rule was introduced. The cost-benefit analysis of that measure pointed to the fact that its cost and inconvenience were disproportionate to its benefit. With the improved circumstances in biosecurity, would this be an opportune moment to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of the six-day movement rule, to see whether its cost is proportionate to any benefits?
4.53 pm
The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for prompting the debate through his and his colleagues’ early-day motion and their prayer against the regulations. I am grateful, too, for his clarification that it is not so much that he is opposed to the consolidation of the regulations or the principle but that he desires to have a discussion about some of the other issues to do with cattle identification of which he became aware after they were raised by members of the public or farming organisations.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments that the regulations are important. They are an important part of animal, and potentially human, disease control, given the history of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. They are also important to the economic success and future of our cattle industry because of their critical role in helping to persuade the EU Commission at long last—last year, or maybe even the year before—to lift the beef export ban.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the regulations are a no-brainer and I appreciate his recognition that contrary to popular misconception about Government regulation, this is another example where we have got rid of nine pieces of regulation and consolidated them into one. I hope that hon. Members of all parties will appreciate that that is a good thing.
Mr. Paice: The Minister is gracious enough to acknowledge that I have recognised that, but I would not want him to get too carried away with the idea that I think that the Government are overdoing deregulation. An answer given by Lord Rooker, the Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, to my noble Friend Baroness Byford states that
“the department does not have a central database of revoked regulations or which identifies those that are updated regulations”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2007; Vol. 692, c. WA20.]
The Government continue to tell us that they are reducing the burden of regulation, but I am not sure how they know, because they do not know how many regulations they have revoked.
Mr. Bradshaw: In the context of both this debate and those on the Animal Welfare Act 2006, I am confident that I have been responsible for revoking more regulations than I have been responsible for introducing. I will see whether I can get the figures for the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that he would be interested to see them.
Similarly, contrary to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said—my officials assure me of this, but I shall go back and check—the issue of the quality of ear tags was not raised during the consultation. However, we require that the quality of ear tags be approved by Government and that they are compliant with international standards of quality. The BCMS is due to write to manufacturers next month to remind them of the need to adhere to those obligations, which I hope will go some way to reassure the hon. Gentleman about our commitment to quality. The reason why two tags will be required is that the animal will still be identifiable if one is lost. If both tags are lost, the farmer will have a much bigger problem. There should be a strong incentive for farmers to ensure that there are two tags and to replace missing tags quickly.
Animals being rejected for human consumption at slaughter because they have only one tag is an issue of substance. We have taken it up with the Food Standards Agency, which, through the Meat Hygiene Service, is responsible for implementing the measure at slaughterhouses. We will issue through those organisations renewed guidance to make it clear to official veterinaries at slaughterhouses that there is no reason why an animal should be rejected when there is a single ear tag and the other paperwork is in order. The cost of replacing ear tags varies among manufacturers. Farmers are free to shop around to try to get the best deal.
On late applications, as part of the regulations, the Government have provided some means by which an animal’s identification can be proved when the application deadline has been missed. The industry has been asking for such a measure for some time. We have introduced the DNA test, which has been used successfully in a number of instances. At the latest count, farmers were in compliance for 99.8 per cent. of animals, meaning that 0.2 per cent are missing the deadline. That is down from a figure of around 7 per cent. when the EU vets made the inspection that made the Government realise that we had to get to grips with the problem to be confident of getting the beef export ban lifted. There may be exceptional circumstances, and I am pleased that the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire was resolved.
On the appeals process, paragraph 1(2) of schedule 3 makes it clear that Ministers may issue a passport out of time if they are satisfied of an animal’s identity. DNA testing will help us in that regard.
I can confirm to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that on safety, we have made it plain that if farmers have concerns, they should speak to the BCMS, which will consider cases in the same way as the Scottish system, although I am not quite au fait with the system in Scotland. The BCMS is prepared to take safety issues into account.
The hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Brecon and Radnorshire both raised the issue of the general cattle movement restriction and the six-day standstill. I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen will be aware that the livestock farmer Bill Madders has been conducting a review of livestock movements, as part of which those issues are being considered. His recommendations to relax and simplify the movements rules are under active consideration by Ministers and we expect to make a decision on them fairly shortly. The proposed livestock movement units that he recommended would address the concerns raised by hon. Members. It is important to remember, however, why the restrictions were introduced. They were considered a very important animal disease control measure, given the role that animal movement clearly played in the spread of foot and mouth during the disastrous outbreak.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred specifically to the case of Mr. Dobbin, in which potential legal proceedings, to which he alluded, are pending. I must say to hon. Members, however, that it is important that one does not always believe everything that one reads in newspapers, or at least does not take it at face value. Mr. Dobbin is well known to enforcement officials at Cheshire trading standards, the state veterinary service and DEFRA; he has previous convictions for offences relating to the keeping and moving of livestock and is currently under investigation for a number of offences under cattle identification regulations. I do not wish to prejudice future proceedings by discussing details of the case, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not exercise lightly the compulsory slaughter of cows.
5.2 pm
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for addressing all the points that I raised. It is most welcome.
Mr. Bradshaw: It saves me writing.
Mr. Paice: Yes, it does, although I shall not let the Minister off entirely, because he did not quite address proportionality and cross-compliance, to which both I and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire referred—missing tags in a small herd can lead to a higher penalty than the same number of missing tags in a larger herd.
I have one other question, after which I shall happily give way, if that is the right format. The Minister referred several times to DNA, as did I, and I am obviously pleased that that system is in operation. However, I am slightly puzzled about something. I am grateful to him for pointing out that paragraph 3(2) of schedule 3 gives the Secretary of State the power to
“provide a replacement...passport if he is satisfied that he can accurately reconstruct the movements of the animal since birth or importation.”
I do not know whether the Minister wants to reply to those points, or whether I am obliged to give way to allow him to do so. I am not sure about the proceedings at this stage, Mrs. Humble.
The Chairman: If the Minister wishes to make a comment, he is more than entitled to make a second contribution.
Mr. Paice: In that case, I shall sit down and see if the Minister wishes to do so.
5.4 pm
Mr. Bradshaw: On the hon. Gentleman’s question about DNA, we believe that the wording in the regulations is sufficient. I take his point on cross-compliance. Such issues have been discussed recently between DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency, but I emphasise again that as long as the missing tag is replaced within 28 days, the farmer is not penalised under cross-compliance.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Cattle Identification Regulations 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 529).
Committee rose at five minutes past Five o’clock.

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