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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21st November 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Lord Northfield—Made the Solemn Affirmation.

Animal Health Bill

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the contents of the Animal Health Bill were agreed prior to the Statement by the Lord Whitty on 22nd October that tests for BSE had been made on the brains of cows and not of sheep [Official Report, 22/10/01; cols. 826-30.]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, yes, they were. The Bill was prepared over the summer and had been drafted prior to my Statement of 22nd October. As I said then, the Bill provides enabling powers for the compulsory genotyping of sheep so as to accelerate the development of a national flock resistant to scrapie. It also contains powers to deal with the slaughter and orderly disposal of sheep in the event that BSE were found to be present in the national flock, and provisions relating to the control of foot and mouth disease.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he assure the House that the Government have full confidence in the ability of the three special inquiry teams to produce meaningful reports? If he can, what is the hurry? Why must the Bill be rushed through in advance of their findings? If not, is he afraid that the reports will not endorse the Bill's main provisions?

Lord Whitty: No, my Lords, the Bill's provisions are broadly in two parts. The provisions relating to TSE and BSE arise from the Phillips inquiry report, which recommended that we have a contingency plan in case BSE were found in sheep. The contingency plan was produced at the end of September, and the Bill would provide the means by which the plan could be carried out.

On foot and mouth disease, the present need for the Bill is not to pre-empt the inquiries, which may well lead to other measures, but in case the disease reappears and to overcome some inhibitions in dealing with the disease under existing controls. Should the inquiries require further measures, we will deal with the matter then.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, further to my noble friend's Question, the Bill, which has been debated in another place, deals with only part of the problem with

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animal health in this country. Does the Minister agree that the failure to include regulations providing for constant rigorous inspection of imported meat renders the whole Bill worthless? The Bill should deal with both sides of the problem. I beg your Lordships' pardon; I remind the House of my family farming interests.

What has happened to the short audit report that the Minister promised us on 22nd October, which he said would be with us in "a week or so"? It is now a month later and we do not have the report.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, on the second question, the audit has been drafted. It is now being checked with the Institute for Animal Health, which should have the opportunity to comment on it before it is published in final form. That is now happening, so the report will be available shortly—I accept that it has taken somewhat longer than I had hoped for at the time of the debate. Both audits will be available shortly.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, but what was her first question?

Baroness Byford: My Lords, let me help the Minister. My first question concerned the importation of other meat that is not covered by the Bill.

Lord Whitty: Indeed, my Lords. The issue of import checks is important, and we are currently considering it interdepartmentally. However, it is important to stress that import checks will never be 100 per cent effective, so the prime concern for disease control must be to control its spread. As I have said before, disease occasionally enters even Australia, which has draconian import checks and controls. The point is that it is rapidly stamped out; that is the main control.

At present, our view is that any changes in import control regulations could be made by secondary legislation, and so would not need to be included in the Bill.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, will the Minister give us an assurance that rare breeds of sheep will be protected? Does he agree that there is a problem with the scrapie situation and immunity in some rare breeds of sheep?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly such issues will have to be discussed with the sheep industry in general and pedigree farmers in particular. It appears that every breed, including most of the pedigree breeds, contains scrapie-resistant strains, but that must be established. It may be that progress in that regard may be slower in some pedigree breeds than in the general flock. All such issues must be addressed in developing the scrapie plan in co-operation with farmers.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister expect the two inquiries, dealing with lessons to be learnt from the foot and mouth outbreak and the transmission and prevention of the disease, to report before the Bill completes its passage through this House? If so, will the Government

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consider amending the Bill at that stage, if that appears necessary as a result of the inquiries? If not, surely the case for a public inquiry is strengthened.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not expect the inquiries to complete their work by then. Both inquiries will take about six months, so their reports will not be available until the middle of next year. I suspect that, were we to go for a full, quasi-judicial public inquiry, it would take much longer. The foot and mouth-related measures in the Bill relate to any further outbreak that might occur early next year. As I have said, if the inquiries require further measures, we will take them.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, can the noble Lord explain how scientists, who are, after all, supposed to be knowledgeable about these matters, can be engaged on work not knowing whether it is the brains of cows or sheep upon which they are working? Is that not a monumental bog?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I can say, without necessarily endorsing the noble Earl's vocabulary, that clearly a serious error was made at some point. The purpose of the two audits, to which I and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred, is to find out how that mistake was made.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how much money has been spent on research on BSE and related diseases up to now?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the research in this area by all publicly funded bodies probably totals about £100 million. About £17 million of this year's expenditure is funded by DEFRA, £3 million is funded by the FSA and further money is spent by the research council and other public bodies. A couple of weeks ago my noble friend Lord Hunt referred to 140 projects involved in this area, many of which, inevitably, are long term. The failure of the particular research project to which reference has been made has to be seen in that wider context.

The Monarchy

2.44 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will call a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): No, my Lords.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that unambiguous Answer. However, has he taken into consideration that opinion polls in recent years have consistently

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shown decreasing support for an hereditary monarchy? Does he accept that most people now believe that an elected head of state is more relevant to the 21st century?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I am glad of all the support that I am receiving. In view of those and other factors is it not necessary in a democracy such as ours to ascertain the views of the electorate on such a fundamental issue?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the Government believe that the national interest and desire is for the country to remain a constitutional monarchy in its present form. The Sovereign personifies national cohesion, Commonwealth unity and political stability. We believe that support for the monarchy in the United Kingdom is rock solid. In surveys over the past 30 years it has been consistently above 70 per cent, while support for a republic has varied between a mere 15 and 20 per cent. The noble Lord mentioned opinion polls. The Queen's approval rating in opinion polls is a very substantial distance beyond that to which politicians and other groups might reasonably aspire.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord's totally unambiguous Answer is widely welcomed throughout the House and by this party in particular. But what does the noble and learned Lord think the general public will make of a senior Back-Bencher and former chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party asking a Question such as this?

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