Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Jopling: I am glad to have the opportunity of saying a few words about scrapie. I must begin by apologising to the Committee for not declaring my farming interests when I spoke earlier—although I have not owned sheep for a great many years.

At Second Reading, I confined my remarks almost entirely to the implications of these provisions in terms of foot and mouth disease and some of the enforcement arrangements. I thought that I would keep my general comments for this debate on Clause 5 stand part. I am glad to express those points now.

I have known about scrapie ever since I was a boy. I can remember being taught about scrapie at university. The noble Countess referred to her sheep being tested for scrapie. I remember being told when I was at university that the farmers' test in the old days was to put their thumb on the brow of the sheep and press. If the thumb went through the skull, that meant that the sheep had scrapie and was culled. It was a pretty crude and horrible way of doing it, but I can remember being told that that was the way in which

25 Jul 2002 : Column 572

farmers, particularly in the Uplands used to discover whether their sheep were suffering from this extremely nasty disease.

When I was first elected to another place, in the late 1960s, I was joint secretary of the Conservative Back-Bench Agriculture Committee, with that great agriculturist, Sir Peter Mills, who is sadly deceased. We were approached by a sheep dealer from the North of England whom I knew, Mr Metcalfe, who was based in Darlington. He wrote to us to say that he was desperately concerned about scrapie and asked to come and talk to our Back-Bench committee, which he did. I believe I am right in saying that he also talked to the Labour Back-Bench committee as well. His message was that we really should understand what a dreadful scourge scrapie was. He expressed the belief that it could easily spread to other species. I do not think that Mr Metcalfe had ever been anywhere near a university or any great seat of agricultural learning, but he had a good deal of good sense. I am afraid that, to our discredit—and to that of the Labour Party too, as I recall—we listened politely and said, "Yes. Well, maybe, one day", and did not take his view too seriously. What a pity we did not. He was right. He was foretelling the future, and we all know what the future has brought about. I personally welcome the efforts being made to try to deal with the scourge of scrapie.

I am particularly concerned about the Herdwick flock. I do not know, but I guess that my constituency when I was in another place contained up to half the Herdwick sheep in the country. They are confined to the high areas of the Lake District. Without the Herdwicks, those bleak Lake District mountains could not possibly be farmed, because no other breed could live and thrive there. Some people have tried other breeds over the years, but they have all failed.

That breed is crucial for the Lake District, not only for the livelihood of those who farm in those areas, but for those who go to enjoy the environmental beauties of the Lake District. The look of those mountains would be very much changed if, because of these arrangements, they were not grazed by Herdwick sheep. That is a serious problem.

I am not saying that nothing should be done about scrapie. We should do something about scrapie, but at the same time I hope that the Government will do everything they can to bring about a timescale or some form of support for that breed, which is crucial for the farming prosperity of the Lake District and for the amenity value that visitors from all over the world enjoy.

Finally, I strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said about the need for the Government to produce a full scientific statement to bring us up to date before we proceed further with these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has made a most useful suggestion. I hope that the Minister will be kind enough to look at that and consider whether something can be produced

25 Jul 2002 : Column 573

so that we know the exact state of current scientific knowledge on this horrible disease, which has ravaged so many parts of our country for centuries.

Baroness Byford: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving us the chance to consider this important issue. It is unnecessary to repeat what other noble Lords have said, because they have all spoken well. The problem with following my noble friend Lord Jopling is that he usually pinches everything that I wish to say. I am grateful to him for his comments. I had already written down one or two questions that I wanted to ask.

As other noble Lords have said, the National Sheep Association is obviously pushing ahead with its scrapie plan. What is the Government's current spending towards that plan? Presumably they are helping this voluntary organisation of work that the National Sheep Association is giving. If not, I wonder why not. How much of the 431 million allocated in the recent spending review is going into current research on scrapie and on testing? Will the Minister also give us some indication on timings? I acknowledged earlier that the national scrapie plan had been delayed because of the foot and mouth outbreak. What timings, if any, do the Government have on how they can move the agenda forward?

Thirdly, following my noble friend's comments on rare breeds, of all the lobbying that I have had in the past year, one of the biggest groups—and yet they are the smallest groups—has been those who specialise in rare breeds. Many of them are very anxious, knowing that some of their sheep will fall within the scrapie provision. They are also anxious because they are not just kept as pure breeds, but are used in a cross-breed capacity. As my noble friend Lord Jopling has just said, it is particularly relevant that the Herdwick sheep seem to be the only ones able to survive in some of the very bleak mountains up in the North.

Finally, picking up on my noble friend's point, which I wanted to raise, one of the difficulties currently facing most of the farming industry is their lack of income. That is particularly relevant to those who keep sheep. The turnover for those who breed sheep is very small. As the letter I read out earlier pointed out, if we put additional hurdles in their way, there is a great risk that many farmers will be squeezed out of existence. As my noble friend Lord Jopling rightly asked, where does that leave the future for our landscape in some of the very remote areas where no other animal can survive?

Those are my few questions for the noble Lord. First, what money is being paid on the existing voluntary scheme? Secondly, what money is going into research and how much of the new 431 million is being made available? Thirdly, what timings do the Government have in mind to move the programme forward?

25 Jul 2002 : Column 574

6 p.m.

Lord Whitty: I clearly oppose the implications of the clause not standing part of the Bill, but we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving us the opportunity of this debate, which allows me to explain the principles of the plan and allows other noble Lords to raise some of those principles.

The existing scrapie plan is voluntary. It has been agreed with the industry and is supported by substantial scientific opinion, in particular by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and, on the enforcement side, by the Food Standards Agency. Farmers who enter their sheep in the plan can genotype them to establish whether they are genetically resistant to scrapie. Breeding controls are then imposed on the more susceptible sheep.

That is dealing with scrapie directly. There is also the theoretical risk that BSE could be found in sheep. It is important to achieve a flock that is resistant to scrapie and to BSE if it is masked by scrapie.

However, it is clear that the voluntary plan, to which scientific opinion, the industry and the Government are all committed, is likely to take a long time to have the desired effect. The plan was launched in July 2001, with a genotyping scheme for pure pedigree flocks. Uptake on that first appeal was less than expected. It was only just over 4,000 as of the beginning of this month. We then announced a further extension to non-registered flocks in January this year. More than 2,000 have subscribed to that.

Assuming that all goes well and we continue at that rate, the estimate for the elimination of scrapie in 50 per cent of the rams in the flock—which is the best method of calculating—is 25 years. That is why we wish to speed up the process. The noble Countess referred to anxieties in 1730. Whatever methods farmers in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and elsewhere have used have not succeeded in eliminating scrapie in that time. We have a rather tighter time horizon in mind. We want to deal with half the problem in 25 years. We do not have a specific end-date, but if we did it would be substantially less than 25 years—and the accelerated process could get us there much quicker.

In terms of immediate take-up, it is perhaps more important to establish in the mind of the industry the Government's commitment to the scheme. That commitment includes not only money—an issue mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to which I shall return shortly—but also the indication that, if necessary, we will use mandatory powers to ensure that the scheme is delivered in total. We therefore need the Bill's legislative powers to back up the current voluntary scheme.

There is a wider European dimension. There are programmes for breeding out TSEs in the Netherlands and in France, and the European Commission has proposed minimum requirements for EU-wide genotyping. Much of that has been influenced by our own national scrapie plan. So there is a major Europe-wide movement to eliminate scrapie as fast as possible

25 Jul 2002 : Column 575

from the flock. "As fast as possible", in our view, means that we will have to speed up what would happen voluntarily. These methods are part of that.

The resources which the Government are providing are composed of various subsets of figures. The total figure, however, is about 120 million. So the Government are clearly showing the priority that we assign to improving the robustness and quality of our national flock.

The plan is based on the substantial quantity of available scientific information, although we will have better information as we continue. As a greater proportion of the flock is genotyped, the weaknesses and strengths will become clearer. We know that some sheep breeds do not have all 15 of the scrapie genotypes and that some have only a handful. We also know that only about four of the genotypes can be considered as resistant or semi-resistant. There is a quite significant difference between breeds. If we find that a particular breed has a very low incidence of resistant genes, we can consider pursuing breeding restrictions such as those provided for in the Bill.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page