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It is difficult to know why the Minister wants to resist Amendment No. 13. That says in clear language what he has said he would do in practicehe will take expert advice and he would need evidence before he came to his judgment. The Minister should accept Amendment No. 13, or tell us what form of re-assuring words he would like, rather than the dangerously subjective words "in his opinion".
Lord Whitty: I am always willing to consider matters further without at this stage making a commitment to tabling an amendment. I add two qualifications to that. First, this will be subject not only to the initial draft order but to consultation on the draft order. Therefore, in practice a wide range of people will be consulted before it is finally enacted.
Secondly, I should be somewhat wary of committing myself to engaging on a list process of those to be consulted. There are some people who would be consulted in those circumstances. It is always those who might be or feel excluded by lists that cause problems.
Lord Plumb: I thank the Minister for his response. Although Amendment No. 14 is precise, the Chief Veterinary Officer and the president of the British Veterinary Association have ultimate responsibility. They have their experts in the field who they can contact.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Before calling Amendment No. 15, I have to inform the Committee that if this amendment were to be agreed, I cannot call Amendment No. 16 under the pre-emption rules.
Secondly, within the parameters of safety, the amendments would allow breeders of the major and minor breeds more time to breed the susceptibility out of their flocks. We have already heard that correspondence has been received from the National Sheep Association which points out the desirability of having this time.
We are entering a field of experimentation and unproved science in addressing the problem. A great many Members of the Committee have mentioned that today. The fact that it concerns the PrP gene means that that experiment is charged with emotion, with visions of mad cows and new variant CJD lurking either just below the horizon or, in some cases, above the horizon.
Can the Minister tell us exhaustively what the PrP gene doesat least in terms that the ordinary layman can understand? How will we ever know whether it is associated with valuable sought after traits, when in the present state of science we regard its variants as harbouring potential harm.
I shall illustrate the problem that arises from one of our major breeds. Of the 20 million breeding sheep in the United Kingdom, three million belong to the Blackface breed. These have been bred for wintering outside in hill and mountain conditions. That breed has never been known to contract scrapie under natural conditions. In the samples of all breeds carried out so far under the national scrapie plan, 33 per cent were from the most resistant category. Of the Blackface breed, only 9 per cent have turned out to have this characteristic.
There are not many who would quarrel with the Government's idea that the 3 per cent of the national flock, or the 1 per cent of the Blackface breed that are considered to be highly susceptible, should be removed at an early timepossibly immediately. The problem arises in the middle ground, which contains 64 per cent of the national flock, but 90 per cent of the Blackface breed.
The fact that the most resistant strain is so poorly represented in this breed may suggest something about the relationship of the PrP gene to survivability in adverse circumstances. I am sure that the Minister is aware, because I have received communications to this effect from the breed society, that if he removed all Blackface sheep with a risk factor of three and below, it would be impossible to provide sufficient rams for the national flock in the next two years.
For another threat in the argument, I draw the Committee's attention to a meeting held by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust on 18th December 2001. Professor Peter Smith presented evidence suggesting that when BSE was experimentally inducedor introducedinto sheep, animals possessing the most susceptible genome variant still showed no sign of infection after almost 200 days. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether there have been advances in that
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: I strongly support the amendments. I have a background in farming, although I am not engaged in it at present. Progress has been made with the National Sheep Plan, but the description of susceptibilityin particular, the use of the phrase "more susceptible than other sheep genotypes"is not entirely appropriate. "Most susceptible" would certainly not be very appropriate, especially for commercial flocks. As has been described in relation to the Blackface breed, it will take some time to breed out those characteristics, especially in commercial flocks. In pedigree flocks, the situation is different. I shall address that question under another amendment.
The Countess of Mar: I support the noble Duke, Lord Montrose, especially on Amendment No. 16. I am not entirely happy with Amendment No. 15, because to incorporate the words "at the present time" in a Bill that may last for 10 years is a little dicey.
The noble Duke has made clear what will happen to Blackface sheep, but we need to understand what part Blackface sheep play in our sheep industry. The ewes are crossed with Blue Leicester rams to make the Mule, and the Mule is the most common breeding ewe in the Lowlands. It provides the hardiness and mothering ability of the Highland sheepthe Blackface sheepmixed with the milkiness and meatiness of the Lowland sheep and makes a jolly good mother. That sheep is then crossed with a continental sire to achieve lamb that fits the requirements of the modern housewife.
Lord Whitty: The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and others asked several questions, not all of which I can answer, but I shall try to address the amendments, which clearly give us cause for concern, because they are too restrictive and prescriptive. As I said, we must bear in mind that the whole sheep plan will be carried out in conjunction with the industry. Clearly, how we deal with particular breeds and identified spreads of genes will be informed not only by science but by the future structure of the industry.
As for the science, as the Committee will be aware, much scientific evidence describes the varying susceptibilities of the 15 known sheep genotypes. However, that is constantly being updated. How we carry out the plan will therefore also be constantly updated. That was implicit in the voluntary scheme and will be implicit in the compulsory elements of the scheme. We will base that on the best scientific knowledge at the time, taking the advice of SEAC and other scientific and regulatory bodies.
The powers are enabling only. In other words, if we were to activate them, we should have to be able to defend them in the light of the prevailing scientific knowledge at the time, rather than be constrained by the wording of the Bill. Of course, it is true that under the present scrapie plan, there are already restrictions on sheep with R3 genotypes, but to be absolute, as is one of the amendments, is not the way in which we want to proceed.
All the amendments would provide a degree of prescription that may tie our hands later, whereas we want to act in the light of the best information and take the most appropriate action at the time.
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