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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate. I was brought up on a farm with a decent sized sheep flock and I had a sheep flock of my own at one stage. Therefore, I know quite a bit about the subject.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, rightly drew the House's attention to the views of the National Sheep Association. Therefore, I shall not squander parliamentary time by repeating what has been said regarding the views of the NSA. However, I should like to mention a few issues which I consider should be drawn to the attention of the House. The deep knowledge of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, on the subject must be respected.
The first page of the statutory instrument makes very clear that it incorporates the protection of public health. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, at the present time there is no proven scientific link between TSE and scrapie on the one hand and BSE on the other. The spectre of the debate, if you like, which is unproven scientifically, is a link to human health.
I refer also to the whole issue of animal health. It is important to define the two matters as the regulations will have an impact on animal health. Indeed, in that
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respect the science is proven as regards scrapie. Indeed, farmers are co-operating with the Government to eliminate scrapie in the United Kingdom. That is quite right as the disease must be eliminated. That is a highly desirable thing to do.
On the other hand, as the NSA has pointed out, there are huge practical difficulties with the regulations. The problem as I see it is that the objective of protecting human health should not obscure the other of improving animal health and eliminating scrapie. That is where the complication arises.
I am pleased to see that the Government have taken on board the principle of appeals which has been incorporated in the regulations. I tabled an amendment to the Prayer to annul the 2002 regulations moved by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, which made three specific points. The first was,
"to give an undertaking that the period of time in which a veterinary inspector issuing a notice of intended slaughter shall permit representations to the Secretary of State shall be no less than seven days".
Will that occur? There appear to be some doubts within the farming community that the matter will be unilaterally decided by state vets, and not decided by independently nominated vets. I would like some assurance on that matter.
I want to refer to the problems of the hill areas. The regulations deal with England, and there are many hefted hill flocks dependent on the drafting out of ewes in the autumn, as well as the drafting out of store lambs. If there is one case identified in a flock, that could prevent the marketing of store stock and, indeed, cull ewes as well. That would have an enormously serious impact on the economics of hill farming in the north of England and the south-west, to name but two areas. I would like to know the Minister's thoughts on that.
One other problem is the genotyping of rams. We are all aiming for ARR/ARR genotypes, which are the top range and will ensure that scrapie is not spread. In some breeds and places, those rams are in short supply, and simple supply-and-demand economics dictate that the price of the rams is sometimes extremely high. What is the Government's view on assisting the industry to ensure that that does not excessively penalise small producers, who really cannot afford to purchase some of those rams at present?
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Of course, derogation is accepted in principle by many members of the farming community. Compensation is still questioned very much by the sheep industry, and the independent valuation of sheep raises a question on commercial flocks of whether the market value is the appropriate one. Professional expertise ought to be brought in to adjudicate. Those are a few of the points that I would like to draw to the attention of the House.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am sure that everyone who has taken part will want to join the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in hoping that my noble friend Lord Whitty is well, in good voice, and able to join us very soon indeed.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for raising the issue. We recognise that there are concerns about the TSE (England)(Amendment) Regulations, as expressed in today's debate. We need to remember that the regulations only provide powers for us to enforce the EU measures. All noble Lords with an interest in the area have recognised that. The EU law is directly applicable and already forms part of our law, and we are required by that EU law to provide proper enforcement of EU measures. If the regulations were to be annulled, we would be in an uncertain situation, in that the EU legislation would not be fully workable or enforceable.
As all noble Lords have recognised, scrapie is a very serious disease. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, drew attention not only to the human health issues but to the importance of eradicating the disease on grounds of animal welfare and to prevent animal suffering. It is important that we have the powers to take action in flocks where the disease is confirmed. That way we can eradicate scrapie and prevent its spread to other farms and its introduction from infected farms.
I note the point that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, raised about disinfection following an outbreak and we will be issuing guidance to farmers on how to do that. I have no doubt that she will wish to offer views in advance of that. Taking action in this way, as the noble Countess recognised, is in line with advice from the European Commission's scientific experts. The Scientific Steering Committee, now the European Food Standards Agency, and the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) have expressed support. The action is also supported by the Food Standards Agencyas both the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, recognised.
All of us, including the Government, recognise that there is a theoretical risk that BSE is present in the national sheep flock and is masked by scrapie, so we need to take action on public health grounds. Noble Lords have raised questions regarding whether that is a wise course of action. I believe that it will have public
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support, particularly when we remember that there were examples of sheep being fed the very feedstuffs that led to problems regarding BSE in cattle.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I recollect all the issues in relation to BSE. I also recollect that there were examples where the Government were challenged for going too far in protecting the public. I also recognise that major concerns remain that the Government of the day did not go far enough quickly enough. The Government have to take action on the best advice from the Food Standards Agency.
We share the concerns of noble Lords regarding the impact of some of the more onerous aspects of the EU measures, particularly on the reporting of scrapie. We have raised our concerns about the movement restrictions with the Commission. It has proposed some limited amendments which have now been agreed but the Commission has been reluctant to go further. Regarding the sales of semi-resistant breeding rams, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, in a slightly different context, the Commission believes that these genotypes might have clinical scrapie and should not be sold from scrapie- affected flocks to other flocks, which would contribute to the shortage to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred. We believe that the risk of spreading disease from semi-resistant animals is very small and that it is more important to maintain the reporting of disease.
However, I can assure noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that officials will keep a close eye on the impact of the regulations. If we find that they lead to a decline in the reporting of scrapie we will take the matter up with the European Commission and seek further amendments to the EU legislation.
I also assure noble Lords that we plan to operate the measures in a sensible and proportionate way and we recognise that the measures will be difficult in a number of respects. Derogations from certain provisions are available as allowed under the EU regulations for rare breeds or other breeds with low levels of resistance. Flocks that will have particular difficulty in finding replacement animals may apply for a time-limited derogation to bring on unknown genotypes until 1 January 2006. If there are further points that the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, wishes to raise in that context, I shall write to him if there is further information. Farmers will be compensated for animals which have to be killed and destroyed and cannot go into the food chain.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, asked about compensation rates. The regulations set out the rates and provide for compensation based on an independent valuation if the farmer wishes to arrange this. It has to be recognised that taking action in
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scrapie-affected flocks alone will not eradicate scrapie. I accept the point which noble Lords have made in this respect.
Our policy involves a wider approach to deal with scrapie involving measures to increase the level of genetic resistance to it in the sheep flock by breeding resistance under the national scrapie plan. Noble Lords had generally welcomed that, although I recognise that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, raised concerns. A number of schemes have been introduced under the national scrapie plan, on which we are now consulting. It is supported by the organisations representative of the sheep industry and that plan is a good example of the benefits of partnership working.
I am pleased about the high level of uptake under the national scrapie plan, with more than 1 million sheep now genotyped. I am pleased that the plan is having a positive impact in increasing the resistant genotypes and reducing susceptible genotypes in member flocks. This is spreading resistance throughout the national flock.
In response to points raised by noble Lords, we will do all we can to ensure that we implement these measures as flexibly as possible, taking the action necessary to eradicate the disease in herds and flocks. We are working on the appeals procedure which will involve the appointment of an independent person, possibly an industry representative. We are currently looking at that.
I have dealt with the issue of cleansing. The time period is a factor in that. I understand the most risky time is when the ewes are lambing. It is then most likely to be passed to other members of the flock. We will work with the farming community to ensure that in the cleansing we do all we can to have regard to that aspect. I will write to noble Lords with details of research that is being planned in this area.
The noble Countess raised the issue of goats. We hope to meet goat industry representatives soon to consider whether there are any practical management arrangements on the farm which can be applied to lessen the risk of goats coming into contact with sheep. We are still faced with the differences between goats and sheep.
We are funding a four-year, £1.6 million research project to investigate the potential impact of breeding for resistance on economically important production traits. There are a number of anecdotal reports suggesting that there is a link. As the noble Baroness said, there has never been a detailed scientific study. The researchers are currently collecting data from a number of research flocks on depletion of the gene pool. Major breeds, as well as rare and traditional breeds, will be included. The cost is estimated at £8 million in the first year of the compulsory scheme and I have referred to the scientific advice.
I note that in this and a number of other areas the noble Countess is not satisfied that the government advice gives the answer it should give on all occasions. We are grateful for the NSA's constructive comments and we work closely with it to implement that national
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scrapie plan. We will continue to do so. The reference to key industry representatives was not meant to imply that the NSA was content.
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