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Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has been delayed. I shall therefore go ahead of him. I am sure that I cannot use his time.
 
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We should be very grateful to my noble friend Lady Byford for tabling this Question for debate. There is much concern in many agricultural circles in this country about how we are doing in ensuring the security of our livestock and horticulture. Are we adequately prepared to handle another major disease outbreak such as the foot and mouth outbreak? Will we react in the same way? Is our vigilance against disease as adequate as it should be? I repeat, as I often do, that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

I should like to deal first with the issue of security against the introduction of disease from outside the country. I stress that disease—animal, human or plant—is a global issue. We can no longer ignore it because it occurs in a distant part of the world. It is part of our global village and in our own backyard and we should treat it as such. A very good example of that is the current problems with avian flu.

Despite the frequent questions and comments made in this House and elsewhere, travellers arriving in this country are still not asked to declare whether they are in possession of meat or meat products, as is the case, for example, in the United States. Nor is any information provided to the traveller of the dangers of bringing in meat and meat products. I believe that both measures would be very effective and not terribly costly.

Mention has been made of sniffer dogs. My understanding is that we have six trained sniffer dogs, but even if that number is incorrect, I would still say that we need dozens and possibly hundreds of them. They are effectively used in Australia and New Zealand to detect any importation of meat or meat products in the luggage of the millions of people who travel the world.

Every year, several million people come into the ports and airports of this country. It is very likely that some of the major problems we have faced, such as foot and mouth and swine fever, were due to the inadvertent introduction of infected meat and meat products into this country, after which it got into the animal food chain.

One question that we need to ask is how prepared we are for the quick detection, identification and reporting of suspected disease. The recent pandemics of foot and mouth, swine fever and so on have spawned new procedures that make detection very rapid, when delays in the past of even just a few days have been extraordinarily crucial to the spread of the disease.

New techniques and methodologies are available, however. The United States Department of Agriculture has now developed a state of the art technique called PCR—polymerase chain reaction. That is a test which identifies the genetic markers of an infectious agent such as a virus—that is, its signature. It can identify the signature within an hour, and a diagnosis of the infection can then be made, put on the Internet and sent off to a central area for assessment and diagnosis.

The home security department of the United States Department of Agriculture is, I understand, spending something like 380 million dollars in the coming year to set up labs within its own territory. In addition, it is
 
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establishing sentinel laboratories elsewhere in the world, where major plagues of animals and plants are rampant, so that their rapid detection using satellite navigation and global positioning systems is possible. In that way, it will be possible to keep close tabs on the infection.

Obviously, massive amounts of funding are available in the United States for the control of exotic diseases. Should an outbreak occur there, it will not only compromise the livestock industry but represent a major social and political problem. I do not suggest that the United Kingdom should undertake a comparable exercise, but it could collaborate and co-operate with the United States and the departments and laboratories in our own Commonwealth in providing global security against animal and plant diseases. In that way, we could respond rapidly to their identification and control. Has the Minister any information as to what is happening in Defra to collaborate with the United States authorities in that respect?

The issue of disease security covers many areas, and it is impossible to identify them all in such a short debate. The surveillance of domestic livestock via vets on farms has been mentioned. But there is also the shortage of wild animal vets; the role of wildlife and its impact on our livestock—for example, West Nile Virus; and the new salmonella strains, such as Salmonella Newport. They are all examples of areas in which vigilance is absolutely necessary.

I do not by any means want to suggest that our animal and plant health diagnostic and controlled services are faulty; on the contrary, they are as effective as they are allowed to be, given the funding and manpower available to them. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that adequate attention and funding will be available to ensure adequate biosecurity for disease control in our agriculture and horticulture.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, in the continued absence of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I rise to speak.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for asking this question this afternoon. We have worked on these matters for a long time together, and I am pleased to be here today.

I declare my interest as a cheese maker and the wife of a farmer. We have a small herd of dairy goats, a flock of about 20 Black Welsh Mountain sheep and a few pigs and hens and ducks. In other words, we are traditional farmers. We dispose of most of our milk, cheese, lamb, pork and eggs through our farm shop and at farmers' markets. As we have the public on our premises and sell food products away from the farm, we are acutely and constantly aware of the need for the highest standards of hygiene.

Biosecurity is a new word coined, I think, during the recent foot and mouth outbreak. What it really means on the farm is the application of the principles of rigorous hygiene and of good sense. I could have said
 
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common sense, but my husband advises me that sense is becoming less and less common. Biosecurity also implies a requirement for knowledge. If it is not understood that micro-organisms, in the form of bacteria, viruses and parasites, can cause disease, and if a basic knowledge of where these are likely to lurk and how diseases are transmitted and are recognised is lacking, it is unlikely that biosecurity measures will be put in place. I believe that most farmers are aware of the need for biosecurity and that they have, to a greater or lesser degree, taken appropriate action.

Defra suggests that farmers consult their veterinary surgeons and draw up an animal health plan. That will, of course, include biosecurity measures. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, has made clear the problems current in rural veterinary practices. There is an acute shortage of large animal vets. In addition, as we have been reminded in the news today, farm incomes are such that farmers may be very reluctant to incur what they consider to be non-essential costs. As it is, we have reached the stage where, unless a sick animal is of considerable value, a farmer may well consider that it would make economic sense to have it destroyed. Thus some infectious diseases may be missed; animals may be killed before their disease has been diagnosed, and the disease may spread. Vets do not visit farms for nothing, and they cannot be expected to.

Is there a place for what used to be known as Ministry vets to give on-farm advice? Biosecurity, as we found during the foot and mouth outbreak, is of paramount importance not just to the individual farmer, but to his or her community and to the nation. We already see dairy hygiene inspectors, environmental health officers and trading standards officers on a regular basis and a health and safety inspector once in a blue moon. We have a very good relationship with them and have always found them to be very helpful.

My purpose for asking this question has two sides. Clearly, the first is to offer face-to-face advice to the farmer. Secondly, it is essential that government vets should not just "drive a desk" as the saying goes. They need to have a good knowledge of the farmers and the farms in their region. That can be gained only from regular contacts with them under normal working conditions. It is no good throwing large numbers of people out into the field at the time of an epidemic when the team leaders have no clue about the farmers with whom they are dealing or about the lie of the land. That was painfully clear at the beginning of the foot and mouth outbreak.

There are many measures that farmers can take to protect the health both of their own livestock and of their human visitors and customers. The Defra leaflet, Better Biosecurity Provides Peace of Mind, Healthy Stock, and a More Viable Business, gives a good start to anyone who does not have measures in place. There will be occasions when some of the Defra suggestions are impractical or, indeed, impossible. There is no way in which farmers can isolate themselves from all outside contacts. People cannot be stopped from
 
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walking their dogs, which may or may not have been wormed and vaccinated, on public footpaths that go across grazing land or through farmyards. Wild birds cannot be prevented from joining free-range poultry in their pens or flying over or landing in fields. A determined wild animal cannot be stopped from forcing its way through, over or under a fence or hedge onto grazing land or gaining access to drinking water provided for farm animals.

Farmers are allowed to control rats, grey squirrels and rabbits. No farm will ever be totally clear of those creatures, which are all known to carry infectious or contagious diseases. Larger wild animals, such as deer, foxes and badgers cause more of a problem. I have a Starred Question about TB controls next week, so I will refrain from elaborating on that topic for the moment. Just as overstocking causes health breakdown in farmed animals, so can overpopulation cause malnutrition and disease in wildlife. We should always remember that.

Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government make any distinction between large and small units; corporate farms and family run farms; intensive, extensive and organic systems; full and part-time farmers and, finally, dealers? At present, I have the impression that, so far as Defra is concerned, one size fits all. That is another reason why it is so important that government vets know their farmers. What advice there is needs to be tailored to the recipient, otherwise, experience tells me, it is likely to be ignored. In my past life, I was a sales rep, and I was always told, "Face-to-face first, leaflets afterwards". That is very important.

There is an old farming saying, "You buy in stock, you buy in trouble". The Defra leaflet gives very good advice. So often it is the movement of sheep, cattle or pigs between farms and markets without proper precautionary procedures that has led to severe outbreaks of disease in this country. So often it is a small number of rogue dealers who ignore the rules. I am sure that officials know who they are. Is it possible for Defra officials to do with them what environmental health inspectors do with dodgy food establishments—keep a regular and very close eye on them until they toe the line?

The farming community is getting a little tired of being blamed for everything that goes wrong in the countryside. It is to blame in some circumstances and may have some responsibility in others, but it is not to blame for everything that goes wrong. There is also a place for those who use the countryside to behave responsibly and to respect farmers' need for biosecurity, particularly if they have animals with them. On our farm, we welcome footpath walkers and visitors—but, just as any host is entitled to, we expect them to observe the house rules. The organisations that represent the farming community do a great deal to publicise the need for visitors to respect the countryside. I have come to the conclusion that, just as most but not all farmers seem to get the Government's biosecurity message, so most but not all visitors to the countryside seem to get our message, and it is likely that some never will.
 
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2.1 p.m.


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