Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. Clearly, the aftermath of the foot and mouth outbreak is still with us. We all recall that it was one of the most traumatic experiences for the farming sector and most rural areas of this country and, indeed, for the Government. Much expense and distress were caused during the course of that outbreak.

It is also true that the Government, the industry and the veterinary profession have put in a great deal of work to ensure that, should such an outbreak occur again, we shall have learnt the lessons and put them into practice. We have consulted on and published new details and contingency plans, and we have put in place new measures to protect against the import and spread of the disease. I think it is true to say that the industry is significantly more aware of the biosecurity implications of livestock movements and of operations on farms. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, that issue is necessarily universal but I think that, in general, the farming sector now has a substantially better understanding of it.

We in the Government are committed to high standards for animal health and welfare—in particular, for the avoidance of disease or, if it does break out, the spread of disease. We have proposed an animal health and welfare strategy, which sets out the role of government and others in delivering those aims.

Many of the remarks—in particular, the substantial comments at the end of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick—were directed at the issue of imports. I have often said in this House that, although imports are vitally important, internal movements and
14 Oct 2004 : Column 437
the normal husbandry of livestock should be seen as being of equal importance. Controls on imports from third countries must form a major part of our activity.

Since the foot and mouth outbreak, we have transferred responsibility in that area to Defra in a co-ordinated way. The £8 million a year to which the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, referred is part of the £25 million extra money and not the total spent on controls. There has been a significant increase in the number of seizures since Customs and Excise took over enforcement responsibility, and 15,000 is the most recent figure for the number of seizures.

I think that there was slight confusion surrounding the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. The mean estimate of the tonnage is between 4,000 and 28,000—that is, 12,000. But that does not mean, as the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, suggested, that there has been an increase since the previous Veterinary Laboratories Agency risk assessment estimate; it means that we have better information, and that better information suggests a mean figure of 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat. That is a serious problem for the country. However, very little of that meat will be diseased and very little of it will enter livestock or the food chain.

One problem relating to the risk assessment—noble Lords who have read the VLA document will appreciate that it is a very complicated process—is that, while one can see that there is a point where it could be stopped, the real problem relates to what gets into the food chain and animal areas, how it gets in and through which routes.

During the debate, a number of suggestions were made concerning improvements to both surveillance and control at the import level. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, asked about PCR testing. We are trialling PCR testing for both animal and plant disease, including death—I am not supposed to call it that but I cannot pronounce the term in Latin. We are also looking at some promising equipment which, as the noble Lord said, is being developed in the United States. He also referred to international co-operation in this area. We are not only monitoring progress through the OIE and elsewhere; we are also engaged in the exchange of research findings with America, Australia, New Zealand and the EU because it is an international problem.

Clearly, issues arise in relation to illegal imports and the quality of legal imports. The previous provision, which allowed individuals to bring in from outside the EU a small amount of meat for personal consumption, has been closed at the UK's initiative.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, queried the scope and effectiveness of inspection facilities in areas of the EU from which legal meat is returned. There is a substantial programme in which not only the FVO and the Commission but also representatives from member states, including the UK, participate. The standard is maintained but I am not saying that there cannot be improvements. Clearly, when we are a trading nation, we need to have some conditions so that meat brought into this country is subject to the minimum health standards in the EU.
14 Oct 2004 : Column 438

A number of other specific points were raised, and I shall try to deal with them, albeit in a slightly disjointed way. The noble Baroness and others referred to TB. Clearly it is an endemic disease and one that causes a far bigger problem for us now than any exotic disease within Europe. We have caught up with the testing in relation to TB and have developed a new strategy for it. I know that we shall discuss further matters relating to TB when the noble Countess's Question is taken next week. However, in relation to the specific points about TB in badgers and other wildlife, the research is still ongoing. In relation to wildlife other than badgers, the CSL produced a report in July in which it identified muntjac deer, in particular, as another potential wildlife source of TB, and that is being followed through. As the noble Countess knows, the position in relation to badgers is still the subject of current tests and information from abroad.

With regard to other ways of detecting the import of illegal meat, Customs and Excise is considering a variety of different X-ray systems and is hoping to improve its surveillance in that form. In relation to dogs—always a topic of interest in this House—the noble Lord is right that six teams of dogs are currently operating and those will shortly be augmented by another four. The number of dogs used does not necessarily improve the detection rate, but they are an important factor. Some countries which have fairly draconian systems of import controls do not use dogs, but they form one part of the import control system. However, I do not believe that we need hundreds of dogs, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, suggested.

Returning briefly to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, in relation to PCR testing, the PCR test technology is used at Pirbright and we want to ensure that we can improve the use of PCR in certain circumstances. If I may, I shall elaborate on that in writing to the noble Lord.

In terms of the diseases that face us, the current focus is clearly on avian influenza. The noble Baroness suggested that we were not taking sufficient notice of the restrictions on imports from countries with avian flu, but that is not the case. The EU has effectively imposed restrictions on imports from all countries that have outbreaks of avian flu and, indeed, a wide range of products have been banned from entering the EU. However, it is not necessary to ban everything because certain products, such as heat-treated poultry meat, which is not covered by the ban, could not carry the virus. But I am not sure whether that was what the noble Baroness meant in those circumstances.

Reference was made, in particular by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, to the role of vets. Clearly the veterinary profession, and the relationship between that profession and farmers, forms an important part of the control of internal biosecurity. Of course, I am very familiar with the report of the committee in another place. The evidence collected suggests that there are enough large-animal vets in total
14 Oct 2004 : Column 439
and that, contrary to some rumours, it is still an attractive form of work for students. We have never trained more vets. Logically we should have enough large-animal vets, but in some parts of the country, because of the change in the number of practices, it has been difficult to recruit sufficient large-animal vets and farm-based vets. We recognise that there are recruitment problems. That is why we have agreed with the Royal College, the BVA and the NFU to set up a steering group to find solutions to the problems facing the profession, particularly in that area.

The animal health and welfare strategy relies heavily on developing a system of farm health planning. That involves not only a greater commitment by farmers but also a greater involvement by vets in farm-level activity. It is clear that if we can deliver that dimension of the strategy, prevention is much better than cure and the full engagement of all parties will help to upgrade the effectiveness of biosecurity and veterinary practice on farms.

I was asked about a one-size-fits-all approach to this matter. The point about farm health plans is that they would be tailored to individual farms and to the individual balance of activities on the farms. Therefore, in part, that point would be met.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to the cattle-tracing system. We recognise that there have been errors in the system and the interface between that and the RPA's main system is now being addressed. I believe that that situation will improve, but as yet there is some way to go.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, raised a point about shows and markets. We have a six-day standstill. The length of the standstill was reduced from 20 days for sheep and cows immediately after the foot and mouth outbreak. The six days will remain; it is a six-day not a week-plus standstill.

My time is almost up and as with most contributions to this debate, I have not addressed the issue of plant health. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made some remarks in that regard. It is an important area of the activity of Defra. We have had a number of outbreaks. Sudden oak death in rhododendron has required many resources and recently we have had small but significant outbreaks of potato rot as well, which have been contained.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of compensation. We do not traditionally compensate for loss in relation to plants as we do in relation to the loss of livestock. Of course, the risk-sharing in that area must be part of the future agenda. I cannot hold out an expectation of the kind of compensation that is paid in relation to animals with foot and mouth.

This has been an interesting debate. I hope that I have managed, in a somewhat random way, to pick out some of the points raised by noble Lords. If, when I read Hansard, I find other points that deserve a reply, I shall write to noble Lords in the normal way.
14 Oct 2004 : Column 440

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page