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Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned discussions with stakeholders, as he called them, about the possible necessity of bringing free range flocks indoors. Can he give the House some indication of the numbers that would be involved; in other words, the percentage of the national flock? As a subdivision of that percentage and those numbers, can he give some idea of the number of organic producers involved? Clearly, the question of compensation for expenses involved in such a move will arise in his discussions with stakeholders.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I believe that question was touched on by the noble Baronesses on the Front Benches. I cannot give the noble Baroness the relevant figure but we are taking a power to be able to have poultry moved indoors. That is not a decision which has been taken either way at this stage. However, it is prudent to take such a power. It would obviously affect practically every bird that is reared organically because by the very nature of the way organic farming takes place those birds are not kept indoors at all times. I should have thought the measure would affect 100 per cent of organic birds and a fairly large percentage—which I cannot give the noble Baroness—of the very large number of poultry in this country at the moment. I do not want to give the noble Baroness a figure for the number of poultry in the country at the moment without checking my facts.

I was asked whether they would still be considered free-range. We know that the Dutch took the decision, a couple of months ago, to move all their poultry
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indoors. That was after their experience of two years ago, when I believe 80 per cent of their birds were infected. They have been allowed to treat those birds that were outside, but are now inside, as free-range.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, the Minister has covered well how the Government are doing all they can for domestic birds. During the SARS outbreak, as chairman of the astronomy and space environment group, I invited Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe—an astrobiologist from Cardiff University—to give us his views about how that outbreak occurred. Through studies of the 1918 flu epidemic he was entirely convinced, as was his colleague the late Sir Fred Hoyle, that the infective agent responsible for the outbreak of a lethal brand of influenza in 1918–19 fell directly from the skies. Can the Minister confirm whether the avian flu is the same H5N1 virus as it was in 1918? The Minister has said a lot about domestic efforts, and that we are doing everything we can, but with the wild birds it is virtually impossible. Has enough research and development been done in this area? Will the committee for science and technology, or the Minister himself, contact Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology to hear, first-hand, what other methods we should be looking at to protect ourselves from a possible pandemic?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who speaks with expertise on these issues. The advice I have just received is that the 1918 epidemic was not caused by the H5N1 strain. Having said that, if he will allow me to make inquiries as a result of what he has said I will come back to him.

Lord Kimball: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the greatest danger to wild birds in this country will probably be in the spring, when they are returning from Africa? Will the Minister ensure that he does not relax quarantine regulations by the time we reach the spring?

Lord Bach: My Lords, again I know that the noble Lord speaks with great expertise on this matter—as I knew to my cost many years ago, and he will know to what I am referring. The answer is that of course we will not, and we will bear what he has said in mind.

Lord Stratford: My Lords, it really is about time the trade in exotic birds was stopped altogether. Many of these birds are caught in the wild. Frankly, if this gives us a reason to stop it altogether there is obviously a silver cloud. Secondly, does the Minister accept that there is a degree of hysteria about this? I have seen figures in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express suggesting that perhaps 750,000 people could die in this country. That seems to relate more to the political agenda of the newspapers than any clinical analysis of the problem that we might face.

Lastly, while it is obviously most unpleasant if you happen to have died while contracting some mutating form of avian flu, to keep the matter in perspective, I understand that about 60 people have died over the
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past three years. More people have probably died from eating dodgy Chinese food than contracting some form of avian flu. The last thing we want is for the Daleks from Defra to start suggesting that they want to exterminate wildlife—as is their normal response when confronted with such a problem. We do not want any proposal that migrating birds are going to be destroyed because of alarmist figures and notions that appear in the Tory press.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I was with my noble friend quite a lot of the way in his question, but when he referred to "Daleks from Defra", no doubt he was referring to me as well, and to my noble friend Lord Whitty.

Lord Stratford: My Lords, I was not referring to Ministers.

Lord Bach: Well, my Lords, that is all right then. But I still take grave offence at that expression. Apart from that, I know many people will share his view regarding wild bird imports, and I share his view that there is a danger of hysteria breaking out all over. It is incumbent on everyone—politicians, as well as those in the press and media—to have a sense of proportion about something that is, potentially, extremely serious. A balanced position is always right. I can only point out, as my noble friend said, that avian influenza is a disease of birds, not of humans. People can become infected, but rarely are.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there will be widespread support for the view just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Stratford? Widespread support, that is, not only in your Lordships' House, but in the other House and the country at large. Can the Minister return to the point he made in his original Statement about the risk of cross-infection from migratory birds to, as I understood it, poultry farmed in the open air? This is obviously an extremely important issue but will only to be tackled effectively across the whole of the European Union. Is he satisfied that the experience of the Dutch over the past two or three years has been well understood? Is it being implemented in other EU countries, so that we have a robust biosecurity measure throughout the European Union on this particularly important issue?

Lord Bach: Yes, my Lords, I am satisfied about that. The Chief Veterinary Officer, who is assisting me today in repeating the Statement, and with whom I have spoken, has impressed upon me just how seriously the European Union is taking the issue of biosecurity. No doubt we are looking as a Union at the experience of Holland in particular. The noble Lord need have no fear on that account.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, what will happen if it is found that birds are being smuggled into this country? What will the penalties be?

Lord Bach: My Lords, if the case is proved the penalties will be extremely severe. I cannot tell her
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what the maximum prison sentence is. When I write to noble Lords after this debate I will include the maximum for the noble Baroness. No-one should be under any illusions; this will be an extremely serious offence, and my guess is that the courts will take a serious view of it.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that if we find that there has to be mass slaughtering of birds we will not see any repetition of the scenes portrayed in the press recently of live birds being buried alive in large numbers? Can he assure us that there are contingency plans for the humane destruction of large numbers at speed?

Lord Bach: Yes, my Lords, I can give my noble friend that reassurance. The birds that have had to be killed as a result of events that we have talked about today were all being killed humanely, as I'm sure my noble friend would expect me to say. If this had to be on a much wider scale, of course that would be done.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, to clarify the position, if, under existing rules, a bird clears quarantine in Portugal or Greece—or any of the new entrant European Union states—does that bird then have unrestricted access to the United Kingdom?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. No, it does not. It has to satisfy those requirements in the country of origin, but when it arrives in this country a bird has to go to a quarantine centre for 30 days. There it is examined by inspectors, as I have tried to explain. So it is not the end of the story when it gets through the country of origin. It has to get through our systems as well, and they are pretty tough. Indeed, on this occasion, they worked.

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