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House of Lords

Thursday, 26 June 2008.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Agriculture: Bluetongue

Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, our bluetongue control strategy, which was developed with a core group of industry stakeholders, aims to control and contain the disease spread. In conjunction with movement controls under this strategy, vaccination is the only tool available to protect animals from bluetongue. The UK was the first country affected by the outbreak to order vaccines; we ordered some 22.5 million doses and we have recently ordered 13 million more. So far, more than 11 million doses have been made available to keep us in the protection zone.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Defra and the industry have done well in getting to this stage, but I am sure that he will recognise that there is no accurate audit trail and that we do not know the precise number of animals that have been vaccinated to date. Does he agree that there is a strong case for vaccinating all farm livestock, at a cost of about £30 million? Surely that is a better solution than the original Dutch and Belgian voluntary scheme. Losses in Belgium have been calculated to be about £80 million. There is no proactive surveillance in the UK under the present voluntary scheme. Has the time now come for a 100 per cent vaccination policy to swing into action? We must keep out this disease and avoid massive consequential losses.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Lord is overegging the situation. If we had gone, as originally was forecast, for the European compulsory scheme, it would have caused massive bureaucracy for our farmers and massive extra cost to them. Along with the industry, we decided to go for the voluntary scheme. So far, in the relevant zones, some 70 to 83 per cent of animals have been vaccinated. Of course, farmers are doing this in the main, so we do not have a precise count, as the noble Lord said. Our aim is to get 100 per cent vaccination, which is the message that we are giving to farmers.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, first, with the change in the boundaries that was announced yesterday, will cattle be able to go to the Royal Show? Secondly, how can we get the message over to farmers and to veterinary surgeons that all animals must be given the full dose of vaccine in order for it to be effective? You

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cannot do just a few animals on a farm or, as I heard yesterday, give llamas half the dose because you think that they are smaller than cattle.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as the noble Countess knows, sheep and cattle can be vaccinated by farmers. Other ruminants that are susceptible to bluetongue can be vaccinated, but that should be done by a vet on a prescription. Everyone understands the situation. I repeat that the only defence against this disease is vaccination. There has been a massive take-up by farmers and massive co-operation from the industry. I am very grateful for what the noble Lord said about my department, which is working in conjunction with industry. As the 2008 version of bluetongue is probably just around the corner, it is vital that we do not cut any corners relating to the shows at this time of year. I realise that there is a disturbance, but we will have to live with that this year.

Lord Plumb: My Lords, I am glad that the Minister recognises that there is a particular problem with the movement of stock now that the agricultural show season is on us. Naturally, the restriction of movement causes a lot of confusion. The organisers of the Royal Show told me only yesterday—of course, the changes took place as of yesterday—that they were told early in June that they would be in a protection zone, so they told the exhibitors that early on. Yesterday, they were told that they were in a restriction zone. That has added a lot of confusion; 500 calls came in yesterday saying, “What do we do now?”. Farmers are told that they can still bring the animals if they are blood-tested. This has caused a lot of problems in cattle classes, many of which have been cancelled. Why does Defra make the situation worse and yet more difficult and confused?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry, but I do not accept that. The Royal Show organiser said on “Farming Today” on 24 June:

We are not prepared to cut corners for shows. It is as simple as that. We are not making it worse. We were the first country to order the vaccine, for heaven’s sake. No one else did that. The farmers are using the vaccine on a massive scale—the range of figures is between 70 per cent and 83 per cent. Defra is not making this difficult at all. Yesterday, we announced that from tomorrow, 27 June, the protection zone will be extended to Cornwall, including the Isles of Scilly, and the Welsh Assembly Government will declare the current restricted zone in south-east Wales a protection zone, because they are getting their share of the vaccine. All that is progress and good news. There is a problem with some of the shows. People will have to live with that, as we are not prepared to take the risk of having the disease spread in those animals simply because they are moved out of one zone to another when they should not be.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, in Devon, I, too, have heard much appreciation for the way in which Her Majesty’s Government have responded to this latest threat to livestock farmers. Vaccine is being distributed across the county to all who have applied for it and there is strong encouragement for 100 per cent

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take-up, given our large population of wild deer, which are also susceptible to infection. However, is the Minister aware that there are concerns about the consequences of vaccination before insemination? This is an unknown factor, on which further work is urgently needed. Can he please give an assurance that such research will be undertaken and responded to as quickly as possible?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, deer can be dealt with only by a vet; a farmer cannot do it. It is as simple as that. One has to assume that vets are following the rules and understand them. I will certainly take extra advice on what the right reverend Prelate said. Our advice to the industry is: “Don’t hesitate, vaccinate”. If there is a problem with a species that is not sheep or cattle, the vet must deal with it, and one assumes that the vet will follow the rules.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords—

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and his department on a successful campaign, as there has not been an outbreak recently. The outbreaks occur in June and July. What precautions is the department taking to ensure that there are enough Defra staff to deal with outbreaks that could take place in July and August—which might destroy the Minister’s holiday plans? Last weekend, I was up in Northumberland, where we are having an amazing midge season—you get eaten alive—so it will be a real issue this year.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, currently we have had breakouts at 136 premises. All those relate to last year’s outbreak. We have not had any evidence of a new outbreak either from midges from across the Channel or from midges that have overwintered. However, we are on the cusp—the end of June and early July—when we will pick it up if it is going to happen. There is extra surveillance. I understand from taking advice this morning that there are far more reported cases going to Defra officials and the vets. That means that farmers are doing exactly what we want them to do: checking their animals.

Food Poisoning

11.14 am

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Food Standards Agency was established in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 19.2 per cent decrease in confirmed reports of food poisoning cases, as monitored by the FSA. Although there has been a small increase in cases since 2005, the Food Standards Agency continues to undertake work to reduce food poisoning.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In doing so, I declare my interest as a small food producer. Does she agree that the Food Standards Agency and local authority environmental health officers should be very much congratulated on

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the improvements that they have made to small food-producing businesses? In the old days when you got food poisoning, the local caff had caused it. Does she agree that the problem now is that food poisoning is caused within the home, and that much more stress needs to be put on each of us accepting responsibility for our health and avoiding food poisoning by observing the Food Standards Agency’s current campaign?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Countess makes an important point, and I thank her very much for her comments about the Food Standards Agency’s work with businesses and the food industry. She is completely correct that it is everyone’s personal responsibility to ensure good food hygiene. The FSA has had a role in providing high quality evidence of and information about good food hygiene. It has a cooking bus—a mobile classroom—that visits schools and community projects, and it has provided materials and training aids to schools. Indeed, educational material on food competency for food skills is part of the framework that it is encouraging schools to undertake. Parents have a very important role to play in teaching their children good food hygiene and how to cook.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that perhaps the Question should also have referred to water poisoning? Given the serious water pollution in some areas, is she satisfied with the testing that various water boards are doing, and will she comment on the present outbreak?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the quality of drinking water supplies in England and Wales is the responsibility of the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The FSA is responsible for the safety of bottled water and water used in the production of food. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has been informed about the current incidents in Northampton and Daventry. So far, it believes that there is no need for any serious worry about the quality of the drinking water, which is fine. However, Anglian Water, the local supplier of water, has issued a precautionary notice.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, why is it not made mandatory for restaurants to publicise on their premises their scoring under the local authority hygiene standards inspection system? The public could then boycott dirty premises. The restaurants could put up the scoring number, letter or whatever next to the little notices that they have on their doors that say “Visa” or “Mastercard”. Then all the world could see.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a useful point. The Food Standards Agency’s line throughout its existence has been to work with business, with great success, to ensure that its food standards hygiene targets are met and that people can eat out in safety.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, the campaigns for safe food are very welcome, but will the Minister confirm that somewhere in the school curriculum is teaching about safe food and how to prepare it, as there used to be long ago? Will she also say what steps the Food Standards Agency will take after reports that an animal variant of MRSA has entered the food chain?

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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, in answer to the first question, I hinted at the important role that schools have to play, and at the importance of the re-emergence of cookery classes. In answer to the noble Baroness’s second question, I say that putting good food hygiene principles into practice will minimise the risk of all food poisoning bacteria, including those resistant to antibiotics. Two organisms that cause hospital-acquired infections have recently been linked to food and food-producing animals. The potential risk is being considered at the moment by cross-government scientific committees, including the Defra Antimicrobial Resistance Co-ordination Group.

Lord Krebs: My Lords—

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I suggest that we might like to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because of his knowledge.

Lord Krebs: My Lords, far be it from me, as a former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, to comment on the past successes of the agency. However, I ask the Minister for her views on the point that she mentioned about the recent upturn in cases of food poisoning after a five-year sequence of decline. As I understand it, this upturn is largely due to campylobacter, which is common in chickens. A possible explanation for this upturn is the increase in consumption of organic chicken. It is known from a number of surveys that organic chicken is more likely than conventionally produced chicken to be infected with campylobacter. Does the Minister agree that consumers should be advised of the additional risk of consuming organic chicken?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, that is a very interesting question. The FSA is neither for nor against organic food. Evidence does not support any claim that organic food is either safer or more nutritious than conventional food. As far as concerns microbiological safety, evidence does not show that organic food is safer than conventional food. However, the noble Lord is correct to say that the increase is almost entirely due to an increase in campylobacter, which is probably linked to chicken. We are not yet sure about that; research is going on. The key point is that when you are eating chicken you need to ensure that it is cooked thoroughly.

Economy: OECD Report

11.22 am

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government publish two economic and public finance forecasts a year: one in the Budget and one in the Pre-Budget Report. The Government last published their forecast on 12 March 2008. They will publish updated forecasts in the Pre-Budget Report as usual.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that not only the OECD but also the CBI anticipate that over this year and next, which will see the slowest economic growth for 17 years, unemployment will increase by no less than 200,000 and possibly more? Do the Government have any plans to cushion against this possible calamitous increase in unemployment, or will they, like every other Labour Government since the war, leave office with more people unemployed than when they came in?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course the Government are concerned that the world economic downturn has affected the British economy and will lead to a marginal increase in unemployment. The noble Lord is shocked at an increase in 200,000 unemployed, yet he was in a Government under whom there were 3 million unemployed.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, given that the rest of the country is having to tighten its belt because of the failures of the Government’s economic policy, what plans do the Government have to tighten theirs?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ministers are tightening their belts through a freeze on their pay, as the noble Lord will know. That is one action by the Government. The second and more general action is to have regard to the public finances against a background where we want to sustain the strength of the economy in difficult times. We are aware that there are risks of a reduction in growth and a marginal increase in unemployment. However, the Government will pursue their basic strategy of following their golden rule of making sure that there is sustainable investment and, in these most difficult of times, ensuring that the economy will still grow, although more slowly than in the recent past.

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Minister has just mentioned the fiscal rules. Does he agree or disagree with the comment made by the OECD earlier this month that the Government deficit seems likely to be significantly more than 3 per cent of GDP, putting the fiscal rules at risk? Does he further agree with the research produced by my noble friend Lord Oakeshott showing that, as is only just coming to light, there is likely to be a shortfall in stamp duty in this fiscal year of at least £5 billion?

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