HC Deb 13 January 1993 vol 216 cc1030-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.6 pm

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I am extremely grateful to have been granted an Adjournment debate on the subject of Aujeszky's disease and its effect on the pig industry in the United Kingdom. My county—Suffolk—has more pig producers than most. The obvious exception is Humberside, as is shown by the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) and other hon. Members who feel very strongly about this issue.

The need for this debate was made urgent by the increased risk of the importation of Aujeszky's disease into this country, and by recent Government proposals to take over the remains of the fund established to eliminate the disease here. In many ways, the issues raised encapsulate the problems that membership of the European Community increasingly poses for the agricultural community. Those who understand the pig industry in this country will know that it is not subsidised as many other sectors of agriculture are. It is efficient, competitive and self-reliant. This self-reliance has never been better demonstrated than by the pig producers' determination to eliminate Aujeszky's disease from this country some years ago.

This debate is about how Aujeszky's disease was eradicated, the money that was used to do it, the likelihood of the reintroduction of the disease from other Community countries, and what should be done with the money left over from the eradication scheme.

Aujeszky's disease is a viral disease that causes high mortality and unthriftiness in both breeding and finishing pigs. Between 1983 and 1990, pig producers funded the eradication of Aujeszky's disease from Great Britain through a compulsory slaughter policy. The scheme followed a poll of producers in 1982, and had the full approval of Ministers. The Government recognised the strong case for eradicating the disease, but were unable to finance the programme. However, they agreed to provide the services of the state veterinary service for the purpose of having the compulsory slaughter policy carried out, and having the necessary blood testing conducted.

The total cost of the programme was £38 million, and after recovery of money through carcase sales, the net cost to pig farmers was £27 million, financed by a levy of 30p per pig, which was collected through the Meat and Livestock Commission and was held in the pig disease eradication fund. Complete freedom from the disease was declared in May 1991 and £780,000 now remains in the pig disease eradication fund, which belongs to the nation's pig producers.

Two recent changes have necessitated tonight's debate: first, imports of live pigs are to be permitted from January 1993, increasing the risk of reintroducing Aujeszky's disease into this country; secondly, the Government's stated intention to take over the money remaining in the fund, which belongs to pig producers. So, having eradicated the disease from this country, there is a renewed threat of it returning from Europe, and the money that could have been used to deal with that eventuality is to be taken over by the Ministry and used as it sees fit.

Because the Minister understands the matter well, he will appreciate the unique animal and plant health record of this country, helped to a large extent by the fact that we are an island and have been zealous in policing imports and maintaining the highest possible standards. From January this year, that position has changed; we are now obliged to allow the import of live pigs from other European countries in a way that was not previously permitted.

Time does not allow me to go into the various categories of pigs to be imported or how they will be checked and tested. Suffice it to say that the EC Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels has agreed various rules and our Ministry has been working hard to make things as tight as possible. Nevertheless, pigs will now be allowed in not just for breeding purposes but for further fattening and slaughter. They will be allowed in from all those Community countries where Aujeszky's is a notifiable disease. Although we are obliged under EC rules to allow those imports, all veterinary advice suggests that it will be a retrograde step and will increase the likelihood of importing diseases such as Aujeszky's.

The new rules governing the import of pigs for breeding are reasonably strict; those for pigs for further fattening are less so; and the rules on pigs for immediate slaughter are the least strict of all. How can we be certain that all those rules and regulations will be obeyed? More important, how can we be certain that, even with the closest possible control, infected pigs will not somehow slip through the net?

Aujeszky's is often difficult to spot in pigs without testing and there must be a real possibility, with greatly increased numbers of pigs of all kinds entering the country, that the disease will come with them. It is a sad day when our membership of the Community means lower standards of animal hygiene for this country. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the import of live pigs and ask himself, given our excellent national record in the matter, whether those changes can be justified. He will recall that the Government intended to bring the standards of European farmers up to ours, not lower our standards to theirs or endanger our herds and flocks with imported problems.

Given the real dangers of importing Aujeszky's disease which I have described, one would have thought that the Government would have been only too happy to leave the £780,000 belonging to pig producers in the pig disease eradication fund against the eventuality that it may be needed again for its original purpose, which was to slaughter infected pigs and keep this country Aujeszky's free. It is pig producers' money, raised for a specific purpose, and there is every indication that it might one day have to be used again for the same purpose. I understand that the Minister has said that, in the event of the reappearance of Aujeszky's disease, a slaughter policy would be immediately implemented and the levy system reactivated. Pig producers insist that those funds have been raised for a specific purpose and should be held available, should the need arise.

In November, the Minister announced that, following the latest review of public spending, he would take the money from the pig disease eradication fund and use it for some of the Agriculture Department's activities". In fairness, the Ministry has always said that the money would be used to defray costs relating to the testing for, and control of, Aujeszky's disease. The Minister will no doubt tell the House that, under the Pig Industry Levy Act 1983, he is only using powers made available to him which allow him to use the pig producers' fund in this way, but those in the pig industry are deeply concerned about this proposal, and their concerns fall under a number of headings.

Most important, they believe—I agree with them—that this money belongs to them, the pig producers. Ministers have always recognised that this money was under the control of pig producers and operated through the industry by the Pig Disease Eradication Fund Board. Pig producers argue that the ministerial powers set out in the Pig Industry Levy Act 1983 were essentially public expenditure safeguards, and it was never envisaged that the powers would be used in this way, although the Minister has suggested from time to time to the industry that these funds could be spent on other purposes.

People in the industry are also deeply concerned that the Minister failed to consult them before the decision was taken, and they see it as being very much against the whole spirit of the Aujeszky's eradication scheme. The Government have talked of using the money to test for or monitor Aujeszky's disease, but the British Pig Producers Association, with which I have had discussions, has put to me the important point that, in its view, the Government have a statutory obligation to meet the conditions of Aujeszky's disease-free status as required by the European Commission decision on trade guarantees. Given this obligation, the BPPA believes that it would be quite wrong to expect the industry to bear the cost of any surveillance work.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for giving way in an Adjournment debate. I would like to say a brief word of support for the excellent case that is being put forward, not only as an Opposition speaker but also as a Humberside Member with a significant pig industry in my constituency. Would the hon. Member care to speculate whether, if the Government do use this money for purposes not connected with either testing or eliminating Aujeszky's disease, and if we reach the position that he has outlined, in which, with the change to the single market, there may be an outbreak, the Government have a moral obligation to replace an equal amount of money in order to combat any such outbreak?

Mr. Lord

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, because, as I mentioned earlier, Humberside is one of the places where there is great worry about this matter. I take very much the point that he makes—that if, at the end of our pleas to the Minister, it is decided that the money will not be used for the purposes for which it should be used, then there ought to be some very firm commitment that, if it is needed, it will be replaced exactly as it is now, at the appropriate time and without delay.

The BPPA is also concerned about discrimination against the pig industry in the way I was describing earlier when it comes to testing, because similar health monitoring arrangements by the state veterinary service are conducted for other livestock sectors out of public funds.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the pig industry believes that it is being penalised for its self-reliance and far-sightedness because of public spending demands now in other agricultural sectors. It is greatly concerned that the proposed action could be counter-productive and could discourage pig farmers and farmers in other agricultural sectors from embarking on industry-financed schemes. Perhaps most important of all, it feels that there is a grave danger of damaging the trust which should and, I believe, does exist between pig producers and our Government.

On a personal note, I find that hardly a day passes without my hearing of some new and complex regulation which will damage some section of our agriculture industry—whether it is the amount of set-aside for our cereal farmers, the cost of veterinary inspection for our chicken producers, the closure of our small slaughterhouses, the effects of salmonella regulations on our egg producers or the subject of our debate tonight, Aujeszky's disease—all in the name of Europe and progress. Time unfortunately does not allow me to develop this theme too far, and I have no doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would call me to order if I did, but I object very strongly when Ministers return from negotiations in Brussels to tell us that they have triumphed yet again and that we are to be allowed to go on doing what we were doing quite happily before—only now we will not be able to do it quite as well as we used to.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

As a Humberside Member, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) for initiating tonight's debate. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) represents more pigs than humans. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central agree that the most important action that my hon. Friend the Minister can take is to continue the dialogue that he had with the British Pig Breeders Association before Christmas, when its members were courteously received by him, and continue that consultation process? The association feels deeply about the fact that there has been no consultation on the issue.

Mr. Lord

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that our ministerial team maintains close contact with the pig producers. I know that they have spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister already, and I am sure that they will continue to do so, as they place much importance on it.

I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary—who the House knows is a fair man, concerned to do all he can to help agriculture—to hold further consultations with the pig industry with two objectives in mind. First, he should ensure that everything possible has been done to keep Aujeszky's disease out of the country. Secondly, we should leave the pig producers' money where it is, to be used if the industry is faced with Aujeszky's disease again. Above all, he must ensure that the money is not used for any other purposes unless and until the pig producers agree on the alternative course of action.

11.22 pm
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) was kind enough to invite me to speak for a moment, because he knows how strongly I support his case. I thank him for giving me this brief opportunity, and shall curtail my remarks still further, as all I need to do is say what a powerful case my hon. Friend has made, how wonderfully he has presented it and how important the subject is that he has chosen.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in allowing me to bring to see him in early December the most important pig producer in my constituency, Mr. Brian Jones, chairman of the pig committee of the National Farmers Union, together with the upcoming chairman of the British Pig Breeders Association. The subject is important to many hon. Members and their constituents. Today there are, alas, too few farming Members of Parliament, but we are fortunate in having outstanding Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Their dedication is shown by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary are both present for tonight's important debate. Pig farmers are of great importance to many of us, and we are deeply unhappy that our Government seem to have mistreated that important group.

11.23 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) on securing tonight's important Adjournment debate. I am extremely grateful to him for providing me with an opportunity to underline Her Majesty's Government's firm commitment to a healthy future for the excellent pig industry in this country.

I note the interest in the debate of my hon. Friends the Members for Bridlington (Mr. Townend), for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), who, as she said, has already brought a delegation to see me with whom I discussed some of the issues. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West that this is an extremely important debate, and as such is vested with the presence of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central said, the eradication of Aujeszky's disease in the United Kingdom was an outstanding success, achieved by a determined co-operative effort between industry and Government. The co-operative instinct that gave rise to that effort is perhaps less well developed in this country than it is among some of our major competitors, and it is a tribute to the United Kingdom pig industry—which we freely give—that it should have taken such an important initiative.

Although many people have made important contributions to the effort, I am sure that the House would join me in paying particular tribute to the efforts of Jim Blanchard, whose services were deservedly recognised with an award in the latest honours list.

Before I speak in some detail about the decision to use the outstanding funds, it may be helpful briefly to describe the disease and its history in the United Kingdom, although I do not intend to go over ground that has already been covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central.

Aujeszky's was first recorded in this country in 1953, and was made notifiable in 1979 when there were only 34 cases. The presence of Aujeszky's was nevertheless a cause for great concern in those areas where our pig population is concentrated.

A survey in 1982 suggested that the disease was spreading within the United Kingdom, and as a result an eradication programme was introduced.

I should perhaps stress that the disease has no implications whatever for human health, and that therefore disease control benefits only the producer. As a consequence, the Government did not consider it appropriate for taxpayers in general to meet the whole cost of the eradication programme. For that reason, it was agreed that action would depend upon the willingness of producers to fund the costs which would arise from the need to compensate farmers whose stock was subject to compulsory slaughter for animal health purposes.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Minister makes an eloquent case for identifying the levy funds, which came from this sector for agriculture and were not part of the Ministry's general funds. That is the nub of the argument. As hon. Members from all parties who signed the early-day motion have said, this was an identifiable sum that came straight from the industry and should go back to that sector.

Mr. Soames

If the hon. Gentleman had allowed me to develop my argument for a little longer than one minute and 35 seconds, he would have heard me cover that ground.

A poll of producers confirmed the industry's willingness to proceed on the basis that I have described. The Pig Industry Levy Act 1983 provided for the establishment of a levy to be collected by the Meat and Livestock Commission. The Act extended the powers of the commission under the Agriculture Act 1967 so as to meet the costs incurred by the Minister as a consequence of exercising his general powers under the Animal Health Act 1981, specifically in relation to Aujeszky's disease. This levy amounted to 30p per pig slaughtered or exported live. The money was held by the Pig Disease Eradication Fund Ltd. which was created solely for this purpose, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central said.

The cost of the compensation payable on slaughtered pigs under the Aujeszky's eradication programme was recovered from those funds. In addition, the fund provided compensation to owners for consequential losses, the Government's contribution being to undertake the key tasks of the eradication programme—investigating suspect cases and implementing control measures, which led to substantial costs in terms of administration, staff and veterinary services.

About £27 million was collected over the six-year period of active Aujeszky's eradication measures and 432,262 pigs were slaughtered, from 523 herds. That was double the initial estimate of 250 herds which it was believed would need to be slaughtered when the eradication programme was launched. The last confirmed case occurred in September 1989. Freedom from Aujeszky's disease was formally declared in May 1991, bringing the eradication programme to a highly successful conclusion, and greatly enhancing the marketability of British pigs.

Once the disease had been eradicated and the levy had ceased to be collected, there remained, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central said, a balance of some £700,000, which has grown with interest. There are provisions within the Act for any such money to be used at the direction of the Minister for the benefit of the industry. The precise use to which this surplus is to be put is central to this debate, and has obviously concerned the many leaders of the industry and industry representatives with whom I and my right hon. Friend have had discussions, which were always conducted in an extremely robust but courteous manner.

This aspect was touched upon on Second Reading of the Pig Industry Levy Bill. The then Minister of State was, as always, very clear in his comments on the matter. He recognised that the issue gave rise to some anxiety in the industry, and he assured the House that any money that was available would be returned to the sector that had provided the funds. However, he also made it clear that it was impossible to be specific about any surplus funds, and refused to speculate on the precise purposes for which surplus moneys should be used.

In the past, we have considered with the industry a number of possible uses for the surplus. Initially, discussions focused on possible research and development projects, and we have agreed to use a small amount of money in that way. However, we received no firm proposals from the industry about how the funds might be used, and in the context of the most recent public expenditure round discussions, it was decided that the remaining balance from the levy should be used for continuing work on Aujeszky's disease that was of immediate benefit to the industry.

Having eradicated the disease, our priority now, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is to secure trade arrangements that will ensure, so far as possible, that the disease will not be reintroduced into this country. This requires us to secure recognition of our disease-free status and appropriate trade guarantees from our partners. These efforts, after long and difficult negotiations, have been extremely successful. The necessary veterinary trade guarantees came into force at the beginning of the year, and I believe that the industry recognises their value and soundness.

Without those trade guarantees, there would have been a real risk of reinfection. This would have led to renewed expense to the industry in trying to maintain our disease-free status through the existing mechanism. That is particularly important with a disease like Aujeszky's. The signs of disease are highly variable and there may be sub-clinical infection. It is necessary to test all cull boars, and to have all samples submitted to veterinary investigation centres for examination. In this way, we are effectively screening the whole national herd, and should be able to detect infection at an early enough stage to take prompt and effective action.

It is the cost of this monitoring that is to be offset by the use of the surplus funds collected through the levy. It is clear that this work is of direct and immediate benefit to the industry. Freedom from Aujeszky's benefits all producers, not just the exporter. It was the potential effect on production which won the support of the industry for action. I have assured the industry—I repeat the assurance to the House—that not a penny of the accumulated funds will be spent by the Minister other than on Aujeszky's disease.

As my hon. Friend is aware, I met the National Farmers Union and representatives from the Pig Disease Eradication Fund Board before Christmas. At that meeting, I made it clear that there could be no going back on the decision, but that we were keen to see a continuation of the close co-operation which has always existed in relation to Aujeszky's disease. My officials are consulting the industry on the details of the surveillance necessary to maintain this country's disease-free status, which is what we all want. We shall also be discussing with it ways of minimising the costs of the necessary work and the financial control mechanisms, as clearly we wish to use these outstanding funds in the most effective, efficient and prudent way possible.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Soames

I must get on: I ask my hon. Friend to forgive me.

As I said at the outset, it is the pig industry that benefits from the freedom from Aujeszky's disease, and it is entirely right that the industry should focus on the real costs of control. It is regrettable, of course—

Mr. Townend

I wish to make an important point. I accept the arguments that my hon. Friend has advanced, but will he assure the industry that he recognises that, when the fund is completely depleted, the monitoring will still have to continue? Will the cost of the monitoring then be paid for by the Government, or will another levy be introduced?

Mr. Soames

No. My hon. Friend will be aware that, if the fund ran out and by some awful chance the disease were to reappear, we would continue with exactly the same slaughter policy, and if necessary we would have to have another levy.

Mr. Townend

With respect, my hon. Friend has misunderstood my question.

Mr. Soames

I must continue.

It is regrettable that the industry should feel that it has not been adequately consulted. That is a point that has been made to me very clearly. I was under no illusions about the initial response of the industry, but I think that it now believes that we are taking a positive approach. It is an inevitable result of the way in which the Government's spending decisions are taken that advance consultation is often not possible. I do not accept that there is a legal obligation to consult before Ministers use the powers that have been given to them in legislation to direct how the funds should be used.

The industry's financial involvement in the maintenance regime will serve to underline the importance of a sensible approach. It maintains the investment of the industry as a whole in its well-deserved high health status. The surplus is finite, and no decisions have been taken on the future financing of ongoing work once the fund is exhausted. In what is, I very much hope, the unlikely event of an outbreak of the disease, the existing controls, including slaughter, will apply. As now, if the fund proves inadequate, we shall have to look to reactivating the levy.

I cannot end without responding to the main points made by my hon. Friend. It is my belief that the Aujeszky's disease story is one of proper achievement. Together, in a short period of six years, Government and the industry have eradicated a disease of sufficient economic importance that producers saw the benefits to them even when faced with the necessity of a levy. It was a wise investment, and one worth protecting. Only Denmark has achieved the same Aujeszky's disease-free status as Great Britain. Disease freedom must pay dividends in terms of increased production and enhanced export opportunities.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important Adjournment debate. I have noted the points made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and I commend the work of my hon. Friend and the Ministry to the House.

Mr. John Townend


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Has the Minister given way?

Mr. Soames


Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.