HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc491-3
5. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

What representations he has received on the process for awarding livestock movement licences. [155682]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

I have received a great many representations about livestock movement licences, and there are essentially four schemes.

The movement of animals direct to slaughter has been permitted since 3 March. Local and occupational movement licences allowing short-distance movements were introduced on 9 March, and longer-distance movement licences were introduced from 17 March. For circumstances in which these schemes will not alleviate animal welfare problems, we introduced the welfare disposal scheme on 22 March. This provides free collection, transport, slaughter and disposal of animals as well as a payment to the farmer for the animals taken.

We are continuing to develop the controls and administrative arrangements for these schemes in the light of experience. However, I must emphasise that disease control has to be the top priority.

Mr. Todd

I share my right hon. Friend's commitment to tight movement controls, but do not experience of the risks and the epidemiology advice available lead us to think that we may be able to refine those movement controls? For example, could we not reconsider the 21-day standstill period, which is obligatory for local movements, and consider speeding up the process of awarding occupational licences, which can take three to four days? The sloth of that process is directly linked to the vast call on the welfare scheme that has been introduced. If we can obtain quicker and more precise movements, we may avoid some of the welfare problems that we currently face.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: where limited trade can take place under licence, it should be the preferred route for the industry—for the farmer and the meat trade in general. As the pattern of the disease is regionalised and reducing, I envisage that it will be possible to relax the control measures in parts of the country that are disease free. Our priority must be to keep those areas disease free as we bear down on outbreaks. I know that it is hard, but strict controls and a strict licensing regime are necessary to eliminate the disease.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Given the backlog in issuing licences and the problems that farmers face in moving stock, especially from one clean area to another, may I suggest that it was hugely crass and insensitive of the Ministry to send out the integrated administration and control system forms now to be returned fully completed by 15 May? I urge the Minister to reconsider that cut-off date and, if necessary, to make representations to those in Brussels who are in charge of the scheme so that the farming community is not further penalised or subject to additional anxieties.

Mr. Brown

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. It is necessary for people to complete a claim. We are able to invoke the force majeure rules in those circumstances when people, for perfectly understandable reasons, are not able to fulfil the scheme's conditions, but they must claim and explain why the force majeure rules should apply to their case. That is a reasonable way to proceed. Officials have behaved sensibly and the Commission has gone out of its way to help to us in the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

Will my right hon. Friend look again at the granting of movement licences in unaffected areas? I understand the difficulties, but a farmer who owns two farms that are not close enough to enable him to benefit from short-distance licences might have to move cattle on animal welfare grounds.

Mr. Brown

Yes, I am happy in general to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. However, it is not a matter for me in Wales because it is a devolved responsibility.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Given the overstretch of the Ministry's vets, would it not be sensible to allow local private vets to authorise movements within uninfected areas, so that welfare problems are resolved? On the number of animals awaiting movement and slaughter, if we accept the Minister's comments about contiguous animals being slightly less important than the infected herd for slaughter and if the 24-hour and 48-hour targets are being met, should we not expect the number of animals awaiting slaughter to fall? Is that number falling, as the Prime Minister would have us believe, or is it still rising, as figures on the Ministry's website demonstrate?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman makes the same mistake as the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) by confusing two different issues. The crucial intervention is the 24 hours between report and slaughter. Animals that show signs of infectivity are most likely to spread the disease, which is why they are culled out before cohorts on infected premises. If it is possible to cull out the neighbouring premises with the same teams—which it is, in some circumstances—that is done. If it is not, there is a delay as further slaughter teams are sent for. We should not understate the size of the problem. Some holdings have 10,000 animals on them. Although a holding might appear as one farm, the work can be substantial. Given the scale of the work, there is a necessary gap between the start and the finish of slaughtering.