HL Deb 15 June 1981 vol 421 cc490-3

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers) rose to move that the order laid before the House on 21st May be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move, that the Sheep Variable Premium (Protection of Payments) (Amendment) Order 1981 a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st May, be approved. This order amends the Sheep Variable Premium (Protection of Payments) (No. 2) Order 1980, by introducing a new mark which may be applied to live sheep qualifying for premium payment under the Community sheepmeat régime. Like the national arrangements which preceded it, the régeme requires that animals which have been certified as eligible for variable premium payment must be indelibly marked, so that they cannot be fraudulently presented for premium payment a second time. Having considered alternative methods over the years, the Government feel that the only truly indelible form of marking for live sheep is ear punching.

The current Protection of Payments Order provides that the prescribed mark should be a punch hole either in the form of a 12 millimetre circle or of an equilateral triangular mark with 13 millimetre sides. In fact, the triangular punches have proved impractical for technical reasons and the order presently before the House deletes the provision for triangular punch holes and replaces it with one for a smaller 6 millimetre (approximately ¼ inch) circular punch hole.

We intend to introduce the new six-millimetre punches only for the certification of live sheep exported from the United Kingdom. The larger 12 millimetre instruments, which have been in use up to now, will continue to be used for domestic certifications at liveweight, where they have proved satisfactory. It is not proposed to adopt the smaller punch for domestic certification because a six millimetre hole in the animals' ears would have time grow over during its lifetime, thereby enabling it to be presented for premium payment more than once. Noble Lords will appreciate that any such loophole in the United Kingdom's financial control arrangements could lead the Community's auditors to disallow Community reimbursement of sums paid out in premium payments to United Kingdom farmers. can inform the House that this order has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and that they have made no comments on it. I hope with that brief introduction, the House will approve this quite small technical amendment to the arrangements for the administration of the sheepmeat régime in the United Kingdom.

Moved, that the order laid before the House on 21st May be approved.—(Earl Ferrers.)

7.9 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I do not know whether it is appropriate to say that I have been earmarked to speak in this matter—only briefly, of course, because it is not a contentious matter. There are two points I should like to raise. Would the Minister say what consultations with the industry took place before the introduction of the order? Further, the House will know that over many years successive Governments have recognised that the only indelible and sure way of marking live sheep is by ear punching. As the Minister has said, the Sheep Variable Premium (Protection of Payments) (No. 2) Order 1980 which came into operation on 29th November 1980 required for live animals that the mark should be an ear punch in the form of a circular punch hole of 12mm diameter within a tattoo or an equilateral triangular punch hole with sides measuring about 13mm in length.

Triangular punch have proved to be impracticable. This order deletes them from the list of prescribed marks and substitutes a circular punch of about 6mm in diameter. If a punched hole alone is regarded as being sufficient, I wonder why it is proposed to reduce the diameter to 6mm, particularly as the Minister said there may be the possibility of a smaller or 6mm punched hole growing over thereby creating the risk of double certification with animals being fraudulently prescribed for a premium a second time. If the noble Earl would comment on those few points it would be helpful.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, may I be permitted to say at the outset what a pleasure it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, taking part in agricultural matters once again. Certainly as far as I know this is the first time in this House. Of course he was a distinguished Minister of State in the department in which I have the honour to be involved. I was not a little concerned when I saw in a previous Honours List the preponderence of ex-Ministers of State from the Ministry of Agriculture now coming into the House to keep us all very much on the ball.

As usual, and as is expected, the noble Lord Lord Bishopston, has put his finger on a number of important points. This is quite a small order and the noble Lord referred to the consultations. We did not consider this a particularly controversial subject and therefore consultations as such with the industry have not been undertaken. There have been a lot of consultations within the department and with myself in particular over this.

He asked why it is necessary to produce a smaller ear punch as opposed to a bigger one. The fact is, as I explained, when a sheep is presented at the market, it has a large hole punched in its ear. If it were a small hole it would be possible for somebody to buy the sheep, the hole would heal and the sheep could be presented again. Where it is for export, the punching is done at the lairage immediately before the animal is exported. Therefore, it is considered perfectly suitable to have a much smaller mark because the animal is going to be exported and will not be able to be certified or be presented for certification a second time. Clearly, the smaller the hole, the less distress it causes the animal. That is the reason why the smaller hole was decided upon. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's questions. I am grateful to him for accepting this order and the way in which he had done so. I look forward to him taking part in debates on agriculture on many occasions and keeping all of us on the ball as is his right and due.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, my noble friend said that the object of using a smaller hole was to cause less distress to the sheep. Is there any hole smaller than the 12mm one which is large enough for all practical purposes not to grow over that could be used so that more sheep could be caused less distress?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I have understood my noble friend's question correctly, he is referring to sheep which are being exported.

Lord Swinfen

No, my Lords, the larger hole for use only in this country.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it then becomes a question of what is the practical size. Our experience and belief is that if you have a hole less than 12 mm it is always possible that the hole will heal over and the animal could be presented again. If that were to happen, the auditors of the Commission could easily find that we had been misappropriating funds by paying twice on one animal. Nobody likes earpunching of any animals. It is a fact of agricultural life. We have tried to ensure that the punched hole is as small as feasible and practicable.

On Question, Motion agreed to.