HL Deb 13 May 1993 vol 545 cc1361-3

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that sufficient resources are available to prevent the introduction and spread of foot and mouth disease.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, yes, the state veterinary service has at is disposal the resources necessary to enforce statutory import controls and to deal quickly and effectively with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease should one occur.

Lord Carter

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept my observation that the Minister of Agriculture acted extremely swiftly to deal with the possibility of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease which arose from the recent importation from the European Community of cattle with falsified veterinary certificates, although I understand that all the cattle have not yet been traced? Does he agree that the advent of the single market and the consequent abandonment of veterinary controls at our ports make us extremely vulnerable to the importation of all livestock diseases, not just foot and mouth disease, and thereby puts at risk the extremely high animal health status that this country enjoys from being an island?

Earl Howe

My Lords I am grateful for the noble Lord's remarks about the Ministry's swift action in response to allegations that possible seropositive animals had entered this country. He may like to know that we have traced and tested some 860 animals to date and of those animals 260 have proved seropositive.

Trade in live animals and genetic materials is subject to strict animal health rules, requiring all consignments to be accompanied by health certification signed by an official veterinarian of the exporting country. Certification confirms compliance with the rules, which are designed to protect the importing country from diseases such as foot and mouth disease. In addition, under single market arrangements, veterinary checks are carried out at points of origin in the EC, supported by spot checks at points of destination. In the case of third country trade, documentary, physical and identity checks are carried out on all consignments on entry into the Community. If, despite those arrangements, an outbreak of serious disease should occur in Great Britain, contingency plans have been prepared to ensure that it is contained and stamped out as rapidly as possible.

Lord Renton

My Lords, we note what my noble friend said about the effect of our being in the single market. Can he confirm the hope that the Channel Tunnel will not lead to any extension of foot and mouth disease in this country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, under the old arrangements prior to the introduction of the single market we were always reliant on foreign veterinary services to inform us whether or not to issue an import licence. That was the old system. We now have a system with a much better degree of co-ordination between member states and a common approach. The recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Italy demonstrated that the new system works very well indeed. I hope I can reassure my noble friend that when the Channel Tunnel is opened there should be no diminution in the safeguards that are now in place.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that I had the responsibility of implementing the recommendations of the Northumberland Committee on foot and mouth disease? Are the Government satisfied that those recommendations, as they were brought into force, are adequate to deal with the current problems and developments to which noble Lords referred, including the Channel Tunnel and the consequences of the single market?

Earl Howe

Yes, my Lords, we are fully satisfied that the recommendations made in that report will be sufficient when they are implemented to protect us in the way in which the noble Lord clearly desires.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that I expressed my concern on this matter early last year? Can he say whether he believes that the position is in fact as secure as he suspects, as only spot checks are done on animals entering this country? Does he agree that it would be better to check all the animals coming into this country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I explained, we now have an automatic system of certification at point of origin within the Community. In due course that will be supplemented with a computerised record of animal movements within the Community to pre-warn the member state that will receive the animals. I am fully satisfied that we have a more secure system than the one we had before.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, to the extent that the government procedures rely on overseas certification at some point, will they bear in mind that within certain member states there is a level of corruption that is incompatible with the issue of proper certification? Will the noble Earl give the House an assurance that the Government have taken that factor into account?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government are very much aware of the incidence of fraud within the Community. But there is no evidence to date that veterinary surgeons in fellow member states have been subject to any degree of corruption whatsoever. In fact we have full confidence in their abilities to certify as necessary. Indeed, veterinary surgeons' qualifications are harmonised throughout the EC and have been since the 1970s.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the Minister has detailed the rules and regulations that apply to the movement of animals within the Community and, indeed, within greater Europe, but is he aware that veterinary authorities, especially in this country, lack confidence in the ability of some eastern countries to apply them in a satisfactory manner, both in regard to animals coming in from outside the European Community and within the Community itself?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I hope that I have been able to reassure my noble friend about our views on the qualifications and abilities of veterinary surgeons within the Community. As regards veterinary surgeons outside the Community, and in particular those in the Czech Republic and Poland, we are keeping the situation under review. Trade is only allowed subject to those countries providing strict additional safeguards which will prevent the spread of the disease.

A Noble Lord

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, the noble Lord from the Liberal Benches has been trying to speak for some time.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, from my experience I hold the view that our present policy is the best within the Community. Is there any hope of persuading our counterparts in Europe to pursue a policy similar to ours, which is without doubt the best?

Earl Howe

My Lords, all other member states within the Community have fallen into line with our long-held policy of slaughter and stamping out foot and mouth disease should an outbreak occur rather than wholesale vaccination, which was previously their policy.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister believe that there is a possibility that lorry drivers, taking loads of calves from Ireland and Britain to European countries, may want to fill their lorries on the way back and buy cheap cattle of doubtful certification from third countries?

Earl Howe

My Lords, if that occurs, when entering the Community the animals would be subject to checks at the border and would be stopped if proper certification were not in place.

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