HL Deb 17 May 1994 vol 555 cc129-32 2.49 pm

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

By how much sheep scab has increased in the past three years, what harm it is doing and what steps are being considered to control it.

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

My Lords, official records on the number of sheep scab outbreaks are not available following the deregulation of scab controls in April 1992. A recent ministry surveillance programme at markets and sales has indicated that the number of affected sheep has increased from the levels recorded before deregulation. Sheep scab can lead to serious welfare problems and has commercial implications for farmers and the leather industry. The Government therefore propose to carry out a publicity campaign to encourage farmers to treat their sheep. Farmers must take their welfare respon-sibilities seriously. Surveillance at markets will be increased and sheep suffering from scab will be required to be removed from markets for treatment and the vendor may be prosecuted.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very helpful and, indeed, constructive Answer. Will he consider tackling the problem, first, by making it possible for a person, usually a neighbouring farmer, to inform MAFF that there are scab-infected sheep present in a flock next door and to insist that a veterinary officer inspects the flock? Secondly, will he provide that if scab is present in the flock, the owner should be obliged to treat the sheep in accordance with the directions given by the veterinary officer? The costs of that visit should automatically be paid by the guilty flock owner.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those suggestions. In the circumstances which he outlines, it would be advisable for the farmer, if he spotted sheep scab in a neighbour's flock, to treat his own flock as a precautionary measure. I should expect him also to urge his neighbour to do the same and perhaps inform the local branch of the NFU or the National Sheep Association. Serious cases of scab should be reported to the local authority for consideration of action on welfare grounds. However, we shall have to reflect carefully about further action. I take positive note of what my noble friend said.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the Government have done away with compulsory sheep dipping and will they re-introduce it in the near future?

Earl Howe

My Lords, one must be honest about compulsory sheep dipping and say that it was a policy that failed. It did not eradicate sheep scab. Notifiability of sheep scab did not work. While it should never be said that Ministers have closed their minds to anything which your Lordships may wish to call for, I shall take a lot of persuading that compulsory dipping or notifiability in themselves will materially assist the problem. As I say, that did not work in the past. We now need a concerted effort to inform and encourage the industry over what it has in its power to do. That is where the initiative that I have outlined has a real role to play.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Earl appreciate that not all sheep farmers are good stockmen and that many of them will disregard advice and instructions from the ministry unless they are compulsory? It is very important that sheep scab, which causes millions of pounds of loss to the leather industry and the sheep farmers, becomes notifiable again.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I understand the point which the noble Countess makes. As I said, veterinary presence at markets will be stepped up; unfit animals will be removed for treatment; offenders will be prosecuted where appropriate; and there is provision for substantial fines in the worst cases. On top of that, the publicity campaign I mentioned, which urges farmers to deal with the problem, should have an effect. If there is a deterrent in prospect I believe that that will encourage farmers to do what they should be doing. As I said, we shall review the effectiveness of those measures in due course and take matters from there.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I find the logic of the Minister's argument rather difficult to follow. If it is no longer necessary to notify because notification did not work, why is notification still considered effective with regard to the warble fly? Surely the same arguments apply in that case.

Earl Howe

My Lords, there are a number of material differences with regard to the warble fly. It is a devastating disease, as the noble Baroness will know. But the campaign to eradicate the warble fly was successful. Having reached the stage at which we have freedom from warble, it is only sensible to continue our efforts to ensure that the country remains free of it. A material difference with regard to warble is that a diagnostic test can screen for warble whereas that cannot be done in relation to sheep scab. Warble also requires our farmers to be educated as to what type of treatment may be used at what time of year and so on. Therefore, there are more complications than the noble Baroness seeks to suggest.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, will my noble friend say what effect the increase in sheep scab is having on the export of sheep and sheep products?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not aware that it is having any material effect at all. I shall look into the matter and write to my noble friend if that information has changed in any way. I do not believe that our exports, which last year stood at record levels, have suffered to any extent at all from the increase in sheep scab.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, in an ideal world, with everyone taking the right action, how would the Minister suggest we get rid of sheep scab?

Earl Howe

My Lords, bearing in mind that we are some way away from an ideal world, in theory it would be possible, if all sheep owners were to treat their sheep simultaneously, which is something of a tall order, to eradicate sheep scab throughout the country. However, that would not prevent sheep scab re-entering the national flock through imported animals. That is a weak link which needs stressing, as I informed the noble Countess the other day when we were debating the issue of sheep dips.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the excellent report by the Farm Animal Welfare Council on the welfare of sheep, which was produced only last week, recommended that: Since we are unaware of any alternative effective control, we recommend that sheep scab should be reinstated as a notifiable disease with compulsory, supervised dipping/treatment of infected flocks and that movement restrictions should be imposed until treatment has been completed satisfactorily"? In the light of that extremely strong recommendation, does the Minister agree that the Government would need very strong arguments if they decided not to accept the recommendation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we welcome that report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council. We shall respond in full to all its recommendations in due course. However, the essential point which bears repeating is that when we had notification it did not work. We believe that there is currently considerable scope for action by the industry itself before regulation should again be considered. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that it is not in anyone's interest to spread the disease. I am encouraged by initiatives such as that taken by the National Sheep Association, and the measures that I have announced today show that MAFF is playing its part in tackling the problem.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many sheep farmers would not wish to see the reintroduction of compulsory dipping but would wish to dip their sheep voluntarily if satisfied that there were available alternative dips to treat sheep scab which did not contain the poisonous substances to which the noble Countess, almost single handedly, has drawn the attention of the country? Will the noble Earl tell us whether those dips are in existence and, if they are, when they will be made available to sheep farmers?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as the noble Baroness indicates, there are many alternatives to OP sheep dips. Flumethrin dips can be used to treat sheep scab. Those have been available for some years. A new injectable product was licensed this year for the treatment of sheep scab and is expected to be on the market, I understand, very shortly. Cyromazine or cypermethrin pour-ons can be used to combat blowfly strike.