HL Deb 10 July 2001 vol 626 cc1011-4

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on the 20-day standstill movement proposal for livestock animals.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government are reviewing their proposals on the standstill movement in the light of responses to the consultation exercise. We have decided to make this issue part of a total approach for the exit from the current foot and mouth disease outbreak to future disease control which will also include biosecurity, animal identification and licensing. This will allow fuller veterinary and economic assessments to be carried out. In the mean-time, current movement licensing controls will continue.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am glad to hear the Minister's response. Presumably, there will be a public inquiry so that the Government can obtain the necessary information. This year, virtually all agricultural and county shows have been cancelled because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. First, does the Minister appreciate the implications that any future 20-day standstill may have for those shows? Secondly, does the noble Lord accept the implications that that will have in turn for the trade and specialist stands, which get most of their business at those shows and need to plan now for next year?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness will appreciate that it is very difficult for the agricultural sector as a whole to plan for next year given that we have yet finally to eradicate the disease and that the process for movement beyond the disease has yet to be determined. Clearly, even if there were no further new outbreaks, there would still be some restrictions on movement. That will continue into the autumn. We need to use that period to assess the long-term restrictions on movement and whether the 20-day standstill period, or an alternative measure which achieves the same result in terms of the spread of the disease among animals, is appropriate. That is a matter that we need to address in the coming weeks.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that in this outbreak of foot and mouth disease the major problem has been the movement of sheep? If there is to be a 20-day standstill period, how do Her Majesty's Government intend to trace all the animals which have been moved from one premises to another, bearing in mind that one sheep looks very much like another? At the moment, sheep are marked only with the holding number of their birth rather than as individual animals.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I had always understood that the noble Countess was better than I at distinguishing one sheep from another. Nevertheless, I take her general point. Clearly, traceability and the way in which we manage the total national flock in future will need to be part of the long-term solution. The 20-day standstill period and what exemptions are appropriate in relation to shows or other areas where animals intermingle are matters that require long, hard thought and discussion with the industry. On the face of it, however, had there been a 20-day standstill period, the number of cases in the current outbreak of foot and mouth would have been halved. One cannot ignore that evidence, albeit that there will be other more damaging consequences to which the noble Countess has referred.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, can the Minister ensure that his department's reaction is proportionate and that the achievement of biosecurity does not threaten the future of livestock markets which are crucial? Is the Minister aware that the proposal to introduce electronic tagging will he a disproportionately high cost to smaller sheep farmers because start-up costs are the same whether one has 500 or 2,000 ewes?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the disproportionate cost to sheep farmers of all kinds has been the epidemic itself. Measures to ensure the long-term health of our sheep flock will need to take into account the fact that traceability and identification may need to be part of a future structure. All these matters need to be assessed in terms of proportionality, cost and practicability, including any restrictions on movement over and above those required to deal with the immediate problems.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have been to two conferences in the south of Scotland attended by all the farmers who lost stock in that area? Does the noble Lord accept that not one of them was in favour of the 20-day standstill and considered it to be quite impracticable and that they felt that there were many more important issues to be resolved by the Government, particularly relating to controls on imports from countries where foot and mouth is endemic?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly accept that the vast majority of responses to the consultation indicated that there was severe disquiet, to put it at its mildest, about the proposals relating to the standstill. Nevertheless, the issue which the proposal is supposed to address needs to be resolved if we are to retain a healthy flock in the longer term. As to import controls, clearly both at national and European level there are some measures which need to be addressed.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not all agricultural shows have been cancelled and that, for example, the Royal Lancashire Show is continuing? Is the Minister aware that that has been achieved by expanding the features of the show relating to horses and poultry? I am sure that my noble friend will join with me in wishing it every success.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am always happy to join my noble friend in wishing anything that happens in Lancashire success. I trust that the show will be a success, albeit that this year the show is, regrettably, deprived of its livestock features.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that about 300,000 hill lambs are due off the hills of Scotland and northern England in August and September? Many of these lambs are bought by dealers to distribute to other areas for fattening. What do the Government propose to do about that in view of the 20-day restriction?

Perhaps I may also ask whether the Government have any plans to restrict imports because the hill lambs are normally destined for export and they cannot be exported. It therefore seems to me that the Government should take some responsible action about imports.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, this is a very difficult and complex problem. Across the country as a whole, there are rather more sheep and lambs involved than the figure the noble Lord used. We are looking very seriously at the matter. I had lengthy discussions with the NFU yesterday about possible ways of dealing with the serious problems that the movement of sheep in the autumn from the "highlands to the lowlands"—to simplify the issue—will cause. There will undoubtedly be some restrictions on movement; there will be some reluctance to take lambs on to the lowlands; and, in all probability, there will be no export market particularly for the lambs to which the noble Lord referred. All those matters need to be addressed. We are addressing them as a matter of urgency. I anticipate some announcements before the end of the month.

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