HL Deb 18 July 2001 vol 626 cc1475-7

3.5 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest: I have a flock of pedigree sheep in North Yorkshire.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the autumn sheep sales will be allowed to proceed; and, if not, what will happen to the breeding stock.

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

My Lords, the Government are very much aware of the problems posed by foot and mouth movement restrictions to the traditional autumn sheep sales and movements. Ministers in the department have had intensive discussions with a wide range of industry stakeholders and with the European Commission about this, with a view to putting in place a strategy by the end of July, to apply from 1st September onwards. In the meantime, all possible action is being taken to eradicate the disease as soon as possible.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Before he goes away on his summer holidays, will he set up a special working party for the breeding livestock industry—with representatives from DEFRA, the livestock industry, vets and all those involved—to look at breeding, sales, movements, costs, vaccinations, welfare and so on? This is a very serious problem and farmers are in a terrible dilemma.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are two time dimensions in regard to this issue; first, to put in place a regime which will operate for sheep and other animal movements in the autumn, and, secondly, to look at the fundamentals of the industry. In regard to the latter, we shall be announcing in a matter of weeks the establishment of a policy commission, which will look at that issue. It will be in contact with all the interested parties mentioned by the noble Baroness.

So far as concerns movements in the autumn, a Written Answer from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be repeated in this House. It will spell out that we are looking at a number of possibilities being brought together in the announcement at the end of July. It will include the possibility of holding livestock markets in those counties which have been free of foot and mouth for three months or more, and where testing has been completed; a relaxation in the criteria covering livestock movements outside affected areas; the possibility of promoting the domestic consumption of lamb, in particular; and negotiating with the European Commission an early resumption of pigmeat and, it is to be hoped, sheepmeat exports without disrupting the domestic food supply chain. We are formally approaching the Commission about the possibility of private storage aid schemes to deal with some of the surplus lamb, and a possible adaptation of the livestock welfare disposal scheme to handle disposal. In the medium term we are discussing with the Commission issues of quotas and possible quota buy-ups.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, we feel that the Government have been somewhat dilatory in this area and so we welcome the announcements made by the Minister today. Four issues follow on from the noble Baroness's Question: first, the 2 million light lambs flooding into our market which cannot be exported; secondly, the store lambs, which the Minister may wish to consider; thirdly, the cull ewes; and, fourthly, the sheep that would normally come down to the lowland for the winter. Can the Minister enlarge upon these very urgent matters because time is not on the Government's side?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly the timescale is acute. However, we need to get European clearance on a number of issues we have been discussing with farmers and others. Light lamb is the most acute problem as almost all of it goes for export, and no export market is likely to be there in the autumn. That is where the various disposal schemes come into play. As to store lambs and cull ewes, the adaptation of the welfare disposal scheme is appropriate. That is a matter that we are also discussing with the industry and the Commission.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, will the Minister give the House, and the farmers, a general assurance that the 2 million lambs that are to be slaughtered will not go to waste, and that the Government will make an all-out effort for a marketing campaign? We welcome the fact that the department is looking into the possibilities of cold storage. However, does the Minister accept that the processing of light lamb in particular will present difficulty? It will not be economic, as lamb will be flooding the market. Do the Government have a plan to deal with the processing of lambs? Do they intend to subsidise them? And are they satisfied that the capacity exists to deal with such large numbers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, with reference to the various potential schemes, it is clear that there is a surplus of lamb. We export 30 per cent across the board and virtually all light lamb. There is a potential market for some light lamb, but it is relatively small compared with the total amount that is likely to come on to the market. I welcome particularly the announcement by Tesco—if I am not advertising too much—that it is promoting new cuts of light lamb. Other supermarkets have discussed similar promotional campaigns with the Meat and Livestock Commission. But we should not deceive ourselves. There may be significant take-up of those promotions, but it will not represent a significant proportion of the total number of lambs. We shall therefore need to deal with the disposal of some of the surplus, particularly in the light lamb sector. I cannot, therefore, give the blanket assurance that the noble Baroness seeks.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, will the Minister continue to hold urgent discussions with his colleagues, the agriculture Ministers in the devolved administrations, to ensure that the interests of areas of the United Kingdom such as the one in which I live—which is dependent on the livestock industry as its only source of income—are fully represented to the European Commission?

Lord Whiny

My Lords, the situation in Wales—the main producer of light lamb—is particularly acute. I assure the noble Lord that we are in constant contact with the Ministers for the devolved administrations. Indeed, Carwyn Jones was here for a meeting with myself and other Ministers only last night.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who receives support as a hill farmer. The Minister is no doubt aware that, even if he manages to get the market sales going, the 21-day restriction will cause immense upset in the normal marketing pattern, particularly for hill farmers. Unless some new regulation is introduced, most of the trade will probably take place by private bargain. In that case, the traceability will have to be through the system that was introduced following the outbreak of BSE. The one weakness in the system is that at present it is not properly policed. Will the Government not agree that the proper implenentation of this policy is the most practical system for the future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, taking into account the situation that will arise in the autumn, it is clear that although there may be some relaxation in disease-free counties, in general, movements will be under licence and under control. That raises questions of the proper administration of the restrictions. In the long run, we shall have to take a decision on the long-term 21-day standstill, but the restriction will continue in the autumn. I hope that we can address the administrative problems referred to by the noble Duke.