HL Deb 07 November 2001 vol 628 cc195-7
Lord Geraint

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether livestock auctions will be reopened this year.

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

My Lords, some livestock auction markets have recently reopened in Scotland, where the last confirmed case of foot and mouth disease was on 30th May. In England and Wales, where the last confirmed cases were on 30th September and 12th August respectively, the Government have said that they will consider whether markets could be reopened in the new year, subject to continuing progress with disease eradication.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply. However, does he agree that the public are entitled to a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic so that consumers and producers may be told the truth? Nothing less will suffice.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not know how many times I must explain the Government's position on this matter. There will be a full, open and independent inquiry both into the Government's handling of the disease, with recommendations on its future handling, and into the science of the disease. Members of the public are entitled to put evidence to the inquiry and are entitled to publish that evidence should they so wish. I believe that a full public inquiry in strict terms—run on a quasi-judicial basis and lasting a substantial amount of time with people looking over their shoulders to see whether litigation will become a problem—is less likely to achieve the truth which the noble Lord seeks than will an inquiry of the type to which the Government are committed. The handling inquiry under Dr Iain Anderson will begin once we are in sight of the end of the disease. The scientific inquiry has started.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare an interest as the wife of a farmer with a small flock of sheep and as chairman of Honest Food. Noble Lords will be aware that last year Honest Food carried out a report on the meat business. One point that we raised was the lack of small abattoirs in convenient places. Various other reports on foot and mouth disease have recently agreed with that point, saying that the long distances that lambs are carried is not beneficial to them. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what action he is taking to get small abattoirs out of mothballs and back into action again so that sheep do not have to be carried on huge journeys in order to be slaughtered.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the situation is slightly more complex than the noble Countess indicates. It is not clear whether the spread of the disease was proportionate to the distance animals were moved or proportionate to the number of movements. Nevertheless, there may be other reasons why one would wish to encourage more local movements and, therefore, more local abattoirs. But, taken on aggregate, capacity in the abattoir sector is still substantially too high. Therefore, the situation is not clear. However, the Government want to encourage small and medium-sized abattoirs. The Food Standards Agency has been given £8.7 million for the next three years precisely for that purpose and to try to reduce the costs to small abattoir operators.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, given the present situation in relation to foot and mouth and, of course, the history of the disease, what is the assessment of the risks involved in reopening the markets?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are currently assessing the risk at this stage of the disease. While the disease was still live—of course, we are not yet clear of it—it was evident that there was a risk in opening markets. The highest risk of all, and the highest incidence of transfer of the disease, came from the mingling of animals in live markets. Indeed, if I were allowed visual aids, I could demonstrate to the House the way in which the disease spread, in particular from Longtown market but also from other markets, during its early stages. Therefore, we are very wary of reopening markets. Nevertheless, it appears that the risk of opening cattle markets is beginning to diminish substantially, and I hope that those markets will reopen early in the new year. The risk in relation to sheep is slightly greater but, again, as I said in my first Answer, we are keeping that under review.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I understand that the Government have a scheme to pay £10 a head for hill lambs which the farmers cannot sell. Does the Minister consider that £10 a head is a fair price?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the answer lies in the noble Lord's question. That scheme is intended to avoid welfare problems on the hills for farmers who cannot otherwise dispose of their animals. The fact is that, in that situation, the market price is nil. Therefore, the Government's provision of a £10 fee and of the costs of transportation and disposal is, I believe, fair.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Lord say why the price is nil? Surely that is his fault.

Noble Lords


Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further. First, I remind the House of my family's farming interest. The opening of livestock markets will, indeed, be welcome news. I am sure that the Minister agrees that 80 to 90 per cent of store animals are sold through the livestock market rather than by modern technology. My understanding—it is only my understanding—is that farmers will now be precluded from working within the livestock market per se. Why has that rule been brought in? Obviously farmers have great experience of handling, and dealing with, livestock. It seems bizarre that, when the Government are asking farmers to diversify in order to obtain extra income, they will apparently now be precluded from operating within livestock markets.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the figures quoted by the noble Baroness are slightly higher than the figures that I have in terms of the number of cattle. Even in relation to store cattle, the figure is 70 to 80 per cent rather than 80 to 90 per cent. Nevertheless, the farmers' method of trading is obviously important. When the markets are reopened, they will be subject to greater biosecurity precautions than has previously been the case. Indeed, some of the restrictions on access apply in the Scottish markets that have been reopened, mainly in relation to cattle but now also in relation to sheep. The precise rules for reopening English and Welsh markets have not yet been decided. Therefore, the issue of who can enter the confined areas has yet to be determined.

Baroness Masham of Ilion

My Lords, does the Minister agree that things have been particularly difficult for people with breeding stocks because markets have been closed? Will he try to help farmers who have too much breeding stock left on their farms? Does he agree that the fact that the light lamb scheme of £ 10 has now closed makes it very difficult for people with light lambs?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness's comments on the light lamb scheme are true, but there is still a £10 fee for most sheep that are disposed of through the welfare disposal scheme. It is certainly true that some flocks are locked up and that there is therefore some over-stocking. However, the costs from foot and mouth apply to all sorts of businesses throughout rural areas. It is not the Government's intention to pay compensation to all the businesses that have suffered. If we went down that road, the Government would become the insurer of last resort, which is not our intention or policy.

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