HL Deb 14 October 2002 vol 639 cc594-7

3 p.m.

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have for ending or amending the 20-day restriction on moving livestock.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, this will depend on the outcome of the detailed risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses we are now commissioning, in line with the FMD inquiry recommendations.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which was not unexpected. She will be aware that her noble friend Lord Whitty told the Farmers Guardian newspaper, in an article on 13th September, that in many upland areas, in the sheep industry particularly, this rule could lead to "100 per cent wipe-out". Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to avoid this catastrophe during the remainder of this year? Noble Lords such as myself are now being told by sheep farmers in such circumstances that they are faced with the impossible choice of survival or compliance with a rule which is unfair, unenforceable and unnecessary.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asserts that the law is unfair, but there is strong scientific and veterinary support for the measures we are taking. Both the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries recommended that we should retain the 20-day movement order. However, the Government have recognised the practical difficulties posed by the 20-day rule for cattle and sheep and have introduced a number of specific exemptions, particularly in regard to breeding animals going into isolation. We are aware of the concerns being raised by the NFU and people in the industry. That is why we have regular meetings and why the exemptions that have been introduced over quite a wide range of areas have been welcomed.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the enormous number of sheep movements in February 2001—in excess of 1 million, I believe—was an important factor in the spread of foot and mouth disease. The 20-day restriction is not perfect, but is it not a lot better than the arrangements that we had before?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Yes, my Lords. I believe that all noble Lords, however close their links to agriculture and however great their knowledge of it, are aware of the great concern that was felt, not only by those not involved in agriculture but by many involved in agriculture, about the wide movement of animals, which was beyond anything that anyone anticipated.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Dumfries and Galloway Goatkeepers' Association. The Minister has mentioned sheep and cattle, but the poor goats north of the Border are suffering from the havoc caused to their breeding programmes. Although the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department has decreed that male goats may visit female goats under derogation, this goes completely against their normal breeding pattern. The female goat is normally taken to the male goat because his legs get a bit wobbly after a 30-mile journey and he cannot perform the act. In view of the fact that only a small number of animals are affected and that the Scottish Executive has stated that the movement of male breeding animals, including goats, poses a lower disease threat than female animals, will the noble Baroness prevent the clandestine equivalent of the lady sliding down the drainpipe to visit the gentleman in the evenings from occurring north of the Border? Can she tell the House what happens in England and Wales? Will she put pressure on the Scottish Executive for us?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, let me make it absolutely clear that it is not a matter of the Government in Westminster putting pressure on the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament. This is a devolved matter and it is for them to determine. However, cross-border movements can take place—so the goats will not be going up and down drainpipes—because licences are recognised on both sides of the English/Scottish Border. Where rules are different, the licences take that into account. If the process of breeding goats leads to wobbly legs, the noble Countess may receive a lot of letters from animal lovers about undue stress.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, on a slightly more serious note, the Minister will know that the industry is very concerned about the 20-day movement restriction. Can the Minister say why there is greater flexibility in Scotland? What is the scientific evidence for Scotland deciding on a different policy from England? Why are we only now commissioning a report and looking further into the matter when it should have been done months ago?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, DEFRA began studying this issue before the results of the inquiry reports. The studies are very complex and will involve considerable work by both economists and epidemiologists. The work will be carried out independently of DEFRA and we hope to award contracts shortly. We hope to have advice by the end of the year. We are aware that cattle and sheep farmers would like the rule to be relaxed and we have regular discussions with the NFU. However, I return to the central point. Surely the noble Baroness, above all others, accepts that the Government should heed very strongly the recommendations of the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries, both of which suggested that these studies should take place and that in the mean time the 20-day rule should remain in place, with the exceptions that have been granted to, and welcomed by, the industry.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, the Minister will realise that it is more than 12 months since foot and mouth was banished from the United Kingdom. Has she taken into account that the livestock breeders, the livestock keepers and their families are suffering grievously over this matter? There are some market towns in which markets have not reopened since the 20-day rule has been in place. The crisis is now spreading to small businesses in such areas. Will not the Minister consider at least a reduction in the rule to about three to five days?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am sorry that I am unable to reassure the noble Lord. The recommendation of 20 days is quite clear and specific. Where we have felt able to be more flexible without incurring greater risk, we have been so on a variety of issues. The noble Lord is only too aware that there was general criticism and concern about the movement of animals being a major contributory factor to the spread of the disease last time. We want to act cautiously, proportionately and reasonably in this regard. We are trying to respond, wherever we can, to the interests of the industry.