HL Deb 29 October 2002 vol 640 cc105-7
Lord Livsey of Talgarth

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made in preparing to devolve further functions on agriculture and rural affairs from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the National Assembly for Wales.

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

My Lords, agriculture and rural affairs are already largely devolved matters. In the light of the foot and mouth outbreak the Government are in discussion with the Welsh Assembly Executive on the case for further devolution of animal health and welfare functions to the Assembly.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, I thank the Minister and welcome his response. While we know that infection of animals knows no boundaries, does the Minister agree that as a result of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic experience indicates that more decision-making powers by the National Assembly of Wales could have shortened the length of the outbreak in Wales through greater deployment of local knowledge and input, as it did in Scotland? Does he also agree that there is a need to devolve some DEFRA veterinary functions to Wales in order to make animal disease control more effective?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not accept the matter as the noble Lord put it. There were questions of administrative responsibility, and possibly therefore legislative power, in relation to secondary legislation which needed clarifying. By and large the DEFRA administration, the State Veterinary Service and the Welsh authorities acted quite well together during that period. It was a very difficult period for all concerned. So I am not sure that a change of function would have altered the time taken to deal with the outbreak. Certainly, it raised questions.

The one point I make is that the State Veterinary Service will continue to be a GB function. It still is in Scotland, despite the further degree of devolution there is in Scotland.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, we welcome the concessions proposed by the Government in relation to the Animal Health Bill. Is the noble Lord aware of the intense dissatisfaction among farmers with the 20-day rule? DEFRA is indeed being blamed for its inflexibility by the Assembly Ministers in Wales. Is it not possible to bring the review forward from the new year, because the confusion and hardship are bringing the rule itself into disrepute?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord will not be surprised that I am aware of a significant degree of disgruntlement with the rule in Wales and in certain other parts of the country. Nevertheless, the rule was introduced on the soundest veterinary and scientific advice. We have modified it significantly, in part due to the representations of the farming community and in part due to points raised by the Welsh authorities, so that during this very difficult breeding season there are relaxations in the rule.

Nevertheless, there is still concern that the rule interferes with the normal process, but then the normal process did actually spread the disease rather rapidly. Whatever happens, we shall not return to a situation where there is no movement regime—as prior to 2001. How far we can relax the present regime in time for the spring movements is under consideration. The assessment should be available at the turn of the year in time for that.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a clear impression in Wales and in the UK generally, I think, that the foot and mouth disease was dealt with more effectively and efficiently in Scotland than it was in Wales. That was due largely to much greater use of local knowledge and local decision making. Is there any reason why the Welsh Assembly should not have the same powers in that regard as the Scottish Parliament?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, without unravelling the whole devolution settlement, the answer is, "Yes there is." The Scottish Parliament has the power of primary legislation in this field. The changes I was talking about do not reopen the devolution settlement in relation to giving the Welsh Assembly primary legislation in this one area. What the noble Lord suggests would open a much broader issue which I am not prepared to go into now. In relation to the practical application of administration and where the power should lie on that, I am very willing to look at the possibility of the Welsh Assembly taking on further powers which would then help to deploy that local knowledge.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister say whether timber growers in Wales suffer from massive cheap imports and from the closure of local sawmills in the same way that we in England find it almost impossible to sell many grades of timber?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, this is a question on animal health; I am not sure how we got on to timber. The issue relates to animal health, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, made clear. However, in relation to timber—which I am prepared to answer—the situation is clearly similar in England and Wales. It is not clear to me that any change in function—and the Welsh Assembly has a serious role here—would help the Welsh timber industry any more than the English timber industry. We both face the same international competitive problem which has its domestic knock-on effects on the viability of sawmills. But I do not think that devolution has much to do with that.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, reverting to the Question, while of course a further case for devolution can and no doubt will be made, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the handling of the outbreak of foot and mouth in Wales by the agriculture Minister, by the veterinary service that he sorted out and indeed by the National Assembly, was seen to be extremely successful? Whatever the case for further devolution, the present arrangements have worked extremely well.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, by and large that is true, but there is some question as to who took responsibility at any given time. There were times when Welsh Ministers took political responsibility. Administrative responsibility rested with DEFRA. There was some difficulty with that arrangement. Certainly, all the authorities worked extremely well together.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the Question imply that Wales can pursue a different programme from England in Europe, thus receiving advantages and disadvantages separate from those in England?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, one would have to ask the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, what the Question implies. The constitutional position is certainly not that Wales could have a different relationship with European regulations than that of the rest of the United Kingdom—in the area of animal health or any other. While we may want to achieve a degree of flexibility in the application of those rules, the rules will be the same.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the existence of no power of primary legislation makes administrative devolution to Wales so difficult in this respect?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is not what I said. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who asked why we could not have the same powers as Scotland, I said that that would reopen the settlement, because Scotland has primary legislative powers. Provided that we work out the detail and reach consensus, it is certainly possible to alter the administrative arrangements under the present settlement. We are engaged in discussion on that with the Welsh authorities.

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