HL Deb 04 April 2003 vol 646 cc1596-607

12.6 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft code of recommendations laid before the House on 26th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on 6th February we considered this code in some detail alongside the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003 and the code of recommendations for the welfare of pigs. We withdrew the cattle code because it contained two drafting errors.

The errors in paragraphs 23 and 40 of the code, where the word "pigs" needed to be replaced with "cattle", have now been rectified. In addition to some minor punctuation and formatting alterations, the only other substantive change is an amendment to paragraph 137. Following an exchange in the other place on 4th February an undertaking was given that the paragraph would be amended to make it clearer. The wording now used in the first sentence makes it clear that dairy cows should be given more forage than they would be expected to eat each day. That is to ensure that there is always sufficient forage available to satisfy the needs of all the cows in the herd and to minimise competition. The advice in the second sentence of the paragraph that farmers should remove surplus food every day has now been deleted on practical grounds. But, to ensure good food hygiene, we still stress that old or stale food should not be offered to cows.

Welfare codes are a positive force for improving the welfare of farmed animals and thus are an important part of the Government's animal welfare strategy. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft code of recommendations laid before the House on 26th February be approved. [12th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the code before the House today. Indeed, we had an opportunity to consider this matter but did not go into it in great detail because there was a fault with the code at the time.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. My recollection is that it was agreed in debate whether it was proper to agree a code with wrong wording. From memory, I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who pointed out that we had had a full debate on the issues but that it would he improper to press the code for acceptance.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I hear the Minister's comments, but the code is now before the House today and we are debating it. The Minister will know that we support the code. As I said previously, UK farmers have set and observe high standards of animal welfare, which I think the noble Baroness would be happy to support. It is in their own interests that cattle are well looked after. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for having corrected the feeding issue which was raised in debate.

We all believe in the five freedoms. They are freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury or disease; an ability to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fears and distress. We all totally accept those. Stock skillmanship is the key to ensuring the well-being of farm animals. Having been in the poultry industry myself—rearing day-old chicks through to parent stock, producing their own chicks for Thornbers—I sometimes question why nowadays we need so many rules and regulations. I suspect that that is a sign of the times.

Biosecurity is also mentioned in the code. It is of huge importance. It is helpful in order to reduce the spread of disease. Paragraph 28 of section 1 of the code refers to, farm units being more secure from the introduction of new infectious disease". That is a matter about which we have spoken in the House. The Minister will therefore not be surprised that I again urge the Government—indeed, I was glad to receive a copy of their recent suggestions on import controls—about the need to tighten up and dramatically reduce the illegal imports of meats into this country.

Page 14 of the code refers to the disposal of fallen stock. The noble Baroness may say that I am perhaps out of order, but I would refer her to paragraph 48 because today we shall he approving a code which states that—if she looks to the fourth point down— in certain circumstances, burial in such a way that carnivorous animals cannot gain access to carcass, or burning", will actually be ruled out of order totally in four weeks' time. It is under those circumstances that I raise the very difficult issue of fallen stock. We have fewer than four weeks to get the matter put right.

I believe that we have a problem. From 1st May 2003 farmers will not be permitted to bury fallen stock. The regulation has been known about for a long time. The NFU first met the Government on the issue back on 7th December 2001. What disturbs me— I think it would also disturb the Minister—is that there seems to be an impasse and only four weeks to put mattters right. The industry does not have the freedom that we have, as Members of your Lordships' House, to raise these issues directly with the Government. It can do so only by going to the department. So I find the comments made by Ministers "unfortunate"—if I may put the matter that way—when they suggest that the industry is dragging its feet.

The list supplied by the National Farmers Union shows that 17 meetings have been held since that first meeting on 7th December 2001. There was also one on 17th December. The following year there were meetings on 3rd April, 14th May, 8th and 17th July, 22nd and 28th August, 18th September and 3rd and 19th December. I move to this year. This year meetings have been held on 20th January, 19th, 26th and 28th February, and 7th, 17th and 27th March.

I shall not repeat what the meetings were about and who attended which, but they all concerned the question of fallen stock and how we are going to move forward on the matter. My real concern is that we have only four weeks in which to put things right. For the Government to be blaming the industry is very unhelpful, to put it mildly.

I hope that by having the opportunity formally to raise the issue today within the code—because the code refers in particular to the burial—it might encourage the Government to move forward with the industry in order to address the situation as it stands.

I have also asked what happens with regard to fallen stock in member states. The Government say that there is no way they will bear the full costs. I do not think that the industry is asking for that. I gather that in Austria, for example, the Länder pays the collection costs; in Belgium the Flemish Government covers costs for small farms but larger farms have a subscription service; in Finland farmers contribute 25 per cent of the costs; and in Ireland fallen stock may be collected by licensed collectors or buried under licence. Disposal costs are shared between state and farmer, but the cost of the disposal for the carcass is met by the Exchequer. In Germany, fallen stock must be rendered. Local authorities are responsible for enforcing that. Their costs and responsibility vary from Land to Land. In most Länder the cost is shared between government and the farmer. That is carried out by an animal disease fund, a compulsory fixed levy that meets expenses for each livestock species.

In Spain, two-thirds of the costs for removal and disposal of fallen stock are subsidised by public funds. The rest is paid for by the farmer. In the Netherlands, from 2002 the farmer will pay full cost. In Luxembourg, stock is destroyed and incinerated. There is a national collection service which is subsidised by the government. In Portugal, proposals are being put to Ministers with regard to a national collection service. Currently, there are no controls whatever and most fallen stock is buried.

Your Lordships will realise from that list that a multiplicity of systems are used in other national states. My real concern is that we need to move the matter forward. We have a problem, which I do not think has been addressed sufficiently. When the issue was discussed in the Commons on 17th March, Mr Morley said that it is not unreasonable that the industry should contribute to dealing with one of its by-products. The Government are prepared to make a contribution. They currently contribute about £30 million to the over 30-month scheme collections and to fallen stock collections to monitor bovine BSE in animals over 20 months.

I have a question for the Minister. I understand that the cost of implementing this new animal by-product regulation will be £50 million. It is not included in the £30 million. So there is £20 million that must be found. Perhaps the Minister can clarify where the impasse arises between what the Government have offered or what the industry has agreed to. At the moment it is not clear.

I have also received briefing from the National Pig Association. The noble Baroness may say that we are considering cattle, but I hope that this is a helpful suggestion. In its discussions with DEFRA on the same topic it said that, Defra add that, 'the basic principle is that burial and burning should only be permitted where the carcass is more than 100 km away from the collection centre and the stocking density is very low'. The Regulation allows Member States to permit the burial of pet animals. Defra has not responded to NPA pressure that small-scale producers should also be exempt". If there is a suggestion that a derogation can be made in respect of pigs, my question is: has one been made as regards cattle? As we are so close to the imposition of this new regulation, has any derogation been asked for in order to give us longer to try and sort out this very great problem with which we shall have to cope in four weeks' time?

I should like to raise many other issues, but I do not want to take any more time. In outlining my concerns, I have been trying to be helpful by suggesting that the Government need urgently to address that impasse and by putting on record that the industry is trying to meet the Government's concerns. As I said, Mr Morley has had various meetings at which those issues have been raised.

I should like to touch on two other issues. I understand that the knackering—what a dreadful expression to use in your Lordships' House—and rendering industry has suggested that it has capacity to cope with the need once fallen stock cannot be buried. But is there a comprehensive geographical spread? That is obviously hugely important. Secondly, will any transitional measures be made in the form of a derogation to allow the new regulations to be coped with? If not, what will happen in the meantime? Will farmers still be allowed to bury? We need greater clarification of the position.

I apologise to the House for taking 15 minutes, but this is a huge, complex and important situation in which we are running out of time.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we are under the impression that we debated the code the last time it was raised in the House. For that reason, I shall not repeat the remarks that I made then. If I do not comment on the issue of fallen stock, that is not because we on these Benches do not believe that it is extremely important. Indeed, my honourable friends Andrew George and Roger Williams have pursued it with great vigour in another place, but I shall not take up the House's time with that now.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, I intervene not to deal with the matter of fallen stock—with which my noble friend Lady Byford dealt well, and about which I have a great deal of sympathy as a countryman—but to thank the Minister for introducing the code and express a full appreciation of it.

A long time ago, in another place, I was chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture. In that capacity, I presided over a full inquiry into intensive methods of food production. That is not a pleasant memory. I still remember certain parts of that inquiry with dismay. Some of my noble friends have today suggested that some of the interim legislation may have been unnecessary. I disagree. We have come a long way since that distressing experience. I warmly welcome the code of recommendations.

I shall comment on only two aspects. The code includes suggestions on handling of cattle—on tolerance, patience, pressure and noise. I can fully recall the terror of animals born and reared in the peace of the countryside suddenly knowing the turmoil of a cattle market.

A long time ago, as an officer of a National Farmers Union county branch, I was partly responsible for an attempt to introduce a fatstock marketing board. That would have meant animals for slaughter going straight from farm to slaughter point. Unfortunately, commercial arguments defeated that idea, but I welcome paragraph 14 on page seven, on handling. I also welcome recommendations on accommodation made on pages 17 to 19.

Having felt deeply about animal welfare ever since I presided over that inquiry years ago, I hope that the recommendations in the code will be fully appreciated by the industry. I hope that they will also be fully noted and implemented. I warmly welcome the code.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, I fully support the comments of my noble friend Lady Byford and the questions that she posed. She need make no apology for taking 15 minutes to pose those questions and make those points, because they are all extremely relevant to the situation as seen by stock owners throughout the country.

As your Lordships may know, I have spent a major part of my life concerned with the welfare of farmers and farming families. I was born into a family of stock keepers—dairymen, beef keepers, pig keepers and keepers of sheep and poultry. I was therefore brought up fully accepting the five freedoms listed in the preface to the code of recommendations, but no stock man in this country worth his or her salt needs telling in 150 paragraphs that without good management and appropriate welfare, stock will suffer and so will the business.

Stock owners could add a sixth freedom to the five listed: freedom from inspectors who may arrive at feeding or milking time, causing mental suffering to both stock and stock men. I have experience of such occasions and of appalling ignorance by some inspectors who call at certain times, interfering with the general management of the stock.

I am of course aware that, as my noble friend said, consultation on the code has taken place over a considerable time—certainly for more than a year. It is difficult to believe that anyone feels that he must necessarily approve all the recommendations or to understand why we are being asked to rubber-stamp them now, when change takes place at all times. Their enforcement is inconceivable and reprehensible.

However, in parts, the report is so elementary that, frankly, a 10 year-old could have written it. It does not bring us up to date with modern techniques and modern farming. It repeats some codes to which we have become accustomed. I am sure that other noble Lords will mention the issue of fallen stock. I make no apology for raising it or returning to various points.

What scientific basis is there for accepting a change in the rules for disposing of fallen stock? The way in which fallen stock is disposed of has been in place since time immemorial. In the 1960s I served on the foot and mouth inquiry. We made it absolutely clear from scientific evidence that we had then—I see no reason to change—that burial was far safer than burning. Therefore, in practical terms, why change? If there is some science behind that recommendation, can we be assured that it has been reviewed by other scientists with knowledge equal to or better than some of the scientists involved in recommending such drastic and costly change—change, incidentally that is bound to impinge on the cost of living for every man, woman and child who is a consumer?

Assuming that there is some scientific support for the recommendations, has a full risk assessment been made of the potential of the present system to spread disease, either directly from the disposal chamber or from the associated ground water? If there were reported problems from that route, were any steps taken to correct the matter? If so, what were they?

In the unfortunate event of the proposed rules being enacted, what steps will be taken to prevent fluid, possibly from diseased carcasses that are already in a collection vehicle, contaminating country lanes and main highways? More particularly, what steps will be taken to prevent disease from carcasses contaminating farm premises when a collection vehicle has arrived and is parked on the farmyard or must cross land, perhaps SSSI land, to collect a carcass? Milk collection has been a factor in the possible spread of disease. Yet lorries picking up fallen stock will have to pass to collect carcasses. I remind the Government that we supported them when they talked of the need for vigilance and heightened awareness of bio-security.

As I understand it, it is proposed that all fallen stock on the farm will be subject to the change, and a consequence of that law is that it will include even sheep. We are dealing with cattle now, but let us not forget that any sick animal will crawl away as far as it can across the holding, common or wherever it is to die. That is one of the problems affecting the collection of animals.

Mercifully, BSE did not reach anything like the epidemic proportions that some forecast. There was concern that it might even spread to sheep. The level of BSE in the population is already declining to an extremely low figure, presumably as a consequence of action already taken. So, given the seriously flawed prediction and the sharply declining incidence, what logic is there in taking those wildly expensive and disruptive steps to further curtail a condition that by all available yardsticks already appears well under control?

Many of the recommendations, therefore, are contrary to the restriction of the spread of disease. Quite rightly, we still have rules in place for foot and mouth disease and many others. I am not opposed to recommendations that ensure stock are kept healthy and so on. But some proposals, particularly on fallen stock, are unworkable and contrary to the Animal Health Act.

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market

My Lords, I, too, wish to discuss the issue that my noble friends Lord Plumb and Lady Byford raised about fallen stock. I am grateful to her for putting forward the views and asking the questions that she did. I think it right to do so, because the matter is now of very urgent concern to farmers. So far as I can see, from farmers' point of view, there has been no progress since the code was last debated in this House. Norfolk farmers, including former constituents, have expressed to me concerns about the matter. I know that we are talking about cattle, but the issue was discussed at a very recent large meeting of pig farmers. There was great concern, not to say desperation, among farmers about what they could do in the next four weeks. The points that they raised are also relevant to other stock. I wish to raise three of them.

The first relates to renderers and knackers. Margaret Beckett in another place and others repeated the point that there is sufficient national capacity, but that is not the issue for many farmers. What matters to them is the capacity available to them within a reasonable distance. In Norfolk, certainly, there is now very little capacity for renderers and knackers. The point that my noble friend Lord Plumb makes about bio-security is highly relevant. For example, pig farmers are very concerned that, unless they can be assured that vehicles coming on farm are absolutely OK as regards cleanliness and bio-security, there will be a resurgence of classical swine fever, which did such harm to the pig industry not long ago, foot and mouth disease and so on. Pig farmers have not been reassured about that concern.

Incineration is an available option. Farmers who had incineration facilities before December last year have until December 2004 to continue with that process. But the problem is that the many, many farmers who do not have it on their farms and who have buried do not know what to do about incineration. In another place, Elliott Morley promised detailed guidance within two weeks of the end of February. Yesterday, in another place, when Margaret Beckett was asked when the detailed guidance was coming, she replied: it was my impression that is going out—". At that point, David Lidington intervened to ask whether that would happen within two weeks, and she replied: The hon. Gentleman says within two weeks, but it was certainly my impression that it is going out in the next few days or week".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/03; col. 1060.] So Margaret Beckett was not clear when the guidance that had been promised for some time would reach farmers. They cannot make decisions about incineration unless they know what that detailed guidance says.

Worse still, earlier in another place yesterday, on information and guidance about on-farm incineration, she said: I believe that some information and guidance is already on the DEFRA website". Well, not everyone has the Internet available, and, anyway, it is not the detailed guidance. She continued: We are certainly mindful of the fact that … there is substantial availability of such incineration capacity, but it has to meet the required standards"— this is the relevant point, and we will work with the industry to ensure that that is the case during the next few months".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/ 03; col. 1059.] Yet all farmers must take decisions by the end of this month. That seems entirely unreasonable.

The third point relates to funding. The Government said that some of the £30 million available under the BSE schemes and the TSE surveillance scheme would be made available to help with incineration. But, at present, farmers do not know what the implications of that will be. Certainly, farmers whose stock is not covered by the schemes are extremely unclear whether or not there is any funding.

I make those brief points because they seem to add up to a situation in which it is completely unreasonable to ask farmers to make decisions in the next three weeks without knowing on what basis they are making them. Farmers want to abide by the law; they certainly do not want to break it, and they are very concerned about the possibility of doing so at the end of this month. That is why I believe that the Government should be pressing within the Commission for a temporary suspension until those issues can be sorted out. I plead that, on practical grounds, the Government consider the matter very seriously.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, my colleagues have put the case so well that little need be added. I wish to raise a problem that was not discussed in great detail, bearing in mind my support for most of the recommendations in full—even if most are very obvious practices that we have been carrying out for generations, as my noble friend Lord Plumb said.

My concern relates to paragraph 18 on ear-tagging. I do not know whether the noble Baroness has had the opportunity to be on a farm when inspectors call and wish to see every ear tag—two per beast. To bring 500 cattle in from a hill, say, where they have not been confined for some time, is quite a performance, particularly given that farms now run on the absolute minimum of staff. The department is asking a great deal of farmers by expecting them to get all the beasts in to be looked at by inspectors before it will consider giving them any production grants. We must have endless contact with the BCMS at Workington, which looks after all ear tag numbers. It is an extremely complicated and time-consuming operation.

I want to support my noble friend Lady Byford on the issue of fallen stock, which was raised also by my noble friends Lord Plumb and Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market. Article 5 cannot be allowed to stand. It should not be allowed to go out to the general public. Burial, even in certain circumstances, will be out, and we are gravely concerned about the knacker's yards. Yesterday, I listened to the Secretary of State, and I read in Hansard what she said. She said that there was adequate capacity. Like the noble Lord. Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, I ask where that capacity is. I am sure that many farms are a hundred miles or more from a knacker. Could the noble Baroness publish a list of knackers, giving their location? That would be of some benefit to farmers, who are in a desperate position.

There are particular problems with incineration. There is great difficulty in knowing the exact legal position. Farmers may club together and buy an incinerator—at £10,000 or more, they are expensive— but they cannot take dead stock from one farm to another. The Minister should have produced some derogation that would make that possible. Farmers cannot share an incinerator, because the law says that they cannot take a dead animal from one farm to another. That is the sort of problem that we face.

I must press DEFRA to go for a derogation for six months or more. It is all very well to say that there has been consultation, but, as my noble friend Lady Byford explained, there have been 17 or so meetings but no positive result. We can meet for ever, but, unless we get a solution, we will achieve no satisfactory result. There are only three weeks or so to go, and there is so much up in the air. The NFU is pressing as hard as it can on behalf of farmers. It is the Government's duty to go to Europe and get a derogation for at least six months to resolve a problem that the Government created for farmers by their failure to achieve proper negotiations in Europe. If they had done that, we would not be in the situation that we are in now.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I intervene briefly and with considerable diffidence. I apologise to the House for not being here right at the beginning of the debate.

I speak with some diffidence, as there is probably no Member of your Lordships' House less qualified than I to speak on agriculture and so on. I imagine that several former colleagues from another place will be surprised to see me rise on this occasion. That may be understandable, as my former constituency, Worthing, had no agriculture whatsoever. However, people there were passionately concerned about the export of live animals for slaughter. They were desperately concerned that the conditions for transport in this country were not the same as those in other European Union states.

At the time, we were told that, because of European Union rules, it was impossible to ban such exports. I cannot help noting that, the moment there were health problems such as BSE or foot and mouth disease, it was miraculously possible to impose such a ban. Given that the code includes reference to transport off farms, I would be grateful for some assurances from the Government with regard to whether the same conditions are likely to exist, once an animal is exported. It is a matter of considerable concern.

I will make a final point. I was shocked to discover recently that there is a considerable trade in horses exported for slaughter. I am not sure whether that comes into the category of cattle, in this context, but the horses are used for meat, once they have been exported and killed. That kind of export trade ought not to exist at all, but we should, at least, have some assurances about the conditions in which such animals are kept, once they are exported. We should be concerned at the prospect of aged horses being exported live into conditions in respect of which regulations may not be as tightly enforced as they are for cattle generally. I would be grateful if the Minister could give me some assurance on those points.

12.45 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords who took part in the debate will have noted that there is a Question on this matter on the Order Paper for 8th April, so there will be an opportunity for a further discussion. I also refer to a letter to individual farmers that is due to be sent out. I will happily ensure that a copy of the letter goes to the Library and is sent to all noble Lords who spoke today.

The regulations have not come out of the blue. As the noble Baroness said, we have discussed them for over a year. The Government began with a stakeholder meeting on 18th September 2002, at which the industry presented a joint proposal for a national fallen stock disposal scheme. The farming unions also presented a paper on funding and argued for 100 per cent funding, at least for the first years. The Government cannot agree to that. The answer to the questions raised is that it would not be allowed.

The situation regarding government funding in other member states is complicated. On the basis of data provided by each member state, the European Commission issued a paper on 20th November 2001, showing that the level of government support varied throughout the Community, with farmers in some countries paying the full cost of disposal, while, in other countries, the government or the local authorities provided support. In some cases, government recoups the cost. In France, for example, a tax is levied on retail sales of meat. New Community guidelines for state aid allow member states to fund 100 per cent of collection and disposal costs only if the aid is fully recovered from the meat sector—for example, by a levy. Otherwise, member states may—I stress "may"—grant state aid of up to 100 per cent of the cost of collection and 75 per cent of the cost of destruction.

The industry estimated that, with full utilisation of its scheme, the collection costs could be 40 per cent lower than is currently the case for adult bovines and 60 per cent lower for ovines. We estimate that there are approximately 200,000 livestock holdings in the UK. A registration fee set at £100 per annum per holding would raise an additional £20 million. The current cost to individual farmers of disposing of sheep and cows is thought to range from £5 to £15 for sheep and from £50 to £80 a cow.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about statutory obligations. Although the testing of all fallen cattle aged over 24 months for BSE is required by the EU TSE regulation, the regulation does not require member states to pay for the collection or disposal of the carcasses. DEFRA decided to provide Exchequer funding to ensure that all the required carcasses would be tested.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elliott of Morpeth, for his welcome for the measures on the welfare of animals. He was slightly out of kilter with the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, although I am sure that they both have experience of the best of farming practice and good husbandry. I think that neither would deny that just occasionally people fall below the required standards in any profession or industry.

I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monro, about ear-tagging. But, surely, of all counties, Cumbria will welcome anything that can be done to remove the lack of knowledge of, and movement around of, stock when that movement contributed to the rapid spread of the disastrous foot and mouth disease.

I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on the subject of exported animals. I am not prepared to comment on whether cattle can be read as including horses in this order. That subject has an awful feeling of déjà vu. The position is clear. We should prefer a trade in meat, but we cannot ban the transport of animals.

As I said, there have been detailed discussions for more than a year. The Government are writing to individual farmers. We accept that there are some regional variations in the provision of disposal facilities. We are aware that people are making applications to establish those facilities within regions. I commend the animal welfare code to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.