HL Deb 08 April 2003 vol 647 cc129-31

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What provisions are in place to deal with fallen stock.

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

My Lords, discussions on the fallen stock issue are continuing with the industries concerned. However, the Government have been prepared to make an initial contribution to an industry-operated voluntary subscription scheme for the collection and disposal of fallen stock. There are a number of other ways in which farmers can comply with the new rules, including the use of incinerators, knackers' yards and rendering plants.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Is he not concerned that some of the proposals will increase the risk of spreading infection? Does he agree that burial on site, which has been going on for many years, is in fact the best way of dealing with fallen stock? Does he also agree that the whole push of the Animal Health Bill was to tighten security and prevent the spread of disease? One of the options to which he referred, involving the transport of diseased animals around the countryside, is in fact likely to cause the spread of disease.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. The new European regulations are a recognition that the burial of stock, particularly in areas close to watercourses and in much other land, can cause long-remaining disease and other problems. Certainly it is necessary for all farmers and transporters to observe tight biosecurity both on the farm and in the transportation of live and dead stock. That would remain the case and the necessity under any of these options.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, does the Minister realise that he has every livestock farmer in the United Kingdom up in arms over the Government's failure to come to a solution with the National Farmers Union of each country? Does he further agree that Scottish Ministers have given an extension from 1st May until the issue is resolved? Why cannot that be done in England?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, far be it from me to interpret exactly what the Scottish Executive has done within its own powers, but effectively it cannot alter the date of the application. Although it has indicated that the rules may not be enforced as substantially from day one, because of uncertainty, there are issues relating to how they will be enforced initially. There has been failure to establish an adequate collection service because, despite many meetings with the NFU and the farming unions, we have not agreed a satisfactory contribution. The farming unions have declined to accept any system that involves the industry itself making a contribution to a national collection scheme. Therefore, we are left to fall back on individual farmers making individual arrangements with transporters and disposal operatives. That is not a sensible solution. It may be a solution in certain circumstances but it is not a sensible solution for everyone. I am glad to say that we have now returned to constructive relations and discussions with both the farmers' unions and the disposal and transport industry.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as he probably read in Farmers Weekly, many trading standards officers regard the directives as unenforceable and that one-third of farmers in Wales are more than 100 kilometres from a rendering plant, which makes things extremely difficult? Does he also agree that five EU countries do not charge their farmers for such a collection service? Why is that not the case here?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, at least nine other EU countries are charging farmers to some degree. Unlike the noble Lord, I do not necessarily believe every word in Farmers Weekly. Clearly a question arises as to how we are to enforce the system, but trading standards operatives will have to get used to it, as will farmers and disposal units. However, the whole point is that we have the necessary capacity in this country in terms of both transportation and rendering, and other methods are available, as I have outlined. This system could be made to work but some of the cost must fall on the industry itself.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, what is the situation with regard to islands? For example, is there still an abattoir on the Isle of Wight? If an animal breaks a leg, is there an alternative, apart from having to cart the animal in pain in a boat to the mainland to have it put down? What is the position? There must be many islands around the UK where matters will become very tricky if farmers are not allowed to deal with the situation themselves.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, so far as concerns the situation to which the noble Baroness refers, rendering capacity, incineration and vets still exist on the Isle of Wight. As I understand it, there is not a fully commercial abattoir, although I shall correct that if I am wrong. Only the remotest areas are exempt from the rules under European legislation. Those areas will include some of the Scottish islands and highlands but not normally the Isle of Wight.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the sentence for an offence under these regulations is a maximum of two years' imprisonment? Does he anticipate that the sentence will be applied per lamb, so that a person burying two dead lambs will be liable for four years' imprisonment, and so on? How can the system work?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, they are maximum sentences, and clearly each individual case will be a matter for the court. The Government's aim is to put in place a system which works and which will require relatively light enforcement. I believe that, once we agree the nature of the system with the industry, that will be deliverable.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Cottesmore Hunt, which is listed as a collection point for fallen stock. Does the Minister realise that, as from 1st May, no renderer will come to pick up stock? I have rung the whole lot in the East Midlands area but none will come. It would cost us more than £40 to take a dead sheep from the collection point to the renderers. That is more than it is worth to the farmer and most farmers would not pay. Will the Minister give careful consideration to extending the existing scheme for cattle over 30 months so that all livestock delivered to a collection point can be taken to the renderer with a payment for rendering and transport?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, obviously I cannot comment on the particular circumstances that the noble Lord described. However, the whole point of the Government's offer to set up a collection and disposal system is that the scheme available for cattle over the age of 30 months should be extended to deal with fallen stock. The scheme covers the country and can deal with the collection of animals and species that are fallen stock other than 30 month-old cattle. That offer then needs to be supplemented by a contribution from the industry, either directly or in the form of a levy. It is hoped that we can reach agreement on the system with the NFU within the next few days.

Earl Peel

My Lords, what advice would the noble Lord give to a farmer who, say, lives and works in the Pennines? When the new regulations come into being, if that farmer goes on to the hill and finds that perhaps half a dozen sheep have been suffocated in a snowstorm during the night, will he be expected to bring them all the way back? Can I further suggest to the noble Lord that he and some of his officials visit that type of countryside to see what it is like for themselves? They would then realise how utterly daft these regulations are.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, given the scientific and geological information that we have, the alternative suggested by the noble Earl is that we leave or bury animals on the hillside. However, that could pollute our water courses and so forth. Clearly we need to make practical arrangements in order to gather up and dispose of such stock. Some will be dealt with in farm incinerators and some through transportation. We need transportation and we probably need a collection and disposal system of the type that the Government are now discussing with the NFU. But let there be no doubt that this is ultimately a public health and environmental problem. The alternative is to allow the potential threat to persist.