HL Deb 19 March 2003 vol 646 cc240-4

3.1 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will place a moratorium on the European Union animal by-products regulation relating to the disposal of animal carcasses until such time as adequate collection and disposal facilities are in place and accessible to the farming community.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government will not be seeking a moratorium relating to the disposal of animal carcasses. The collection and disposal industries advise that there is already sufficient capacity within the existing infrastructure to deal with the estimated additional quantities of fallen stock arising from the ban on on-farm burial.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that dead farm animals have been buried for the past two millennia in Britain? Given the current problems which the farming unions predict will result in chaos after the 1st May deadline, will he take urgent action to provide a free disposal service and a dispensation for burial for remote upland areas in Wales, south-west England and the north of England?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, farm burial has been a feature of farming for longer than I can remember— two millennia is almost certainly correct. However, it presents environmental problems for watercourses and in terms of animal disease, which is why the European legislation was introduced. The animal byproducts regulation will apply from 1st May. As I indicated the other day in response to a different Question, the Government have been trying since last April to discuss the issue with the industry in order to try to establish a system of collection and disposal. The capacity is there, as I said in my initial Answer, but the industry is reluctant to put any of its own resources into providing that disposal system. So any failure to have a fully operational system as from 1st May lies at the door of the industry, not the Government.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, why is it permissible for human beings to be buried but not animals?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, by and large, human beings are buried in coffins and in land that has been limed. That prevents the type of seepage about which we are concerned that occurs when there is a substantial quantity of animal burial. If the same precautions had to be taken for animal burial as for human burial, the cost to farmers would be considerably greater than that required by the directive.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that incineration has proved a respectful and successful way of' disposing of human remains, would it not be one of the best ways of disposing of animal remains?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, incineration is possible under the regulation. What is not possible is on-farm burial.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, a number of those who farm the hill and upland areas in places such as Dumfriesshire will be very disappointed by the Minister's Answer. The moratorium would, I believe, be a suitable way of filling in the period between what is available and what is not available. Since the local hunt has been disbanded, we have had no real service to remove fallen stock. I have just come from a meeting at a fish firm on a river in the south of England. It has exactly the same problems, with no way of getting rid of fallen fish stock. Can the noble Lord help in this area?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have discussed the issue with the various elements of the industry, and both the collection organisations and the disposal organisations have always indicated that there is sufficient capacity to cope with the additional problem. The issue is how it is organised and who pays for it. The Government are prepared to put forward £30 million towards the estimated £50 million cost. But some of that cost has to rest on the farmers themselves. Any failure to have the system fully in place as of 1st May rests very much with the farming organisations.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, at the end of October, the Minister said that he would urgently examine the issue in the hope of finding a solution. Is he aware that, come 1st May, in practical terms, there will not be the facilities to uplift fallen stock and that farmers will not be allowed to bury the stock on their farms? What answer should he give farmers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer that I would give to farmers—and I think that it probably needs to be communicated directly to farmers rather than through their organisations at the moment—is that the facilities are there. The way of organising the facilities would also be there were the farming industry to accept some element of the costs. The TSE disposal arrangements would be made available for that duty: that is the £30 million and the small additional sum that the Government would be prepared to provide to set up such a system. However, the farming industry itself, through its representatives, is refusing to have even the minimum levy to ensure an industrial contribution. It is not a question of logistics or of the facilities not being available. It is a question of the industry being prepared to take its responsibilities seriously.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, it may be a requirement that human bodies be buried in coffins in consecrated land and in land belonging to public graveyards, but is the Minister certain that the same rules apply to people buried in private land?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, If am not sure what customs prevail in the area of Avebury. However, in recent years, by and large, private burial has had to be approved by the authorities. I accept that the requirements for such burial may not be exactly the same as those for burial in consecrated land and graveyards, but they are nevertheless considerably more precautionary than those for burying sheep half-way up a hill—where the possibility of seepage into the watercourse is very substantial and is therefore a much higher risk than any form of human burial of which I am aware.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I declare my interest as a livestock farmer. The Minister mentioned the £30 million that DEFRA currently spends. When the Minister in another place used that figure, he said that it was for transmissible spongiform encephalopathy monitoring under the over-30-months scheme and for a variety of other reasons. If the ministry is going to pay for the collection of all adult cattle, which falls within the provisions of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy regulations, how much money will be left over for organising the start-up of collections?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I will not try to follow the noble Duke in spelling out the regulations. The collection system already exists under the TSE regulations and it applies only to cattle. The point is that, under these regulations, we are extending the same facility to the collection of fallen stock including animals other than cattle. Therefore, the facility will be sufficient, provided that it is topped up by the other £20 million that we are seeking and provided also that a communications system is established. In addition, there is the facility for on-farm incineration.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister really serious when he says that there is no derogation for hill farms? Is a hill farmer supposed to carry an old ewe down to the farm from a high hill and then spend goodness knows how much on having it collected by lorry when for generations such animals have either been buried or left to lie, and the water in the Highland hills is the purest you can find?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is a potential derogation for the remotest areas for obvious reasons. But as regards hill farming generally, it is in precisely those areas where burial is most likely to lead to problems in watercourses. It would therefore be illogical to exempt all hill farms from the regulation.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as I have a farm. Does the Minister agree that hunt kennels do a useful job in this respect, even though it is very expensive if they collect carcasses? They charge about £50 to £70 per animal if they collect. Does he also agree that on-farm burning is not allowed under the regulation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on-farm incineration is allowed if it abides by the overall biosecurity rules, although one cannot bring fallen stock on to a farm from elsewhere. Historically, hunt kennels have played a major role in this respect, although that has been more limited in recent years as a result of the TSE regulations. If kennels are to continue to play a role in that regard, from 1st May they will have to comply with what are effectively the same regulations as apply to knackers.

Lord Carter

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that 1p on or off the value of the euro is worth £100 million either way to British agriculture? The euro has strengthened considerably recently. Will farmers be able to cover the £20 million costs as a result of that strengthening of the euro?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, farmers have benefited from the recent appreciation of the euro against the pound. However, I believe that if the noble Lord were in a more generous mood vis-à-vis his farming colleagues, would recognise that for many years the value of sterling against the euro moved in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, more money is available in that regard than was the case last year.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, will the regulation apply to animals which are pets?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the provisions concerning on-farm burial will apply to all animals on farms.