HL Deb 22 July 2004 vol 664 cc333-6

Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to convert the present cattle identification system into a fully electronic record of all cattle movements in the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, we are developing a GB-wide livestock register for registering cattle and other farmed livestock species and recording their movements. This register will incorporate the existing functions of the cattle tracing system and continue to provide a full electronic record of cattle births, deaths and movements. The livestock register will build on the measures already in place to enhance the existing cattle tracing system and promote improved electronic uptake.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister note the urgent conclusions and recommendations of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in its report Identifying and tracking livestock in England? It concluded that one in seven cattle were "lost in the system", which means that those cattle cannot be found. It also concluded that the current cattle tracing systems are more expensive and less efficient than those in other EU states. It also identified £16 million of savings, and found that the present system is bureaucratic and places a burden on farmers, involving triple handwritten entries. At present there are 1.2 million unresolved anomalies in the system, and the current IT system has three components. Does the Minister accept that the Public Accounts Committee states that markets have a pivotal role and that a fully electronic system should be implemented? Can he say when implementation will happen?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept the careful analysis of the Public Accounts Committee on these issues but not always the rhetoric of its chairman. The noble Lord's repetition of the term "lost" is an exaggeration of what the Public Accounts Committee found. It found that there were gaps in the records amounting to that number of cattle, but that does not mean that those cattle were lost either currently or in the system. The numbers also included relatively recent movements which would not have been recorded, and even that number has decreased substantially.

I acknowledge that there are serious faults in the cattle tracing system. Its heavy reliance on paper information at various points from farmers adds to the burden on farmers and the inefficiency of the system. That is why we are trying to move to a wider livestock register and a fully electronic system. But when proposing an absolutely electronic system, one has to bear in mind that less than one-third of farmers currently have electronic expertise. A two-way system is required for the scheme to work effectively.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if the cattle were not lost, could they be readily found in the case of an outbreak? That is the object of the exercise.

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. The issue was that, in virtually all cases, there was a gap in the records at some point from the livestock's date of birth until now. By now, however, the vast majority could have been found. Even so, for the purposes of traceability and disease control, it is not an adequate situation.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, is the legislation requiring farmers to maintain books on the movement of cattle and other animals extant? If so, who is responsible for monitoring it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are still restrictions on movements. They have been reduced substantially compared with the aftermath of the foot and mouth outbreak. Farmers are supposed to record the movement of cattle through the cattle tracing service. The enforcement of actual movements is a local authority responsibility.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I follow my noble friend's question. It is a very serious situation that these cattle are untraceable, and there will be a problem if disease breaks out. The Minister should acknowledge that. More directly, in response to a Question that I asked him, the Minister said that the IT projects would not be available until 2006 or 2007. Is he not concerned at the delay? What is its cause?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the cattle tracing system is fairly substantial and it takes time to move to a full livestock system. It is not sensible to cut corners on such IT systems. The issue is not untraceability but inadequate total records. Although that could be a disease control problem, it would not be a problem in controlling an immediate outbreak if the records were from some time ago. Of course any error is deeply regrettable and adds to control problems.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge the importance of the need for supermarkets and consumers to know where their beef, for example, comes from? Surely supermarkets could pay for, and the markets could operate, a proper IT system from the field to the plate.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, supermarkets are increasingly operating their own traceability systems and have greatly raised the status of such systems among their suppliers. I do not think that we could ask them to maintain these systems beyond their own supply chain. They have certainly already made an improvement themselves.

Lord Christopher

My Lords, I hope that we do not give supermarkets more power than they have already. Beyond that, however, I wonder whether we are asking ourselves the right question. I do not underestimate the importance of records, but the extent of livestock movement in Britain seems greater than it has ever been. I wonder about the need for it. Is it higher than in Europe? Why is it happening? Has any research been done?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I find that in this House we rarely ask ourselves the right question. It is true that, as became very apparent during the foot and mouth epidemic, many livestock movements occur uniquely in this country, and that applies particularly to sheep movements. There are far more sheep movements in this country between farm and supermarket buyer and between markets than there are in other countries. Although they have been reduced post foot and mouth, there is still a substantial number of them, including long-distance ones. The whole food chain must address that issue for reasons of animal welfare and disease control and for environmental factors.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether BT offered to put a computer in every farm in the country but Defra turned down the offer? Surely if farmers could be brought on board to try to register all cattle, it would relieve Defra and the Government from an IT commitment. As I have said many times in this House, the Government are not exactly the best people for running IT systems.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not aware of any such specific offer from BT, but over the past few years there has been a significant number of schemes offering farmers IT equipment and training. Even so, the take-up has been relatively low. That definitely needs to be addressed by industry and government.