HL Deb 14 October 2004 vol 665 cc425-40

1.36 p.m.

Baroness Byford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the present biosecurity arrangements for the control of disease in agriculture and horticulture are adequate.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I recently read the report of the British Veterinary Association's congress on 30 September. In his opening speech, the president, Tim Greet, said: Allegedly, we have spent the last three years absorbing the lessons learned during the catastrophic foot and mouth disease. However, I am very concerned that, come the next serious assault, we'll be little better prepared or equipped to defend against it; in fact, we may be significantly worse off".

Many of us have been critical of the Government over the past three years. The foot and mouth outbreak cost a lot of money and caused a great deal of misery to humans and animals. We have continually questioned the Government's readiness to cope with future outbreaks. We believe that their approach is complacent and, as Tim Greet put it, could potentially be downright dangerous". I must declare an interest as an associate member of the BVA.

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency, using seizure data from April 2001 to the end of September 2003, estimates that annual illegal meat imports are running at between 4,400 and 28,600 tonnes. That estimate is 60 per cent higher than the previous one and reflects the level of seizures from January to September 2003. Have there been any rapid increases since then?

The prevention of such imports and the firm control of aircraft and sipping waste are vital to any bio-security programme. The Government's failure to recognise that and to discharge their responsibilities is reprehensible.

Figures that were quoted in another place on 29 April showed that the UK will be guarded by six sniffer dogs, operating in shifts from Heathrow. Can the Minister give us any news of plans to train more dogs to provide better cover? What happens at the other 106 ports of entry? Have the Government commissioned any trials on electronic surveillance systems such as those that the Minister saw at the Royal Show?

I turn to the direct prevention and control of disease. During the passage of the Animal Health Bill through this House, we strongly urged that vaccination should be a major plank of any policy. Will the Minister tell us what the present position is? Do the Government have plans to support vaccination against some of the new diseases, which will be threatening? I understand that Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw indicated at the Labour Party conference that a reliable test for badgers is very close. Can the Minister make a firm statement on that?

We are facing an ever increasing threat from bovine TB. The Godfray report of March 2004 recommended that badgers be treated as a wildlife reservoir of the disease. Could any other animal that regularly accesses pasture and farm buildings be such a reservoir and have any animals been proven not to carry the disease?

Peter Jinman, past president of the BVA, recently commented: We cannot go on killing cattle as an accepted means of disease control and not cull other species that present a danger because certain opinions suggest that they cannot be culled".

What action are the Government taking in the West Country, where one in 10 cattle herds in Devon and Cornwall was subjected to TB restrictions during the first six months of this year? What hope can the Minister give to people such as Tony Yewdall who has lost 89 cows in his herd of 235?

Last year, the Defra Select Committee also predicted that there was going to be a shortage of large-animal vets. It calculated that less than 10 per cent of vets do large-animal work, and that those who do spend a mere 15 per cent of their time on the farms in a position to see what is happening. The marked real-terms decline in agricultural incomes has resulted in farmers "saving" on their use of vets. The intervention of the Competition Commission to allow dispensers to make up prescription medicines will result in further income decreases for the veterinary profession.

Human medicines are now being dispensed by supermarkets which apparently make no secret of their plans to use the service as a loss leader to attract custom. Already, small pharmacies are closing. I fear that similar practices in veterinary dispensing will have a similar effect on both large and small animal practices. Will the Minister commit the Government to re-examining the commission's findings?

The UK Government can seize illegal meat and support vaccine development, but bans on the importation of legal goods have to be imposed by the EU or with its approval. In 2004, chicken imports were stopped from 12 countries including Thailand, Canada and the United States of America. That has been done in response to outbreaks of avian flu, but it is not enough.

I have more than once drawn the House's attention to the EU's appalling record on inspecting third-country animal husbandry once the supply contracts have been signed. Is it really satisfactory to leave to the EU the monitoring of imports to this country? Does the Minister agree that this position cannot continue?

The correct disposal of fallen stock must be central to any biosecurity policy. Farming representatives have put the annual disposal requirement at 1.3 million fully grown animals, 2.6 million youngsters and 36 million birds. Traditionally, hunt kennels, knackers' yards and renderers have collected the bulk of that, but small quantities have been dealt with in a variety of different ways including incinerators.

The Government "oversight" during the EU negotiations on incineration has resulted in industrial standards being applied to farm incinerators. The pig industry and many of the rest of us had understood that the existing installations would retain their approvals until the end of this year. It appears now that unless an application for a replacement or updated system was received by Defra by 1 June, the old approvals would no longer apply. That is, they will no longer apply unless Defra has failed to process the application for the new one.

Will the Minister ensure that all the old approvals will be extended to the end of the year? Will he also tell us the reasons for the further delay to the fallen stock scheme, the cause of the postponement and the new start date?

I turn now to another important aspect of farming: horticulture. The horticulture sector encompasses a wide range of crops and associated pest and disease threats. A large number of these crop species are subject to specific European Union legislation and quarantine inspection aimed at controlling the spread of notifiable pests and diseases into and within EU regions. In England and Wales, Defra relies on the co-operation of the individual affected horticultural businesses to arrest the spread of pests and disease to other parts of the industry and the environment, enabling the national government to meet their EU plant health obligations.

While Defra relies on the co-operation of these individual businesses, current plant health policy does not work in the interests of those affected by escapes of introduced notifiable pests and diseases. In this regard I am thinking particularly of potatoes and ring rot. Businesses directly affected by Defra's eradication activity are in fact penalised through the burdens of loss of stock, disruption, the costs associated with disposal and the lack of compensation. It is an unsatisfactory situation. There is talk of a compensation scheme, but in return growers would need a compensation scheme put in place to protect individuals who are currently expected to sacrifice their business for government and for the rest of their sector. I understand that Ministers have indicated that support could be made available for risk-sharing proposals to help the horticultural industries to protect themselves and develop their own compensation mechanisms. I should be very grateful if the Minister will refer to that in his winding up.

I thank those who will speak in this short debate. The need for a healthy plant and livestock industry is essential for the long-term sustainability and future profitability of the countryside.

1.46 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has been delayed. I shall therefore go ahead of him. I am sure that I cannot use his time.

We should be very grateful to my noble friend Lady Byford for tabling this Question for debate. There is much concern in many agricultural circles in this country about how we are doing in ensuring the security of our livestock and horticulture. Are we adequately prepared to handle another major disease outbreak such as the foot and mouth outbreak? Will we react in the same way? Is our vigilance against disease as adequate as it should be? I repeat, as I often do, that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

I should like to deal first with the issue of security against the introduction of disease from outside the country. I stress that disease—animal, human or plant—is a global issue. We can no longer ignore it because it occurs in a distant part of the world. It is part of our global village and in our own backyard and we should treat it as such. A very good example of that is the current problems with avian flu.

Despite the frequent questions and comments made in this House and elsewhere, travellers arriving in this country are still not asked to declare whether they are in possession of meat or meat products, as is the case, for example, in the United States. Nor is any information provided to the traveller of the dangers of bringing in meat and meat products. I believe that both measures would be very effective and not terribly costly.

Mention has been made of sniffer dogs. My understanding is that we have six trained sniffer dogs, but even if that number is incorrect, I would still say that we need dozens and possibly hundreds of them. They are effectively used in Australia and New Zealand to detect any importation of meat or meat products in the luggage of the millions of people who travel the world.

Every year, several million people come into the ports and airports of this country. It is very likely that some of the major problems we have faced, such as foot and mouth and swine fever, were due to the inadvertent introduction of infected meat and meat products into this country, after which it got into the animal food chain.

One question that we need to ask is how prepared we are for the quick detection, identification and reporting of suspected disease. The recent pandemics of foot and mouth, swine fever and so on have spawned new procedures that make detection very rapid, when delays in the past of even just a few days have been extraordinarily crucial to the spread of the disease.

New techniques and methodologies are available, however. The United States Department of Agriculture has now developed a state of the art technique called PCR—polymerase chain reaction. That is a test which identifies the genetic markers of an infectious agent such as a virus—that is, its signature. It can identify the signature within an hour, and a diagnosis of the infection can then be made, put on the Internet and sent off to a central area for assessment and diagnosis.

The home security department of the United States Department of Agriculture is, I understand, spending something like 380 million dollars in the coming year to set up labs within its own territory. In addition, it is establishing sentinel laboratories elsewhere in the world, where major plagues of animals and plants are rampant, so that their rapid detection using satellite navigation and global positioning systems is possible. In that way, it will be possible to keep close tabs on the infection.

Obviously, massive amounts of funding are available in the United States for the control of exotic diseases. Should an outbreak occur there, it will not only compromise the livestock industry but represent a major social and political problem. I do not suggest that the United Kingdom should undertake a comparable exercise, but it could collaborate and co-operate with the United States and the departments and laboratories in our own Commonwealth in providing global security against animal and plant diseases. In that way, we could respond rapidly to their identification and control. Has the Minister any information as to what is happening in Defra to collaborate with the United States authorities in that respect?

The issue of disease security covers many areas, and it is impossible to identify them all in such a short debate. The surveillance of domestic livestock via vets on farms has been mentioned. But there is also the shortage of wild animal vets; the role of wildlife and its impact on our livestock—for example, West Nile Virus; and the new salmonella strains, such as Salmonella Newport. They are all examples of areas in which vigilance is absolutely necessary.

I do not by any means want to suggest that our animal and plant health diagnostic and controlled services are faulty; on the contrary, they are as effective as they are allowed to be, given the funding and manpower available to them. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that adequate attention and funding will be available to ensure adequate biosecurity for disease control in our agriculture and horticulture.

1.54 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in the continued absence of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I rise to speak.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for asking this question this afternoon. We have worked on these matters for a long time together, and I am pleased to he here today.

I declare my interest as a cheese maker and the wife of a farmer. We have a small herd of dairy goats, a flock of about 20 Black Welsh Mountain sheep and a few pigs and hens and ducks. In other words, we are traditional farmers. We dispose of most of our milk, cheese, lamb, pork and eggs through our farm shop and at farmers' markets. As we have the public on our premises and sell food products away from the farm, we are acutely and constantly aware of the need for the highest standards of hygiene.

Biosecurity is a new word coined, I think, during the recent foot and mouth outbreak. What it really means on the farm is the application of the principles of rigorous hygiene and of good sense. I could have said common sense, but my husband advises me that sense is becoming less and less common. Biosecurity also implies a requirement for knowledge. If it is not understood that micro-organisms, in the form of bacteria, viruses and parasites, can cause disease, and if a basic knowledge of where these are likely to lurk and how diseases are transmitted and are recognised is lacking, it is unlikely that biosecurity measures will be put in place. I believe that most farmers are aware of the need for biosecurity and that they have, to a greater or lesser degree, taken appropriate action.

Defra suggests that farmers consult their veterinary surgeons and draw up an animal health plan. That will, of course, include biosecurity measures. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, has made clear the problems current in rural veterinary practices. There is an acute shortage of large animal vets. In addition, as we have been reminded in the news today, farm incomes are such that farmers may be very reluctant to incur what they consider to be non-essential costs. As it is, we have reached the stage where, unless a sick animal is of considerable value, a farmer may well consider that it would make economic sense to have it destroyed. Thus some infectious diseases may be missed; animals may be killed before their disease has been diagnosed, and the disease may spread. Vets do not visit farms for nothing, and they cannot be expected to.

Is there a place for what used to be known as Ministry vets to give on-farm advice? Biosecurity, as we found during the foot and mouth outbreak, is of paramount importance not just to the individual farmer, but to his or her community and to the nation. We already see dairy hygiene inspectors, environmental health officers and trading standards officers on a regular basis and a health and safety inspector once in a blue moon. We have a very good relationship with them and have always found them to be very helpful.

My purpose for asking this question has two sides. Clearly, the first is to offer face-to-face advice to the farmer. Secondly, it is essential that government vets should not just "drive a desk" as the saying goes. They need to have a good knowledge of the farmers and the farms in their region. That can he gained only from regular contacts with them under normal working conditions. It is no good throwing large numbers of people out into the field at the time of an epidemic when the team leaders have no clue about the farmers with whom they are dealing or about the lie of the land. That was painfully clear at the beginning of the foot and mouth outbreak.

There are many measures that farmers can take to protect the health both of their own livestock and of their human visitors and customers. The Defra leaflet, Better Biosecurity Provides Peace of Mind, Healthy Stock, and a More Viable Business, gives a good start to anyone who does not have measures in place. There will be occasions when some of the Defra suggestions are impractical or, indeed, impossible. There is no way in which farmers can isolate themselves from all outside contacts. People cannot be stopped from walking their dogs, which may or may not have been wormed and vaccinated, on public footpaths that go across grazing land or through farmyards. Wild birds cannot be prevented from joining free-range poultry in their pens or flying over or landing in fields. A determined wild animal cannot be stopped from forcing its way through, over or under a fence or hedge onto grazing land or gaining access to drinking water provided for farm animals.

Farmers are allowed to control rats, grey squirrels and rabbits. No farm will ever be totally clear of those creatures, which are all known to carry infectious or contagious diseases. Larger wild animals, such as deer, foxes and badgers cause more of a problem. I have a Starred Question about TB controls next week, so I will refrain from elaborating on that topic for the moment. Just as overstocking causes health breakdown in farmed animals, so can overpopulation cause malnutrition and disease in wildlife. We should always remember that.

Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government make any distinction between large and small units; corporate farms and family run farms; intensive, extensive and organic systems; full and part-time farmers and, finally, dealers? At present, I have the impression that, so far as Defra is concerned, one size fits all. That is another reason why it is so important that government vets know their farmers. What advice there is needs to be tailored to the recipient, otherwise, experience tells me, it is likely to be ignored. In my past life, I was a sales rep, and I was always told, "Face-to-face first, leaflets afterwards". That is very important.

There is an old farming saying, "You buy in stock, you buy in trouble". The Defra leaflet gives very good advice. So often it is the movement of sheep, cattle or pigs between farms and markets without proper precautionary procedures that has led to severe outbreaks of disease in this country. So often it is a small number of rogue dealers who ignore the rules. I am sure that officials know who they are. Is it possible for Defra officials to do with them what environmental health inspectors do with dodgy food establishments—keep a regular and very close eye on them until they toe the line?

The farming community is getting a little tired of being blamed for everything that goes wrong in the countryside. It is to blame in some circumstances and may have some responsibility in others, but it is not to blame for everything that goes wrong. There is also a place for those who use the countryside to behave responsibly and to respect farmers' need for biosecurity, particularly if they have animals with them. On our farm, we welcome footpath walkers and visitors—but, just as any host is entitled to, we expect them to observe the house rules. The organisations that represent the farming community do a great deal to publicise the need for visitors to respect the countryside. I have come to the conclusion that, just as most but not all farmers seem to get the Government's biosecurity message, so most but not all visitors to the countryside seem to get our message, and it is likely that some never will.

2.1 p.m.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I apologise profusely for not being in my place at the start of the debate. I had allowed enough time, but two trains in front of mine had broken down on the line, hence I have been delayed by more than three hours. I apologise unreservedly to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for not being present to hear her opening remarks, and I withdraw from the debate.

2.2 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, I accept the apologies given by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. Earlier in the week in south Wales, the railway system was greatly delayed by cattle on the line. Such things are not unknown; that clearly shows the importance of fencing.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing the debate and bringing it to the attention of the House. It is quite right that she did; there is a great deal of concern, to which she referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar. The facts concern the veterinary sector very much. I declare that I am also an associate of the British Veterinary Association.

We are talking about the risks of the spread of infection, and their reduction through biosecurity. That raises a huge number of issues, and I shall focus on only a few. I shall list them, however, because it shows the problem that Defra, the farmers and the veterinary profession have. They have to contend with illegal meat imports, the threat of bioterrorism, the situation in our markets and at agricultural shows, the fallen stock issue, foot and mouth disease, bovine TB, the lack of large-animal vets, the inadequate system of tracking livestock, and all sorts of such issues, including scrapie and TSEs. All that I can do is pick out a few of those issues and express concerns felt throughout the industry and, indeed, beyond.

The recent reports of the Government's Veterinary Laboratory Agency show in some detail the situation on illegal meat imports. It has conducted quite a searching risk assessment of the impact of the danger from them. As someone who has been involved in economics and scientific research, the problem is that we always have difficulties with statistics. In this case, the statistics used are those that tracked imports of meat between 2001 and 2003, which record only 11,875 tonnes with 90 per cent certainty, according to the department's risk assessment.

I seem to recollect, however—I have not had time to research it properly—that, within the past 12 months, the Minister said in reply to a question that more up-to-date information appeared to indicate that about 50,000 tonnes of illegal meat had come into the country after 2003. I would like the Minister to substantiate the figure for the amount of meat that has come in since the risk assessment took place. The assumptions of the risk assessment, particularly in the likelihood of outbreaks occurring as a result of meat imports, seem to be something of the order of one infection between 19 years and 600 years. With up-to-date data on more large amounts of illegal meat coming in, those risk assessments should be reviewed. I am not tearing at the Minister's throat, but it is a matter for his department about which we are all concerned.

Given the state of security, particularly in the Middle East, the unknown movement of materials and people—especially scientists —could indicate a continuing risk of bioterrorism. The president of the British Veterinary Association stated that, in the former USSR, 60,000 scientists were engaged in research on bio-warfare. Indeed, 100 establishments in the former USSR were engaged in such research. Who is to say that some of those scientists have not found their way into countries where a fairly chaotic situation exists? I would like to hear some reference to what precautions against bioterrorism are taking place in the UK, from Defra's viewpoint; I am sure that the Minister cannot speak for every department of the Government. Some indication of the consideration that has been given to the issue is important.

Biosecurity at markets, in terms of the timings at which farmers can bring stock to markets and the cleaning of vehicles, is a continuing issue. The department has reduced the number of days necessary before farmers can take their stock to market if they have been in contact with other stock. However, there are issues concerning agricultural shows. For example, if a farmer shows at an agricultural show, he cannot then market his stock for more than a week. I do not know whether that could be reduced to six days, but it would be mighty convenient if it could, as many sales take place on Fridays.

The Government are conducting control of scrapie in a responsible way. There are problems, but the strategy is basically right. However, the system for large-animal vets and the number of vets in government service are a continuing cause of concern. There are clearly not enough large-animal vets in the country, as the president of the British Veterinary Association, Tim Greet, has stated. We cannot continue to rely on the import of vets from the rest of Europe and around the world to help us out—he used the phrase "bail us out"—when we have issues such as another FMD outbreak. The problems that arose there are well-documented.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling question is: if one does not know where one's livestock is, how can one control biosecurity? I draw the Minister's attention to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report. I shall not refer to the comments of the chairman, because I know that the Minister will feel that that is contentious. But can he comment on the report and its constructive criticisms? For example: The cattle tracing system is more expensive and less efficient than systems used in other Member States of the European Union.

The second recommendation was that the Government make markets responsible for reporting all relevant animal movements, which would reduce anomalies. That could save up to £1 million a year in posting costs alone. There are many other issues raised by the committee, but perhaps the fact that reducing error levels could save the department about £15 million a year would be a major step forward.

The committee also said that there were, Poor interfaces between the Cattle Tracing System and the Department's Common Agricultural Policy subsidy databases", which, prevented full cross-checking of farmers' claims". There are many issues relating to this matter and much bureaucracy. But there are also many animals which are lost in the system.

I realise that my time is up, but I have raised these questions because they come under the remit of this debate raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.

2.22 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, it is sad that we have had to miss the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, through no fault of his own. I thank him for the courteous manner in which he explained the problems he encountered. I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for initiating this important debate, which enables me to talk about the risks that illegally imported meats pose to the biosecurity of the UK. Those include bush meats and meats that are banned by CITES.

The main risk that they pose to agriculture in the UK is simple—foot and mouth disease. It is known that an infected bone was the cause of one of three FMD epidemics in the past 30 years. The other two outbreaks are believed also to have been caused by infected illegally imported meats. There is not sufficient time to cover in this speech other important diseases.

Defra estimates that the total amount of illegal meat entering the UK increased from 7,500 tonnes to more than 11,750 tonnes in the past year alone. That is a 60 per cent increase. Interestingly, 85 per cent of the total weight of illegal meat enters the UK via personal baggage. These figures lead one to conclude that there has been a rapid rise in the importation of illegal meats through airports and thus the risk to our biosecurity.

Defra estimates that between 65 kilograms and half a tonne of illegal meat is infected with FMD. Perhaps the Minister can say how Defra calculates that statistic in the light of his Written Answer of 23 February 2004 in which he said: Illegal imports of meat are destroyed without undue delay".— [Official Report, 23/2/04; col. WA 36.] Furthermore, in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, in February 2003, the noble Baroness, Lady Farringdton, said: I can assure you that the UK takes its responsibilities for implementing and enforcing CITES very seriously". Therefore, if illegal imports of meats are destroyed without undue delay, how can Defra, without analysing them, make such estimates about infected meat or statements about CITES enforcement?

The increased quantities of seizures of illegal imported meats over the past two years are most alarming. The reason for that may well, in part, lie in a statement made by an African representative at the bush meat conference held on the 15 December 2003. He said that part of the reason for illegal meat imports was that smugglers were not frightened of any conviction if caught in the UK. If laws are not backed with deterrents such as prosecutions for breaking the law, it is not difficult to see why the lucrative trade in illegal meats is increasing alarmingly. Those Defra figures show that the government strategy on illegally imported meats is a shambles and is in disarray.

Sadly, one can go further to suggest that this macabre trade is not driven by people wishing to bring in a piece of meat for their own consumption but is driven by an organised black market trade not dissimilar from the drug trade. Given that suitcases are seized full of bloody dripping meat, often valued at £36 per pound, with chimpanzees worth £350 apiece, this is a highly lucrative trade. I was unable to find estimates on the value of gorilla or elephant meat that was rumoured to be on offer for sale in Lambeth in January this year. All this is expensive meat not for your average gourmet. So one must ask why the Government is so lenient in not bringing forward or insisting that the relevant agencies bring forward prosecutions. In a Written Answer on 13 November 2003, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey stated: HM Customs and Excise took on responsibility for anti-smuggling controls on meat from the 11 April 2003. Their policy is outlined in a service level agreement between Customs and Defra, which says that Customs will consider for investigation and prosecution cases where suitable evidence is available". He went on to say that, there has not been sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution".— [Official Report, 13/11/03; col. WA 229.] Is around 9,600 tonnes of illegally imported meats found in passengers' baggage last year not suitable or sufficient evidence?

In a Written Answer on 4 March 2003, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said: We have made clear that prosecutions are an important aspect of deterrence which we would like to see used where there is clear evidence of a serious breach in the rules".—[Official Report, 43/03; col. WA 106.] In February this year Paul Rainbird from the Customs illegal meat team, while accompanying the Customs Minister John Healey, during a leaflet launch on illegal meats at Heathrow airport, was reported to have commented openly that bringing illegal meats was mostly for personal consumption and was only like us taking a packet of digestive biscuits with us when we travel abroad. Is that the Government's view? That is disturbing when a suitcase full of illegal meat is unlikely to be for personal consumption and can breach the UK's biosecurity. The last time I ventured into the US the apple given out on the transatlantic flight was confiscated by Customs for the sake of biosecurity.

The US government spend billions of dollars on biosecurity. Australia is spending £246 million this year alone to counter threats from exotic pests and diseases such as FMD. Sadly, this Government, with one FMD epidemic under their belt and other major agricultural epidemics, announced that they will spend only £8 million a year for the next three years to do the same. One may draw one's own conclusions from the Government's rhetoric versus action on how serious they take UK biosecurity.

The last outbreak of FMD cost a minimum of £8 billion to this country and the death of more than 6 million animals, including the ruination of many agricultural businesses and family lives—not to mention the UK tourist business. We must not forget those farmers who committed suicide because of their dire situation brought on by FMD.

The Government's actions on dealing with the importation of illegal meats might lead one to believe that the biosecurity of the UK is not one of their priorities. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, called Defra, a dog's dinner of the highest order". Let us hope that that dog does not catch some epidemic disease in the near future.

2.19 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. Clearly, the aftermath of the foot and mouth outbreak is still with us. We all recall that it was one of the most traumatic experiences for the farming sector and most rural areas of this country and, indeed, for the Government. Much expense and distress were caused during the course of that outbreak.

It is also true that the Government, the industry and the veterinary profession have put in a great deal of work to ensure that, should such an outbreak occur again, we shall have learnt the lessons and put them into practice. We have consulted on and published new details and contingency plans, and we have put in place new measures to protect against the import and spread of the disease. I think it is true to say that the industry is significantly more aware of the biosecurity implications of livestock movements and of operations on farms. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, that issue is necessarily universal but I think that, in general, the farming sector now has a substantially better understanding of it.

We in the Government are committed to high standards for animal health and welfare—in particular, for the avoidance of disease or, if it does break out, the spread of disease. We have proposed an animal health and welfare strategy, which sets out the role of government and others in delivering those aims.

Many of the remarks—in particular, the substantial comments at the end of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick—were directed at the issue of imports. I have often said in this House that, although imports are vitally important, internal movements and the normal husbandry of livestock should be seen as being of equal importance. Controls on imports from third countries must form a major part of our activity.

Since the foot and mouth outbreak, we have transferred responsibility in that area to Defra in a co-ordinated way. The £8 million a year to which the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, referred is part of the £25 million extra money and not the total spent on controls. There has been a significant increase in the number of seizures since Customs and Excise took over enforcement responsibility, and 15,000 is the most recent figure for the number of seizures.

I think that there was slight confusion surrounding the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. The mean estimate of the tonnage is between 4,000 and 28,000—that is, 12,000. But that does not mean, as the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, suggested, that there has been an increase since the previous Veterinary Laboratories Agency risk assessment estimate; it means that we have better information, and that better information suggests a mean figure of 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat. That is a serious problem for the country. However, very little of that meat will be diseased and very little of it will enter livestock or the food chain.

One problem relating to the risk assessment—noble Lords who have read the VLA document will appreciate that it is a very complicated process—is that, while one can see that there is a point where it could be stopped, the real problem relates to what gets into the food chain and animal areas, how it gets in and through which routes.

During the debate, a number of suggestions were made concerning improvements to both surveillance and control at the import level. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, asked about PCR testing. We are trialling PCR testing for both animal and plant disease, including death—I am not supposed to call it that but I cannot pronounce the term in Latin. We are also looking at some promising equipment which, as the noble Lord said, is being developed in the United States. He also referred to international co-operation in this area. We are not only monitoring progress through the OIE and elsewhere; we are also engaged in the exchange of research findings with America, Australia, New Zealand and the EU because it is an international problem.

Clearly, issues arise in relation to illegal imports and the quality of legal imports. The previous provision, which allowed individuals to bring in from outside the EU a small amount of meat for personal consumption, has been closed at the UK's initiative.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, queried the scope and effectiveness of inspection facilities in areas of the EU from which legal meat is returned. There is a substantial programme in which not only the FVO and the Commission but also representatives from member states, including the UK, participate. The standard is maintained but I am not saying that there cannot be improvements. Clearly, when we are a trading nation, we need to have some conditions so that meat brought into this country is subject to the minimum health standards in the EU.

A number of other specific points were raised, and I shall try to deal with them, albeit in a slightly disjointed way. The noble Baroness and others referred to TB. Clearly it is an endemic disease and one that causes a far bigger problem for us now than any exotic disease within Europe. We have caught up with the testing in relation to TB and have developed a new strategy for it. I know that we shall discuss further matters relating to TB when the noble Countess's Question is taken next week. However, in relation to the specific points about TB in badgers and other wildlife, the research is still ongoing. In relation to wildlife other than badgers, the CSL produced a report in July in which it identified muntjac deer, in particular, as another potential wildlife source of TB, and that is being followed through. As the noble Countess knows, the position in relation to badgers is still the subject of current tests and information from abroad.

With regard to other ways of detecting the import of illegal meat, Customs and Excise is considering a variety of different X-ray systems and is hoping to improve its surveillance in that form. In relation to dogs—always a topic of interest in this House—the noble Lord is right that six teams of dogs are currently operating and those will shortly be augmented by another four. The number of dogs used does not necessarily improve the detection rate, but they are an important factor. Some countries which have fairly draconian systems of import controls do not use dogs, but they form one part of the import control system. However, I do not believe that we need hundreds of dogs, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, suggested.

Returning briefly to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, in relation to PCR testing, the PCR test technology is used at Pirbright and we want to ensure that we can improve the use of PCR in certain circumstances. If I may, I shall elaborate on that in writing to the noble Lord.

In terms of the diseases that face us, the current focus is clearly on avian influenza. The noble Baroness suggested that we were not taking sufficient notice of the restrictions on imports from countries with avian flu, but that is not the case. The EU has effectively imposed restrictions on imports from all countries that have outbreaks of avian flu and, indeed, a wide range of products have been banned from entering the EU. However, it is not necessary to ban everything because certain products, such as heat-treated poultry meat, which is not covered by the ban, could not carry the virus. But I am not sure whether that was what the noble Baroness meant in those circumstances.

Reference was made, in particular by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, to the role of vets. Clearly the veterinary profession, and the relationship between that profession and farmers, forms an important part of the control of internal biosecurity. Of course, I am very familiar with the report of the committee in another place. The evidence collected suggests that there are enough large-animal vets in total and that, contrary to some rumours, it is still an attractive form of work for students. We have never trained more vets. Logically we should have enough large-animal vets, but in some parts of the country, because of the change in the number of practices, it has been difficult to recruit sufficient large-animal vets and farm-based vets. We recognise that there are recruitment problems. That is why we have agreed with the Royal College, the BVA and the NFU to set up a steering group to find solutions to the problems facing the profession, particularly in that area.

The animal health and welfare strategy relies heavily on developing a system of farm health planning. That involves not only a greater commitment by farmers but also a greater involvement by vets in farm-level activity. It is clear that if we can deliver that dimension of the strategy, prevention is much better than cure and the full engagement of all parties will help to upgrade the effectiveness of biosecurity and veterinary practice on farms.

I was asked about a one-size-fits-all approach to this matter. The point about farm health plans is that they would be tailored to individual farms and to the individual balance of activities on the farms. Therefore, in part, that point would be met.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to the cattle-tracing system. We recognise that there have been errors in the system and the interface between that and the RPA's main system is now being addressed. I believe that that situation will improve, but as yet there is some way to go.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, raised a point about shows and markets. We have a six-day standstill. The length of the standstill was reduced from 20 days for sheep and cows immediately after the foot and mouth outbreak. The six days will remain; it is a six-day not a week-plus standstill.

My time is almost up and as with most contributions to this debate, I have not addressed the issue of plant health. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made some remarks in that regard. It is an important area of the activity of Defra. We have had a number of outbreaks. Sudden oak death in rhododendron has required many resources and recently we have had small but significant outbreaks of potato rot as well, which have been contained.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of compensation. We do not traditionally compensate for loss in relation to plants as we do in relation to the loss of livestock. Of course, the risk-sharing in that area must be part of the future agenda. I cannot hold out an expectation of the kind of compensation that is paid in relation to animals with foot and mouth.

This has been an interesting debate. I hope that I have managed, in a somewhat random way, to pick out some of the points raised by noble Lords. If, when I read Hansard, I find other points that deserve a reply, I shall write to noble Lords in the normal way.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 2.36 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 2.34 to 2.36 p.m.]