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7.45 pm

Foot and mouth disease is taken enormously seriously by hon. Members on both sides of the House, whether they are for hunting or in favour of a ban. It is wrong to suggest, as some hon. Members have got close to doing--

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although no one transgressed the line--that the only people who are concerned about the farming community, or foot and mouth disease and its impact, are those who support hunting. People who support a ban are also seriously worried about the problem. The issues are, to some extent, separate. However, I appreciate that there is some overlap when it comes to fallen stock.

The Bill will not come into effect until a year after Royal Assent. I am sure we all fervently hope that by that time the problems of foot and mouth disease will be a distant memory. It would be wrong to abandon the Bill now.

New clause 1 would require the Secretary of State to make a scheme for the collection and disposal of infirm, diseased or dead animals, which it refers to as fallen stock. The disposal of fallen stock is controlled by the Animal By-Products Order 1999. That specifies a number of permitted disposal routes for fallen stock, including rendering, incineration, disposal via a knacker's yard or hunt kennel and, in restricted circumstances, burial or--appropriately at the moment--burning on-farm.

If the hunts' collection service is withdrawn, farmers will need to use an alternative method of disposal. There are 288 hunt kennels and 73 knackers' yards in Great Britain that can handle fallen stock. The Burns report estimates that 200 hunts disposed of 336,000 carcases in one 12-month period. A small and limited survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last year suggested that, of the animals that die or are killed on farm, about 40 per cent. of calves, 33 per cent. of adult bovines and 11 per cent. of sheep are disposed of to hunt kennels.

Mr. Soames: We all endorse what the Minister said about foot and mouth disease. We know that he represents an agricultural constituency and that many of his farmers will be as worried as those in my constituency and elsewhere. However, foot and mouth disease has nothing to do with the fallen stock that is covered by the new clause. Livestock that are at risk from the disease are handled by the state veterinary service in a completely different way. My hon. Friends have made it clear that the hunt service is fully stretched and has been tested to the limit in the past two years. Given what the Minister said about the one-year gap, it would be impossible for any organisation to step in and fill that role.

Mr. O'Brien: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. Animals that are affected by foot and mouth disease are dealt with separately. However, as several hon. Members said, many animals that are not diseased might have to be disposed of on the land. It will not be possible to remove or sell some animals. They may be ordinary fallen stock that have been injured or have died without being diseased. In such circumstances, hon. Members have asked what we should do about fallen stock. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is over-demand for the disposal services that the hunt and others provide to get rid of undiseased fallen stock.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have an important point to make. It has been insinuated that hunt kennels take meat that is unfit to feed to hounds. Will the Minister confirm that all hunt kennels that receive fallen stock are licensed by the Animal By-Products Order 1999 and are rigorously inspected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and

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Food and trading standard officers? If any offences are committed, those bodies will come down with the full force of the law on hunt kennels.

Mr. O'Brien: I have no problem in confirming that.

While the clause--[Interruption.] I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and I see the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) pointing at him. My hon. Friend was asking questions because he was confused by some of the arguments of Opposition Members. I do not want to rehearse those arguments. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) even succeeded in confusing those on the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps the best thing to do is move on.

The new clause seeks to provide a collection and disposal service for fallen stock that otherwise would be collected by hunt kennels. In practice, it would be impossible to identify which animals went to a hunt kennel and which to a knacker's yard or other disposal facility. The new clause would establish a collection service for what would appear to be all fallen stock.

A difficulty with the new clause is that it seeks to provide a collection and disposal service also for infirm, diseased and dead agricultural animals, which are referred to as fallen stock. I am concerned that that would inadvertently open up the possibility for the killing of animals that are not 100 per cent. fit, or animals suffering from a minor ailment where veterinary treatment would be a more appropriate disposal.

The new clause would mean that instead of fallen stock being disposed of by one of the routes that I have mentioned, the Minister would regulate the collection and disposal of fallen stock. It would require the Minister to put in place a collection scheme for dead stock, to set up communication lines for the prompt notification of fallen stock to the body responsible for collection, to arrange for the transport and disposal of fallen stock and to regulate the cost of the scheme.

The Government would need to establish centres for farmers to give notification of fallen stock, to acquire sufficient vehicles to collect the stock promptly, and to ensure that disposal outlets were prepared and capable of receiving stock at that time. Such a collection scheme would require the Government, in effect, to set themselves up as a nationalised industry; otherwise, they would have to contract out. The service would have to be run almost entirely by the Government. It appears that the Opposition are proposing the setting up of a nationalised industry.

I was a little surprised by that. It appears that the clause would transfer the current responsibility in the private sector for waste disposal in the livestock industry to the Government. The Government are keen to see a proper collection service for fallen stock, but we remain of the view that waste disposal should be carried out by the private sector, not by a nationalised industry. It is strange that the Conservative party is proposing nationalisation while we are proposing to keep the service within the private sector. Perhaps that is new Labour.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Surely the Minister will acknowledge that the alternative methods of disposal, which are burial, subject to strict regulations, and incineration, which is subject both to licensing and the requirement of planning permission, already involve a significant amount of Government intervention and

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regulation, and rightly so. The hon. Gentleman will know that clause 2 provides for the schedule to come into force 12 months after Royal Assent. Is he confident that it would be possible within 12 months to set up alternative methods of disposal which would deal with all the carcases that are currently being disposed of by hunts?

Mr. O'Brien: We cannot consider only hunt kennels and their role in the agriculture sector, but I appreciate the fact that many farmers find the free disposal of fallen stock a substantial advantage. We cannot consider in isolation the possible implications of a ban on hunting in relation to the collection of fallen stock. Disposal goes far wider than hunt kennels. As a result of BSE controls, farmers have been facing increased costs in disposing of their fallen stock. As we have heard, there has been a decline in the number of disposal outlets.

Furthermore, the European Commission has proposed a new animal by-products regulation, which is expected to come into force in 2003. As drafted, the regulation would control the disposal of ruminant animals that die on farm. It would introduce environment standards for small incinerators. It would require all premises that collect fallen stock to meet certain standards.

As a consequence, some hunts may be unable or unwilling to continue to provide a fallen stock service to farmers, even if hunting were not banned as a consequence of the proposed legislation. Accordingly, the Government are keen to address the wider issue of fallen stock as a whole, and not only in terms of the impact that the Bill might or might not have.

Mr. Baker: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will make some progress and then I will give way.

The Government want to facilitate the setting up of a collection and disposal service for fallen stock, but we do not want it to be run as a nationalised industry. I understand that officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have had meetings with representatives of the livestock industry and are seeking to discuss and formulate future arrangements for a wider disposal of fallen stock.

I can assure the House that the Ministry takes the issue extremely seriously, as do the House and the Government. We want to work with those affected to ensure that we can provide the most practical and efficient solution to the problem. I cannot predict what form the MAFF solution will take, but I do not believe that matters would be helped by agreeing to a prescriptive clause such as new clause 1.

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