Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. What have you done to make the scheme simple to operate? It has all the shades, I seem to recall, of the fishing vessel decommissioning scheme in terms of the structure and approach. That was reasonably effective because as time went on some of the bids became very competitive indeed. Have you designed it with a view to it being simple to operate?
  (Ms Quin) We have designed it in consultation with the industry, so we hope that they will have a good understanding of it. Obviously both the Government and the industry itself can communicate the details to pig farmers. I understand that the leaflets describing this scheme, if they have not reached you already, are being sent to the Committee. We have tried to work with the industry in implementing it. We certainly feel that it has got a good chance of success. Obviously, as in all these schemes, we will need to monitor its implementation and see how it is working in practice. If we feel that somehow or other it is not working or there is a need to discuss modifications, we will try that, even though we know that since it has to go through the Commission that in itself is not particularly straightforward and easy, therefore we would much prefer it if it does work in its current form.

  101. What have you got pencilled in as the split between the outgoers and the ongoers as far as the £66 million is concerned?
  (Ms Quin) Originally we were thinking, more or less, in a half and half term. It will depend, to a certain extent, on the level of interest in the outgoers in this first year. Certainly we thought that the first year of the scheme, which we hoped would be the £26 million in this financial year, would be largely for outgoers and the bulk of the rest would be ongoers.

Dr Turner

  102. We have had many representations which are quite scathing about MAFF's initial response to the outbreak of swine fever. I have one quote made from Easton Estates which says, "In the past eleven weeks there has been a roller-coaster of misinformation and lack of communication, resulting in immense stress and strain on our whole farming operation". Others tell us that your web pages were three days out of date, more out of date than the representatives of the pig industry itself. Would you accept that MAFF were initially slow in responding and, perhaps, a poor communicator in the early days of this outbreak?
  (Ms Quin) On the whole, no. I believe that both officials and ministers worked very speedily in August, which is probably not the ideal time, but nonetheless officials and ministers did work very, very quickly in addressing the problems of classical swine fever. I do feel that there were some communication failures in the very initial phase, but, nonetheless, I believe that was quickly sorted out with the establishment of the helpline, which was well used, and efforts were quickly made to bring the information up to date. There certainly were a number of visits of the Chief Veterinary Officer and others to the area. There was a lot of extra veterinary support drafted into the area and I feel that actually a lot of people are to be congratulated for the effort which they put into this.

  103. We have already noted and have been told that you did in fact divert resources from the bovine TB project to cover the outbreak. That does indicate that in fact MAFF is not quick to handle this sort of emergency problem.
  (Ms Quin) No, I do not think so. We also brought in some veterinary help from other parts of the country and there was also some help from abroad as well. MAFF does have contingency arrangements and has had experience of dealing with a number of different animal disease outbreaks. It is true that it is some 14 years since the previous outbreak of classical swine fever and it is also true that the regulations governing that situation have changed in the meantime, that now there are European rules in place whereas I think in 1986 it was done under domestic legislation.


  104. They changed in 1990 I think.
  (Ms Quin) I believe actually MAFF is well-organised for that. That is not to say that we cannot learn anything from this particular outbreak, obviously we do need to look at the experience. Indeed devising the pig welfare disposal scheme was something which had not been done before, and I am also very glad that as a result of what has happened the Government and the broader farming industry are discussing how issues of, say, insurance and of trying to mitigate the economic consequences of the losses due to animal health problems can be tackled in future. So there are things we can learn from it but, nonetheless, I can understand people, particularly in the early days when suddenly this problem arose, being very worried about it. Any attempt to get information which was not immediately answered would seem to be indicative of a problem, but I actually do believe that some of the problems were exaggerated and actually MAFF did act very speedily.

Dr Turner

  105. You would accept that there is a very big difference in the views we are hearing from the industry and what you are saying. I am pleased to hear you say that there may be lessons to learn, the industry has already said that they want to see a proper review of what the Government did and I think we would welcome that being wider with how the industry responded as well. What is the initial response of MAFF to that suggestion of the industry? Are you are going to accept there is some work to be done and, if so, will it be done on a suitable timescale and will it be published in the public domain?
  (Ms Quin) In terms of the work we are doing with the industry on the wider insurance issues and the economic issues raised by this, we want the study to be complete by the end of March.

  106. Will it be published?
  (Ms Quin) I am not sure a decision has been made on that but we would certainly want to inform people of the outcome. I cannot imagine we would want to keep the conclusions secret, particularly since they were negotiated and drawn up by the Government with industry. I would very much doubt, even if one would want such a thing to be secret, one would be able to keep it secret. I am sure it will be published.


  107. I am sure if we were to invite you to share it with us, you would find that an irresistible invitation.
  (Ms Quin) Absolutely, yes.

Dr Turner

  108. Clearly the situation with communications did leave people fraught, and that must be quoted in that review.
  (Ms Quin) Well, the review is particularly looking at the insurance issues. Parallel to that process, we have also said we will look at what lessons we can learn from the administrative handling of the CSF—classical swine fever—outbreak and we will certainly do that. The suggestions of the industry to us about ways to improve in the future will also be looked at as well.

  109. One of the other heart-felt cries which we had representations about was what was seen as a volte face by the Government in its position on full compensation. We were told by at least two submissions from East Anglia that the Government had in fact in the Pig Meat Management Committee meetings routinely and regularly been supporting a policy which would in fact have seen full compensation being paid, and it is being said to us—and I am not sure I have read the necessary documents directly—that in fact there is a difference in the Government's position from what it had been arguing throughout 1997 and 1998 in terms of there being full compensation.
  (Ms Quin) I am not sure whether you mean full compensation to infected premises or whether you are talking about compensation in the surveillance zones.

  110. What is being said to us is both. Baldly put, if I may quote from the memorandum from the East Anglian Pig Advisers Association, "In 1997 and 1998 the policy of this government was to support full market value compensation for the disposal of pigs locked in surveillance and protection zones."
  (Ms Quin) I do not think that is correct. As far as I know—and I have to say I am not the Animal Health Minister so in that sense I have not been in the forefront of discussions, so if I need to correct myself I shall do so—I am not aware that the Government has changed policy. I thought it was the policy of both this Government and indeed the previous Government to pay compensation for slaughtered animals in protection zones but not to pay compensation for animals in the wider surveillance zones. This Government has changed that in terms of bringing forward the pig welfare disposal scheme.

  Dr Turner: It might be helpful, Chairman, if we could have something in writing, because something different is baldly stated in at least two of the memorandum.


  111. Perhaps the Minister would do that?
  (Ms Quin) Yes. I certainly do not want to mislead the Committee. I am explaining the situation as I understand it.

Dr Turner

  112. Logically, Minister, what was put to me by people in the industry at the time was that if you had a pig with the illness you got compensated, and that seemed to be clear-cut and not argued about, but if you had a healthy pig and you could not do anything about it, you could not move the pig, you were arguing like mad to try and get fair compensation. We have already been through the steps there were which did lead to substantial improvements when the first angry farmer picked up his phone to me, certainly, but it does not seem very logical, does it, that we have to almost encourage the disease to be on your farm to get compensated? It does seem perverse that those who do not have the illness are almost encouraged to get it. There were hot tempers around at the time, and I would not think some of the things being said at the time were properly intended, but it was being said loosely that some people were going to want to get this disease on their farm because then they will get properly compensated rather than being left in serious financial problems. Does the present rule book in Europe not seem perverse?
  (Ms Quin) This goes back slightly to the question I answered from Mr Drew earlier on when we described that the formal Government position, and I think the previous Government's position, was to offer full compensation for the infected animals which were slaughtered. In terms of those in the containment zones, the restricted zones, we responded to the very concerns that you have put forward by bringing in the pig welfare disposal scheme. In terms of incentives, it is obviously important to have an incentive for farmers to report incidents of the disease when it occurs, and the present rules certainly do that. I think farmers are also well aware that we are talking here about a highly contagious disease and anything which would spread that contagion in the end risks undermining the whole of the industry. Farmers I believe are responsible in their attitude, and in recognition of that responsibility and also in recognition of the welfare problems that some of the farmers in the restricted zones are having to cope with, we then brought in the pig welfare disposal scheme.

  113. The industry said to us that they were giving you advice to be more draconian in terms of your response, in particular a proposal there should be within 3 km a complete killing policy, and they argued that there seemed to be some delay in their advice being taken and indeed lessons being learnt from the Continent. I am wondering if you could respond to that?
  (Ms Quin) I do not feel that is a fair comment on the situation. In fact, looking at it now and, hopefully, the restrictions on the remaining two areas can be lifted very shortly—I think it is fair to say we would hope to make progress with the one entirely in Suffolk possibly even by the end of this week and the other zone hopefully before the end of December or perhaps at the latest the first week in January—I think the success in dealing with the outbreak and getting a phased lifting of the restrictions across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex has actually been well-handled.


  114. Why did you decide that the felicitously entitled "Pig Industry Development Scheme for Disease Risk Management" was necessary? Were there alternatives?
  (Ms Quin) This was agreed after discussions with the industry as a way of arranging a top-up to the pig welfare disposal scheme. We looked at various ways of facilitating this. The only way which it could be seen to be done was by bringing in an Order to permit the levy to be raised, and that of course does take up some time because there is a consultation process first and then a parliamentary procedure to be gone through, but it was the outcome of discussions with the industry and we believe that given the actual amount that the levy is going to mean for pig producers there is a good chance of the consultation being successful.

  115. The industry is obviously a bit concerned in case this is seen as a precedent for future action, where the Government might say, "This is a jolly good wheeze, we can offload our own responsibility." Are you prepared to say that this scheme will not continue beyond its present purposes, that it is specific and will come to an end?
  (Ms Quin) At this stage the Government is simply wishing to facilitate the scheme. We would then discuss with the industry as to what their experience of operating the scheme was, how valuable they felt it was, whether it could provide a role in the future. But let me say we are not trying to offload, so in terms of the thought behind your question it is not some kind of new policy which has been devised, it is simply a way of looking at all the different possibilities for helping the sector at this time. But we would not then say, "Now the Government has no responsibility at all in this area." Not at all, far from it.

  116. Given the number of people who have voiced a concern, that reassurance is helpful. As you know, there is a real cash flow problem, is there any way in which you can provide temporary payments, payments in advance, as it were, on account, to cover the period before the top-up scheme is in operation—the industry refers to it as a bridge—because there is a real fear of the immediate financial crisis? Is there a way in which you can help address that cash flow problem?
  (Ms Quin) Very difficult in fact. Obviously if the scheme depends on parliamentary approval, to give money in advance of parliamentary approval would simply seem to be pre-empting the decision of Parliament, and that is not procedurally a correct way to go. The other thing is, in terms of public accounting rules this would be felt to be improper, you would actually be giving money for which there was no absolute guarantee it was going to be recouped. So on those two counts, I think it is not a viable proposition.

  117. It is the statutory consultation, which is the problem, I guess.
  (Ms Quin) It is the consultation and the fact that you have to have an Order passed in this House and also in the Scottish Parliament. So although we believe that the Orders would pass in both places, we cannot assume they are going to pass in advance, and that is what would make the payment in advance improper.

  118. So you cannot make the Order until the consultation process is finished?
  (Ms Quin) We are getting legal advice as to whether it could possibly be done concurrently, but I would not like to raise hopes at this stage. Obviously we cannot act contrary to parliamentary procedure. Another possibility which has been raised is the possibility of accessing some of the Aujeszky's Disease money. That is an avenue we are looking at but it would need consultation with the people who manage that particular fund.

  119. But the conclusion we draw is that you are aware of the problem and are actively looking to see if it is possible to find a way to address it. Would that be fair?
  (Ms Quin) That would be a fair summary, yes.

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