Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120-130)



  120. Clearly in due course prevention is going to be an issue. Are you sure that, in fact, the penalties which are available for breaking these laws are sufficient to deter people who break them? Certainly in my part of the country there are cases of movements taking place on the quiet and people clearly breaking the law with great risk to the whole of the UK farming industry. Are the penalties sufficient?
  (Mr Brown) Once we are in a position to set out what we believe has happened and our analysis of the control measures that are in place there will be a discussion about what we have discovered and I certainly think that would be an appropriate time to have a discussion about the penalties as well.

  121. Have you looked to see what the penalties are at the moment?
  (Mr Brown) Yes, I have.

  122. Are they severe?
  (Mr Brown) I think the maximum penalty that is enforced by the local authorities rather than us—


  123. There will be a scale.
  (Mr Brown)—is something like a £5,000 fine.

Mr Borrow

  124. A quick question to the Chief Vet. I was interested in your comments about reopening abattoirs after a case has been discovered under the licensed use of abattoirs. There is a major employer in my area who operates an abattoir and a meat processing unit adjacent to each other. He is still operating the meat processing unit but he is having great difficulty getting assurances from MAFF in relation to reopening the abattoir. His fear was that if a case was discovered in the abattoir not only would it close the abattoir down but it would actually close the meat operating plant down. Could you give him some idea of timescale?
  (Mr Brown) This is a perfectly reasonable concern. We have looked at what we can do to help in a practical way with this. I will get Jim to set it out.
  (Mr Scudamore) What some abattoir owners wanted was they wanted us to give them an assurance that if we found disease in an abattoir lairage what we would do. We said we could not do that because if we found disease in an abattoir lairage we would have to go and look at the situation on that abattoir on that day. Were those the first animals in or had some animals already gone into the situation? Where the difficulty arose was we could not give them a general blanket assurance of what would happen. What we could say was if there was a case in the abattoir that we would go and look at it and if there was evidence that there was no contamination further down the system into the cutting hall or chiller then we would restrict the restrictions to the lairage only. I think it was a problem with what they wanted from us and what we could provide for them.

Mr Öpik

  125. Just about reviews. Farmers in Montgomeryshire have repeatedly questioned the linkage with regard to markets. They have found it very hard to find information to unequivocally show that. Do you reveal the process from the information? Obviously I would be very grateful if, maybe not now but later, it would be possible to get the information on that linkage with regard to Welshpool Market.
  (Mr Brown) Yes. I think we have circulated to the Committee in diagrammatic form the case numbers—it may be anonymised, I am not sure—I see you have it, which shows the linkage between the outbreaks—

  126. But not the rationale, the justification for the linkage is not here.
  (Mr Brown) Is there anything you can say quickly on that, Jim? In other words how we trace the links?
  (Mr Scudamore) The epidemiology work we do, we unfortunately are behind the game because we find disease and then we have to go back to see where it came from. My recollection with Welshpool was that there were links backwards and forwards. In particular what we are interested in is if there are any animals gone from the markets where we know infection went through that could have possibly spread infection and then we want to remove the animals that have had contact, dangerous contacts. Particularly in the long term where there are so many cases linked we want to remove animals in other markets where we think infection has been and we will be looking to remove animals.

  127. Given the enormous consequences of a cull associated with Welshpool Market, it would help farmers co-operate psychologically much, much more if they genuinely feel they understand the rationale for that kind of thing. I use Welshpool as an example but I am sure that would be the same across the whole of Great Britain because they would feel they were part of the information process rather than having to take things on trust.
  (Mr Brown) I must say, Chairman, I think this is an incredibly important point. I am convinced what we are doing is right but I am also convinced that we have to explain ourselves to farmers and to be ready to answer the questions they ask. Just because we are satisfied we know the answers it does not mean that they are going to automatically be satisfied. That means we have to sit down and explain ourselves and I do understand in particular the point that Lembit makes about Welshpool Market and the route of infection. I will try and have that set out in such a way that we have explained ourselves as well as we possibly can. I do want to carry farmers with us. May I just confirm something that I was asked earlier. This is about the urban legend of the railway sleepers being purchased by MAFF in advance of the disease outbreak, that it was all foreseen. The answer I gave the Committee was essentially correct but I have now got the statement from the Department confirming what I said. Staffordshire Animal Health Office was carrying out a contingency planning exercise in January and they called vets, slaughtermen, disinfectant suppliers and also called suppliers of railway sleepers. The reason that the supplier of railway sleepers, the one that was on the radio this morning, had not been called before was because the Animal Health Office was getting a range of rates for the supply of this equipment and, as part of their contingency plan, were comparing prices. This was part of the division's regular contingency planning exercises. In other words, what I thought was the explanation I gave the Committee earlier on turns out to be the right explanation and is not fuel for a conspiracy theory.


  128. That shows, Minister, that our confidence and expectation that you would only give us the correct version has been justified. If I may conclude with two very last points. I have learned a lot this morning. The Chief Vet's explanation of the argument against vaccination was more comprehensive than we have yet heard. Quite frankly, I do not think the Ministry is yet winning that argument. It is winning it amongst the agricultural community and vets and specialists but it is not winning it amongst the public at large. The public at large is beginning to say "Does it really matter? It is a tiny industry, it is a tiny export trade exporting a few live sheep to France probably in lousy conditions. Is that really worth all this?" I think the Ministry actually needs to set out that case.
  (Mr Brown) Can I respond by saying we are going to do that on Friday. I have a presentation at ten o'clock for the journalists who regularly attend our press briefings and other journalists who want to come. The presentation is on the disease itself, an explanation as to what it is, and then on strategies to deal with it including vaccination and the reasons why vaccination is not the preferred route. All of that is going to be set out in the presentation on Friday. Can I invite Members of the Committee to come and join us in the Department if they want to at ten o'clock on Friday.

  129. If you put it on any other day than a Friday, Minister, I am sure you would get many candidates.
  (Mr Brown) There was a demand for it in the House. I am quite happy to repeat it so that Members can attend.

  130. My final point. There is quite a belief out there, and I have even had letters from doctors in my constituency, that foot and mouth is like getting a dose of the flu, it lasts for two or three days, it is nasty but everybody gets over it, so why the hell are we going around killing things? Also it would be helpful, I think, to have a proper and accurate description of what foot and mouth does to various animals expressed in terms of welfare and not pure economics.
  (Mr Brown) Mortality amongst lambs, for example, was 80 per cent in the recent Tunisian outbreak. We will put all this information into the public domain on Friday. I accept that it is necessary.

  Chairman: Minister, I am conscious you have got a second innings this afternoon and some of us may or may not have a second innings depending upon the Speaker's inclinations. Thank you very much for coming this morning, it has been very thorough, very helpful, and we will no doubt wish to have a continuing dialogue which I know you are open to on this. Thank you.

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