Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 300-319)

MONDAY 23 APRIL 2001

RT HON NICHOLAS BROWN AND MR JIM SCUDAMORE

  300. I will leave premises to another Member. This is very important, Chairman. So you are willing to investigate the possibility that farmers will be compensated for the animals that they have entered into the welfare scheme rather than the animals that are still alive when the welfare scheme takes place?
  (Mr Brown) No. What I have said is I will take a hard look at the individual case where you allege that animals have died before they were able to be taken away in the Government's welfare scheme and presumably where they were unable to move under one of the licence schemes and unable to be managed where they were. Remember we have the RSPCA now working with us to prioritise the cases that are most urgent, where the animals are most compromised, and if animals have died in circumstances in the way you have described that seems to me to be a case that would justify priority treatment but I would need to be convinced that they could not be moved or they could not have been managed. Refusing to feed them does not seem to me to be a sufficient argument for saying that their welfare is compromised by the Government's movement restrictions.

  Mr Öpik: Maybe others can find that information.

  Chairman: Two quickies from Michael and Owen and then we come to David Borrow for a new set of questions.

Mr Jack

  301. Minister, all of us have heard a lot of interesting stories about the way that this disease has been managed, conducted, and so on and so forth, but the Prime Minister has set his face against a full scale public inquiry so that all of this information can be digested and lessons learned from it in case, God forbid, it ever happens again. Why has he set his face against a public inquiry?
  (Mr Brown) I certainly think there will need to be a review. We will need to make absolutely certain that we take every possible step to prevent this happening again. Remember, a disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, a viral disease of animals, is actually a rare event. Foot and mouth disease has not happened here for 30 years. I have already announced a review and, indeed, opinions are coming in now, on the treatment of pigswill and whether there should be stand-still arrangements, particularly pertaining to sheep. Work continues across Government, and I hope to have something to say about it soon, on the question of imports, both personal imports and food imports through containerisation, which may be a means of getting the virus into the United Kingdom, although I have no solid evidence to say that is so. It is clearly a route that we should look at. On the question of inquiries, there will be a Public Accounts Committee inquiry afterwards and this Committee is enquiring into these matters, so it seems to me there are comprehensive inquiries.

  302. So various reviews would take the place of proper, full, public exposure in the form of a public inquiry because there are already many people who have expressed a lot of views? Some of the stories I have heard about what has been going on in Carlisle would make your hair stand on end. Now is not the time to detail those but there are many who after this problem has gone away would want to say in public what their views were. Some might also want to review other potential risks to the UK's agriculture, particularly the livestock industry. I ask my question again. Why does the Prime Minister set his face against a full scale public inquiry into the most serious threat to our livestock industry, as you rightly say, in over 30 years?
  (Mr Brown) There clearly will be a need for a hard look at the future of the livestock sector.

  303. But why not a public inquiry?
  (Mr Brown) I am not sure that a public inquiry would have a hard look at the future of the livestock sector. In any event, the setting up of inquiries is not for me, it is for the Prime Minister. All I can do is to take you through the inquiries that are already under way and the work that I have in hand and to say that whatever inquiries are decided upon in the future I will remain happy to co-operate with them and to continue the policy that I have pursued from the beginning of being as candid as anybody possibly could be both with the Department and with the public more generally.

Mr Paterson

  304. I would say that something that has cost the British taxpayer £20 billion does deserve a full public inquiry. I entirely endorse what Michael Jack said.
  (Mr Brown) Are you a Whip now?

  305. My question—
  (Mr Brown) No, but are you?

  306. Sorry?
  (Mr Brown) Are you an Opposition Whip, a Conservative Party Whip?

  307. Yes, I am.
  (Mr Brown) Congratulations.

  308. Thank you very much. Can we can back to testing. When you take a contiguous cull do you systematically test the animals?
  (Mr Scudamore) It depends what you mean by "test". When we take the contiguous cull we look at the animals and, indeed, we do find disease. In some of those cases they get converted into infected farms. There was one recently I was looking at where they found disease in a cow, one cow with one lesion, so the fact that we removed that particular farm quickly meant that had stopped any potential spread. Wherever possible, when we take the next door neighbouring farms we look at those to see whether they have got disease or not.

  309. What percentage of contiguous culls are you testing?
  (Mr Scudamore) I do not have a figure for that. When you say "testing", it is not actually collecting samples, it is examining the samples to see if they have got clinical evidence of foot and mouth disease.

  310. So how do you think you can track the progression of the disease? For instance, in Jedburgh there were two cases, IPs, where you actually took out 26 farms. Would it not have been sensible to have tested each one of those farms to see exactly what was going on in Jedburgh?
  (Mr Scudamore) The farms were taken out very quickly to ensure that there was no potential spread from those farms. To test the animals we would have had to blood sample them, send those samples off to the laboratory and get the results back and that takes more time.
  (Mr Brown) In fairness to the authorities, and it could have been dealt with from Scotland I think, the Jedburgh outbreak was what is called a spark, in other words it is well away from established areas of infectivity, so there must have been a factor specific to the site to have caused it. In such cases it is essential to get there very quickly and to cull the disease out.

  311. I am not querying that—
  (Mr Brown) It seems hard.

  312. What I am suggesting is that if, as many people think, this is endemic in sheep, the disease actually walked there, it did not go there by some long distance carrion crow, the important thing surely is to test these contiguous culls otherwise you do not know what is happening with the disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) The problem if you test the contiguous cull is with the test we have available we are looking to see if contiguous culls are the origins of the disease. If you test an animal just after it has become infected you will not have any antibodies there, so what we are doing at the moment on the neighbouring farms is they are visually examined and if there is evidence of clinical disease then they get converted and confirmed and we take samples from those. At the moment we are not sampling routinely the next door neighbour's farms. If we are looking for spread from the infected farms and the next door contiguous farm we could well get negative results.
  (Mr Brown) I think this point about "endemic in sheep" is worth a sentence or two, Jim, because we have done some testing.
  (Mr Scudamore) What we do not know is what the position is in sheep. We now have the serological capacity to test 40,000 samples a week which has been developed at Pirbright and I think this will go up to 40,000 this week. We are hoping to develop it over the next two or three weeks to go up to 60,000 samples. We are now considering what sampling we are going to do for a number of different regions. We will be sampling in infected areas to demonstrate there is no disease there and to lift the restrictions. We will be sampling sheep flocks to see what happens to the disease in a sheep flock, so some infected farms will be sampled to see what is going on in those farms. We are sampling hefted sheep on the moors to see what is happening in those flocks. We will be developing a strategy for testing in the clear areas, like East Anglia, North Scotland, West Wales, to show that those are completely free of disease. So we now have capacity to test serologically for antibodies and we will be gradually using that more and more. The intention is we will be doing a lot more sampling of sheep to see what the position is in sheep. What we are not clear about yet is, if we look at an area, what type of sampling we are going to do and what number of samples we are going to collect, because there is a number of different options. We can statistically select farms and go and visit those farms and sample those, or we can collect samples in abattoirs to try and find what the underlying level of disease is. So at the moment we are working on the surveillance strategies for freeing-up areas and demonstrating they are free. The priority is getting the infected area status lifted, which is what we have been doing recently.

Mr Borrow

  313. Minister, obviously the Opposition Chief Whip has a different approach from yourself in terms of appointments to Select Committees, but perhaps I can move on from that. Prior to Easter you made a statement to the House on 9th April and you mentioned a letter you had given to all farmers giving advice from the Chief Vet on two or three issues. There was a kerfuffle at the time and some people took that as a criticism of farmers in general. I wondered to what extent you have concerns that farmers are not minimising the risks.
  (Mr Brown) I do have those concerns. All generalisations are unfair but the need to maintain very tight biosecurity in the current circumstances should be clear to everyone. I am taking out advertisements in the farming press setting out the biosecurity arrangements which pertain species by species and also giving clear-cut advice to farmers on issues like the turning-out of dairy stock which have been housed, and the need to keep them separate from sheep that might have been at risk of exposure to infectivity. All of this advice has been put very clearly and neutrally in the public domain and there is no implication farm business by farm business, this is just clear-cut advice that they have to play their part in controlling the disease.

  314. There have been a number of reports over the last six or seven weeks of illegal animal movements and I wondered to what extent you have got detailed knowledge of the number of such movements and, perhaps more importantly, are you in a position to make a judgment on the dangers that could arise from those illegal animal movements given it is quite possible the vast majority of illegal animal movements may not pose any risk at all?
  (Mr Brown) This is one of the great myths which I see as being injected into the public commentary in all of this. Prior to movement restrictions being brought in to prevent the spread of the disease the day after we discovered it at Northumberland, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, it was of course perfectly legal to move sheep. Whatever the commercial underpinning of the contract, the movement of the animals was legal. After the movement restrictions came in there should have been no unlicensed movements of livestock at all, and that is pigs, cattle and sheep. Have there been illegal movements? Well, there are cases where there are prosecutions pending and I cannot comment on the individual cases. How many of them have there been? All I can say with certainty is that where people have been caught and prosecuted, we know about those, but like any other illegal act, who knows what has gone on. It would be very difficult to say without hard evidence. Where there is hard evidence, we will move remorselessly in the direction of the legal process and I do not want to interfere with that. Let me emphasise, before the restrictions came in, whatever the underpinning nature of the transaction, the actual movement of the livestock was lawful.

  315. What might be helpful to the Committee, Minister, is if you were able to give some indication as to the advice your officials are giving you on the impact of illegal animal movements. In other words, is it a matter of significant concern, albeit there is a duty to give clear advice, or is it a minor issue?
  (Mr Brown) Moving animals without a licence and without the proper arrangements being put in place is a very, very foolish and, frankly, selfish thing to do, because whatever the short-term gain the person who is moving the livestock is jeopardising their own business and that of their neighbour as well. I really would urge all of those who have control over farming livestock not to move them without the licensing arrangements.

  316. I have to bring you back to the question, Minister. Does your Department regard illegal animal movements as something that is having a significant effect on the spread of the disease, or is it something which needs to stop but is not something which is carried out by a significant number of farmers?
  (Mr Brown) It is impossible to separate out one cause, but it is clear where there are outbreaks in new parts of the country, the most likely causes are the movements of people or vehicles or animals. But I do not have a statistical analysis as to which is the most likely in which particular event. It may be possible to do that working backwards as the evidence comes in, but I do not have a sort of running tally, if that is what you are asking me. Nevertheless, let me repeat what I have said, it is a very foolish and selfish thing to do to move livestock without a licence in the current circumstances.

  317. In one of the responses you gave in questions on your statement on 9th April, you indicated that the use of disinfected mats was more symbolic than practical in terms of disease control. Are there any other measures that farmers have been advised to carry out which will come into the same category?
  (Mr Brown) The disinfectant mat is a traditional device but the advice that I have is that it is of limited utility, particularly over time. A comprehensive cleaning of vehicle wheels and a scrubbing-down with proper disinfectant of boots and the cleaning-off of mud are all necessary to provide adequate biosecurity, and if it is possible a bath arrangement rather than matting is the more sure way. That is the advice I have had on this.

  318. Finally, just touching on something you mentioned in your opening statement which was to do with animal welfare movements, certainly in the run-up to Easter many of us saw pictures of distressed lambs covered in mud—
  (Mr Brown) Yes, one particular distressed lamb seems to have ended up in the kitchen but not in the circumstances one would have expected.

  319. The concern many people would have is the extent to which those welfare difficulties can be sorted out and quickly. What are the reasons why they cannot be sorted out quickly, if they cannot?
  (Mr Brown) It is not unlawful to get a lamb covered in mud, but, of course, it does make quite an effective photograph. The biggest contribution we can make to this is to get the market working normally again. We set up this scheme to try to help those farmers whose animals genuinely had their welfare compromised because of the necessary disease control measures, including the movement restrictions. We are getting a movement scheme up and running—and I accept what Mark said earlier about the role of the trading standards officers—within the infected areas, and a lot of pressure on the welfare scheme should be relieved by the normal workings of the market. The welfare scheme itself has turned out to be a popular scheme, there have been a large number of applications, we are using the RSPCA to prioritise the cases, so we get to the hardest welfare cases first.


 
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