Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 480-488)



  480. Finally, if we do not have vaccination in the longer term then we need to look at other ways of perhaps preventing the spread of disease so fast; what is your view on relocalisation, as the Centre for Alternative Technology suggests, where animals are slaughtered and rendered more locally? And, secondly, what is your view of the 20-day standstill?
  (Mr Gill) Can I correct one misapprehension here. It is not the absolute journey time, per se, that is responsible for the spread of foot and mouth, it is the repeated mixing of stock that took place, of sheep that went from near Heddon-on-the-Wall, I will not go through the chain, Chairman, you know it; that is the point that we have to look at. On the issue of the 20-day restriction on movements, that is something that needs serious examination; but, I have to say, my members are obviously concerned what implications it has, and we need to examine that very carefully. At the end of the day though, we have to ensure that a system is in place that addresses the key problems that have been thrown up by this dreadful scourge on Britain.

  481. Do you perceive this as the 20 days set tight for an entire herd, or just the animal which has been brought onto a farm?
  (Mr Gill) Again, that is part of the discussion we are having with our membership at the moment. We need to consider the proper effects, that we do not make it impossible to trade, and I am very cognisant of what is happening in other countries around Europe at the moment.

Mr Todd

  482. Some very quick ones, Ben, on this, because I think we have covered turning out of cattle, to a large extent, already. Has the NFU provided advice to its members on turning out?
  (Mr Gill) Yes, we have, and we have sought to persuade Government to do much more. Indeed, we believe that is terribly important, as it was touched on, I thought was not perhaps clear from Professor King's statement, because he has not the practical husbandry experience, but there are many ways you can mitigate the risk when you turn out. If you take a pure dairy farm, for example, that has had no other species on the farm, and if, for example, and I notice you have got farms behind you, Chairman, at least I assume those are farm maps. Yes, of course. If you imagine, for the sake of just the example, you had a farm premise of, say, 300 acres, with a couple of hundred dairy cows, not unusual in parts of Cumbria, if the farmer can identify whether there are sheep in any of the boundary fields on his neighbouring farms then simply keeping his cattle off his field adjoining those will provide a barrier, a couple of hundred metres provides a barrier. That is good housekeeping. Making sure you actually check all vehicles. Simple, practical problems can be solved. For example, I had an electronic component went on a tractor, over the Easter weekend; normally, the mechanic comes onto the farm, take the tractor out to the road, preventing all those things. Lots of things you can do.

  483. So lots of commonsense things. Any possibilities of keeping cattle indoors for a little longer, bearing in mind you have rightly highlighted the fact that the risk period from exposure to sheep is perhaps rather shorter than people had thought?
  (Mr Gill) Yes, there is, in some cases; of course, the constraining factor is the availability of forage. And one of the compounding problems we had this particular year is the very bad weather we had last summer and autumn, the fodder stocks on some farms were actually not substantial to allow the degree of cushion to carry them on longer. And we did talk to Government extensively about the establishment of a forage transfer point, to prevent disease risk, particularly in Cumbria, and the siting of that point would have been in Carlisle, we went into some detail with Government, and we feel that perhaps that might have been pushed more forcibly as an alternative, as a more practical solution than playing down the other risks that were suggested.

  484. Is there still some scope in that?
  (Mr Gill) I think there is still scope in it, for a limited number, as, indeed, our continued dialogue with the vets to improve biosecurity on individual farms.

  485. One of the issues that is often raised is the representational role of the NFU in arguing for the overwhelming majority of farmers who are not occupying infected premises but are impacted by the restrictions in place; what steps are you taking to ensure that they are properly represented to Government?
  (Mr Gill) I ensure it by taking soundings through the system of democracy we have within the organisation, and have talked, on a repeated basis, to the key committee chairmen, have been in teleconferencing facility on a daily basis, virtually since the start of this outbreak, and, indeed, I and my colleague officers have visited some of the areas, to talk to the people, as well.

  486. Has the NFU struck the right balance between the fighting of the disease and the assistance of those who are inconvenienced by it, if you see what I mean? And one is constantly assailed with stories of very long-winded licensing processes, unduly restrictive, areas of restriction, and so on; to what extent are you tackling those sorts of issues, which are of concern to many of your members not directly impacted by foot and mouth itself?
  (Mr Gill) We have had great concerns about some of the delays in licensing. Having said that, if you remember, the blanket movement restriction came on Friday, 23 February, that we had negotiated with Government the basis of limited licence, by a week later, and in particular this was for meat, in non-surveillance terms, to go into the meat chain, under licence. That actually caught a lot of those in the intermediary trade by surprise, they thought we were going to be tied up for very much longer, because they had bought in a lot of imported stock, which then clogged up the market and had severely depressed the market-place. But we have been very concerned about the delays in the Welfare Disposal Scheme, it has caused unnecessary strain on my members, that is apart from the suffering to livestock, for which, ordinarily, my members would have been severely fined and prosecuted in court, and indeed even possibly restrained from keeping animals in the future.

  487. Do you think one of the prices of assistance in a crisis of this kind in the future will be the demand that farmers properly insure themselves against risks of this kind?
  (Mr Gill) Obviously, looking at insurance is a key element in all these aspects, and we have been in discussion with Government about what procedures we should have in place, not just for animal disease, for plant disease as well; after all, we now have a potato disease, brown rot has come into Britain, ten years ago it was Egypt, and that was about it. We have got rhizomania in Britain, in the sugar-beet industry; we have had insects, pests, overwintering in horticultural crops in the last few years, causing individual disasters of up to £100,000, that I am aware of. As well as classical swine fever, we have got other sorts of problems. The problem is, how do you set it up, and it risks on the premium involved and whether anybody is prepared to take that on; but we are discussing that with Government for the future. In this particular case, members have been insured against having foot and mouth, not very many, in today's difficult financial circumstances, when you are looking at your insurance bill and you think, "Well, we haven't had it in the country for 34 years," there is not a major incentive to keep that, because every optimism was that we would not have it again. And I think what we have to do is look at that in partnership, the point I made earlier, of border controls on illegal imported meat.

  Mr Borrow: I had a 'phone call last week from one of my local TV networks, who were putting together a programme on the future of MAFF, and they were having no real difficulty in getting people prepared to go on camera, speaking as to why MAFF should be abolished. I think they were having more difficulty finding defenders of MAFF. I wonder if the NFU are ready to enter the debate on this issue?

  Mr Mitchell: We can still get you a slot.


  488. A debate for the last three minutes.
  (Mr Gill) I have been asked this question on a number of occasions, and, clearly, we have to recognise in all this that the size of this foot and mouth outbreak, as has been stated by the FAO, of the United Nations, is unprecedented in world terms. I think there is much that has got to be learned, I think some people have been found to be wanting, but I have to say that I have found many MAFF staff have worked an inordinate amount of time to catch up on this. I think there is a general comment, that has been made by many, indeed, a number of people who have written to me were involved in the foot and mouth outbreak of '67, that one of the key problems was the shortage of state vets at the outset, we had cut our State Veterinary Service down to a little over 200; that was of concern, on the whole. As to the future of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, what I require to have is a Government Department that adequately and properly represents our industry, not only here in Britain but, crucially, in Europe, in the very convoluted Common Agricultural Policy, which we have to live with.

   Chairman: That was a very judicial answer, if I may say so, and I have no doubt that in private it may be somewhat less judicial. Gentlemen, I am sorry it has been a rather rushed session, but you do all appear before us on a fairly sort of periodic basis, and no doubt that will continue. Thank you for coming in on this occasion.

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