Animal By-Products

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Dr. Brand: All Committee members agree that regulations are needed to protect not only the livestock and other animals, but the people who consume farmers' produce. However, this morning's discussions have shown that there is a lack of understanding or knowledge about how to meet the Government's requirements in relation to controlling animal by-products with a sound scientific basis that is proportionate to the risk that they are designed to address.

The regulations under discussion are helpful in creating three categories of risk material, although, within those categories, there are inconsistencies. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is right about the issue of pets and fallen stock. Why can they be buried sometimes, but not at other times? There seems to be no scientific logic behind that. I am also worried that the regulations seem to concentrate on heat treatment and destruction rather than biological methods of rendering infections innocuous. If we follow the route indicated in the regulations, we shall add to the centralisation of solving local problems. If we have to rely on vast rendering plants even more than we do now and on massive investment in pressure-cookery arrangements, it will be extremely difficult for the industry to cope with that without creating an infrastructure that, if anything, will increase the risk of cross-contamination, as we have found in the present crisis.

I hope that the Minister will consider European solutions suggested not only by the Dutch Government—who, as the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis), in his isolation, pointed out, do not have to deal with great distances and are centralised in coping with rendering problems—but will liaise with people in more peripheral areas of Europe to find out whether the recommendations are practical and will deliver our objective, which is increased public safety. I am worried about what has happened to the abattoir industry, for example. The loss of our local abattoirs over some 15 years ago has created a genuine animal welfare and risk problem. Animals must travel either to the west country or way into the south-east, to Guildford, and that is unacceptable on animal welfare grounds. That is one of the consequences of imposing regulations centrally without thinking through the consequences. Reading the regulations, I had a sense that the proposal is a bureaucratic solution with brass knobs on, rather than a practical solution that considers what needs to done.

I do not suggest that we should not use the precautionary principle. In the event of uncertainty, we must take what seems to be the safest approach according to our present knowledge. The hon. Member for Norwich, North is right to say that BSE presents a particular problem. However, I believe that enough time remains for some pure research on prions, botulism and anthrax. Much work has already been done. When something becomes landfill, it is actively decomposed through composting, has biological accelerators or lime added to it or is boiled, rendered or incinerated. We do not have enough information available to us at the moment to make a proper judgment. I hope that in time the Minister will be able to place in the Library the evidence on which she and her Department will base negotiations with our European colleagues.

The debate has been useful, because it has raised several issues that need to be considered. Only one other issue is vital for producers. We need certainty soon. We cannot afford to spend two or three years on a policy on fallen stock and capital investment for incinerators and on how it will be funded.

It is unrealistic to expect the farming or fishing industries to carry an additional burden beyond what they are already suffering. A way must be found of reassuring people who, through animal husbandry, not only produce our food, but also maintain our countryside. We should not forget that grazing is an essential part of maintaining the British countryside and that there is a genuine need to give our farmers an assurance that the Government recognise that, however desirable extra regulations and means of controlling what happens in the countryside are, they cannot be introduced without cost. The Government should recognise that at the moment, in our current structure, that cost cannot be borne by farmers.

11.49 am

Mr. Gill: I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, especially on the question of cost. There is no doubt that the agriculture industry, and the livestock industry in particular, simply cannot bear any additional cost. That was the purpose of my question to the Minister about the disposal of fallen stock. In fairness, in opening the debate the Minister said that she was keen to ensure that controls are proportionate to the risks involved.

There is always a danger on these occasions that we will get carried away by the emotion of the case rather than any strict analysis of the evidence that may or may not be available. We are proceeding on the basis of an assertion in the explanatory memorandum that the Commission considers that the proposals are necessary to retain public confidence. That is merely an expression of opinion. We must persuade our Ministers and Departments to come to the Committee and say, ``There has been a breakdown in animal or human health for which we must take steps''.

I would go further. Far from putting more regulation on the statute book, which is why we are here this morning, the biggest problem is that the existing regulations are not being enforced. If anyone doubts that, they need only to read the newspapers to see how beef from Germany has been imported with the spinal cord intact. That is against the existing law. Our priority should be to ensure that the existing law is enforced before we rush to make new regulations that add to bureaucracy and the cost to the industry.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is not that an unfair point? Is not the law being enforced in respect of the German case? Our meat inspectors are enforcing the law, and that case demonstrates the effectiveness of the Government's enforcement process.

Mr. Gill: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The regulations were not in force in the exporting country. They were clearly breached in Germany; otherwise their beef could not have arrived in the United Kingdom with spinal cord in the carcases. In this debate we are talking in the context of the European Union. I am not a great lover of the EU. I wish we were not in the EU, but in the context we must look at the issues in the round.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Is it not interesting that the EU is considering banning exports from Germany, while the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency seems diffident about banning imports from Germany?

Mr. Gill: Indeed, I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. Many of my farmers will be posing the same question, and it is one to which the Government should give more concentration.

One of the easiest things for Government to do is to go round saying, ``We are going to ban this, that and the other.'' Last week in the House we were discussing the ban on hunting with dogs, the consequence of which would be that kennels would close and that outlet for fallen stock would disappear. The regulations propose the banning of on-farm burial except in remote areas. If my memory serves me correctly, not so long ago the EU wanted to close our knacker yards because they are, apparently, unique to the United Kingdom. We do not fit the European prescription, so the EU wants to get rid of them. Almost at a stroke, three outlets for fallen stock will be done away with. That is the easy part. Any Government can ban things. Before banning this, that and the next thing, this Government—and I share the hopes and aspirations of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that in a few weeks' time it will be his problem to resolve—must determine how we will make provision in the future. It is not responsible government to ban something without having anything to put in its place.

A Home Office Minister got very cross with me in the House last week when I asked him whether he had a single reason why he could not answer the question about fallen stock in the context of kennels. He could not tell me and got very cross about it—unjustifiably, because the question was appropriate and legitimate. I pose the same question to the Minister today. Is it really justifiable to introduce more regulations, costs and bureaucracy without addressing the fundamental problem? The Minister should come to the House in the near future and say, ``We have listened to what hon. Members have said and we propose to do so and so.''

I know that the Minister will tell us that the matter is in the melting pot, that the European Union is considering it and that we will receive an answer in due course. I hesitate to ask for a categorical assurance because she has scolded me once for that. I appreciate how powerless our Ministers are in the context of the European Union, so it is unfair of me to ask for such assurances.

Our Ministers are neutered by dint of our membership of the European Union and can do nothing without the agreement of the other European Union Ministers. People such as myself can huff and puff but we cannot force the Minister to make a decision, because she does not have the power to do so. That is one of the absurdities of these Committees. We can pontificate about regulations and say what we like and do not like, but we cannot amend or reject them. They will go through because they are European directives and, under the rules of the European Union, we are obliged to translate them into domestic legislation.

11.56 am

Ms Quin: First I will respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Ludlow. We are not proposing more regulation. Indeed, in introducing the document, I mentioned the fact that some of the existing legislation will be streamlined into the new legislation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to imply that we should not update legislation in the light of changing circumstances or evolving scientific information.

When the Government update legislation in the European Union context, we consider it an opportunity to streamline and simplify. In the Agriculture Council there is a big impetus for streamlining and simplifying some of the existing burden of legislation. We do not plan to remove health and safety standards, of course, but to eliminate bureaucratic burdens when they have no justification and merely add to difficulties for producers. It is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to charge us with wanting to add to the regulations.

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