Animal By-Products

[back to previous text]

Mr. Gill: The Minister is saying what successive Ministers have said over the years. However, if the average farmer is asked whether he has to cope with more bureaucracy now than 20 or 25 years ago, he will say that he is coping with mountains of it. I accept that the Minister's intentions are good but the evidence of the past 20 years is that bureaucracy has mushroomed.

Ms Quin: The BSE controls were clearly not envisaged years ago, and those controls have imposed extra costs and burdens. However, given our largely successful record in tackling BSE, I do not think that people would deny that the burden was necessary.

The hon. Gentleman referred to imports from Germany. I remind him of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) made about that. The Food Standards Agency has increased to 100 per cent its inspections of imported meat, in the light of those discoveries. It checks all meat that comes from Germany. Nor has the European Commission been idle. It has asked the German Government for details of the controls that they are putting in place. We know from direct contacts with our German counterparts that the German Minister is examining all instances seriously and urgently.

Because of our BSE history, Britain has experience of SRM controls, but countries that are implementing such controls in the wake of BSE incidents lack that experience. It is essential that our controls be exercised in a vigilant way, as I believe they are, but we need also to work with other countries so that the experience of putting effective controls in place can be shared. The hon. Gentleman should see his concerns, some of which I share, in that context.

I should also mention that both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire seem to be extraordinary and incurable optimists in respect of political developments in our country over the next few months.

Mr. Quinn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Ludlow might have every reason to be optimistic? I understand that he does not intend to stand at the next general election, so this morning could be the last time that he attends this Committee. Does she agree that we will miss his colourful contributions? I, for one, will be very sorry to see him go.

Ms Quin: I have had some animated discussions with the hon. Member for Ludlow in various Committees, in European debates and on the Floor of the House, and I concur with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.

Dr. Vis: Given that the hon. Gentleman's going has given rise to festivities, and given that he is wearing a ``pound'' pin, perhaps he would like me to make him a knacker's yard pin.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend's comment allows me to pick up on the concern that the hon. Member for Ludlow expressed about knacker's yards. I should make it clear that there is nothing in the regulation to ban them.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and others who have contributed to the debate raised the very real issue of scientific evidence. To be fair, much of the difficulty for Ministers is that scientific evidence is rarely completely unified. Yesterday, I participated in an interview about foot and mouth disease, and although the vast bulk of scientific evidence is in favour of the Government's current policy of slaughtering, another participant in the interview who was described as a scientist took a different view and advocated vaccination. When considering scientific evidence, Ministers must perhaps err on the side of caution and take note of what is regarded as mainstream, generally accepted advice.

However, the approach is not always straightforward, and that is true in the European context as well. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby rightly expressed concerns about fish meal. There are worries about the risk of cross-contamination, and various views are held about pressure cooking to different standards. We must work together to ensure that at every stage our approach is proportionate—a word that was used by the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Ludlow—has scientific justification and does not cause unilateral and unjustified difficulties in our own industry. Such solutions are not easy to achieve, given the range of different scientific views and explanations. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I will find out what further information we can make available that is not already in the public domain. We are not dealing with a matter on which there is 100 per cent. agreement among all those involved.

Dr. Brand: Clearly, where there is scientific uncertainty it is important that we know which aspects are the most uncertain, so that we can take the right steps to create a degree of certainty. That is why I urged the Minister to make available an index of the scientific papers that are being used by her advisers and by advisers in other European countries, which would allow us to evaluate whether the action that is taken has a scientific basis or is merely the result of an industry pushing its own line.

Ms Quin: I shall reflect on that point. We are keen to be as open and helpful to colleagues as possible in providing information about what is guiding our decisions and making it publicly available.

A number of studies are under way. For example, the destruction of BSE prions by burial, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, is the subject of a research project. So far, we do not have a clear answer to that question. The hon. Gentleman raised an important point. It is sensible that a cat suspected of having a TSE should not be buried. I shall ensure that officials in the Department examine the text on this issue, and if necessary we will be prepared to propose an amendment along those lines. We must tackle the problem in the most appropriate way possible.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister, and I look forward to the conclusion of that investigation. I am glad that she thought that I made a pertinent point. I remind her of its linkage to several other matters that we have discussed, especially the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow about the burdens on farmers. Burial is the easiest way for a farmer to dispose of fallen stock, and I hope that the Government will adopt the view that it should be the basic system of disposal unless scientific evidence suggests that whatever the animal died of will not be destroyed by burial and may re-emerge by leaching, or other means, to infect other animals or humans. We want the simplest system—burial on farms—to apply unless there is scientific evidence to justify an alternative course of disposal.

I entirely agree with the Minister that the scientific evidence is not precise. However, it is often the case that although the basic scientific knowledge is fairly clear, the conclusions that are derived from it are debatable. In the case of foot and mouth, we all know what vaccination would do—the issue is whether it is a better way to deal with the problem.

Ms Quin: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments. He has expressed concern about burial as a disposal route as well as saying that it should largely be the accepted method. As I said, studies are under way. My understanding of the views expressed by members of the Committee is that there would be considerable concern about the large-scale burial of possibly diseased carcases, which may be incubating BSE.

Mr. Paice: I have concerns about burial-not as to whether it is satisfactory, but as to the consistency of the proposed regulations. Either there is good reason for banning the burial of category 1 items, or there is not. I cannot see why there should be a distinction between pet animals and farm animals.

Burial is not permitted under category 3, even though it covers material that could be used for human consumption. If a farmer has an animal that does not die of a disease, but breaks its neck, he cannot bury it. It is absurd that he will be saddled with a more serious and costly form of disposal when he could easily bury the animal. After all, he could bury some animals that would be classified under category 2, or in the case of a pet, even under category 1.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point. I assure him that we will look at burial in respect of the regulations and inform hon. Members of the approach that we plan to take.

So far, we have told the Commission that we think that a complete ban on burial in the UK would be impractical, but we have not said that controls should not be further tightened. There are concerns about the burial disposal route. I will reflect on the points that have been raised and draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Sir Robert Smith: I welcome that response. May I reinforce the Minister's desire to look carefully at the burial issue, which will prove a practical problem for many farmers? Definitions are important.

Ms Quin: I accept that. I mentioned islands as an example of remote areas, and we must further examine that issue. I was tempted to discuss the hon. Gentleman's assertion that islands tend to be remote. I am not sure that that is true, but we can all think of UK islands that come under the remote area category. There are also other areas that are a long way from disposal or collection points and we need to show some sympathy there.

I have responded to points raised about scientific evidence. The main bodies that we listen to are the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the relevant European committees, which play the main role on this issue. Scientific views can vary greatly, but we nevertheless turn to those bodies as our formal advisory bodies. We take their opinions very seriously.

Dr. Brand: Can we have an assurance from the Minister that bodies such as SEAC will publish the evidence that they use before they advise the Minister? Ministers say—quite rightly—that they are advised by these scientists, but advice does not constitute scientific evidence. It is just an opinion. It would help if a general rule about publishing evidence on which advice is based applied to those committees.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 7 March 2001