Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)




  140. He does not get his 75 per cent, does he?
  (Mr Morley) The farmer concerned you mean? The farmer would get his 75 per cent. Yes, he would.

  141. So under the old legislation you could deliberately infect your animals and get 100 per cent compensation and under this legislation you can deliberately infect your animals, spend two years in jail and get 75 per cent compensation.
  (Mr Morley) Yes. So it is an improvement.

Mr Martlew

  142. If you look at the problems we have had in Cumbria this summer, if somebody had set about deliberately infecting animals with foot and mouth, the maximum they could have got was two years' jail, yet this infection in Cumbria alone will probably have cost the Exchequer £1 billion. It does not really seem a long sentence, does it, Minister?
  (Mr Morley) I think I am going to have to clarify this, but I have a feeling that this is to do with Human Rights, and the fact that even if someone is guilty of this offence and the state kills his animals, I still think there is a Human Rights issue here. I will clarify that for you, Chairman, and I will make sure you have written information.

Mr Drew

  143. Can I just touch quickly on the process by which you can decide whether an offence is committed or not? You know very well that part of the problem is that you have got different people going out and working in different ways. Much as I am a great fan of local government working with central government, the amount of pressure on trading standards officers (without pointing the finger there) and their lack of knowledge is obviously going to be a problem. This is one of many jobs they do. Is there not a case for looking at a different way in which we would at least pursue cases which are of a suspicious nature?
  (Mr Morley) I am not quite sure in what different way you would pursue it because there would be police involvement (as this is now a criminal offence) in terms of any investigation. The kind of allegations that were made—people ringing up and offering to sell infected sheep and meeting them at places—these are the kinds of thing that can be checked out and investigated. So I think the procedures are fairly straightforward. The important thing is that there are penalties, and there were no penalties before. In fact, you mention the fact that farmers can get the money if they are found responsible, but I think the powers also mean they are banned from keeping animals in the future. That is quite a severe penalty in relation to this.

  144. We have hit squads for everything nowadays, but here the police currently cannot do anything.
  (Mr Morley) That is right. Apart from certain pathogens. There is also a welfare issue. If you deliberately infect an animal it is a welfare offence and you can probably prosecute them under welfare legislation.

  145. MAFF/DEFRA officers can pursue suspicious places and where they think an offence has been committed, but it is down to trading standards officers to take up the formal offence. This is not, obviously, on the face of the Bill, but in cases where there is a very suspicious set of circumstances, I do think you need expert investigation, and that is not going to happen, with the best will in the world, at county level.
  (Mr Morley) I think we can talk to trading standards about whether they feel they need that kind of specialist back-up. I am sure those are issues that we can address. I know that (going back to this point) so far there has been a lack of proof, but if this ever happened it would be a very serious offence. I think the seriousness of such an offence does warrant provision to deal with it if it ever arose.

Mr Jack

  146. I wanted to ask you, Minister, does your department provide the words, for example, that the Prime Minister's official spokesman gives at lobby briefings? Does that mechanism still exist?
  (Mr Morley) Not to my knowledge, Chairman. I am sure there will be briefings provided for all sorts of things, but not writing the text for the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

  147. I appreciate the actual words that the spokesman uses may not be entirely crafted by yourself, but I just wanted to make certain that there was that sort of reasoned briefing that still goes on.
  (Mr Morley) There will be a briefing, yes.

  148. At the lobby briefing when this wonderful spokesperson announced this to the world he said that this Bill " . . . would give us new powers to deal with tail-end cases of foot and mouth from this outbreak". Do you agree with that?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  149. Was that your briefing?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  150. Just give us a scenario. Have you got any idea of what the effect is going to be? I think it comes back to something we started with, which is why now?
  (Mr Morley) Because we still face the very real, serious prospect of another outbreak. It is very serious. The risks are high. If there was an outbreak, particularly at this stage in the outbreak, we would want to snuff that out as quickly as possible, and speed is essential. Of course, there is a logistical issue in relation to how fast we can do this. With the "no current outbreaks" we can get logistics on site very quickly in terms of our departments and the teams we need, such as vets, but we could still be held up by people going to court. In fact, if you look at the nature of this outbreak, where there has been the so-called "sparks" which are isolated cases outside the main epicentres of disease, we have been very successful in snuffing those out quickly, but there is always a constant risk that you will get people who will want to object, and you have the situation where farmers are being actively encouraged to object. It is not a hypothetical issue here, people are being encouraged to object to the contiguous cull, and the risks of that, in relation to disease control, are very great indeed.

  151. Who is encouraging them?
  (Mr Morley) I do not know.

  152. You must have some evidence to make a statement like that.
  (Mr Morley) I have, and I can provide you with the so-called "pack" that was circulated in Thirsk. Looking at it myself, I cannot actually see a name and address of who is behind it. It gives all sorts of contact numbers of law firms, but it is not necessarily these particular law firms who are doing it. There is no identification on this.

  153. What is the timetable for this Bill?
  (Mr Morley) The timetable is that Second reading is next Monday, and it goes into Committee the following week. I think that we would certainly like to have Royal Assent for it as early as we can in the new year, 2002.

  154. You see it still as an important potential contributor to fighting the disease to a finish, although the sense I got earlier was that it was more about what might happen if there were suddenly to be another outbreak at some point in the future, but what is the latest estimate as to when you think you might have got on top of this? Or are you not saying?
  (Mr Morley) Officially, Chairman, the outbreak will be over when there has been a three-month gap between the last case. That is the kind of timescale we would be looking at. We have had a number of cases of suspected animals. I might just tell the Committee that the information we have on the most recent one at Hexham is negative—which we have just heard today. We have been picking up antibodies, as part of our serology programmes, which demonstrates that there are animals which have had the disease or been in contact with disease and been missed. So, therefore, the chances of there still being latent disease out there somewhere are currently high. However, of course, this measure is beneficial because, as I was saying to the Committee, it extends our range of options. We also are responding to the Food Standards Agency in relation to TSEs. We need primary legislation to extend this to being compulsory, in relation to the National Scrapie Plan. That is in line with what we have already said and consulted on. As you are having the Bill, then this is an opportunity for dealing with some of these measures, as I am sure you will appreciate. So we are taking that opportunity now, and it means that we will have this at the earliest opportunity—which, in fact, will not be that early—at the beginning of 2002. Sadly, no one at the moment can put their hand on their heart and say there will not be an outbreak between now and then. I very much hope there will not be, and no one will be more happy than me if we never have to use the provisions within this Bill.

  Chairman: We do not want to let scrapie escape our attention.

Mr Drew

  155. This is very topical and I am sure you are looking forward to this, Elliot. Just as a background to this, given that the way in which you can best control this disease is through pathogenesis—breeding it out—how effective is legislation going to be to actually try and find the stock which you want to keep and get rid of the stock you do not want?
  (Mr Morley) It is essential that we have these powers, although I do want to put on record that we have had excellent co-operation from the sheep sector with the National Scrapie Plan, in helping us set it up and helping us give information in relation to our database. In particular, I want to pay tribute to John Thorley from the National Sheep Association who joined me at the launch of the National Scrapie Plan and who has done an awful lot of work on this. I want to emphasise again, Chairman, we are not planning to go rushing in with compulsory measures to the sheep sector. We are looking to shorten the time to eradicate scrapie, which under the present timescale is predicted at between 10 and 15 years—probably more like the 15 at the current rate of uptake. We think that is too long. The Food Standards Agency certainly thinks that is too long. So we certainly want to reduce that. We will talk about the timescale for doing that with the industry. There are also one or two specialist concerns about rare breeds and specialist blood lines. We have the provision within this Bill to make exceptions.


  156. This is because you are afraid of what it has been, if you like, masking?
  (Mr Morley) That is right. The fact is that the situation remains the same, that there is a theoretical risk of BSE in sheep. We have not been able to identify it. We are actually increasing the number of scrapie brains that we are monitoring and there are new bio-molecular tests coming out, which will make a big difference in terms of the speed at which we can do the testing. That is quite a big breakthrough. Of course, if we breed scrapie out of the national flock, not only do we remove with it the theoretical risk of BSE because we have got TSE-resistant sheep, but we also improve the quality of the flock. I happen to think that there is a very good future for the sheep sector in this country and I think there are good market opportunities. Concentrating on these quality issues will give dividends in relation to the future prospects in terms of sales and exports. I think this is a good thing for the industry. Of course it is a reassurance to the consumer as well. We are committing quite a lot of money from the Government in relation to the database and setting this up, and we would expect that the majority of people in the sheep sector will think this is a sensible way forward.

  157. How do you identify the more susceptible genotypes to TSEs?
  (Mr Morley) They are done by blood testing, and we get a result from that. We can identify those which are severely resistant, those which are partially scrapie-resistant and those which are susceptible. We do not have great accuracy in relation to the current flock, but we know that there are 15 known genotypes which determine the level of susceptibility and their resistance to scrapie. We have not got reliable statistics about what proportion of the flock are carrying these. There is an estimate, and it is only a rough estimate at the present time, that round about 25 per cent of breeds carry the scrapie-resistant gene and about two-thirds of the national flock are at least partially scrapie-resistant. It is fairly well-understood how we can advance this programme.

  158. These scrapie-resistant tups are going to be worth a bob or two, are they not?
  (Mr Morley) It is a question of identifying them. We have already done this in the pedigree sector. All the pedigree breeds have been identified and are logged on the database. They are micro-chipped as well, as part of that.

Mr Drew

  159. Can I go on to the issue of how you keep records? I was told by one of the interested parties, who say they have got the ability to run quite complex databases, that they were surprised that you had taken the decision initially to have a paper-based record-keeping exercise. Is that true?
  (Mr Morley) I am not aware of that. When I opened the programme it was a computerised database.

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