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European Community (Animal Health)

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 11 May 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

[ Commission documents Nos. R/1668/76 and R/2578/76.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Tinn.]

11.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Gavin Strang)

The health of our farm livestock is of great importance, and I am sure that the Scrutiny Committee was fully aware of that when it recommended this debate. Animal health is a difficult subject, and I am sure that the House will want to know that we are integrating our health requirements with those of the Community in a way that fully meets the needs of our livestock industries.

Looking back a few years to the negotiations that preceded our membership of the EEC, hon. Members will recall that animal health was one of the subjects which could not be resolved from the start. As a result, derogations were agreed which enabled Great Britain and Denmark to continue their national rules—to 31st December 1976 for imports of meat and to 31st December 1977 for imports of cattle and pigs. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could continue national rules on imports of both meat and live cattle and pigs to the end of 1977. The Treaty of Accession also provided that by 1st July 1976 the Commission would submit to the Council a report on the animal health situation in the Community as a whole.

Those who have studied the Commission's report, published on 7th July under reference R/1668/76, will agree that it includes a valuable summary of the varying disease patterns across the Community. It shows in particular that while the United Kingdom and Ireland have made most progress in the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease and swine fever, other countries have moved faster on brucellosis and tuberculosis.

Do I understand the Minister to say that we have not yet eliminated tuberculosis? I understood that we had eliminated it many years ago.

I regret to have to inform the hon. Gentleman that we have a small problem in this respect, in the South-West of England in particular, though his general observation as it relates to Scotland is fair.

We were, however, less satisfied with some of the detail in the original proposals for implementing these measures put forward by the Commission. In particular, we wanted to see a firm and progressive policy for foot-and-mouth disease control built into Community law. We also wanted to ensure that the proposed Community action against swine fever was soundly based and that we should not have to introduce methods for eradicating bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis which were different from those we already use, other than for sound scientific reasons. We have made good progress on each of these fronts, as I believe hon. Members will agree if they have studied the paper that we placed in the Library on 21st March. I should add in parenthesis that that is the basic document for this debate, since it provides a very useful and full summary of the current position.

I shall deal first with foot-and-mouth disease, a disease of which we have bitter memories and from which Great Britain has been free since 1968. We now have a Community directive, No. 77/98, which gives us the working basis that we considered essential. For intra-Community trade in fresh meat on the bone and offals, we have an agreement that will enable us, whenever there is an outbreak of disease, to require the same safeguards as we have imposed hitherto: the holding from which the animals came and the slaughterhouse concerned must be at least 10 kilometres from any disease outbreak within the previous 28 days, the herd of origin must have been free of the disease during the previous three months, and a clinical examination for foot-and-mouth disease must have been carried out both before and after slaughter.

Similarly, for imports of live cattle and pigs, the new directive contains valuable safeguards for countries such as Britain which are free of foot-and-mouth disease and do not allow vaccination against it. When importing from member States which have not yet reached this highest category of disease freedom, we shall be able to require quarantine and isolation of the animals both in the exporting country and after they arrive here. We shall also be able to specify that cattle and pigs shall pass a serological test, which determines that they have not been vaccinated, and that cattle shall pass a probang test for the presence of live virus. These are valuable defences against the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease, and we have every confidence in them.

Full cognisance was also taken by the Council of Ministers of Northern Ireland's stringent import régime, and recognition was given to the major rôle which exports of meat and livestock play in the Province's economy. Consequently, Northern Ireland has been given an extension for a further five years of the existing derogation to apply national rules against foot-and-mouth disease to imports of meat and livestock. In addition, the Commission has undertaken to examine the extent to which Northern Ireland's present export markets might be jeopardised if Community measures were applied from 1982 onwards when the newly extended derogation expires.

As I have already said, we want to see the proposed scheme for eradicating swine fever in the Community develop on sound lines. It would not have been possible to achieve this against the deadline of 31st December 1976. We therefore obtained agreement to the continuance of our national rules on imported fresh pigmeat for a further year, in line with the arrangements for imports of live pigs. During this time we can help to draw up an effective plan to deal with the remaining pockets of disease in other parts of the Community. Moreover, it was agreed that the eradication plan should contain adequate safeguards for those areas—such as the United Kingdom —where swine fever has already been eradicated.

Turning to bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, the ultimate aim is that all cattle breedings herds in the Community should reach the status of "officially brucellosis-free" and "official tuberculosis-free' 'as defined in Comunity law. Without that status, animals cannot be exported for breding or store purposes to other Member Staes unless specific derogations have been granted by the importing country. We in Great Britain still have some way to go before a substantial proportion of our herds can be certified as "officially brucellosis-free", but we are making encouraging progress and a small nucleus of herds has already achieved this status. Our first aim must be to ensure that during the remainder of our eradication programme we do not havce to change the methods we are already adopting to deal with the disease unless theer is clear scientific or economic reason for doing so.

These are matters we are currently discussing in depth at Brussels. Similarly, we want to see the comparative tuberculin test accepted for purposes of recognising a herd as officially tuberculosis-free". This is the test we have used for many years and we consider it to be fully effective. It will be some time yet before the detailed technical issues on brucellosis and tuberculosis have been resolved. I believe that it will be time well spent.

Finally, there is the question of imports of cattle and pigs and of meat from third countries. The Commission paper R/2578/76 which was before the Scrutiny Committee is relevant to these considerations. I think we can claim to have more experience of importing meat from third countries than have other members of the Community, and we know how important it is to lay down conditions that will minimise any animal and public health risk from such sources. We intend to play a full part in overseas missions—such as the Community mission to South America—and to see that the Community conditions which will gradually be introduced will provide as good a protection as the national conditions that they will replace.

Throughout the discussions in Brussels on the Commission's proposals we maintained close and continuous contact with the farmers' union and the veterinary organisations, and we shall continue to consult them as further developments take place.

In this brief summary I have tried to concentrate on the main points that were agreed at the November and December meetings of the Council of Ministers. The Government believe that the outcome was good for Britain and good for the Community. The House may be assured that we intend to build on this solid foundation.

11.58 p.m.

We are grateful to the Minister for explaining the contents of these documents. We should also thank the Scrutiny Committee, which has brought them to our attention. The Committee does a great deal of work, and customarily we thank it for its work, which has been done in a very heartfelt way.

I declare an interest as one who breeds cattle and is interested in farming. We welcome the efforts to safeguard animal health, both in this country and throughout the EEC.

The thing that occurs to us is that we have huge advantages in this country by virtue of the fact that we are an island. The fact that rabies and foot-and-mouth disease are not endemic in this country is mainly due to our island status, and it is absurd to agree to any regulations that would sweep away that advantage if we are to merge our animal health regulations, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said we will.

It is crucial to keep our advantages. Certainly I am attracted to the summary which is printed in document R/1668 on the third page, which says:
"The solutions proposed by the Commission may be summarised as follows: assure the free trade of animals and meat within the Community without compromising the animal health status already achieved by some countries"
I also like the final paragraph:
"The measures thus proposed will at a later stage be completed by initiatives aiming at eradication of certain contagious animal diseases, financially supported by the Community."
Basically, the Community is on the proper lines. I like the fact that the Community is making a point of trying to combat rabies, about which the Minister did not say too much.

I am concerned about some parts of these proposals, particularly the proposal that regulations on intra-Community trade should be decided by majority voting on the Standing Veterinary Committee. That would or could be a dangerous move forward. Perhaps the Minister can say how far that has gone and to what extent it could be blocked. He referred to this in the explanatory document.

Those who negotiate on our behalf in Brussels must jealously guard our advantages. It is crucial to keep out foot-and-mouth disease and rabies. But these papers have an air which suggests that our partners have not yet become fully aware of our advantages. There is still talk about transitional periods and other matters which give one that feeling. I am not discouraged by what the Minister said, and I hope that the Government will understand that we must not compromise on our animal health advantages. They must be defended. They are almost as important as the marketing boards which we discussed earlier.

Document R/2578 deals with the possibility of imports from third countries and is published following a visit by veterinary experts from the Community to various countries which might wish to export meat to us. In some ways this document is even more crucial than R/1668. We are concerned here with the importation through meat of foot-and-mouth disease. In the last 10 years it has been spectacularly demonstrated how the control of meat imported particularly from South America can have a spectacular effect on the incidence of foot and mouth.

Since we have banned "bone-in" meat, by which I mean meat on the bone from South America, I believe that we have had no outbreak of foot and mouth. I am somewhat alarmed to see on page 8 of this document that the experts recommend that boned meat—meat without the bone—should be allowed in from zones 1 and 2 of Argentina, but that meat on the bone could be allowed in from zone 3.

That brings me back to what we discussed earlier—the anomalies and possible cheating. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, human nature being what it is, this will happen where it is possible. One area of Argentina is to be allowed to send beef on the hone to this country. That is a cheaper, simpler and more convenient way of exporting beef because it involves less processing, but inevitably it will put a temptation in the way of those who live in zones 1 and 2 to move beef into zone 3 and to send it here on the bone. We should examine that possibility carefully. Perhaps the Minister can tell us something about this. I view the proposal with considerable alarm, and I should like to hear more about it from him.

12.6 a.m.

I should like to know from my hon. Friend the Minister why this debate is on a motion for the Adjournment. All previous discussions on EEC documents have taken place on a motion to take note which is capable of amendment. There must be a special reason why we have, for the first time, a motion that the House should adjourn. What is that special reason?

12.7 a.m.

I did not intend to participate in this short debate, but I am concerned about some of the Minister's remarks and about what he left unsaid. I want to put a direct question to him. I am deeply worried. The United Kingdom is in a unique situation. It is an island. Foot-and-mouth disease is not endemic. Our standard of animal health and hygiene is as high as, if not higher than, that of other member States. The only area in which we fall behind, perhaps, is in brucellosis, and we are making steady progress in that.

Will the proposals which the Minister has undoubtedly recommended to the House give us the same safeguards as those which we have had to date? Will the United Kingdom be as protected from foot-and-mouth disease as it has been under our own regulations?

I find it somewhat difficult to comprehend the documents which pour into the House from the EEC. There are far more documents to read than any hon. Member could physically read, even if he worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. We therefore rely upon explanatory memoranda and on the integrity and honesty of Ministers and Shadow spokesmen who make careful studies of the documents.

I am worried that we might be allowing back into this country from Argentina the cause of the last devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. I had experience of that outbreak. I never again want to see the scenes that I witnessed then. Perhaps it brought considerable sums of money to the firm for which I then worked, because it hired out excavators to dig huge holes in which to bury the burnt carcases. It was a very sad sight. Many prize herds up and down the country were destroyed because of that disease.

I do not want the mania about harmonisation, which regrettably seems to be part of the EEC mentality, to envelop this country and to erode what has been a fine system of safeguards in Britain where foot-and-mouth disease is concerned—perhaps rabies, too. Can the Minister stand at the Dispatch Box tonight and tell the House, and through this House the people of this country, including farmers, that no safeguard that we have had in the past is being eroded and that the proposals that he is putting to the House tonight are as good as the safeguards that we have had in the past?

12.10 a.m.

The first debate that we had after 10 o'clock tonight involved a procedural question which was enunciated by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), and in this debate my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has raised a similar and related matter. I press upon the Minister the fact that it is perhaps rather more serious than he might think at first sight.

I shall not go into the merits of the matter, because I am not qualified to do so, but am I to understand that if we do not adjourn the House tonight and vote to that effect, or find that not enough Members are present if a Division is called, the House will have discussed the directive, in accordance with the guarantee given by the Government, and we shall then be bound by it? The directive, in the words of the document, is a
"Proposal for a Council Directive amending Directives 64/432 of 26th June 1964, 712/461 of 12th December 1972 and 72/462 of 12th December 1972 on health and veterinary problems."
It is a specific directive. It is not a regulation, as I think the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) said—in perhaps justifiable and understandable error. It is something which is an undertaking, which in this debate we are presumably taking for the House.

The questions that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has asked the Minister are very relevant. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say "Yes" to them, but I rather fear that he may not, because the answer that should be available is partly available in the explanatory memorandum. In the "policy implications", paragraph 8 says that the
"requirements should be aimed towards the highest standards reached by individual member States."
Then it goes on to say:
"On a preliminary examination it seems doubtful whether the United Kingdom's animal health status would be fully safeguarded, but a detailed assessment cannot be made until the Commission's attitude to foot and mouth disease has been clarified and their future proposals for common action in relation to the eradication of swine fever and the acceleration of the eradication of brucellosis and tuberculosis are known."
It may be that, not being technically involved, I did not listen sufficiently closely to what my hon. Friend said in opening the debate. It may well be that what he told the House incorporated what I have just read. Even if it did, it surely means that the House cannot know and does not know tonight whether, in the view of Ministers, the position of this country will be safeguarded, because the Minister's own explanatory memorandum says that it cannot until the Commission's attitude is known. It may be that it has been known since 13th August 1976. Perhaps that is one of the points I missed. However, why this point has arisen and I am a little suspicious is that we are entrusting the matter to the Adjournment. If the matter was procedurally regular, to get the confidence of the House in the Government's handling of these documents it would have been taken on a "take note" motion.

The coupling of these apparent inconsistencies—I hope that my hon. Friend will clarify the matter—together with this highly questionable motion on the Adjournment, and not to "take note", at least raises some questions, on which I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy the House.

12.14 a.m.

I should perhaps start by addressing myself to the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I understood that they were concerned, I think understandably, at the original suggestion, which was to take together all the EEC matters which we have discussed tonight, the regulations on isoglucose and the butter subsidy. I am rather at a loss, because I was under the impression that the new arrangements—for the debate which my hon. Friend the Minister of State opened and the debate on these items on the Adjournment, with the isoglucose and butter subsidy being debated subsequently—had been agreed with my right hon. and hon. Friends. I regret any misunderstanding on my part.

I believe that there should be no concern that this debate is taking place on the motion for the Adjournment, because there is no controversy about the matter. The Scrutiny Committee accepted that we had protected the situation. The highest veterinary advice available to us—all the veterinary authorities, all the farming unions and the whole industry—has agreed that we have done so. This is a success story in that the proposals which came from the Commission last August have been transformed. Therefore, I think that I can completely remove the slightest suspicion that somehow we chose to have the debate on the Adjournment because it was a controversial issue and we did not want to face an amendment.

It is true that representations were made to the Government against taking all these different issues in one debate, but representations were not made in favour of having a debate on the motion for the Adjournment. Even if these matters are not controversial, about which I do not feel fully sure, that is no reason for not having the usual "take note" motion.

That is perfectly fair. I shall have to take these points to the appropriate Ministers and we shall have to have the matter clarified. If hon. Members desire that in no circumstances should any EEC matters be taken on the Adjournment, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I may be wrong, but I have a suspicion that there have been occasions when such a debate has been taken on the Adjournment. I think I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South raising the matter at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after it had happened.

I think that I raised it on the Floor of the House, which is the right place. I understood that what had happened then would not be repeated, because it was recognised to be a questionable procedure, at least for regulations, draft regulations and draft directives. My hon. Friend has satisfied the House at least in explaining the Adjournment question, but the explanatory memorandum that he placed before us said that the Commission's attitude on foot-and-mouth disease had yet to be clarified. If it has been clarified, should we not have had another memorandum? My hon. Friend has not made clear to what extent his explanatory memorandum shows that there is doubt. If there is not, what has happened since, and why was not a new explanatory memorandum issued to tell us that it had been changed?

My hon. Friend may not be aware of the Written Answer we gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) on 21st March, which pointed out that we had produced and placed in the Library for the benefit of hon. Members a statement explaining what had been decided. If my hon. Friend studies it, he will find that all the points he has raised are adequately met.

Whatever the position with regard to taking these items on the Adjournment, perhaps in some respects it is a good thing that it has happened on a basically non-controversial item such as this. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will note the points that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have made, and no doubt a satisfactory understanding can be reached for the future to avoid any feeling that these matters are not being handled in the way that hon. Members would like.

Why was not the Written Answer which was given to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) on 21st March more widely publicised to hon. Members? Why was it merely put in the Library?

If hon. Members are interested in a subject such as animal health and the Government answer by a Written Question, that answer is printed in Hansard. Therefore, we are hardly culpable on the ground that we are not drawing such matters to the attention of hon. Members. The directive, agreed in November and December, was published in the normal way in January.

Perhaps I may now seek to answer some of the other points raised in this debate. We must see these measures in the context of the changing situation at disease throughout the Community and, indeed, throughout the world. It is striking that a tremendous improvement in the eradication of animal diseases and of foot-and-mouth disease in particular has taken place in other Community countries. If we examine recent data on reported outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in some of the member States and compare them with the data for 10 years ago, we see that the situation has been transformed. In France, for example, no outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease were reported in 1976, compared with 59 outbreaks a decade earlier. In Holland, reported foot-and-mouth outbreaks were down from 2,194 to nil in the same 10-year period. The trend has been similar in other countries of the Community, and, of course, Denmark has been free of the disease for several years and the Irish Republic has been free for a very long time. We must bear in mind that the national rules for importation which we have been operating hitherto were drawn up to cope with a much greater prevalence of the disease incidence on mainland Europe than that which we now face.

The situation as regards swine fever shows the same general trend of reduction in numbers of outbreaks. Denmark and the Republic of Ireland have both been free of this disease for many years, considerably longer than we have in Great Britain. Although on a much reduced level of incidence, the disease continues to occur in other continental member States. I can cite the recent problems connected with it in the Netherlands. Therefore, we must support moves by the Commission to draw up agreed plans for the eradication of this disease, but at the same time we must ensure our own protection against it.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) mentioned the Standing Veterinary Committee. Its terms of reference are very limited, and it is clear that any important measure, such as swine fever eradication or safeguards against imports, must come before the Council.

Hon. Members rightly mentioned the situation in regard to the Argentine. I have discussed this matter with my officials, because it sticks out like a sore thumb. Veterinary experts went to the Argentine and studied the situation there very carefully. I can probably write to those concerned on the technical matters because they are somewhat involved, but it is true to say that there are buffer zones between zones 1 and 2 and the situation still has to be worked out. We shall play a full part in that process. We have no intention in any of the areas of increasing the risk of foot-and-mouth disease.

I assure the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that Ministers have been fully aware of the importance of this issue, which has been raised time and again in Council discussions. I must admit that we got everything we asked for in the Council. We are dealing here not with a national matter but with a Community aspect.

It would patently be nonsense if for the sacred cow of removing tariff barriers we were in any way to undermine or threaten the status of any member State, the United Kingdom included. Of course, the United Kingdom and Ireland are in a special position. We are islands, and that is of benefit to us. That becomes a corresponding benefit to the Community as a whole. There can be no question but that these circumstances and considerations have been put forcibly to our colleagues in the Council and have been accepted.

All the best advice available in the country is unanimous that these arrangements adequately protect our national interest.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.