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Pig Industry Levy Bill

Volume 35: debated on Thursday 27 January 1983

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Order for Second Reading read.

4 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In view of the importance of this measure, I trust that neither the House nor the Bill will be delayed too much. The House is well aware of the broad terms of the background to this modest but important measure. It has been introduced in response to the grave concern of the pig industry about the spread of Aujeszky's disease. Anxiety has been expressed in the House over a number of years. The genesis of the Bill goes back to an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer). Although my hon. Friend cannot speak on the Bill as he now holds office in the Government, I am sure that he has considerable satisfaction in that the ideas sparked off in that Adjournment debate are now reaching legislative fruition. No one has been more persistent or patient than my hon. Friend in ensuring that such a measure reaches the statute book.

The Bill's detailed provisions relate to powers to be given to the Meat and Livestock Commission to raise a levy, the proceeds of which will be used to pay compensation and other costs arising from the initiation of a control and eradication scheme in respect of Aujeszky's disease. The House knows the background to this problem. This disease is a viral infection that primarily affects pigs. Clinical signs are usually most apparent in suckling pigs and pregnant sows. Piglets almost invariably die from the infection.

Spread of the disease is mainly by the movement of infected pigs. It exists in all other European countries and most other parts of the world. It has been known to exist in Great Britain since 1953 and has been of greatest concern in areas where our pig population is concentrated. That is true of the eastern counties, part of which my hon. Friend the Member for Eye represents, and of other areas, particularly in Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) has also been particularly active in seeking, on behalf of the industry and his constituents, measures to deal with the disease.

Over the past four or five years, pig producers have become increasingly concerned that steps should be taken to deal with the disease on what might be regarded as traditional animal health lines by means of a slaughter policy. If it is to be eliminated, it is essential that the slaughter of infected herds is followed by disinfection. Vaccination, which is practised on a wide scale in other countries, cannot be considered as an option.

The possibility of a control and eradication policy has been under discussion for some years. A major difficulty has been that under the animal health legislation my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is bound to pay compensation for animals slaughtered for animal health purposes. Additional Government funds are not available to meet such expenditure in the case of Aujeszky's disease.

The Government have made it clear that if producers registered enough support for an eradication policy and were prepared themselves to provide the funds for the payment of compensation, further consideration could be given to an eradication programme. To determine their attitude, a poll of producers was undertaken by the Ministry in 1981, but the results did not meet the agreed criteria for proceeding. In the meantime, we introduced, with producer support, further subordinate legislation to control the movement of pigs from herds where clinical disease had been confirmed. That legislation continues to apply.

In the light of further discussions last autumn among my right hon. Friend, the presidents of the National Farmers Unions and other producers' organisations, it was agreed that there should be a further poll of pig producers to determine whether they wished to proceed with a programme for the eradication of Aujeszky's disease, with the compensation and other costs being met by a statutory levy on pig producers. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he had no hesitation in declaring himself in favour of the proposals, which represented a real opportunity to rid the country of this troublesome disease.

In the event, the poll of 26,000 producers, owning 7½ million pigs, showed that 86 per cent. of those who replied, who own more than 5½ million pigs, were in favour of an eradication scheme with compensation being met by a levy on producers. As the owners of 75 per cent. of the total pig population are in favour of proceeding in this way, the Government have decided to make the necessary arrangements. I am grateful for the expressions of support that we have already received from both the official Opposition and other parties that, given this level of producer support, we should try to deal with the disease. That demonstrates the wide agreement among the interests concerned and the political parties that we should proceed to do so.

That, then, is the genesis of the Bill. Its specific purpose is to provide the mechanisms for funding the agreed eradication programme on a basis acceptable to those who voted for the programme. The most practial way for pig producers to finance compensation is by using that section of the Agriculture Act 1967 which enables the Meat and Livestock Commission to submit to agriculture Ministers a scheme for the imposition of charges on producers for various defined purposes. The Bill extends this power to enable the commission to raise a levy specifically to meet the costs incurred by the Minister as a consequence of exercising his powers under the Animal Health Act 1981 in relation to Aujeszky's disease and for the purpose of making payments in respect of consequential losses suffered by owners of pigs which are slaughtered.

The poll document sent to producers explained that compensation payable to owners of slaughtered herds would be a maximum of £300 for any one pig slaughtered. In addition, the producers' organisations proposed to compensate owners for the costs arising from disruption of their business on the basis of 20 per cent. of the compensation paid for the slaughter of breeding stock, weaners and fattening pigs which are part of a breeder-feeder operation on the same premises; and 5 per cent. of compensation for the slaughter of fattening pigs on separate premises, as the latter can return to full production much more quickly.

I emphasise that the Government cannot depart from the long-established rule, applied in compensation for the slaughter of animals for disease control reasons, that no consequential losses can be borne from public funds. It is significant that the industry has been prepared to take the responsibility for consequential losses.

On the other hand, I should also make it clear that it is the Government's intention to support the eradication policy fully through the veterinary service and the facilities of the agriculture Departments. The cost of Ministry staff involved, including work which the veterinary service undertakes in its professional capacity, will be borne by the Ministry of Agriculture and the other Departments responsible on the departmental Votes. That is important for the industry, because this is a partnership operation. The costs of administration, staff and the veterinary services will be borne by us out of our departmental Votes, and we hope to be able to contain that expenditure within existing provisions.

Producers will be responsible for meeting through the levy compensation costs and the relatively small additional costs arising from the employment of valuers to determine the compensation due to them, the employment of slaughterers when pigs must be killed and the costs of feeding stuffs that must be destroyed.

Although it is difficult to forecast the number of infected herds that must be tackled, the best estimate that we can make is that about 250 herds will have to be slaughtered. Most of the work would be undertaken during the first year of the campaign, subject of course to demands on veterinary manpower that may arise if there are outbreaks of other important diseases.

It is expected that the Meat and Livestock Commission levy on producers in the first year of operation would be 30p per pig slaughtered or exported live. That is expected to yield £4 million. Clearly, the levy for future years must be decided in the light of the progress made, because the first years of the scheme are likely to be the most critical. To facilitate the financial arrangements, the industry is arranging to set up a limited company that will become the body responsible for receiving the proceeds of the Meat and Livestock Commission levy for reimbursing my right hon. Friend for the costs that he will incur in compensation for slaughter, and for paying directly to farmers the consequential loss compensation that I have already mentioned. It is obvious that the proceeds of the levy will not be adequate in the initial phase of the campaign to meet the costs that arise. Therefore, the industry is making arrangements for the company to raise funds to meet the excess of expenditure over income during that period. As a safeguard, disbursements from the Meat and Livestock Commission to the company would be under ministerial direction.

I make no apology for dealing in slightly greater detail with the provisions of the Bill than one would normally do on Second Reading, because I hope that the House will facilitate the further stages of the Bill this afternoon. Therefore, I wish to anticipate, with the indulgence of the House, points that might arise later.

Clause 1 provides for the raising of the levy by the Meat and Livestock Commission, the proceeds of which will be used to reimburse the Minister of Agriculture for the compensation that he has paid to owners of slaughtered herds, and to compensate owners for consequential losses. The levy will be the subject of a scheme made by the commission and confirmed by statutory instrument. The new levy, as distinct from existing levies raised under the Agriculture Act 1967, would be raised only from the pig sector. The cattle and sheep sectors will be unaffected. It is important that only those who will benefit directly from the eradication policy should contribute towards the measures.

Clause 1 also provides the mechanism by which the commission may transfer levy funds to any other person and by which that other person may make payments for the purposes of the levy scheme. I have already explained to the House the arrangements that the industry is making, so the reasons for this should be clear.

The reference to "any other person" relates to disruption payments. Will my right hon. Friend clarify the powers of the Ministry vis-a-vis "any other person" and the discretion available to that person?

As my hon. Friend realises, during the first year of the scheme, when the producers intend to set up a company to raise the necessary funds to meet the higher expenses, we must have the power to enable us to instruct other persons to do that. At the same time we must build into the scheme arrangements to ensure that no costs of compensation fall permanently on the Government. That is why we must set up a limited company capable not only of receiving and disbursing the levy funds but of raising sufficient finance in the early stages of the scheme by way of a commercial loan. We must have that power, and safeguards must be built into those powers to ensure that there is proper control and answerability.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I am still not clear how the Minister intends to give instructions to a limited company. Does he intend to be represented on the board or will the articles of association be drawn in such a way that the company may not be eligible for registration?

I shall continue with the details of the Bill now, but if the House is agreeable I hope to speak again at the end of the debate, when I will be happy to answer my hon. Friend's point. The provision is somewhat unusual, so my hon. Friend is right to raise the point.

As to the collection of the levy, I take it that the levy would be made on all fat pigs. Does it affect fat sows as well?

It might be helpful if I could, with the leave of the House, deal with hon. Members' detailed points at the end of the debate.

Clause 2 enables the Minister to exercise control—this may deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton)—over the transfer of funds from the commission to the company. While there is no doubt that this cooperative venture, if I may call it that, has the wholehearted commitment of all involved, it is necessary to ensure that the formal arrangements for handling funds are appropriate for moneys that are raised by statutory levy. The provisions of the clause enable us to assure ourselves and to satisfy Parliament that that is so. However, I shall be happy to return to the point later in the debate to clarify any points that my hon. Friend wishes to raise.

Clause 2 also provides for the application of any surplus that may arise in ways that are beneficial to the industry that provided the funds. It is right that any surpluses that may be available—we do not know that they will be available, but I shall be delighted if they are and to know that our budgeting for the scheme may have turned out to be optimistic rather than pessimistic—should be used to benefit that part of the industry that paid the levy. I know that that matter causes anxiety to producers and the organisations, but if money is available it will he returned to the sector that provided the funds.

Clause 3 ensures that any money paid by the commission to the company from the levy receipts but not yet applied by the company to make compensation payments should be held on trust for the commission. That will ensure that, in the unlikely event that the company goes into liquidation, those moneys are available to the commission. I hope that the House will agree that, unlikely though that eventuality may be, in legislation we must anticipate every eventuality, and this extra assurance should be provided.

I apologise for interrupting my right hon. Friend, but I must return to Committee soon. I am a little worried about how the surpluses may be applied for the benefit of the industry. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend would tell the House at the end of the debate how that could be done. Will he also tell the House how any shortfall in the first year can be guaranteed under clause 1? I do not understand from the Bill how any shortfall can be guaranteed, and whether the Minister or someone else will do that.

I shall return to my hon. Friend's latter point later, because several hon. Members have been worried about that. It is impossible to be specific about surplus funds now. The levy-raising scheme is under the aegis of the Meat and Livestock Commission, which is answerable to the House for the discharge of its functions. I would not like to speculate on, nor could the Meat and Livestock Commission be tied to, the specific purposes for which surplus money should be ploughed back into the industry in two or three years' time. What matters is that surpluses, if they arise, should be ploughed back to benefit the section of the industry which the levy payers represent. To try to anticipate what circumstances might be appropriate for using surplus funds would not make sense and would be purely speculative. What is important is that the benefit goes back to those who have paid the levy.

It may be helpful to the Minister if we raise the question not of what the surpluses may be but of the mechanism he will devise to see that the levy is evened out as the position in regard to the disease improves so that there will not be a surplus accruing in the fund. This is something that he can foresee. Presumably he can deal with this at the beginning of the debate rather than at the end.

I have already dealt with that; the hon. Member may have missed it. I said that we expected the levy to be 30p per pig for the first year of the scheme, although I said that I could not anticipate what it would be in later years. We are dealing with a disease and until we get the scheme into operation, no one can say exactly how many herds will be affected or how many pigs will have to be slaughtered. Under the Bill there will be a facility to vary the levy in later years in accordance with the degree of expenditure that may prove necessary.

To take an example, I remember when swine fever was debated in the House. An eradication scheme was resisted by successive Governments because of the high cost that would be involved. When a scheme was introduced, the best expectations of everyone about the time it would take to eradicate the disease were exceeded. The most optimistic expectations were realised.

Perhaps we might be optimistic now. We may not be justified in being optimistic. One cannot tell. It would be sheer speculation if one tried to predict what will happen in the later years of the scheme. With the commitment to be made in the early years I hope that we shall achieve enough to make sure that proper and effective eradication is achieved in the shorter rather than in the longer term.

Clause 4 details those parts of the Agriculture Act 1967 concerning the Meat and Livestock Commission which will or will not apply to it in this role. Clause 5 simply contains the usual interpretation, and so on.

I apologise for having tried to deal with the Bill in a relatively short speech but, on the other hand, its purposes are relatively straightforward. They are accepted by the industry although there is concern on detailed points, which has been voiced in the interventions. At the same time I hope that I have anticipated to some extent some questions that may be raised in the debate. We see the Bill performing an essential function in a unique arrangement for dealing with an animal health problem.

My right hon. Friend has made it clear that he believes this is the right time to act to rid Great Britain of an increasingly troublesome pig disease. If we manage to get the Bill speedily on to the statute book we intend to make a start on eradication as soon as we reasonably can, subject only to any physical problems of getting the scheme into operation. If the House will speed the passage of the Bill we shall do our best after it becomes law.

Notwithstanding any differences of detail, the measures that we propose conform entirely with the animal health traditions that we have always followed and that have served us so well for more than a century. This is another milestone in the programme of disease eradication, of which we can be justifiably proud. Other countries are envious of our record. In that spirit and anticipating the cooperation of the House I commend the Bill to hon. Members.

4.24 pm

I endorse the desire of Opposition Members to give the Bill a speedy passage. The sooner it is on the statute book and the scheme is in existence the better. I hope I will not sound presumptuous if I quote from the report of the European assembly of 10 May 1979 when that body debated a report curiously called:

"Motion for resolution tabled by Mr. Hughes on the urgent need for eradication measures to control nervous diseases in pigs".
What I said then was:
"These two diseases, enzootic bovine leukosis and Aujeszky's disease, are showing a disturbing increase throughout the Community and there are areas where Community action supplemented by effective national action can be most effective. Therefore the plea contained in these documents, that we do not pretend that these diseases will go away, but that we recognise the need for a much more active policy, is a very real one, and I regret deeply that one of the last actions of recent Labour Government in the United Kingdom was to refuse to embark upon an eradication scheme for Aujeszky's disease in the United Kingdom. But whether or not any of these are zoonotic and can affect man is beside the point. The damage they do to some of the highest quality breeding stock of cattle and of pigs throughout the Community is very serious indeed, and it is in this veterinary sense that the Community will make progress."
I retract not one word either of the criticism of my colleagues in the Labour Government or of what I said nearly four years ago in the European assembly. Following the decision of the outgoing Labour Government, on 24 June 1980, the present Government indicated clearly an alternative course for dealing with Aujeszky's disease. I quote from the press statement:
"The alternative course, which we favour, is that owners of herds at risk from the disease should be encouraged to take more stringent measures of prevention control, including the use of vaccine. We should give immediate attention to applications, under the medicines act procedures, for the licensing of the inactivated Aujeszky's disease vaccines for use in this country. Properly applied, these vaccines should give substantial protection from the disease and, in an infected herd, should reduce the weight of virus and prevent loss. To delay the licensing of a suitable vaccine while it is subjected to a field trial in this country—as has been suggested—would in our view serve little purpose."
Regrettably, no Government can be proud of their policy towards that disease in British pig herds. The Bill will put that right. Because the number of cases of the disease fell sharply during much of 1980 and 1981 the Government and the pig industry felt at ease. In the first half of 1980 there were 14 outbreaks and in the second half of 1980, eight outbreaks. In the first half of 1981 there were five outbreaks and the same number in the second half of that year. However, in the first half of 1982 there were 25 outbreaks.

It is sad that we have only embarked on this eradication scheme after too many producers have suffered from too much loss. There can be no doubt that it was in the Government's power to eradicate the disease with significantly less loss to the national pig economy than will result from this scheme. Whether the money comes from the Exchequer or the industry is almost immaterial. The disease could have been eradicated with a slaughter policy some years ago at less cost to the pig farming community. That is my sorrow, and I make no party political point about it because, as I have said, I held the same view when the Labour party were in government. We should have gone for a Government-funded eradication scheme then, before the spread of the disease. We failed. Both the Conservative and Labour Governments embarked upon a policy which, regrettably, has not succeeded.

In the middle of last year there was a new poll to see whether the producers would go for the necessary agreement. It would be remiss not to follow the statistical line of the Secretary of State for Employment. In a press notice of 20 October 1981 the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food states clearly that the earlier poll
"confirms that the response itself, and the number of producers in favour of a scheme, were well below the figure of 75 per cent. which was the agreed criteria for acceptance."
Let us analyse the statistics of the agreement upon which the Bill is based on the same terms that the Secretary of State for Employment analyses the agreement with the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades' Union. On this occasion 42·3 per cent. of producers voted, or, to use their phrase, completed and returned the questionnaire. They owned 85·8 per cent. of the total pig population. By some curious machinery, if one owns a pig one is held to have the right to vote for its eradication. Therefore, 74·3 per cent. of 85·8 per cent. of the pig owners voted in favour of an eradication scheme. I find it difficult to see how that meets the criteria for rejecting the poll in 1979–80 of 75 per cent. It is not even 66⅓ per cent., but so be it.

The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the ownership of pigs is almost irrelevant. Surely the implication of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that even if a farmer has no pigs at all, his opinion could have weight. If the main pig producers felt strongly about this, it must make sense in terms of approval of the scheme. In fairness to the Government, that must be so.

I am not saying that at all. I am saying that if in October 1981 the poll was rejected because the figure was well below that of 75 per cent., which was the agreed criterion for acceptance, under no circumstances can 74·3 per cent. of 85 per cent. of pigs be counted as 75 per cent. of anything. One thing cannot be said about the water workers' dispute and a completely different thing about this poll. I fully accept that there is an overwhelming desire on the part of pig producers to accept the scheme. That has been clearly expressed. However, a low poll in one area cannot be acceptable while a low poll in another is unacceptable. One may not care for it but that is the choice.

As I said, I shall not seek to delay the passage of the Bill in any way. However, will the Minister look closely at clause 1 subsections (5) and (7)(b)? Subsection (5) states:
"the proceeds of any levy imposed under a pig industry levy scheme … shall be applied solely in making payments for the levy purposes."
What is the position of hounds in hunt packs who have been supplied with diseased meat and have had to be slaughtered? Will there be compensation for the consequential loss to the owners of those hounds from the levy? I make no bones about it; I am not in the business of hunt hounds compensation. However, if I bought some infected meat in good faith for my boxer dogs and they had to be destroyed I should want to know whether I was covered under the levy.

Secondly, clause 1(6) says:
"The Commission may make arrangements for payments to be made for the levy purposes by any other person and may for that purpose pay sums collected by them in pursuance of any such scheme to the person for the time being responsible in accordance with any such arrangements for making payments for the levy purposes."
I am extremely unintelligent, and if that means anything to the hon. Gentleman I shall be grateful if he will elucidate it for my benefit, if not for the benefit of others. In my opinion, it is a fairly meaningless and long sentence.

The following subsection refers to
"expenses incurred by the person so responsible".
What expenses are to be permitted under this scheme?

My final query concerns Northern Ireland. Will the Minister elucidate the situation there? Clause 5(5) says that section 4(4)
"extends to Northern Ireland in so far as it applies in relation to returns or information".
Am I right in assuming that it does not? I accept that there has not been an outbreak of Aujeszky's disease in Ulster so far, to my knowledge, but what is the long-term position there?

We welcome the Bill and wish it high-speed progress to the statute book. The sooner that this eradication scheme is in effective operation the better. I regret, however, that we wasted five years when my party was in power and four years under this Government.

4.42 pm

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) in what he said, except to say that we should be grateful that a start has now been made. That is what is important. I think that there were reasons for the delay in the past. It is not for me to defend the Socialist Government, but there were reasons. There was perhaps also delay by my hon. Friends, because of course the agreement of the industry had to be obtained, and there was some division there.

I welcome the Bill. It is a real step forward in dealing with this distressing disease in pigs. In the past the disease has taken a steady toll of producers' profits and of course it undermined their confidence. Those are two important factors. In producing food for the nation there has to be confidence in the farmers and there have to be profits. Without profit, one will not get the food. It is as well for Opposition Members and people outside to realise that farmers are in business to make a profit, and they must have confidence. In my opinion, this Bill will ensure that. Anything that can be done to maintain that confidence and eradicate the disease must be right.

At present profits are rather low in the pig world. An outbreak of this disease lays low the pigs, and it is distressing for any fanner who has a serious disease affecting his herd, flock or pig unit. That is why I sincerely welcome this Bill, and I am grateful to the Minister for what he said.

I want the pig industry to flourish. I want the pig industry to produce more pigs and healthy pigs, so that we may have a larger share of the home market. At present the production is almost 100 per cent. pork pigs. On the bacon side it is an entirely different matter. I want United Kingdom farmers to have a larger share of the home market in bacon. I believe that the Bill will help in that way by giving confidence in better profitability. I am not satisfied that the Danes have such a large share of our home bacon market. Measures should be taken to change that, and this is one measure that will go some way to help in intensive production areas such as Yorkshire.

We have made great progress in this country in the eradication of disease. During my long time in agriculture I look back on the eradication of tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot and mouth, which is certainly well contained. The consumer should be grateful to a nation and a Ministry of Agriculture, its official and vets, who have contributed so much to the eradication of these terrible scourges. We are ahead of many other European countries. It is strange that again the United Kingdom is taking the lead in Europe in the eradication of disease. I pay tribute to the Ministry and to our vets. This is another disease which I hope will be elminated by this eradication scheme.

I do not want to delay the passage of the Bill. The quicker we can get it through, the sooner we can get the scheme under way. To that end we should make our speeches short. However, I want to ask one or two questions. First, the NFU is concerned about the full cooperation of the slaughterhouse sector in the handling of the pigs. I am connected with a slaughterhouse, and in my view it should be made clear that pigs once slaughtered cannot do any harm or in any way damage the consumer.

I shall give way in a moment. Perhaps the veterinary section of the Ministry will send out circulars to make it quite clear that those pigs are perfectly suitable for human consumption. That is an important point.

I thank the hon. Gentlemen for giving way. There are sporadic pieces of evidence that this is a human zoonosis. Will he make it clear that that zoonotic condition is of the live animal, not of the carcase? From what little evidence there is, it is clear that zoonosis comes from handling the live animal, not from handling or eating the meat.

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is making my point. I simply want the Ministry to make the position quite clear to slaughterhouses, and reassure consumers that there can be no problem with the pigs that have been slaughtered under the scheme.

Perhaps the Minister, with his great knowledge, will say how long it will take to eradicate this disease. Clearly, if slaughterhouse policy comes into force quickly, as in the case of foot and mouth, it will soon deal with this troublesome disease.

My final question is: how long will it be before a farmer can restock after cleansing and disinfection have taken place? It will be useful to have that information and it will give the farmer more confidence.

I welcome the Bill. It is another step forward in the eradication of diseases of our animals. We lead the world in this.

4.49 pm

Hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the Bill, which seeks to eradicate, if possible, this disease which troubles the pig industry. I endorse the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) when he said that successive Governments have not looked after the interests of the pig industry in previous years as they should have done.

Those in agriculture are in favour of eradicating the disease but are worried about the principle of funding. Many members of the farming fraternity are worried that, once the principle of paying to eradicate the disease through the levy system is accepted, in future other sectors of the industry will have to accept a levy system to eradicate other diseases.

Hon. Members receive briefs from various organisations involved in agriculture. The National Farmers Union welcomes the introduction of the Pig Industry Levy Bill 1983 which is designed to raise the levy from pig producers to pay for the slaughter and compensation scheme for Aujeszky's disease. It follows a producer poll held in November 1982 in which over 85 per cent. of producers said they were in favour of a self-funded eradication scheme for the disease.

I have received a brief from the Farmers Union of Wales. From the outset, the FUW has opposed the principle of an industry-financed eradication scheme for the disease. It fears that it may set a precedent for the future control of other diseases. The FUW is sympathetic to the need for such a scheme, but it believes that the scheme should be run and financed by the Government. Why do the pig producers have to accept the levy system? Why are the Government not willing to pay from central funds?

The poll of producers was held to assess the degree of support for the proposed scheme. According to the FUW, it was left to the discretion of pig producer members to decide whether they wished to back the scheme. The FUW said:
"It is interesting to note however that only 42·3 per cent. of British producers completed and returned the questionnaire."
It is the FUW's opinion that the Minister took account of the percentage of pigs owned by those producers and that that swung the Bill in favour of the scheme. Is that right or wrong? The document continues:
"The FUW has always supported the principle of one-man-one-vote and we were therefore opposed to the method of calculating support for the scheme. Because of the relatively low number of pig numbers in Wales today, it is very doubtful even if all producers in Wales had used this pig vote to oppose the scheme whether the outcome could have been reversed."

It will be best if I do not comment. The final paragraph of the brief that I received from the FUW is relevant. It states:

"British pig producers are currently going through a difficult period financially and the outlook for the foreseeable future is grim particularly as the threat of negative MCAs looms on the horizon which will act as an incentive to imports. Imposing a further levy on the industry at the present time will merely aggravate the situation further."
I am delighted that the Government have taken a step in the right direction and hope that the pig industry will be much healthier and financially better off in the years to come.

4.55 pm

I declare my interest as the Member of Parliament representing an area containing many pig producers. The pig population is not just higher in the east riding of Yorkshire than in any other region of Great Britain, but we have some of the most progressive and go-ahead pig producers in the country. Having declared my interest, I declare also my pride in my constituents who have had so much to do with the birth of this Bill.

At about this time last year there were a number of outbreaks of Aujeszky's disease in the east riding. Instead of self-pity or appeals to the Government, the pig producers, under the chairmanship of James Dewhirst, set up the east riding Aujeszky eradication committee. The committee was composed not just of pig producers, but of vets, feed merchants and so on and it raised about £20,000 or £30,000 to conduct a campaign in favour of eradication. The campaign was promoted and conducted with great professionalism. A poll was taken of Yorkshire pig producers which showed overwhelming support for an eradication scheme.

I suggest that the evidence produced by the committee greatly strengthened the Minister's hand in his decision to impose a second national poll on the industry. I congratulate the Minister on the leadership that he showed when the national poll was announced by giving his strong support.

I want to press the point that has been made consistently to me by pig producers, that speed is now all-important. Will the Minister give us some idea of the timetable for the Bill and exactly what form it will take? The speed with which the Bill has been brought before the House and the speed with which we are getting it through the House shows that we are all aware of the urgent need for the measures. The Bill is a milestone in the industry's successful progress. I wish it well.

4.57 pm

I declare the minor interest of someone who tries to maintain the old Welsh tradition of keeping one, sometimes two, and once three pigs in a year. That hardly puts me in the producer category. As a number of hon. Members have said, this Bill seems to be a case of some praise and some blame. The Government have come out of it well in the end.

I feel that the criterion that has been used by this and previous Governments of confining the aid that they give for the eradication of disease to those diseases that have a direct human impact is unsatisfactory. It is unfortunate if that is the position that we have to face. The Government's further initiative is proper. Members of the alliance would not wish to oppose the Bill.

It seems strange that the Government should be so reluctant to ameliorate an act of God. The disease falls where it may, so it would be proper for the Government to compensate those whose stocks have been afflicted. The question whether it has human impact is secondary. It causes enormous losses to a sector of our economy and our way of life—the production of foodstuffs. It is an unhappy distinction to draw. It is rather like providing a tremendous ambulance service as a last resort measure to clean up a bad accident when the stretch of road where it happened should have been straightened to prevent such an accident.

I have been given figures by the National Farmers Union, and I understand that £7 million would be sufficient to eradicate the disease. It is a paltry sum. It is wrong that we should have to look for contributions from the industry to eradicate disease in our food stock when such a relatively small figure is involved. However, the Government are not willing to step in and, under those circumstances, the Bill fits the needs of the industry.

The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) and one or two other hon. Members felt unhappy about the poll last year. Yet it was an outcome which reflected the feelings within the industry. It had a response of 42 per cent. I speak as a member of a party that is obsessed with proportional representation! Forty two per cent. is not a bad figure. Of that 42 per cent., 85 per cent. were in favour of the levy. I do not wish to find myself in the same difficulty with figures as did the hon. Member for Durham. The poll was really concerned with whether people objected to the levy, rather than with whether they were in favour of it. On such an appraisal, if only 15 per cent. of the 42 per cent. were not in favour, overall about 66 per cent. of the industry did not object to it. Knowing farmers as I do—I am married to one—if they do not object they are obviously in favour. By and large, farmers are willing to stand up front to object to anything that they do not find acceptable.

The Minister can take some comfort from the fact that the industry is behind him. The British farmer, as exemplified by the British pig producer, is a responsible person. Where Governments fail in their duty, the British farmer is usually willing to step in to help. It is in everyone's interests that disease should be eradicated from our food stocks. The producer has stepped in, but the least that we can do is give some credit to the Government for at least facilitating the self-help scheme. The alliance parties support the Bill.

5.4 pm

My constituency is in Suffolk, and the Suffolk county National Farmers Union claims—I believe correctly—that Suffolk is the second largest county for pig production in England. Therefore, while declaring that interest, I feel that it also entitles me to make a number of comments both on the background to the Bill and on the Bill itself.

I first raised this disease five or six years ago with successive Ministers, so it did not surprise me that, at a recent meeting of the Suffolk NFU, when the county secretary read the annual report and made reference to the poll and the forthcoming Bill, voices from the hall shouted, "It should have been years ago".

I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) about the confidence that the measure will bring to farming. Against that background, and the need to cease arguing and be decisive, it is superfluous and almost irrelevant to pursue a discussion on the poll issue in esoteric percentage terms, or even further to discuss the levy principle.

It has been said that £7 million would not be an enormous burden on the Exchequer; but equally that amount spread throughout the industry over two, three or four years is quite digestible. I know of the distress among a number of my farming friends in Suffolk who have suffered heavy and recurring losses for several years. I hope that provision will be made for the remaining herds that are sub-clinically infected and have yet to be slaughtered. No doubt that point will be considered in Committee when discussing the powers that the Minister is seeking for instructing the Meat and Livestock Commission. Otherwise, further hardship will doubtless ensue.

Aujeszky's disease is referred to positively in clause 1, yet there is no definition of the disease itself. There may be a definition somewhere, as in 1979 it became a notifiable disease. I wonder whether it can be diagnosed with clinical certainty so that there is no obfuscation of its meaning.

When the Committee considers the Bill, it will be concerned with the actual mechanics of collection and disbursement. I intervened earlier, when the Minister kindly gave way, to draw attention to the phrase "any other person" in clause 1(6). I trust that that point will be pursued in Committee, together with a number of others that hang thereon.

Clause 2(3) deals with surplus, and provides that any surplus that might accrue during the lifetime of this scheme shall be for disbursement to the pig industry or the pig products industry. It is convenient that those two elements of the pig industry are defined in clause 1(8). I wonder, however, whether those definitions are not too wide, and should be more closely drawn. The Committee should give attention to the point, perhaps within the sectors that will have been specifically affected by the levy.

I wonder how the ratios of up to £300 per animal and the 20 per cent. for breeding and 5 per cent. for the fattening pigs, with regard to disruption costs, have been arrived at, and what their validity is. Admittedly, the £300 is a miximum and it is therefore a dangerous and difficult basis from which to try to extrapolate the 20 per cent. and 5 per cent. in terms of the average herd. Further comments on that point could be of great financial import to pig producers.

A number of points do not appear in the Bill, but are closely connected with it, and some of them have been touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West. One is cleansing and disinfection. I should like to think that enough is known about the proper procedures here, because we are pursuing the path of eradication. I should hope that adequate research has been conducted on this, but I am disturbed by the comments of my farming colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West who asked for guidance as to the time lapse between slaughter and reoccupation of the premises. That observation alone, coming from the source that it did, causes me to press the question about knowledge of the thoroughness and effectiveness of the cleansing and disinfection operation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West also mentioned the sale of meat. The public has been horrified by recent accounts of how condemned meat—meat not recognised as fit for human consumption—has been switched by a variety of "cowboy" operations and found its way into food chains, some of them of high repute. It is in this context that I feel that it is correct to stress the human health risk, or otherwise, with regard to the slaughtering of Aujeszky's affected pigs.

The National Farmers Union, in the circular that it distributed to all hon. Members, made the point:
"as the disease is not considered to represent a human health risk, sub-clinically infected pigs or non-infected pigs from infected herds may be slaughtered as usual in abattoirs and enter the human food chain."
If one interprets this correctly, presumably those pigs that are wholly infected, whether dead or alive, could on the wording ostensibly represent a human health risk if they came into the human food chain. We need the utmost clarification on this point, and about the marking or the dyeing of any dangerous meat by the usual slaughterhouse inspectorate. Should there be the slightest possible doubt, I return to the confidence point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West.

I join those who pleaded with the Minister to give some idea, if he possibly can, of the time scale that might be envisaged. I readily take his point that we might meet the most optimistic targets and come out of this problem very quickly. On the other hand, that may not be so. However, I should like to know the Minister's thinking on this matter.

I raise this point because it has relevance to the ultimate commercial insurance of this disease risk by pig producers. It would give some guidance to the House and therefore to the possible underwriters, who could then apply their minds to the variable circumstances that the farmer will be facing two, three or five years hence.

I welcome the presentation of the Bill. We all wish it a fair wind and a speedy passage.

5.17 pm

As one who has been pressing the Government for some time on the vital need to take action to eradicate Aujeszky's disease before it became endemic, as it has in Holland, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on the speed with which they have acted since the poll.

The Bridlington constituency, which I have the honour to represent, and which includes the large agricultural area of Holderness, has a unique claim to fame in that it is the only constituency that has more pigs than people. With the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan), the east riding is the largest intensive pig-producing area in the country. What is probably more important is that we have not only the leading United Kingdom breeders but some of the leading breeders in the world. Hon. Members will appreciate how important the industry is not only to agriculture but for employment in an area with high unemployment.

The problem of the disease was first raised with me after I had been in the House only a couple of months, in June 1979, when the vets and pig farmers in the east riding started to campaign for a slaughter policy. My hon. Friends the Members for Howden and for Eye (Mr. Gummer) joined me in making representations to the Minister and there was an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Eye in that year.

In October 1980, after the Government had unfortunately made it clear that they could not provide Government finance for a slaughter policy, a poll was held. There was dismay in our area at the result of the poll, particularly as 67 per cent. of those owning pigs had voted in favour. However, what vets and pig farmers forecast occurred, and the number of outbreaks of the disease started to rise dramatically. In the first six months of 1982 there were 25 outbreaks, of which no fewer than 11 were on Humberside. That increased the feeling that some urgent action should be taken.

The pressure for action led to the formation, as the hon. Member for Howden has already mentioned, of the east riding Aujeszky eradication group, which showed great initiative in holding its own poll. It persuaded farmers in the area to contribute £5 to £10 to the eradication scheme. I should like to congratulate it, because without its efforts there would not have been the pressure on the NFU and the Ministry to hold a further poll. The second poll resulted in clear support for a slaughter policy.

The Ministry has always let it be known that the cost of administration would be borne by the Government. Farmers have stated that they would like the Minister to confirm that veterinary fees will be included. My right hon. Friend mentioned this issue in his opening remarks. I am afraid, however, that parliamentary draftsmen do not make the situation as clear as one might hope. I have read carefully clause 2 of the Bill. I should like my right hon. Friend to point out the part of the clause that states that the Government will accept this expenditure.

It has been mentioned that the industry is going through a difficult time. Profitability is very low. Indeed, some farmers are not making a profit. The introduction of the scheme will lift at least one worry from the shoulders of a hard-pressed industry. It is an efficient industry that has made a major contribution to the success of agriculture in this country. It is with great pleasure that I support the Bill.

5.20 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

With the leave of the house, I should like to reply to this useful debate. I am most grateful for the support given to the measure on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) has spoken on consecutive days about fishing and about pigs. To have had his support on those two days has been a pleasurable experience. I hope that it will be repeated on many occasions in the future. I trust that both the fishermen and the pig farmers whose interests my hon. Friend represents so strongly will be satisfied with the efforts made by the Government.

I wish to deal with one major question that is more a matter of policy than of detail. I thank the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) for his welcome and promise of help in respect of the Bill. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's personal understanding of the disease and his interest in it over a number of years. This adds considerable weight to his remarks. It is true, I think, viewed with hindsight, that of all the diseases that we have tried to eradicate in this country there would have been less expense if action had been taken earlier.

Like the hon. Member for Durham, I have been impatient to see action taken to eradicate a number of diseases—brucellosis in cattle is one of them—where, if action had been taken earlier, the programme could have been completed more cheaply. It is often only with hindsight that we can appreciate the full character of a disease and its implications. It is possible to speculate about the outcome if earlier action had been taken.

However, the Government are the custodian of the nation's purse. We are dealing with taxpayers' money. The Government have to draw up priorities for the eradication of disease. It is important to bear in mind that such priorities are drawn up not only with financial implications in mind but also according to the best advice available from the veterinary profession. One sometimes finds a variety of views among members of the veterinary profession about the prevalence and virulence of a disease and whether it is easy or difficult to control. It is ultimately a political judgment to be made by Ministers in the light of the knowledge at the time and the resources available.

I have been asked why the Government have not dealt with this disease, as has happened in other instances, by taking total responsibility. The simple answer—I accept that it is not the whole answer—is that this disease cannot be considered as a threat in the same category as foot and mouth disease. It is perhaps, in some respects, not so serious as brucellosis, which has serious human health implications. I wish to underline that there is not the same human health implication. It is at two removes. I would hate any feeling to emerge from the debate that this disease could be a problem for consumers of pigmeat or pig products.

The Government do not regard the Bill as a precedent for further eradication proposals. The voluntary cooperation of the industry in financing the scheme itself means that the eradication of this disease has been accorded a higher priority than would otherwise have been the case. The problem is that if the Government undertook an eradication programme, they are bound, under animal diseases legislation and especially the Animal Health Act 1981, to pay compensation. The moment that the Government embark upon eradication they are bound to pay compensation. The Government have not felt able to give priority to this disease. However, the direct interest taken by the industry has triggered the Bill.

A large number of points, some highly technical, have been raised. I hope that the House will be patient if I fail to deal with some of them. I hope that hon. Members will draw my attention afterwards to such points and I shall be happy to deal with them by correspondence or in discussion.

The hon. Member for Durham asked what expenses were committed under clause 1(7). All expenses incurred directly in the administration of the funds, including interest on the loan, are to be raised by the company. The hon. Gentleman also referred to Northern Ireland. This is a completely separate entity in animal health terms. It is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend has no intention of changing the policy at present but is watching to see what happens as a result of action taken here. Policy in Northern Ireland in respect of Aujeszky's disease is different. The disease does not exist there on the same scale. The measures taken to deal with it are different.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) and others asked how long we would take to eradicate the disease. That is a matter of speculation because no one can tell. I am prompted to say, "Almost as long as a piece of string." It depends on so many factors because very often, when one starts a disease eradication policy, one finds, sadly, that some pockets or areas of it have for one reason or another been masked. I do not use that word in a derogatory sense but things are found that were not known about when the policy commenced. But if one can express a hope—as the House knows, I am always supremely optimistic—it is that within four to five years we will be able to see the back of this problem broken. I have watched disease eradication programmes in the past. I have seen some go better than expected and some go worse, but if we have the total co-operation of the industry, and with the resources that are to be devoted to the policy, we can deal with it properly and well.

My hon. Friends the Members for Devon, West, and for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) asked how long someone will be out of business before he can restock. I understand that it is about four weeks after slaughter or two weeks after the completion of disinfection, whichever period is the longer. That is the general rule which will apply for restocking.

My hon. Friends the Members for Howden (Sir P. Bryan), and Bridlington raised the point, which I attempted to answer, although obviously inadequately, when I opened the debate, about the timetable for the introduction of this scheme. I can only repeat what I said earlier in the debate, that, subject to the progress on the legislative stages of the hope they will be swift—we would hope to introduce this scheme as quickly as possible after it goes on to the statute book. I cannot say more than that at this stage because it involves the mobilisation of the veterinary resources, which are directly the responsibility of my Department, the drawing up of the details of the levy scheme with the Meat and Livestock Commission, and the arrangement for setting up the company in order to raise the funds in the early stages to repay the expenses of Government in operating the scheme.

I cannot give a precise date but I can give the assurance that the only limitations on the timetable will be the physical limitations of being able to set the arrangements in motion. I hope that, in the spirit of wanting to get the scheme into operation quickly, the House and my two hon. Friends who raised the matter will accept that reply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge raised a number of fairly technical points. If I do not answer all of them I will be happy to return to them in correspondence later. In an intervention, he asked me about clarifying the powers of the Minister in relation to "any other person". One has to look back to the basis of the need for this power which enables the Minister to issue directions to the Meat and Livestock Commission. In those circumstances, it is clear that there have to be financial agreements between the Minister and the company which is to be set up and also between the Meat and Livestock Commission and the company. These agreements will have to contain provisions which are designed to ensure adequate control over the handling of the funds. It is in that respect—this is basically in order to ensure that we had that control, where the raising of the funds and their administration are at one remove from Ministers—that that control and answerability are properly maintained.

My hon. Friend also asked how the funds will be guaranteed to the Minister before the levy money becomes sufficient. The terms of the agreement between the company and the Minister will commit the company to ensure that adequate finance is available on demand to meet the Minister's costs. The actual disbursements of the costs fall to the agriculture Departments. The company will be raising a loan to meet this purpose.

My hon. Friend also asked how the figures of ratios for compensation of consequential loss were reached. They were decided on by the industry itself and were included in the poll document which went out. The National Farmers Union company will be responsible for making these payments.

My hon. Friend also asked about the diagnosis of Aujeszky's disease. The evidence of the presence either now or earlier of Aujeszky's disease can in veterinary terms be properly established. There should be no particular difficulty among those who will have to administer this.

My hon. Friend also mentioned sub-clinically affected herds. Provisions for this will be part of the eradication scheme. Experience of other schemes is that this is a factor. I hope that we will be able to deal with this in drawing up the scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) also asked on what the levy would be raised. It is on all fat pigs for slaughter and on all pigs exported live. That includes fat sows as well as clean pigs.

There are two other points which I should have liked to mention in detail in my opening remarks about the relevance of such schemes under our European Community responsibilities. In one sense, the levy which will be operated under the scheme is a state aid under the treaty of Rome. But, judging from the experience of similar schemes in this and other countries, we do not expect any difficulty in the operation of the scheme.

Again, on some of the wider aspects, there is obviously concern that if we go for a policy of eradication—as we have on foot and mouth, where thankfully we have managed to extend our arrangements for a further 12 months pending the working out of satisfactory arrangements in Europe—we should be resisting health controls on imports. The status that we hope to build up under Aujeszky's disease should be able to be protected under those arrangements.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the points raised. As I said a moment ago, I hope that hon. Members will get in touch with me over the points I have not dealt with. I have no desire to miss anything, because the purpose of all of us is the same.

I shall not enter into the argument of "one pig, one vote" or "one vote, one pig, one man" which the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) raised. I hope that the Farmers Union of Wales, if it wishes to continue that argument, will do so with the hon. Gentleman rather than me. It is clear that the great weight of opinion in the industry is behind the Bill. Equally, I accept that some producers in the industry will be bitterly opposed to it. They have perfectly fair and legitimate reasons—I do not criticise them—but I ask those who are opposed to the scheme, those who did not vote for it in the poll, to realise, as the weight of opinion in the House this afternoon demonstrates, that if we proceed successfully with the scheme, as I hope we will, it will benefit the industry as a whole. Even those who did not vote for it will in the end derive advantage from it.

Last, but by no means least, I thank not only those Members who have spoken in support of the Bill this afternoon but also those who have been involved outside—the group to which my hon. Friend the Member for Howden referred, those in the National Farmers Union, and those on the Meat and Livestock Commission who have willingly undertaken this responsibility in the best interests of the meat industry. I hope that the co-operation we have had so far will continue on eradication and that in not too many years the disease, far from being a problem, will simply be a memory.

5.40 pm

It will not be the Opposition's wish to debate the Bill in Committee or to delay its Third Reading. I trust that we shall be able to deal in correspondence with the technical problems of carrier pigs which show no clinical signs but which may pass on disease. We wish the Bill a speedy passage. The sooner the scheme is in existence for the benefit of pig producers the better.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.— [Mr. Cope.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.