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Fallen Stock

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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If she will make a statement on the disposal of fallen stock on farms. [106687]


What assessment she has made of the financial impact of the new fallen stock regulations. [106688]


What recent representations she has received regarding the disposal of fallen stock. [106690]

I have received a number of representations expressing concerns about introducing the new rules on the disposal of fallen stock. That will clearly have a financial impact on farmers, and the Government continue our dialogue with the industry about introducing a national fallen stock collection and disposal scheme as the best way of addressing those concerns.

I should declare an interest as a farmer, although I own no stock. What has the Secretary of State got against farmers? This measure will mean that the disposal of a dead sheep may cost more the value of a live beast. It is unscientific and illogical. Will the Government now ban the burial of human corpses?

The hon. Gentleman says that the measure is unscientific, but the basic regulations were put in place precisely as a result of a report from the EU Scientific Committee. They have been extensively discussed across the EU, and there is general agreement that they are desirable. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Government are in some way attempting to penalise farmers. After all, we are not required to put Government resources behind the scheme that we propose to adopt to try to form the basis of a national scheme, but we have done so.

Will the Minister confirm that, last year, DEFRA was given a report by an independent scientist, showing that biodigestion is a very useful alternative technology in dealing with fallen stock, as it is biosecure and environmentally friendly? What discussions has she had with the European Commission in respect of including that method of disposal among the approved options?

I am aware that the hon. Lady and, indeed, some of her colleagues have raised that issue, and I accept that it does sound interesting. Unfortunately, it is illegal at present, but I am conscious of the interest in the proposals to which she refers, and she will like to know that we have referred them to the scientific authorities in the EU for consideration. However, we cannot pursue that option at present.

The Secretary of State may wish to be aware that many Suffolk livestock farmers in my constituency believe that information from her Department on the change to the fallen stock regime has been both unhelpful and unclear. In the light of that, has she worked out a mode of enforcement for the new regime, and, if so, will she publish it?

I shall begin where the hon. Gentleman ended. Enforcement is, of course, a matter for local authorities, which enforce regulations of that kind, but I am sorry to hear that individual farmers find the existing guidance less clear than they would wish. We will be writing shortly to all farmers about the new rules and what they need to do to meet them, and we intend to include proposals for a national helpline, as well as arrangements for a voluntary subscription scheme.

On-farm incineration is a legal alternative for the disposal of fallen stock. When does my right hon. Friend intend to issue the information and guidance for farmers about the use of on-farm incineration?

I believe that some information and guidance is already on the DEFRA website. We are certainly mindful of the fact that, as my hon. Friend will know, there is substantial availability of such incineration capacity, but it has to meet the required standards, and we will work with the industry to ensure that that is the case during the next few months.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hon. Members feel that on-farm disposal is the most environmentally sound option? Will she say a little more about encouraging biodigestion or on-farm incineration, so that we do not see lorries travelling up and down the country collecting fallen farm stock at huge cost to individual farmers and with environmental costs to the whole country? Will she take this opportunity to rule out any further Government move to end woodland burials or the burial of pets in gardens?

The hon. Gentleman's final point takes us down a slight sidetrack, so I shall return to the main point that he makes. It is valid to say that people will be concerned and that we should be concerned about the biosecurity implications of transport. Equally, as he raised the issue of costs, I say to him that the national collection and disposal Industry has come forward with proposals to the Government for what it believes will be a very sound operational scheme. It has identified the fact that it believes that there could be a substantial reduction in costs if such a scheme were fully utilised.

Will my right hon. Friend adopt a flexible and proportionate approach to this matter? It should be flexible in the sense that, if agreement cannot be reached but is in the offing, the deadline of 1 May should be extended. It should be proportionate when it comes to hill farmers, because there is a case for sheep carcases being allowed to remain on site for conservation and for wildlife purposes.

I certainly undertake to consider my hon. Friend's point. There has been extensive consultation on this issue for at least a year, and we are anxious to resolve the matter, not least because, if there is scope for agreement to some kind of national scheme, that will make an enormous difference to the way in which we can operate it.

In view of the fact that the regulations need to be implemented on 1 May, this is not just a fiasco that is waiting to happen but a fiasco that is bound to happen. What efforts did the Government make to ensure that the country has the ability to have a sensible derogation for remote rural areas, as is now the case in Scotland? In view of the Secretary of State's answers, will she ensure that farmers have ample opportunity to be consulted? As will inevitably be the case, the implementation and enforcement of the regulations will be delayed if the farming community is properly consulted on the Government's proposals to deal with this issue.

I am afraid that I reject the notion that this is a fiasco. We have been consulting the farming community for, as I said, at least a year. The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that there will be a problem with implementation and that it will be a fiasco because, in some way, the capacity will not be there to deal with the stock. That is not the case. We are told by the collection and disposal industry that there is ample capacity. It is absolutely possible for the regulations to be implemented on the due date.

Of course, we want a better, good national scheme that, as the industry advises us, could significantly reduce the costs that farmers are liable for now. That seems to be to everyone's benefit. That is what we shall write to individual farmers about in the very near future.

On 28 February, officials from the Secretary of State's Department told the National Farmers Union that they would issue detailed guidance on on-farm incineration within the following two weeks. When is this guidance going to appear?

Detailed guidance is certainly under preparation and it was my impression that it was going out—

The hon. Gentleman says within two weeks, but it was certainly my impression that it is going out in the next few days or week. Although there is detailed guidance about how on-farm incineration can be effected, I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The industry assures us that there is capacity and scope to deal with this problem now.

Does this not show yet again that the incompetence and confusion in the Secretary of State's Department is stopping effective and clear advice from getting to farmers and others who will have to cope with the regulations in about three weeks? We are told that the advice on incineration that was promised a fortnight from the end of February is still being drafted, and we are told that the Department is getting together its letter to send out to all farmers as soon as possible. Can she confirm that article 32 of the animal by-product regulations expressly allows for temporary derogations from those regulations and that the United Kingdom has, in fact, already sought and obtained delays on issues such as the use of used cooking oil in animal feed? Is not the sensible course of action now for the Secretary of State to apply urgently for a derogation from the fallen stock provisions of the regulations so that a proper, effective scheme can be put in place and so that farmers do not face the confusion that they face now and will face from the beginning of May?

Let me repeat that the industry is perfectly aware of the implications. The regulations are not something that has come out of the blue—we have been discussing them with the industry for a full year. There is capacity to deal now with the problem of disposal, and there is no practical need for a derogation. The hon. Gentleman may be losing sight of the key fact that the regulations were introduced in the first place on the basis of scientific advice that the present arrangement was undesirable and should be ended as soon as possible. That is what we are working towards. We very much regret that, unfortunately, it has not proved possible to persuade the representatives of farming organisations to agree to what the collection and disposal industry say is a perfectly practical and viable scheme.

I remind the House that the industry believes that a national scheme in which people voluntarily participate would operate at substantially lower costs than the present arrangements. It estimates that it would cost about 40 per cent. less for adult cattle and 60 per cent. less for adult sheep. It is on that basis that we shall write to farmers, urging them to tell us whether they would comply with and join a voluntary national scheme.