Skip to main content

Fallen Stock Regulations

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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

3.30 pm

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate, which I requested following a meeting with local farmers. That took place a couple of months ago, but sadly the issues and concerns raised then are just as pertinent today, as there appears to have been little Government action on fallen stock in that time. Farmers are still in the dark about some of the finer detail of the proposals, and even the broader detail of some aspects of them. They are still frustrated that there appears to be no sign of a workable nationwide scheme, and they are at the mercy of legislation for which, quite simply, there is no proven scientific basis.

The basic problem is that the ban on on-farm burial comes into force in the United Kingdom on 30 April. Farmers and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have known that for some time, and there have been consultations between relevant bodies, such as the National Farmers Union and DEFRA, but what use is that consultation if no decisions are made and the information given to farmers is too little, too late?

To ensure that I was bang up to date, I checked the DEFRA website this morning, but it had not been changed since 17 March. Even worse, the page said that it was currently being updated. Clearly, DEFRA has a long way to go to meet the e-government agenda, but perhaps that is a reason for another debate.

I do not want to pre-empt the hon. Lady's remarks or provide my response until she has asked all her questions, but it is only fair to tell her that a great deal has been going on as regards this issue, and a great deal has been on the table for farming representatives, if they wish to take that up. I can be as up to date as saying that discussions continue today in an attempt to secure a workable outcome. I only hope that the industry will take it up.

Discussions may still be going on, but with barely three weeks to go before the ban, some decisions should have been made some time ago.

In January, I felt that there was still time for the information to be disseminated, but farmers are still no wiser. That position was confirmed on 25 March by the NFU, which sent a briefing to Members of Parliament stating:
"So far farmers have received no clear guidance from DEFRA. We are concerned that many farmers will be unable to ensure compliance at what is now such short notice. With only a few weeks to go this is most unsatisfactory, given that Government has been aware of the impending legislation for well over two years."

I remind the Minister of a similar situation that resulted from a similar bout of incompetence by his Department. I am referring to fridge mountains. We are all aware of the knock-on effects of the Government's failure to act rapidly on that legislation. Will we face a replacement mountain of dead animals? It is simply not good enough for the Government to pass the buck and blame farmers—as the Minister appeared to do a moment ago—for reasons that I shall explain later.

I thought that it would be useful to contact my local farmers to find out how they saw the situation. Geoff Butler of Bossington farms told me:
"Funny you should ask about that because we had decided to buy an incinerator. I rang the Reading office"
"last week but was told that they were 'all away on a course'. They still haven't returned the call."
My first question is about when the guidance will be available to farmers. Is it fair to give them such short notice of the detail that many will be in danger of contravening the legislation through no fault of their own?

Given that DEFRA has been backward in its duties, will the Minister confirm the situation as regards compliance with the new rules? Given the lack of information, it is clearly unfair and unreasonable to expect every farmer in Britain to comply fully from day one. Does DEFRA intend to apply to the EU for transitional measures to allow farmers time to comply? Guidance on that would be useful for all those who have the will to comply, but are shackled by the lack of clear guidance.

Local farmers also raised funding implications. There is considerable anger that there is no new Government money—I stress the word "new"—to help to establish and run a national collection and disposal scheme. The Government appear to think that farmers are neglecting their duties, without paying any regard to the fact that many farmers have no extra money available because of a sustained period of difficulty in making ends meet, let alone any profit from which they can fund the scheme. They told me that the Government have not found any new money for the scheme.

I am aware that there was an announcement on 3 December that the Government would be prepared to put almost £30 million towards such a scheme. However, further research revealed that this money is the same money that currently funds other schemes, including the BSE monitoring scheme, the over-30 months scheme, the casualty collection service and the fallen stock transmissible spongiform encephalopathies surveillance scheme. DEFRA suggests that combining these schemes will produce monetary savings that can be used to part-finance the collection and disposal of animals currently being buried. Many people say that that is unworkable, but they might be more convinced if the Government provided a financial breakdown showing how the scheme will work in practice, and whether there will be any additional funds for animals that are not currently covered by the schemes. Perhaps the Minister could further enlighten us about that today?

It is also a fact that the majority of the EU member state Governments have provided funding to help set up and run national fallen stock collection schemes. For example, France has paid for all fallen stock collections since 1999. It has a different attitude to the problem, which it regards as a public health matter. If the regulations are so important, will the Minister explain what conversations he has had with the Minister for Public Health, and why we in Britain do not regard this as a public health matter?

What will the costs be? I shall return to the local picture for a moment. Bossington farms have decided that incineration is the answer for them. Initially, they considered an incinerator large enough to take a sow because of the nature of their operation. The knacker man used to take the cows away, but there is a reluctance to take pigs, so an alternative had to be found. An incinerator large enough to take a sow costs £9,000. They decided that that was not sustainable, and plumped instead for a model large enough to take stillborn pigs and afterbirth material. That will cost between £2,000 to £3,000, but the farm manager cannot make a purchase because he does not know what the regulations will be or whether an afterburner, at an extra cost of approximately £1,000, will be required. He had heard that DEFRA was considering making them compulsory but, as I said, he is still none the wiser. He can only guess the running costs after the initial outlay, but thought that the annual running costs would be between £1,000 and £1,500.

Another farmer, Peter Redshaw, who specialises in pigs, told me that he had not buried his pigs for some time because of the standard of pigs that he produced and the regulations that relate to them. Five years ago, the knacker man paid him for collecting his dead pigs. Since then, unfortunately for him, the situation gradually changed, and he now has to pay for his dead animals to be taken away. The price rose considerably after the problems with foot and mouth disease and BSE, and he now estimates that the annual cost to him is approximately £3,600.

Both farmers also raised the concern that the existing network of knacker men and the rendering industry would not be able to cope with the increased demand. Indeed, the industry, instead of gleefully rubbing its hands at the prospect of more work, has pointed out that there are problems ahead if the scheme is not nationally funded.

I previously alluded to the fact that times are difficult for farmers, but the bald facts are that a third of farmers currently default on their payments to knacker men. Peter Redshaw told me, "It is the one bill that I make sure is paid on the dot, because if I don't, I know they won't necessarily be back next week." The Minister should be well aware of the current financial plight of many of Britain's farmers. The NFU has provided the Department with farm income data to show that fallen stock charges will increase existing losses for small farmers and further reduce the very small incomes that larger livestock producers manage to secure. What assessment has the Minister and his Department made of the impact on farmers and whether the regulations might be the final straw for some of them?

There is another aspect to the benefits of a nationwide scheme that should not be overlooked. The UK Government must be able to demonstrate to the European Commission that they are complying with the new regulation. That will be easier with a national scheme, but as there are no plans for such a scheme, will the Minister outline how the Government will be able to achieve compliance? How will they obtain an accurate picture of the numbers of animals involved and how they are being disposed of? Will that be an additional bureaucratic burden, and how will the figures be audited?

I want to end by mentioning the potential of other systems such as biodigestion, which is an environmentally friendly and biosecure form of anaerobic digestion. In last week's DEFRA questions, the Secretary of State mentioned that the method was currently illegal but that representations had been made to the EU scientific authorities. Will the Minister elaborate on that? When were the details of the biodigestion system referred to the relevant EU scientific committee? Has there been a response or any indication of a response? If not, when is a response likely? What discussions has the Minster had with other member states, and is any likely to offer support?

Those are important questions because evidence shows that, as well as being environmentally friendly, if biodigestion is combined with alkaline hydrolysis, it is highly likely that TSE agents are fully destroyed. That is not the case with incineration, which is likely to be the method of choice for many farmers. Evidence shows that incineration has several disadvantages, including not being able to ensure that high enough temperatures are reached in all the material for a sufficient period of time. If the high temperatures are not reached, we cannot ensure that all the agents are killed off, which means that some TSE agents remain infective after the incineration process is ostensibly complete. Combined with the problems of dioxins and toxic ash, that gives us a potential environmental problem on our hands that should not be overlooked. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will pick up on those points in a couple of minutes.

Farmers have been burying carcases on land for hundreds of years. We can guess at some of the disadvantages of the process, particularly if the water table is high, but no overwhelming body of scientific knowledge suggests we have a major health hazard on our hands if we continue as we are doing. However, we are willing to replace it with a dual system of transporting dead animals around the country, which could spread disease if not carried out properly, and of an increase of incineration despite its known health hazards.

I have taken slightly less time than I originally planned because two of my hon. Friends have asked for a couple of minutes each to speak. However, in conclusion, I would say to the Minister that somewhere we lost the plot. The Government have lost momentum, and it will be the farmers who have to pick up the pieces.

3.42 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on securing this important debate and on the diligence with which she is representing her constituents.

I want simply to raise two points, of which I have given the Minister advance notice. The first relates to the justification for the current application of the regulation. We understand that, in parts of the European Union, there are serious problems of buried livestock that result in the infection of watercourses, but I am not sure that we need the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut approach. I would appreciate the Minister's advice on that. We should consider fallen wildlife in the countryside as an example. We are applying the regulation to farm animals, but what will happen to deer, badgers and rabbits that die in the countryside? I assume that no arrangements exist for collection services, incinerations or biodigesters for that wildlife, even though they carry infectivity.

Secondly, why do the derogations available for the remote rural areas of Scotland not apply to remote parts of England and Wales, which may be distant from collection centres? Why has Scotland, as a result of the consultation period that started recently, been able to delay the enforcement of the regulation? Bearing in mind the concern about the current lack of information for farmers, would the Minister recommend to his Department that the enforcement of the measures be delayed in this country?

Order. Apart from the originator of the debate, no one is allowed to speak in the debate except with the prior permission of the originator and the Minister. I have indication only of two.

The Minister and originator are now agreeing and so, exceptionally, I shall allow Mr. Öpik to speak.

3.45 pm

I must be at fault. I had written to the Speaker and, perhaps, informed the wrong Minister. I shall learn from that and keep my comments extra short, with no trick questions for the Minister.

I shall speak about the issue of biodigesters. Would the Government be willing to continue a dialogue on the benefits of biodigestion as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) until a conclusive determination has been made of its relative economic, environmental and health benefits compared with on-farm collection? In my constituency, I saw a responsible action using biodigesters. A farmer called Tom Tudor said:
"It's convenient and ensures there are no dead stock lying around the farm. The last thing farmers want is to leave their stock hanging around awaiting collection".
That case has already been made by my hon. Friend.

I am concerned that we might be missing a trick. Biodigestion is a superbly effective way of handling the issue on farm without the danger of extra transportation that could cross-contaminate between one farm and another. Some costs can be avoided if the natural processes of decomposition are managed through biodigestion. Biodigesters provide an on-farm solution without transport costs, environmental damage or the risk of cross-contamination through serial collection from farm to farm.

I simply ask the Minister one thing: will he not close the lid on biodigesters, but continue a dialogue with the British farming community to find the relative merits of that solution? It is a matter not of beating the Government, but of finding the right solution to a serious issue. I have been persuaded by the NFU and others that biodigestion offers that solution.

3.47 pm

The Department has gone to great lengths to help the farming industry and to provide additional money to assist in the creation of a national scheme. I can say that somewhat objectively, given that the hard work on it has been done by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is in Luxembourg today representing our interests, as always. He has been generous with his time and in trying to tease out a solution. He has also been open-minded, which leads me to respond to the last point.

The fact is that biodigestion, and composting, are not permitted disposal routes. The composting or biodigestion of fallen stock is illegal and the new EU rules will not change that position. However, under those new rules, the industry can submit a proposal for novel disposal methods. Any such proposal is subject to a scientific opinion and agreement by the European Commission. The relevant scientific committee meets next week and it will be considering novel disposal methods. Those formalities must be gone through. It is a question not of the Government closing doors, but of proposals from the industry being considered through the appropriate mechanisms.

Many farmers have buried stock on their farms for years and do not want to change that practice, but the new rules in the animal by-products regulation are based on several scientific opinions. Those take into account factors such as the potential for polluting water courses and the lack of scientific information on how persistent the prions that cause diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie are in soil. The decisions taken were based on a report of the EU's scientific committee. Given our history of BSE and foot and mouth disease, the EU is clearly justified in taking a precautionary approach.

However, there is nothing new in disposal by rendering and incineration. The industry exists and the capacity exists. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) suggested that doubts have been cast and questions asked, but we have been assured time and again by the industry that it has the capacity to deliver what is necessary. We could reasonably leave the farming industry to get on with it—there is no requirement on the Government to set up a national collection system—but we believe that that is the best way to reduce the burden of costs on the industry. By utilising the infrastructure of knackers, renderers and incineration already in place and by building on the administrative arrangements established for collecting fallen stock for transmissible spongiform encephalopathy testing purposes, we can offer a scheme that could be up to 40 per cent. cheaper for a farmer than if he had to make his own ad hoc arrangements. The Government are prepared to set up such a scheme and contribute to the funding during the first few years. Indeed, we are offering to contribute directly and to use the muscle of our own contracting requirements to help farmers. That will lead to an industry-run scheme rather than a Government one.

The Government have tried to get to help to create a new system well in advance of the implementation date for the new regulation. As the hon. Member for Romsey said, that has not come up against us in the past few weeks, which is why we have been in discussion with the livestock and disposal industries for a full year. There was delay in progressing matters rapidly because the farming unions felt unable to agree on how to fund the scheme.

Industry representatives have consistently asked the Government to pay the full costs of the scheme, but we cannot do so. All industries are responsible for disposing of their own waste, and farming is no exception. Even more to the point, state aid rules forbid us from paying all the costs of such a scheme. The only way round that would be to arrange a scheme through a levy, as happens in Spain, or through a tax on meat, as happens in France. Neither option found favour with our farming unions.

Officials have, therefore, developed proposals for a low-cost voluntary subscription scheme, which will be offered to all livestock farmers in the next few weeks. If interest is sufficiently high, we shall have the basis of the national collection scheme that is being called for. As I speak, our latest proposals are being explained to the farming unions and I understand that today's discussions have continued to be fruitful. I hope that when they see the benefits for their members they will give their full backing to our plans and enter into the Government-industry partnership that we are offering.

There has been an unusually high level of misinformation on the subject. It has been stated that the Government must pay for the collection and disposal of fallen stock for BSE testing. In fact, although the testing of all fallen cattle aged over 24 months for BSE is required by the EU transmissible spongiform encephalopathy regulation, it does not require member states to pay for the collection or disposal of those carcases. That costs the Government about £30 million, if all aspects are taken into account. We took the decision to provide Exchequer funding to ensure that all required carcases would be tested and we shall, for now, continue to pay for the collection of cattle for testing purposes. However, cattle farmers can still benefit from the proposed scheme by having cattle under 24 months and calves picked up free at the point of collection.

A further myth is that all other member states fund national fallen stock collection and disposal schemes. The position in other member states varies. In some, the Government or local authority provide support; in others, farmers pay the full cost of disposal. There is also a variety of funding mechanisms, including levies and the tax approach to which I referred earlier.

Some people would like the Government to postpone the ban on on-farm burial until the national scheme is in place, but that is unnecessary. An infrastructure of knackers' yards and renderers is already in place. Farmers can comply with the new rules now. The EU animal by-products regulation is directly applicable to all member states from 1 May. Although the enforcement statutory instrument in England, Wales and Scotland may be delayed by a short period, I nevertheless urge farmers to do all that they practically can to comply with the new rules from 1 May. If there is sufficient interest to make a national collection scheme viable, we will introduce it as quickly as possible.

Yes, but that will reduce the time available for the rest of the response.

The voluntary subscription scheme is being introduced in the next few weeks, but it seems that some farmers will receive details after the date on which they are supposed to have implemented that scheme. I have raised the problem of the farmer who cannot easily get rid of sows to a knackers' yard and wants to buy an incinerator, but who has received no instructions from the Government. Will the Minister explain what is to happen in such cases?

If the national scheme is introduced, which depends on the agreement of sufficient farmers to make it worth while, it will save money for farmers. It is not a necessary requirement that the scheme has to be in place for them to use the facilities that already exist. Any scheme would be voluntary. Some farmers may want to incinerate fallen stock on their farms, and the regulation will permit that. We will include guidance on the controls that are to apply in a letter to be sent to all livestock farmers shortly. Having long discussions in an effort to reach agreement with the industry and to do things co-operatively delays sending out letters and reaching a conclusion. It is a matter of considerable regret that it has taken so long to reach this point, but we are encouraged that there seems to be movement. DEFRA is offering not only the muscle and co-operation, but additional finance. I hope that things happen in quick time.

I am conscious that a couple of additional questions were asked in relation to biosecurity and fallen livestock. The new rules apply to wild animal carcasses only when they are suspected of being infected with disease or when all or part of them is being used to produce game trophies. They apply specifically to domestic animals. In some parts of the country, it could be assumed that badgers may be infected with tuberculosis and would therefore require disposal according to the regulation—for example, by incineration. However, in most cases it would be assumed that wildlife would be deemed healthy when killed, whether through shooting or road accidents. In relation to the regulation, I am not sure that there is a complication along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George).

The regulation will be directly enforceable and applicable in the UK and national legislation will not repeat its provisions, but will give effect to the regulation by providing for offences in relation to power of entry and so on. Until the various statutory instruments are in place, the enforcement provisions in the Animal By-Products Order 1999 will remain in force. That is to say, burial will be permitted only when no alternative disposal route is available. We envisage that the statutory instrument for England will be introduced shortly and ahead of those for the devolved Administrations.

I hope that, as a result of the discussions today, we will see an agreement that enables all farmers to be told that, with the full co-operation of the farming unions, a national scheme is in place that will save money for farmers and the farming industry. I realise that there has been concern in rural communities about the new rules. The fairest way to describe the matter is to say that we wanted to continue the discussions with farming representatives to try to get an outcome that was achieved by agreement, which is in everyone's interests, rather than argue or disagree about the issues.

The Government are prepared to contribute financially to setting up the scheme. The voluntary scheme that we propose is fair and it can be made to work if there is a genuine partnership approach between the Government, the farming unions and the livestock disposal industry to enable it to be set up. That is why I believe very strongly that the time for complaining and disagreement is over. We need to make the scheme a reality, and the Government are going beyond the minimum that they need to do to help the farming industry to develop a solution that will be workable on the ground.