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Fallen Stock (Isle of Wight)

Volume 494: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2009

The important issue of the safe and legal disposal of fallen stock has concerned farmers in my constituency for at least four years. As the Minister will know, fallen stock—farm animals that have died of natural causes or been humanely shot or euthanised by a vet—must be disposed of safely. Since May 2003, under European Union law, it has been illegal for fallen stock to be buried or burnt in open spaces. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says that that is

“because of the risk of disease spread through groundwater or air pollution.”

Carcases must be disposed of in ways approved of by DEFRA.

In most areas of the country farmers are well catered for by the national fallen stock scheme. It provides a reasonably priced, safe and efficient collection and disposal service for farmers. Disposal of a dead cow or bullock costs about £100 under the scheme. It has attracted considerable Government funding, which reduces the cost to farmers of complying with the EU directive. I do not want to stray far into the subject of EU legislation; that is rarely productive. However, the funding was not mere largesse from our Government. It is provided to comply with article 3 of the EU Animal By-products Regulations 1774/2002. The article puts an obligation on member states to ensure that adequate arrangements and infrastructure are in place, so farmers can comply with the law.

On the Isle of Wight, however, we do not have any approved facilities to deal with our fallen stock. The Isle of Wight hunt offered a service until March 2005 but withdrew from the scheme because its incinerator no longer met the animal by-product regulations. Following the hunt’s decision in May 2005 the Isle of Wight council applied for derogation from the regulations, to permit on-farm burial. That was never formally approved by DEFRA. However, between March 2005 and January this year on-farm burial was taking place. It was illegal, but it happened with the approval of DEFRA. The problem was largely masked, as most adult bovine carcases were shipped to the mainland and disposed of free of charge. That was under the compulsory testing scheme for transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a family of diseases that includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie. However, that scheme was due to end in January and it was clear that island farmers faced a real problem. Matt Legge of the island’s National Farmers Union had been keeping me informed of the situation.

I raised the issue on 18 December during the debate on the Christmas Adjournment. I pointed out that island farmers wanted to comply with the law but that there was no infrastructure that enabled them to do so—no incinerator or alternative facility. The only option would be for carcases to be shipped to the mainland. There is such a service, operated by David Biles, but it is a commercial service, which costs £450 per carcase. That is not an option for the majority of farmers. Indeed, just a few animal fatalities could put a small farm out of business. The problems were recognised by the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), when she wrote to me on 3 April confirming that island farmers need a

“comprehensive and reasonably priced collection and disposal service”.

On 23 January, I had a further meeting with Matt Legge, Laurie Calloway, county chairman of the NFU, and James Mulleneux, regional policy adviser of the NFU. They said that they could see no real progress towards a long-term solution. They felt that matters were about to be brought to a head only because two livestock farmers from Godshill, Paul and Sue Brownrigg, were being prosecuted under the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005. The whole sorry saga came to a dramatic conclusion on 22 April when the judge found that Mr. and Mrs. Brownrigg were caught between DEFRA’s unofficial derogation and the law.

Judge Graham White threw out the case, having accepted the argument put forward by the Brownrigg’s defence lawyer, Mr. Russell Reeves, that the state has a positive legal duty to provide infrastructure to enable farmers to comply with the law. To prosecute them for not obeying the law, when to do so was near impossible, was manifestly unjust and an abuse of the process. The judge described as a fudge the unofficial derogation between DEFRA and the Isle of Wight council since March 2005. That led to complete confusion. There was then a hiatus of three weeks when burial was completely banned on the island. Farmers were unable to get guidance on what should be done with their fallen stock.

Following the Brownrigg case and the disastrous gap, Ministers agreed to give the island a temporary derogation to continue burial from 2 May. On DEFRA’s website, the decision was described as

“an interim measure only while work continues on developing a longer-term solution for disposal of fallen stock on the Island.”

I am grateful to Ministers and officials who worked quickly to get the temporary derogation in place. However, the interim situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. The regulations against animal burial are in place for good public health reasons. The exceptions, which allow for burial in remote, sparsely populated areas where there is little livestock, simply do not apply to the Isle of Wight. Exceptions may be appropriate for remote areas such as the Scottish highlands and islands and small islands such as Lundy and Bardsey, but the Isle of Wight is the most populous island in the UK, with a population of some 130,000, which doubles during the summer months.

A feasibility study commissioned by the NFU and the Isle of Wight council estimated that there were around 50,000 herd animals on the island. It also estimated that there were around 15 tonnes of fallen stock per week, which means that more than 750 tonnes have to be buried every year.

The watercourses on the island, in common with many other areas, are not accurately mapped. Some farmers simply cannot bury fallen stock on their own land and regulations forbid them from burying them on other people’s land. I am sure that Ministers do not need me to spell out for them the dangers of allowing that situation to drag on for years. I would be grateful if the Minister spelled out clearly what has been done since March 2005, when the problem became apparent, towards achieving a viable, long-term solution. Even more important, could he tell me what is being done now, and give me a firm timetable of what is to happen over the coming weeks and months? Without a clear timetable, I fear that this matter will drag on and on.

The lack of urgency in dealing with the issue is apparent in how correspondence is being dealt with. On 7 May, my assistant forwarded a legal opinion from Russell Reeves to DEFRA officials asking for their comments. On 19 June, I still had not received even an acknowledgement. I chased it up myself, to be told that a reply had been drafted but that it had been held up by ministerial changes. Thankfully and, I am sure, coincidentally, after this debate was announced, I received a response by e-mail yesterday, for which I thank the Minister.

Despite being new to his brief, the Minister clearly already understands some of the issues. Unfortunately, the potential for damage to public health will not wait for ministerial changes to bed in. As DEFRA’s website explains, the degradation of BSE/TSE infectivity cannot be guaranteed by burial. Until a long-term solution is found, it is imperative that proper written guidance is sent out to farmers on what they should do with fallen livestock. Such information would help to protect the environment from inadequate burial practices, and farmers from inadvertently breaking the law. No one else should suffer as Mr. and Mrs. Brownrigg have.

I know that the Minister will agree that it is simply not good enough for the buck to be passed between DEFRA and the Isle of Wight trading standards department. Each body seems to agree that some guidance should be given out, but not by them. I would be grateful if he would promise to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and sort out who should be issuing guidance. I would like him to ensure that all island livestock keepers receive some written guidance by, say, the end of next week. That would be a small but welcome practical outcome of this debate.

The NFU has been working hard on this issue on behalf of its members for years. I would like to pay tribute to it for that. However, it is frustrated, as it feels that it is little further forward now than it was in March 2005, more than four years ago. I know that the NFU would welcome some innovative thinking to find a viable solution. Perhaps a pilot project for biodigestion or some other method of disposal could be set up if an incinerator is not the right answer. Another possibility may be some kind of joint facility with St. Mary’s hospital, which currently ships all clinical and hazardous waste off the island at considerable public expense.

Whatever the correct infrastructure solution is, the Government are under a clear obligation to act. We must start to see some progress soon. I promise that if my involvement would assist in any way, I will do all that I can to help bring about a successful outcome.

There is one other matter that I would like to touch on. My constituents Paul and Susan Brownrigg have suffered enormously as a result of the court case hanging over them for months before it was finally thrown out in April this year. The financial toll that it put them under was serious, but it is somewhat easier to quantify than the emotional and mental strain, and the impact on their family life. I would be grateful if the Minister would reflect on whether they are due an apology from DEFRA for its part in creating the situation in which they found themselves.

It would be a worthwhile legacy if the Minister, however long he may be in post, were able to look back on one of his achievements as finding a solution to the long-standing problem of the disposal of fallen stock on the Isle of Wight.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this debate on an important health issue. I thank him for his clear and concise explanation of the problems, and for meeting the challenge of reading out some difficult words, which I hopefully will avoid myself.

In recognition of the recent court judgment stating that burial on the Isle of Wight is illegal, the Government have in fact moved quickly to amend domestic legislation to legalise burial on the island so that farmers can continue to have the viable route of burial to dispose of their fallen stock. This is not just an opinion coming from me or my officials; it comes from the NFU. I have an e-mail from Richard Macdonald, the director general, who thanks one of my officials and the team—John Bourne, et al—for their speedy and excellent help in getting the Isle of Wight animal burial situation resolved so quickly. He said that it was much appreciated and needed, and that he would be grateful if thanks would go to all concerned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that some good work has been done by DEFRA and others to try to find a solution to this challenging problem.

The Government have formalised the pragmatic arrangements that have been in place for the past four years—I recognise completely the description that the hon. Gentleman has given and doubtless it has been a challenging situation. Those pragmatic arrangements are intended to ease the burden on the industry caused by a lack of approved disposal outlets on the island. They were put in place with the full agreement of all parties concerned including, obviously, the Government, and the Isle of Wight council and the industry.

As required by EU law, DEFRA has notified the EU Commission of its decision to designate the Isle of Wight as a remote area in order to permit burial. To date, no negative response has been received from the Commission. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that it is inappropriate to designate the Isle of Wight as a remote area. A case could be made by comparing it with more remote places, but most people living on the mainland would think the Isle of Wight is pretty remote. Some of my family lived there, so I know from experience that it is not unknown for ferries and other forms of transport to be delayed or postponed, sometimes for days in extremis. The case that DEFRA has made that the island is remote stands up to factual scrutiny, and we may have to disagree about it.

The amendment to domestic legislation will remain under review and DEFRA will continue to work closely with the local authority, the Environment Agency, the Rural Development Commission, farming unions and local collectors to ensure a longer-term solution—other than burial—for disposal of fallen stock on the island. To that end, the Isle of Wight Economic Partnership has invited proposals for disposal of fallen stock on the island, as the hon. Gentleman will know, which include the possibility of an on-island incinerator. It recently made an assessment of expressions of interest. DEFRA officials are being consulted on the process and will do all that they can to ensure that the process has a positive outcome. I made a note of the other suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made, because a good pot of possible solutions is welcome as we move through the process.

The Government agree that the current arrangements, while providing means for farmers to dispose of their fallen stock in the short term, do not provide a satisfactory long-term solution. That is why we are working closely with all interested parties on the island to find a commercially viable, more permanent solution for disposing of fallen stock safely and without risk to the environment. Any support the hon. Gentleman can provide to the efforts of the Isle of Wight council, the NFU, DEFRA and others to find viable proposals will be greatly appreciated by all the organisations involved and, doubtless, by his farming constituents, who I am sure are keen for the matter to be rectified as soon as possible.

On a point of fact, I should like to mention the Brownrigg case. On 10 November 2007, at around 10.30 am, Mrs. Stephanie Moul was riding a horse when she saw five dead sheep in a field farmed by the Brownriggs. Further down the track, she saw more remains, including a jaw and leg bone with fleece attached. Two minutes or so later, she saw two more decaying sheep carcases. Between 12 and 16 November 2005, Isle of Wight council trading standards officers visited the Brownrigg’s farm and observed similar things in different quantities in different locations. They observed skulls, sheep spines and ribcages, carcasses at varying stages of decay, a sheep’s leg protruding from a patch of maggots on a muck heap, and miscellaneous sheep bones and skeletons.

On 22 April this year, a court judgment dismissed a case taken by the Isle of Wight local authority to prosecute the Brownriggs for failure to dispose of fallen stock in accordance with the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005—the hon. Gentleman referred to this case, which of course involved his constituents. The judge ruled that as the state, DEFRA and the Isle of Wight council had failed to

“ensure that adequate arrangements exist to guarantee the collection and transportation of fallen stock”,

as stated in article 7(3) of the EU animal by-products regulation, it was an abuse of process to prosecute Mr. and Mrs. Brownrigg under the domestic regulations. The judge dismissed the case and ruled that burial under a pragmatic arrangement put in place by DEFRA with council and industry agreement was illegal.

In response to the judgment, DEFRA amended domestic legislation with effect from 2 May 2009 formally to designate the island as a remote area, thereby legalising burial and giving clarity both to enforcers and to farmers. DEFRA stresses that the derogation to allow burial should be considered an interim measure only, and work continues on developing a longer-term solution to disposal.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman on the need for the matter not to drag on and for a solution to be found as soon as possible. To that end, I have decided to visit the Isle of Wight to meet interested parties so that we can work together to find a medium and longer-term solution to the lack of fallen stock disposal outlets on the island. Without having to ask, I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to play an important role in that. I look forward to meeting him and his constituents shortly, with a view to finding a pragmatic solution as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended.