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Agriculture: Bluetongue

Volume 706: debated on Monday 15 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will introduce emergency legislation to prevent the import of live cattle, sheep and goats from Europe as a control measure against bluetongue disease.

My Lords, we have no plans to ban imports of bluetongue-susceptible livestock into the UK. Movements of susceptible species are governed by EC regulation 1266/2007, which was developed with the best available scientific advice, balancing risks proportionately against impact on trade. Where new evidence has become available, rules have been adjusted. We will continue to consider emerging evidence and any implications for movement conditions, including the findings of ongoing investigation into the recent BTV1 case.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that all cases of BTV1 are a result of importing live animals from mainland Europe? I am aware of what the Minister said about EU rules, but to avoid a catastrophe it is essential that action should be taken now to prevent imports of live cattle and sheep into the UK, which I believe would be a disaster for farming livestock systems in the UK. Is it not now essential to act and persuade the European Commission to give us permission to do this?

My Lords, I certainly agree that it is important to learn the lessons of the case of the imported cattle that were detected with BTV1, although I doubt whether one can draw the conclusion that imports should be banned because of it. Undoubtedly, lessons have to be learnt. We are in discussions with the European Union. The noble Lord will probably know that new proposals were made at the beginning of this month in relation to what are described as preventive vaccination zones. We will look at that very carefully.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the British Veterinary Association pointed out last week that this form of bluetongue, serotype 1, is not susceptible to any licensed vaccine? Is that not a particular reason for taking action now? Does he recognise that those of us with farming neighbours and constituents who suffered the devastation of foot and mouth, and before that BSE, believe that this looks like the Government dithering and delaying?

My Lords, we are not dithering or delaying. The policy developed by the Government, through advice from the core group on which a great deal of farming interests are represented, is that this proportionate approach is the best one. A vaccine is available but it has not been licensed in the United Kingdom. Of course we will look at these matters very carefully. There is no complacency on the part of the Government but it is essential to take a proportionate approach in this area.

My Lords, will my noble friend comment on the report that this disease affects cattle, or are the Government considering among their options dividing the sheep from the goats?

My Lords, at this time of the year divisions of sheep and goats are always of great moment. Bluetongue is an insect-borne viral disease to which all species of ruminants are susceptible, including sheep, cattle, deer, goats and camelids, which embrace camels, llamas, alpacas, guanaco and vicuna. It does not affect horses or pigs.

My Lords, the vaccination programme that the Government have set in train does not provide protection against BTV1. To allow the import of cattle from areas where BTV1 is prevalent is surely to take an unnecessary risk with the health of the nation’s livestock. I do not understand the Government’s position. There is no protection against this disease, so why import livestock from such areas?

My Lords, the proportionate approach that the Government have taken is consistent with what has been happening under EU regulations and with the advice that we have received through the core group. In the case of BTV1, as a result of the tests that took place on the import of those cattle, the problem was identified, the cattle were culled and further investigations are taking place. We are in discussion with Europe about any further action that needs to be taken. I do not think that that is complacent at all. No one could be complacent, but we have to be proportionate in the way in which we deal with this matter.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether, in the eight cases that have been referred to, the imports came directly to individual farmers or whether they came via a trader? If the latter, could the Government not look at the way in which this operation is carried out?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we need to look at the chain to make sure that all lessons are learnt. In the case that we are talking about, eight cattle left a place in south-west France. The animals are believed to have received the right vaccinations. They left the protection zone just after the minimum 60-day waiting period. We are undertaking further investigations into this matter. I assure the noble Baroness that, if there are issues in relation either to traders or to the farmer himself, we will take them up and investigate. If changes need to be made to the rules, we will make those changes.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that this Question, like the previous one, underlines the fact that Her Majesty’s Government no longer have the power to act as they might well believe is in the national interest?

Absolutely not, my Lords. Of course this Government act in the national interest. It is in our interest that we work closely with our European allies. The EU has taken a sensible, proportionate approach to dealing with these issues. Considerable discretion is given to this country on the way in which it operates those rules, and we have every ability to argue in Europe for changes in those rules. That is the Government standing up for the national interest.