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Agriculture: Farm Animal Disease

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to meet the costs of any future outbreak of farm animal disease.

My Lords, we gave an undertaking in the coalition agreement to investigate ways to share with livestock keepers the responsibility for preparing for and dealing with outbreaks of disease. We will take stock of the recommendations of the independently chaired responsibility and cost sharing advisory group before bringing forward our proposals.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will the group take into account those farmers who already have good biosecurity measures in place? Will the Government put in much stronger measures to ensure that the illegal importation of bush meat and other meats is ended?

My Lords, the group is independent and will consider all matters. As a result of that, as my noble friend will be aware, it will certainly consider the point that she has made.

Given that the Government are willing to share this issue, would a clean solution not be an insurance-based system that could be made compulsory for animal keepers? The problem at present is that no company would carry the risk, which, by definition, would be too great. The solution would therefore be to have the same system for animals as exists for terrorism: there would not be a commercial market were it not for the pooling system of the contributions, backed up at the end of the day by the Government. This would not be an open-ended commitment, but it would be a very practical solution. I admit to failing, when I was in the Minister’s position, to get that kind of system up and running.

My Lords, I am surprised to hear the noble Lord admit to ever failing in anything, but he makes an interesting suggestion and we will certainly look at it. He will understand, however, that I would rather not comment before the independent advisory group produces its report, which is due to come out in December. When it comes out the noble Lord will want to see it, as will I and, indeed, the Government.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the 2001-02 foot and mouth outbreak cost the nation in the order of £6 billion? I speak from memory. What will he do in his planning to ensure that the farming community does not have to go to such lengths to pay that sort of sum?

My Lords, like my noble friend, I remember that outbreak well; I live up in Cumberland, where it started. We will take on board all that we learnt from the 2001 outbreak. If I may correct my noble friend, the cost to the United Kingdom was in the order of £8 billon, while the costs to the Government—to the taxpayer—were something like £3 billion. We will do everything that we can to ensure that such an outbreak does not happen again, but that if it does, we will react to it in exactly the right manner.

My Lords, as the Minister is well aware, many of these animal diseases are episodic and, thankfully, those such as foot and mouth occur perhaps only every 30 or 40 years. One of the problems is that lessons are lost with regard to the administrative experience and the backup necessary to deal with them. Will the Minister ensure that his department has in place a lesson-learning system so that, if ever we face foot and mouth again, we are prepared for it? This applies to the non-veterinary side.

My Lords, the noble Lord and I are both old enough to remember the 2001 outbreak. I can just about remember the 1967 outbreak—I was in short trousers—and other Members of this House who are older than me might also remember it. The noble Lord will also remember that there was a good report from, I think, the Duke of Northumberland into that outbreak from which lessons could have been learnt, and lessons could have been learnt from the 2001 outbreak. I appreciate that these outbreaks happen only rarely; I would have hoped that they would have been even rarer, but we will certainly want to continue to learn lessons on each occasion.

My Lords, I doubt whether the Minister will remember that some 40 years ago I had the privilege of announcing that we had totally eradicated bovine tuberculosis. He will know that 40,000 animals are lost to it every year at the moment, at a cost of £100 million. How are we going to deal with that in the future?

My Lords, I would not want to make any comment about how we will deal with bovine TB, but my noble friend is right to stress how much it costs us each year. The figure that I have is in the order of £80 million and rising. We will, again, look at all evidence. We want all decisions to be made on an evidence-based model. We will make appropriate responses in due course.

My Lords, in his reply to the noble Baroness, the Minister seemed to herald a possible change in government policy. Before the election the current Minister of State ruled out cost-sharing, but the Minister wisely prefers to wait until the outcome of the report—which the previous Government set in place—and its recommendations. Is the Minister therefore saying that a change in policy on this matter, which would be welcome, is possible?

My Lords, as I said, we will wait until we see what the report says. If the noble Baroness is suggesting that we changed our minds I should remind her that, having set up this review, the previous Government then proceeded, almost straightaway, to publish their draft Bill. That seems a very odd way of going about it. It is distinctly odd to institute a review and then suggest that there should be a Bill. We will look at the results of that review when they come out in December and then we will make the appropriate decisions.

My Lords, I ask the Minister for his assurance that, despite any reduction in funding that may apply to agriculture and animal and plant health, the surveillance systems in this country are safeguarded, particularly with regard to exotic diseases. As has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Plumb, their introduction can be devastating. It is very important that our surveillance systems are kept in place to safeguard against any incursion from overseas.

My noble friend is right to remind the House of the financial constraints facing the Government as a result of what the previous Government managed to achieve in their 13 years in office. Nevertheless, I can assure my noble friend that we will make sure that the appropriate surveillance continues to be in place to deal with all animal diseases.

My Lords, as we have made clear, we will look at the evidence from the pilot projects that have been conducted by another Administration—that is, the one in Wales. We will make a decision based on the science that comes before us, but we will not make a decision until it is appropriate to do so.

Is my noble friend satisfied that we have enough sniffer dogs at ports of entry to detect all meats coming in? The last time I came through Heathrow I could not see one.

My Lords, I am not sure how many sniffer dogs we have at Heathrow or other ports of entry. I will make inquiries for my noble friend and write to him in due course.