Livestock Movements

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 30th January 2003.

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Photo of Mr Phil Sawford Mr Phil Sawford Labour, Kettering 11:30 am, 30th January 2003

If she will make a statement on the 20-day standstill rule for livestock.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We announced in a written statement on 23 January that, subject to satisfactory further consultation with the livestock industry, we intend to reduce the standstill for cattle, sheep and goats to six days with effect from 4 March 2003.A supporting document explaining that decision has been placed in the Library and published on the Department's website.

Photo of Mr Phil Sawford Mr Phil Sawford Labour, Kettering

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that many in the agricultural industry will welcome those changes, because the previous arrangement was having a serious impact, especially on smaller farmers. As the restrictions are intended to combat the spread of serious contagious diseases, which could be catastrophic, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance to the House that she will take action against any farmers, landholders, dealers or others who seek to break or circumvent the rules?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know, and other hon. Members will recall, that the Government were strongly advised by the Royal Society inquiry and the Anderson inquiry to maintain restrictions until an assessment could be carried out. I assure my hon. Friend that one of my reasons for mentioning the consultation with the livestock industry is that the changes are subject to the industry's commitment to a package of measures to improve the level of biosecurity and disease surveillance. In everything we do, we must be sure that we do what we can to minimise the risk of disease entering the country, while, much more importantly, minimising the risk of the spread of disease. We shall certainly keep that well in mind.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I, too, welcome the reduction of the standstill rule to six days, as will Northumbrian farmers. However, does the Secretary of State recognise that some of the other proposals that are out for consultation are causing real concern? I want to highlight in particular the movement restriction that limits the movement of sheep sold through livestock marts to 150 km, or 90 miles. That means that Northumbrian farmers will be unable to move sheep to the abattoirs that are used by all the major supermarket companies, and will be able to sell sheep into that market only by selling directly to the supermarkets, whose prices, as we know, will not be generous.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our proposals. Of course I understand that there will be concern about some issues. The point of the consultation is to enable us to consider them all, and we shall certainly do so.

Photo of Mr Lawrie Quinn Mr Lawrie Quinn Labour, Scarborough and Whitby

On the evening of 16 January, I spent an interesting three hours with 18 sheep farmers from the north York moors, who will be very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend's confirmation of the reduction in the standstill rule from 20 days to six days. They asked me to press not only the Secretary of State but her noble Friend Lord Whitty to consider how soon they would be able to switch the six-day rule on to an emergency basis, so that in the event of a future outbreak the regulations could be introduced at that time of difficulty in the industry. Will my right hon. Friend address that issue?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It depends a little on what my hon. Friend was being urged to advocate. If people are anxious that we might need to increase the six-day period in a more difficult situation because of the implications of a disease, I assure him that the Government would review the matter at an appropriate time. However, if some people in the industry advocate a return to the days of no movement restrictions, I find that hard to contemplate. No Government would be keen to risk that, not least because of the huge consequences of the recent outbreak for the industry and a range of other economic interests in rural areas.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It would be churlish not to welcome the Government's late conversion on livestock movements—[Interruption.] I say "late" because the industry and Conservative Members told the Government weeks, even months ago to change the 20-day rule because of the damage that it was inflicting. Hon. Members of all parties highlighted that. Does the Secretary of State understand that the Pauline conversion will be useless if the changes to the operating procedures cripple our essential livestock markets, as my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson suggested? The threat to those markets is profound and it has been well highlighted in Farmers Weekly, as the Secretary of State knows. Will she guarantee that changes to procedures on keeping animals overnight, washing and disinfecting vehicles and the distances that animals travel will be genuinely practical and cost neutral to the industry? As she is so worried about the import and spread of disease—

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have not forgotten that one of the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues—I do not believe that it was him—could not understand the reason for maintaining the 20-day standstill. That was an extraordinarily foolish comment given that the Government had been strongly advised by two independent inquiries, and continued to be advised by the chief veterinary officer and our chief scientific adviser to maintain such restrictions.

Far from being a late conversion, we moved to change the rule as soon as we received clear, further evidence, which we were advised to seek. As I said to Mr. Atkinson, we will do our best to ensure that the steps that we take are as practical as possible. The hon. Gentleman claimed that the changes would be useless if they cripple markets. I stress to him and to those on whose behalf he claims to speak that nothing crippled the markets as much as the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease.