Swine Fever

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:05 pm on 22nd March 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 8:05 pm, 22nd March 2001

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for initiating this debate, and to my noble friend and Suffolk neighbour Lord Phillips of Sudbury. I am looking forward to hearing the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who also farms in Suffolk. It is rather on account of that East-Anglian connection that I speak in the debate this evening.

I make no claims to be an expert on the pig industry. However, my home county of Suffolk was at the heart of the outbreak last year, so I have taken a particular interest in its effects on our local economy. As a county councillor in Suffolk, I have a further interest in the sense that the county council is one of the leading agencies in managing the effects of such an outbreak. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was quoted in the local press as holding Suffolk up as an exemplar of co-ordinated working. I am afraid to say, however, that the liaison did not seem to work both ways. It took MAFF four days to inform the county council of the first outbreak by which time we had heard about it through local radio programmes. Given the role of the county council as regards trading standards in animal welfare, rights of way issues, and so on, that was a far from satisfactory state of affairs.

As we heard, during the outbreak over a quarter of a million pigs were slaughtered, and many businesses jeopardised as a result. My noble friend Lord Phillips referred to the fact that, in counties like Suffolk, an entire infrastructure is built around the rearing of pigs; for example, feed manufacturers, abattoirs, suppliers of equipment and vets all suffer for some time after the outbreak is controlled. As they suffer loss of viability, that can further affect the viability of other disease-free producers. As if that vicious circle were not enough, the pig industry in East Anglia was already under enormous pressure due to the high pound, the BSE tax, cheap imports and the lack of European aid for pig producers.

The generally accepted view that the outbreak was in all likelihood caused by discarded contaminated pigmeat shows how delicately balanced the viability of our livestock industry can be, with havoc wreaked by a single random event. But an apparently accidental occurrence should not simply be dismissed as bad luck. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that, as a matter of urgency, we should be considering tighter controls of imported pig meat, especially where the exporting country has a high incidence of CSF. There must be a more robust regime of penalties for the illegal importation of pig meat produce.

The fact that last year's outbreak and the other most recent outbreak in 1986 were caused by contaminated pork demonstrates that perhaps we should be working more closely with local authorities and other agencies to see how farms are located in relation to the footpath network, local landfill sites, and so on. There has now been time to look back at last year's outbreak of CSF in a dispassionate way. As we heard, the Agriculture Select Committee in another place severely criticised the Government for their lack of preparedness for such an outbreak. It believes that lessons should have been learned from the Dutch outbreak. I, too, should like to ask the Minister whether such lessons have been learned, or whether a future inquiry into the current foot and mouth epidemic will make exactly the same points.

The 2000 outbreak in East Anglia was initially difficult to bring under control largely because it occurred in areas of extensive pig production. Although such production is highly desirable in terms of animal welfare, it makes disease control more problematic. It is, therefore, more than a little disingenuous of the Government to have taken the position that such outbreaks should be regarded as a normal business risk. Where other generally desirable outcomes, such as greater public access and higher welfare standards, lead to increased risk of disease, and where the effect of that disease will result in measures that threaten the livelihood of the farmer, it is questionable whether that should be defined as normal business risk. The pig industry has little history of subsidy and has taken on itself the need to comply with higher welfare standards which our consumers demand but often do not want to pay for. But even in an industry with a tradition of independence there is only so much that it can take.

After a good deal of anguish on the part of pig farmers, the Government eventually came up with an acceptable deal under the welfare disposal arrangements in November last. I wonder whether the Minister can outline for us the level of payments due to be made during the current crisis. Anything less than full market value will add further pressure to an industry already on the edge. With restrictions on movements and the ban on exports I hope that the EU exceptional market support measures will also be used to operate a "purchase for destruction" scheme.

It became clear recently that money earmarked for the pig industry development scheme earlier in the year was diverted to welfare payments when the outbreak occurred last year. Is there any prospect of that money being redirected back into the development scheme? Can any surety be offered that the money will not be further redirected, this time towards the victims of the foot and mouth outbreak? I also hope that the Government are prepared to take on board the criticisms of the Select Committee of another place that the industry restructuring scheme involved processes which were far more lengthy than necessary.

On a similar point, can we perhaps consider an emergency payments regime to assist farmers at this difficult time because normal living expenses do not stop while MAFF does the paperwork? On a more positive note, I should like to think that we can do a great deal more to promote the fact that British pork is produced to a higher quality and with better welfare standards than in many importing countries. There is a clear need for better marketing strategies to make those benefits clear and a regime for better labelling to assist consumers in making those choices. The growth in popularity of farmers' markets demonstrates the benefits of providing goods which have the confidence of the purchaser. In Suffolk we have supported the "Tastes of Anglia" consortium which promotes the high quality Suffolk ham and pork produce.

Suffolk is still at the moment mercifully free from foot and mouth disease. However, in a strange way last year's outbreak was a forerunner and, of course, many of the issues raised are exactly the same. Recent debates have highlighted for us all the price versus quality issues which go to the heart of concern over classical swine fever, BSE, foot and mouth disease and bovine TB. Perhaps it is time to have a proper independent oversight and research into the issues of animal husbandry, perhaps through the Food Standards Agency if it is given adequate resources.

There seems to be a growing consensus that there must be major changes in the way our rural economy works, but this needs to be judged on a rational basis, some distance in time from the heat of the crisis, and in a rounded way which does not seek to treat agriculture separately from the rural economy and the wider issues of public health and confidence.

For East Anglian pig farmers, suffering the second crisis in seven months, the future is not looking good. I hope that perhaps the Minister will be able to offer some crumbs of comfort to this important part of the East Anglian economy.