Clause 5 gives effect to schedule 2, which is an addition to the 1981 Act and specifically covers scrapie. Although I support in broad principle the Government's strategy to reduce scrapie more rapidly from the national flock, I have some concerns about that part of the Bill.
According to the DEFRA website, scrapie, which is a notifiable disease in all EU countries, is still prevalent throughout the world. It may be useful to the Committee to know that although it has been compulsory since 1993 to notify scrapie, in recent times it has been reported in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. It is also a notifiable disease in about 50 per cent. of non-EU countries--that is significant, because they include countries that are waiting to join the EU--such as the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Switzerland, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Moldova and Norway. Cases have been reported in Poland and Hungary, which, like the Czech Republic, are waiting to join the EU, and in many other countries.
It is worthy and commendable for us to be engaged in a plan to eliminate scrapie from the national flock, but I have reservations on several counts. We seem to be proceeding apace while there is no suggestion that the Government have sought and obtained similar activity in other EU countries, or addressed the problem that countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary will join the EU shortly. They are big farming countries and the EU should be discussing the problem with them if they are about to become part of the common agricultural policy. Will the Minister give us some information on what discussions he and his colleagues have had with our EU partners about the countries about to join?
As a former agriculture Minister, I recall clearly that in 1996 the suggestion that BSE might have entered the sheep flock was subject to much consideration. There were orders to remove sheep and goat heads and offal; it was thought prudent to exclude those from the human food chain. It was a matter of concern not just in the UK, but in the United States, where research had taken place, albeit on around 20 strains--there are many more than 20 strains of scrapie--and in France, where the Dormont committee, the French equivalent to our Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, advised the French Government to press ahead with measures in the EU. I am not making any complaint about that, but my clear recollection as a Minister was that the issue was seen as an EU-wide problem. I would have expected not just that unilateral action was being taken in the UK, but that the Minister could update us on the science and research in other EU countries and America, which has a keen
interest in the matter. We know that New Zealand has eliminated scrapie from its national flock. We should examine what has been done there.
I am concerned because this part of the Bill is relevant to farmers, their incomes and their competitiveness. During an earlier sitting, I had a short exchange with the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. He has, very quietly, just accused me of having a senior moment—just like a young upstart. This, however, is a serious point. The hon. Gentleman clearly said at column 6 of the record of this Committee that he felt it appropriate for the UK to take a lead and go ahead. I have reservations. The NFU note on this part of the Bill says:
''The NFU supports the current voluntary plan for the eradication of scrapie in the sheep flock. The provisions in Schedule 2 are intended to reduce the likely time horizon''.
We all agree with that. The NFU, however, adds caveats, saying that that would mean that
''farmers could have to pay for additional sampling and testing of their animals''.
We all know the problems of the farming community and farm income. The question of compensation is important. It applies especially to those who have paid a lot of money for breeding stock that is a valuable part of their farm assets, only to find that the rams are devalued because they have been identified as genetically susceptible to scrapie. We must consider how much compensation should apply in such cases, because the problem has an impact on farm income.
British farmers would be at a competitive disadvantage if they were not properly compensated or faced additional charges when such procedures were not in place in other countries. If the problem is found to be prevalent and there is a huge reduction in breeding stock, there may be a need to import breeding stock. I am concerned at that, because it may not come from a country that is as vigilant as us in eliminating scrapie from its national herd. I am concerned about several read-acrosses, rather than the general principle incorporated in the Bill, and yet again about how the Government implement their intentions.
Another matter concerns me. I am not saying that the Minister is personally responsible, because it is probably his boss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who feels the need to put out constant warnings about sheep and human health. I know that the Minister will want to defend her, but I would like to read something from the regulatory impact assessment that applies to the clause. Under the section entitled ''Option 3. Making genotyping compulsory'', the direct beneficiaries of putting compulsory genotyping in place are flagged up. They would include:
''Government in terms of being able to safeguard human health and . . . to safeguard the future of the sheep industry as an integral part of the rural economy.''
Another beneficiary would be:
''Consumers in terms of safety of produce''.
Again, the Government are taking powers that cannot be described simply as precautionary. Precautionary measures are already in place where sheep carcases and human health are concerned. We have just gone through a three-year experiment that was probably one of the worst cock-ups ever to come out of a Government Department, and have still not had a full explanation of why cattle brains were examined instead of sheep brains. That has set decision making in this area back by several years.
According to the Government, the clause relates not only to the elimination of scrapie but to the read-across into potential BSE in sheep and the implications of that for human health. Of course, there must be a precautionary measure, but in their own document associated with the Bill the Government suggest that the measure should be implemented on the ground of safety of produce for consumers. If that argument is so compelling that the measure needs to go into the Bill, why has the Minister not taken additional measures to remove from the human food chain products about which he has grave reservations, but not the science to back them up? The measure is more than just precautionary but it does not have the backing of science.
That matter is being looked at by scientists not only in this country, but throughout the world. None of the research—not even from the British experiment that went wrong, the Dormont committee, or the American bioassay experimentation—has been brought into the public domain or consulted on by the Minister, yet here he is claiming, and praying in aid, that the measure will safeguard human health.
I am concerned that the measure is about more than removing scrapie from the national flock. It is clearly stated that it is a human health issue. If it is and the Minister genuinely believes that, he has a duty not just to the Committee but to the general public to put into the public domain the information that will explain what he is saying in the documents associated with the Bill.
I fully understand—no one understands more than I do; I was at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1994 to 1997—that when Ministers receive scientific advice, even as a precautionary measure, they have to act on it. That has been the history. We could discuss at the margins of another debate what has happened in the past over BSE, but it is a fact that every piece of advice that SEAC gave the previous Government on what needed to be done for human health was carried out, certainly during the time when I held office at MAFF.
I am having difficulty because I cannot see where the science behind the measure is. Decisions should be based on science. I am the first to admit that science can be flawed, that scientists are not perfect and do not always have the answers and that science develops over years. What was the case five or 10 years ago changes, because scientific work progresses and new techniques and technologies come into play enabling more accurate information to be put into the public domain. However, I cannot see where the science for this measure has come from—nationally or
internationally. I cannot see how it is in the public interest for the Government to say that the measure has been introduced for consumers' health without backing that up substantively with the science that has led them to believe that.
We could all pluck out of the air 101 pure guesstimates about what might or might not be a dangerous situation. If the Minister is concerned about human health, that is even more reason to include in the Bill measures to prevent imports coming into the country. They are a real risk to human health, which we all can see.
I would like the science that justifies the Minister's wording of the measure and other parts of the Bill that follow on from it. I am not opposed to removing scrapie but, yet again, the Government have not thought through some of their proposals, the consequences for those on the farming community and its competitiveness, or the clear signal that they are now giving consumers about the potential danger of eating sheep meat.
On Second Reading, I raised a query about the wording in the Food Standards Agency's bulletin about the measure and its consequences for milk and milk products from sheep and goats. I am grateful for the detailed letter that the Minister sent me on that, but if he genuinely believes that there is a risk, he should quantify it. It is extraordinary. A Government advisory committee has flagged up that it may wish to ban milk and milk products from sheep and goats, but the precautionary measure does not apply to that, although it applies to scrapie in general.
I should like a lot of information from the Minister on the science behind proposals relating to the consequences of BSE's infecting sheep through scrapie. I should also like him to tell us about scrapie eradication and research findings in other countries. For example, is the Dormont committee still concerned about the problem, and if so what research has convinced it that the problem is on-going? Have the Americans produced any new evidence in the past four or five years to suggest that such an approach is justified? We must have such scientific justification.
However much people criticised the actions of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the previous Conservative Administration, and even though we sometimes took flak publicly, I believe that we were right to base ministerial decisions on the best scientific advice available at the time. At the moment, however, we appear to be witnessing not scientific decision making but political decision making. I offer the Minister these words of advice. As soon as one departs from the science, however imperfect, and one starts to take political decisions, it becomes difficult to resist the pressure to do the same in other areas. In making such a departure, one opens a Pandora's box for all future ministerial decisions. Decisions should be based on science, and I should like the Minister to explain the scientific basis for this one.
Having accused me of tabling the senior amendment, the hon. Gentleman makes a further reference to my age. Although I am flattered to be told that I have a wide experience of life, I am beginning to be reminded of the poem ''You are Old, Father William''. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough not to refer to my age or other such matters again.
I shall be only too pleased to do as the hon. Lady asks, although it should be noted that today she has reached an age that I shall reach in a few months' time.
We are all in broad agreement on scrapie. However, on consulting the DEFRA website when it was first established, I noted that one of DEFRA's aims was the eradication of scrapie. I wondered then whether that aim was established by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the light of BSE or some other problem that had been hanging around, or by DEFRA in the light of another event. That is an important issue. Scrapie has been with us for some time without causing major problems, so it is important to ask why this decision has been taken now.
I take the hon. Lady's point about uncompetitiveness. I held the perhaps somewhat naive view that eradicating the disease might persuade consumers that our produce had been improved and was worthy of commanding a premium. However, perhaps the cost of eradication would outweigh any potential premium. We have seen as much in organics, where additional costs are not necessarily reflected in the premium—
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, in that by making food even purer and more reassuring, one might command a premium price. However, is it not true that, as with organics, many consumers merely pay lip service to that principle? On buying products, they generally turn to the cheapest on the supermarket shelf, and if we adopted such a policy we might price ourselves out of the market.
I agree absolutely that that danger exists. We saw how rapidly public opinion on vaccination moved during the foot and mouth crisis. The fear was that supermarkets would not stock vaccinated meat because their consumers would not want to eat it. Consumers sometimes think in irrational ways. Indeed, it is perhaps irrational to be prepared to eat meat from animals that might be infected with scrapie, although consumers have probably done as much for most of their lives. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a sea-change in public perceptions of food safety, and such a change can prove an important factor. The Minister should explain why now is the right time to accelerate progress of the existing voluntary arrangement, because progress is already being made, although perhaps not as quickly as expected.
A couple of other points were raised on Second Reading, the first of which concerns the loss of specific breeds' potentially beneficial gene pools. If we want to eradicate scrapie, what do we do with the remaining flocks? Is there an argument for living with scrapie on the ground that UK flocks have gene pools that might prove valuable in future? To eradicate those pools through eradicating scrapie might stack up potential problems. We need to strike a balance.
The second point, to which reference has been made, is the question of traceability. We need to push identification and traceability as hard as eradication, if not harder. This is an important issue, and although it would seem prima facie sensible to eradicate scrapie from UK flocks, we need to take a step back and ensure that the time is right. We must be certain that accelerating the eradication process is the sensible way forward, that it will prove economically beneficial, and that we will not lose potentially valuable gene pools.
I had not realised that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is celebrating her birthday today. It is appropriate that the Committee mark the event, but I would not dream of initiating a discussion on how long she has been on this earth, except to say that she has been here for a much shorter time than me. In offering my congratulations, I should also say that hers was a tremendous introduction to the issue of scrapie. She has longstanding experience of these matters, and a great interest in them from a constituency point of view.
My hon. Friend rightly said that decisions must be based on sound science, and Ben Gill, leader of the NFU, agrees. In suggesting that it was unnecessary for Britain to adopt the tough measures to control scrapie in sheep that France has proposed, he said:
''We have done far more research than the French.''
Although there was the terrible debacle concerning sheep brains and cow brains, every single test so far for BSE in newer sheep brains has proved negative. It is difficult to prove a negative, but I wish the press would stop hinting that there may be problems with sheep meat. The evidence is not there, and the public are confident of the product's quality.
Although scrapie has been with us for hundreds of years, I accept that the Government want to move on and are consequently introducing a statutory scheme to replace the existing voluntary arrangement. The National Sheep Association has expressed its concerns that the Bill is precipitate:
''The removal of TSE susceptible genes should only be undertaken once an acceptable level of resistance has been bred in.''
That is a sensible view. It suggests that that
''should only be considered when the main part of the breed has reached a figure of 75 per cent. resistance (subject to scientific advice and approval).''
What is the great hurry? The voluntary scheme might be working too slowly, but there may be ways in which we could hurry it up without introducing a statutory scheme.
The National Sheep Association also states that
''The current goodwill in the industry towards scrapie eradication needs to be fostered. The genotyping technology is new and has received good support. A great deal will be achieved by the adoption of persuasive as opposed to coercive policies. They only need to be in place as a backstop and for final clearance . . . experience of the coercive approach in other countries has not been successful and a careful approach would be more effective. Timing is of the essence.''
Why is there such a huge push on this issue? Is it because the Bill provides an opportunity to introduce new measures on scrapie, or is there a hidden agenda at which we can only guess?
The National Sheep Association makes the point that
''During the recent outbreak a number of flocks, which were already highly resistant to these diseases, were slaughtered. While foot and mouth disease would have passed through the sheep with very little direct problems the loss of quality, high health status genetics will take a long time to get back and in many cases might be irreplaceable. For that reason we would strongly recommend seeking alternative acceptable systems which might allow such stock to be removed from potential danger or maybe encouragement given to storage of semen or embryo and also possibly research done to see if foot and mouth disease is actually carried in such semen or embryos and . . . if it can be cleansed (this can be done for some diseases).''
It would like to see
''scientists and breeders working together to reduce to a minimum the potential loss of important genes in the future and to work together to focus on an optimal level solution for the benefit of all concerned.''
As I said earlier, the Minister is a great supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is concerned about the timing of the measures in clause 5. It supports the identification of sheep that are genetically susceptible to scrapie because the disease is endemic in many parts of the national flock and results in poor health and welfare for animals. It also believes that
''The section in the Bill that puts'' scrapie eradication
''on a more formal footing'' is not subject to a
''time indication in the Bill.''
Will the Minister say a few words on that subject? Will the programme be phased in over several years? Will there be sufficient time for both sides of the argument to work together to ensure that the programme's benefits, rather than its costs, are felt?
The RSPCA states:
''It would be impractical to test every single sheep in the UK within say a year''.
Obviously, that would be extremely difficult and
''the effects of testing and then culling every animal that proved positive would be devastating for the lamb industry.''
Given the tremendous numbers of animals that have already been lost, this would be a devastating and perhaps unnecessary blow.
''The RSPCA would like to see this testing programme phased in over a period of time . . . test all breeding rams and the year's lambs one year and then focus on a third or fourth group over the next years.''
Those are valid points, and I hope that the Minister will have something to say about them.
At this stage in the Committee I cannot deliver a lengthy lecture on the history of scrapie and transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. However, because it is the birthday of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, I should be happy to send her a letter updating her on what other countries are doing on the issue. I am sure that she will find such a letter interesting, and she can take it as a birthday present from the Committee.
The French are proposing measures in relation to their sheep flock that are similar to those proposed in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Congleton rightly said, the French have gone further than us in relation to specified risk material controls on sheep carcasses, which we are not convinced is justified in the light of current scientific knowledge. That demonstrates, however, that the concern is not solely held by the UK, but is an international issue. It would benefit our national flock if it were scrapie free, and there would be commercial advantages, which justifies moving quickly. I must emphasise that the sheep industry has co-operated excellently and has worked with us closely because it shares our aim of eradicating scrapie.
There is nothing that we cannot take into account in the quotes from the National Sheep Association that were read out by the hon. Member for Congleton. I remind the Committee that the national scrapie plan was consulted in detail before the Bill. As part of the consultation, we made it clear that at some stage we intended to make the plan compulsory, which was something that was not in dispute during the consultation period. We propose that this will be a backstop measure. We have already discussed the proposal with the sheep industry, and we know that scrapie eradication must take place over several years.
We must discuss an appropriate time scale with the industry because the current voluntary timetable is estimated at 10 or 15 years, which we consider to be too long—to be fair to the sheep industry, it also thinks that that is too long. We want to move the plan forward by discussing a realistic time scale. Indeed, we shall begin the process on the basis of voluntary agreements, and the measures may be implemented down the road when we reach a certain percentage. The majority in the sheep industry is keen to co-operate with the eradication programme because it is in its interests and those of consumers.
As far as the science is concerned, the request to accelerate the programme came from the Food Standards Agency, which we set up as an independent body to advise us on consumer issues, and we take its opinion seriously. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has also recommended the eradication programme. I accept the view of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the risks are theoretical, but we are in a post-BSE environment and we must learn the lessons of that.
Talking of disasters, there has been no bigger disaster for the agricultural sector than BSE. It has touched just about every sector of farming, and the costs have been absolutely horrendous. I was disappointed to hear today arguments similar to the ones that were put previously, such as that there is no
absolute proof and that there are economic consequences. We have to follow the recommendations of the Phillips report that we must not rule out the worst-case scenarios and that we must think ahead and not rule anything out.
We know that scrapie is transmitted throughout the sheep's body, in a different way from BSE. It is found in the lymph nodes for example, which means that it is present throughout the meat, and therefore will get into the milk. That is why the FSA has concerns about that and why the implications are really quite severe.
I repeat again that there is no evidence of BSE in the national flock, and the advice of the Food Standards Agency is that there is no reason why people should stop eating sheep meat —and I have made that point every time I have been interviewed on this issue. Nevertheless, there is a theoretical risk that we must take seriously not only that scrapie might be masking BSE within the national flock, but that BSE is believed to be some form of mutated protein prion. There is always the risk of mutations in relation to existing TSEs. So, it would be to everybody's benefit if we had a scrapie-free flock and a TSE-resistant flock. That is the objective of the Government and the sheep industry, so there is no disagreement between us. We will discuss with industry representatives the most realistic and appropriate time scale for achieving this.
The Committee is reassured by what the Minister said about co-operation with the industry and the timing of the introduction of the scheme. However, there are two important points to take into account. First and foremost, it is important that other European countries undertake the same type of programmes as we do. It is hardly likely that we will import much sheep meat because we produce so much of our own, which is of the highest quality, but we do not act unilaterally in respect of marketing, so what we do here should also apply to other European countries. The Food Standards Agency, which looks into the wholesomeness of food produced in the United Kingdom, cannot look into food that is imported into this country, although I understand that it is trying to widen its remit in that regard.
The FSA does have a role in relation to the quality of all food in our country. Of course there are food regulations within the single market, but that does not mean that the FSA cannot comment on any particular issue. As far as other European economies are concerned, I know that the EU Standing Veterinary Committee is looking seriously at TSEs, and may well want to pursue these matters on an EU-wide basis. I strongly support that, but it does not stop us taking action. Historically, we have the biggest problem with BSE in Europe, so we cannot ignore the potential risk that the kind of feed that is believed to be linked with BSE, could have been fed to sheep in the early 1990s.
A range of experiments is continuing. The reasons for the failure of the Institute of Animal Health experiment are set out in the independent audit, which is in the Library. It explains what went wrong with that particular experiment. We should not be too hard on the Institute of Animal Health, however. Generally speaking, it is a good organisation that does first-class work for the Government. It has an international reputation and it has expressed some doubts about the providence of that particular experiment, given that it involved a brain-pool collected in the early 1990s. Basically, the experiment was conducted on a jar of brain paste. It is probably not so easy to differentiate between a jar of bovine brain paste and a jar of ovine brain paste, although I accept that the independent audit rightly pointed to issues of labelling and traceability, which the independent audits quite rightly pointed out.
In relation to the general principle, I understand the concerns that have been expressed and can reassure Committee members that we want to proceed with scrapie eradication with the co-operation of the sheep industry and we are confident that we can achieve that.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, having decided to proceed at such a pace—I say that not as a criticism—he seems to be rather uncertain about what is happening in the rest of Europe. There must have been discussions with the Agriculture Commissioner and the Commission's veterinary committees. Can he give us more tangible information? Have other EU countries decided to take a different approach? Is that why we are not moving forward together?
Secondly, in the light of the results of the Institute of Animal Health experiment, how do the Government intend to replicate that experimentation? I do not mean that they should necessarily carry out the same tests—things may have moved on—but there is concern about the lack of science in establishing whether or not BSE has entered the sheep population. What will happen next in terms of experimentation?
That point goes beyond the scope of the Committee, but I shall be happy to send the hon. Lady details of the five-point action plan on sheep TSEs that I have announced.
With regard to other European countries, I have already said that the French are considering taking exactly the same steps as we are taking. I am not aware of the latest up-to-date situation in all the countries, but I know that they have been discussing the matter, as has the Standing Veterinary Committee, and I will be pleased to update the hon. Lady on the progress that has been made.
I am grateful for the Minister's comments, especially in the light of the Meat and Livestock Commission's lamb lunch the week before last. The sheep farmers there shared his sentiments about eradicating scrapie from the national flock and showed a typical bulldog—perhaps I should say sheepdog—spirit in doing so.
It was incumbent on the Government not to lump such an important measure in with the foot and mouth-preventing legislation. That sends out a damaging signal to people abroad, who may think that the Bill is designed to eradicate not only foot and mouth disease, but scrapie and anything else. That might appear to be a rash marketing move, given the images that people have seen on television of bodies being burned and the huge cost to our countryside and tourist industry. We should try to do everything that we can to encourage people to buy British and not to think that everything here is diseased, which of course it is not. Huge steps have been taken in marketing light lamb. It is a great shame that that was necessary, but in terms of the impact of foot and mouth on our exports it represents one of the minor success stories.
A matter that arises later in the Bill but is relevant here is the electronic identification of scrapie genotype-sensitive sheep. In my limited experience of sheep, they tend to lose almost any identification tag unless it is a bolus injected into them, and even those can be lost. That worries me, given that the Bill generally takes a draconian attitude to people who in any way deviate from the straight and narrow, regardless of whether it is their fault. Owners who have lost electronic tags through no fault of their own may be placed in a difficult position.
In the light of the foot and mouth crisis, it would be difficult for a voluntary scheme for the eradication of scrapie to have been as successful as the Minister might have hoped, especially as at any stage a farmer could expect his animals to be contiguously culled. Eradicating scrapie may have been placed lower down the priority list than it should have been. The overriding commercial advantage of not having scrapie is not being punished for having another disease. I therefore welcome this part of the Bill, but to legislate before consultation and discussion puts people at a disadvantage in respect of speed of progress. I am sorry that the Minister was not more accurate in his predictions of how quickly scrapie will be removed under the Bill.
I am also concerned that, once again, we will be dealing with the dodgy science that gave us the image of a Minister feeding a hamburger to his daughter; perhaps we will see a Minister feeding a kebab to his cat. I hope that significant steps are taken to encourage people to eat lamb that is now scrapie-free and that it is not simply lumped with earlier foot and mouth images. I wonder what steps the Government will take to encourage people to eat more lamb. Perhaps Tim nice-but-dim will appear on television more frequently—he has been advertising how simple it is to cook and eat lamb.
We have had a useful debate on the principles behind the Bill and I thank the Minister for his helpful comments.
The terminology and wording of the parts of the Bill that deal with the provisions for scrapie are in stark contrast to the rest of it. The Minister said that the scrapie regulations would be the product of a mixture of consultation and the stick and carrot method and that there would be a backstop element. That is
reasonable, and the word ''reasonable'' even appears frequently in the Bill. It makes me wonder when that was written compared with the rest of the Bill. The rest is anything but carrot and stick: it is all stick, and a big stick at that. The provisions for scrapie regulations are written in a much more reasonable manner, and are in stark contrast to other provisions.
I do not think that we have received the reassurance that we sought from the Minister on the economic arguments and the impact on farmers. There has been broad approval for the thrust of this part of the Bill, which will speed up the eradication of scrapie from the national flock. I support the clause but I look forward to reading the Minister's bundle of letters that he has now promised me—I hope that they will be tied up with a nice ribbon.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.