Infectious Salmon Anaemia

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 24th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 24th May 2000

The first item of business this afternoon is a statement by Mr John Home Robertson on infectious salmon anaemia. There will be questions at the end of the statement, so there should be no interventions during it.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 2:31 pm, 24th May 2000

I made a statement to Parliament on 15 December last year about infectious salmon anaemia; I undertook to keep members informed on the matter.

Since then, the Government-industry joint working group has produced its report on the disease and, in particular, on how the industry should adjust management, husbandry and other practices in the light of the lessons learned. Copies of the report are available in the Scottish Parliament information centre.

On receipt of the document in February, I promised to publish the Executive's response within three months. I am fulfilling that undertaking now and take this opportunity to report on a number of ISA developments.

For the record, we have had 11 confirmed cases of ISA and 25 suspect cases. The last confirmed case was in May last year and the most recent suspect cases were last November.

It was in November last year also that I announced that the ISA virus had been isolated, for the first time, in a small number of wild sea trout and eels. Laboratory tests also suggested that the virus might be present in brown and rainbow trout and salmon parr in some freshwater systems, including the Tweed, although subsequent tests proved negative. Further wild fish surveillance was needed, and that work is under way both north and south of the border. The results will help to inform future judgments about the prevalence of the virus in the environment.

We are not out of the woods yet—further outbreaks could occur—but the outlook seems more encouraging. Of the 11 sites where immediate slaughter and clearance were required, 10 are now back in production after extensive cleansing and fallowing. Of the 25 suspect sites, only seven remain stocked with fish. Fifteen sites are back in production following clearance. The remaining three are empty and working their way through the mandatory fallowing period. The successful clearance of those confirmed and suspect sites means that another 36 farms near those sites that had been covered by precautionary restrictions have now been freed from those restrictions.

Ever since the outbreak of the disease in Scotland, a working group of Government and industry representatives has been considering ways of improving the prevention and control of ISA. I have already referred to the report from the working group; I commend it to members with constituency or regional interests in fish farming. The preparation of that substantial report required a great deal of hard work from the industry representatives and from scientists and officials in my department at a time when all of them were heavily committed to the task of managing the actual disease outbreak. I thank all those involved.

The report has 74 recommendations aimed at risk reduction in key areas such as the movements of fish, dead and alive; the effluent from fish farming processes; and sharing of equipment between farms. A number of recommendations have already been acted upon, such as the refinement of diagnostic techniques and research into the efficacy of disinfectants against ISA. We are also seeking to improve the ways in which waste is managed.

I have placed a note in the Scottish Parliament information centre outlining the Executive's response to the report's recommendations. It is self-explanatory, but I would like to highlight three points. First, we had to make a choice between legislation and a voluntary code of practice for the enforcement of the new arrangements. I would have preferred to give the new rules the force of law, given the experience of poor practice in some parts of the industry. However, it would take time to enact new legislation, so I have been persuaded to give the industry a last chance to make a voluntary code of practice work. I am therefore accepting the proposal in the report for a code of practice. That can be delivered more quickly, particularly in the light of the constructive co-operation that characterised the preparation of the report. I assure members that I, and more particularly my department's fish health inspectorate, will be watching the situation carefully. If there are any signs of backsliding, I will not hesitate to take tough action and if necessary, we will be prepared to introduce legislation.

Secondly, I refer to fallowing. The report highlights the potential advantages of fallowing both for disease control and wider environmental protection. Many more companies are practising fallowing, but there are some, for example, those with single sites or continuous operations, which do not. I do not think that that is sustainable in the long term, so the time has come to consider appropriate statutory requirements for fallowing. Over the coming months, my officials will be working up proposals, which will be discussed with industry representatives on the joint aquaculture health group.

The third point that I want to highlight is welfare. Many of the recommendations in the report on issues such as the handling of fish and the cleansing of sites will have a beneficial effect on fish welfare. That is to be welcomed, but I do not think that there are any grounds for complacency and I shall be asking the new aquaculture health group, which has been established from the joint working group, to come forward with proposals in due course. Concern about welfare in aquaculture is increasing in the European Union, and Scotland must play a full part in consideration of that subject, so that we can respond to any new requirements positively and promptly.

There are several other positive developments to report. When we discussed this matter last December, there was concern that the measures taken when there is a confirmed outbreak of ISA are potentially more damaging than the disease itself. In the light of that concern and the improvement in our scientific knowledge over the past two years, I indicated that an approach had been made to the European Commission for greater flexibility over the arrangements for clearing affected farms and to allow for the possibility of vaccination against ISA in the future.

I am pleased to say that amendments to the EC disease control directive have now been secured, which will allow fish to be removed in a manner and at a pace that reflect the local circumstances and the perceived risk factor. I believe that that will provide benefits to the affected farmer without compromising overall health in the area in question. It will be necessary to return to Brussels to obtain the Commission's approval for the revised arrangements. Domestic regulations will also need to be amended, but the necessary preparations on both fronts are already in hand. I expect to submit the appropriate Scottish statutory instrument to Parliament by the end of the summer.

Another positive development that I have to report is approval of the Executive's £9 million restart package for those affected directly by the disease. It has taken longer to gain approval than I would have wished, but I am delighted to say that Commissioner Fischler has approved the case in principle, and the formal decision letter will be issued shortly. Meanwhile, Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been working on applications, and as soon as we receive the final notification, we will be able to make funds available to successful applicants.

After two years' experience of ISA, we have been reviewing our arrangements for disseminating information about the disease.

There is scope for making more use of modern technology. Details of confirmed outbreaks will continue to be announced by press release, but I am keen to ensure that other information about the disease is placed on the Executive's website. We intend to do that, and we hope that it will be helpful for all concerned, although we all hope that soon there will be nothing to report about ISA.

I acknowledge the serious difficulties that the fish farming industry has faced since the first outbreak of ISA in Scotland two years ago. I pay tribute to the industry for its positive response and its constructive engagement in the joint working group. From my discussions with the industry, I am in no doubt that there is an unqualified recognition that, if Scottish aquaculture is to remain a sustainable industry, it must understand and respond to growing public and consumer demands. I am confident that the industry will respond to that challenge. The Executive fully appreciates the importance and value of the fish farming industry to Scotland's coastal and island communities, and we want it to succeed.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for his statement. The industry is worth £500 million to the Scottish economy and sustains 6,500 jobs in our rural and more remote communities, so it is imperative that we get this crisis behind us as soon as possible. I welcome the joint report from the industry and the Government and its recommendations and, crucially, the amendments to the EU directive that have been announced, which will permit the phased withdrawal of fish and will allow vaccination.

However, does the minister recognise that fish farm owners and employees have been tearing their hair out over the past year because of the Executive's approach to the crisis, which has been characterised by belated about-turns and dithering? Does he accept that he should have pursued the policy that is before us today a year ago, when he was first appointed as the minister for fisheries in the Scottish Parliament, instead of waiting for jobs to disappear and millions of healthy fish to be slaughtered?

Given that a last-minute addition to the EU's announcement is that any special schemes have to be approved by the EU, will the minister ensure that a fast-track procedure will be implemented as soon as possible so that there is no further delay? Will he at last inject some urgency into the handling of this crisis?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I think that I can thank Mr Lochhead for his general welcome for my statement, although his question went downhill after that.

I completely reject Mr Lochhead's accusation of dithering. We could not have acted more urgently on this serious problem, which affects an industry that is very important to our coastal and island communities. We went straight to the European Union to seek the flexibility that was required and moved as quickly as we could on compensation.

Mr Lochhead talked about fast-tracking dealings with the EU. I appeal to him to get real on this. If it were possible to move more quickly in our dealings with the EU, we would do so. Certainly, there has been no backsliding or delaying on our part. I have been doing everything possible, week by week, month by month, to drive the process forward. We set up the joint working group, in which my officials, scientists and people from the industry have been working closely. That is the package which we are taking forward.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I welcome the minister's statement, and, in particular, what he said about the disposal of fish farm waste, fallowing and a code of practice. However, given that salmon farmers are required to match at least 50 per cent of the grants for which they apply and that the compulsory slaughter of healthy fish without compensation continues to undermine investor confidence, how does the minister suggest that the small independent salmon farmer who is already struggling because of the loss of his stock can convince his bank manager to advance him any funds?

Furthermore, as the industry has suffered £37 million of losses and has been rendered uninsurable by Executive control measures, how does the minister justify £9 million of aid, which requires match funding by the salmon farmer, as a substitute for a meaningful compensation scheme, which would be eligible for support from the EU? Why has the Executive not already applied to the EU for funds that are available for support of the policy of eradicating the disease? Lastly, given that the European convention on human rights is enshrined in Scots law under the Scotland Act 1998, how does the minister justify the policy of compulsory slaughter of healthy fish without compensation, which seems to deny the right of citizens to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I am afraid that Mr McGrigor must have written that question before he heard the statement. I have just been talking about the fact that we are adopting a more flexible approach, taking on board the information about the disease that is now at our disposal. The more flexible approach to the control of the disease should make it possible for the industry to get the insurance to which Mr McGrigor refers. That will be helpful and has been welcomed by the industry.

We acknowledge that some farmers have been put in serious difficulties because of the control measures that have been applied so far. That is why we have provided £9 million to help with a restart programme. That is an extremely unusual measure. Mr McGrigor was talking about a compensation scheme. I am not aware that Conservative Governments ever ran such compensation schemes in the past, and it is not terribly credible for him to talk about such an approach now.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I welcome today's statement, particularly the measures announced on the EC controls and the £9 million that is to be invested in the future of the industry. I also welcome the measures that the rural affairs department took in regard to Skerries salmon farm. I pay tribute to the officials who were involved in that.

I would like the minister to clarify some of the remarks that he made in his statement, particularly regarding the "last chance" and "any signs of backsliding". Does he recognise that the industry's joint working group and measures such as the code of practice introduced by the Shetland Salmon Farmers Association, which was launched at Fishing 2000 in Glasgow earlier this year, are exactly what the industry needs? There are signs that the industry is working with pollution bodies, such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, to deal with the concerns that have been raised.

Does the minister recognise that there are concerns about a statutory approach to fallowing? Small independent producers do not have the option to move to other sites because they operate on only one site and might have particular difficulties because of the nature of the geography in sea areas. Will he assure me that he will consider that problem?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Yes. I acknowledge the enormous importance of the aquaculture industry in the Shetland islands. We expect to hear a lot from Tavish Scott and his colleagues on that subject. It is precisely because of the importance of the industry to some of the remotest areas of Scotland that we are determined to try to resolve the situation.

I am grateful to Tavish Scott for acknowledging the line taken by my officials on the circumstances that arose in the Skerries. That illustrates the fact that we are prepared to take account of the different circumstances, including geographical ones, which are relevant to each case.

Mr Scott is obviously uneasy about the fact that I have referred to this as the last chance. I acknowledge that many people in the industry have worked extremely hard to get these things right. However, it must be recognised that there have been problems in the past, including several examples of bad practice, which cannot be tolerated and that are not in the interests of the industry or areas such as the Shetlands. That is why I am sending out the message that, although I hope that the voluntary code of practice will work, if there is any sign that it is not working, we will not hesitate to take matters further.

I take Mr Scott's point about the difficulties that might arise for some smaller operators if there are statutory fallowing requirements. We will have to consider that as we develop that point. If the member has specific points that he would like to raise, perhaps we could deal with them in correspondence.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

I, too, welcome the minister's statement. I welcome the fact that vaccination will now be permitted, but I know that no vaccination is available as yet. I wonder how long it will take to develop such a vaccine. In the meantime, what future support will there be for the industry? Will the restart scheme cover new outbreaks of infectious salmon anaemia? There might be a gap in provision, which should be addressed.

Does the minister see any prospect of the EC compensating for ISA in the same way that it compensates for animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Maureen Macmillan raises several questions, some of which are characteristically difficult. That is something which she does rather effectively.

Maureen Macmillan is right about vaccines. I understand that vaccines for ISA are not available at present, and that that virus is particularly difficult to deal with because it mutates continuously. However, a vaccine has been used in Canada with limited success. This change in European law, which hitherto has banned the use of vaccines, will provide an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to take forward work on the development of a vaccine. I understand that such work is already under way, but obviously I cannot say how long that will take. I hope that the more flexible approach to controls will make it possible for fish farmers to insure against the risk in the future, and that the application of the controls will have a less draconian effect because of the considerations that I have been talking about.

Meanwhile, we have put forward the scheme, with funding of £9 million and to be monitored by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to help farms affected by the controls to restart. We had originally intended to run the restart programme over three years, but because it has taken so long to obtain approval from the European Union— there has been a delay of a year already—we intend to speed things up a bit. I hope to make £5 million available in the current financial year, and £4 million in the subsequent financial year, which will speed up the availability of that money for the farms that have been hit by the existing regulations.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Jamie McGrigor raised the plight of the owners of the salmon farming companies. I wish to raise the concerns of the work forces and former work forces. First, will the payments from the £9 million restructuring package be made on condition that the work forces of the recipients of the payments will continue to remain employed and, if the answer is yes, over what period?

My second point concerns the 170 or more people in the most remote parts of the Highlands and Islands who already have lost their jobs and those, it is feared, who are to follow. I know that the minister is aware of those concerns. Does not he accept that given that landowners are paid, in some cases, six-figure sums not to plant trees, and that the New Millennium Experience Company Ltd can write its own cheques for £29 million, it would not be unreasonable for a Labour Administration to grant some form of compensation to people in remote parts of the Highlands and Islands who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the interests of public health, as the minister mentioned? Should not they also receive compensation?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

No Government has provided compensation for the consequences of natural phenomena. If Fergus Ewing and the SNP reflected on that point for a minute or two, they would understand that a precedent of that nature would mean blank cheques all over the place, which would not make much sense.

However, we acknowledge that this is an important industry, particularly in some of the remotest areas of Scotland. Fergus Ewing is right about employment. My concern as the minister is every bit as much for the employees on fish farms as it is for the proprietors. That is one of the reasons why the restart scheme is being operated by HIE, which knows a lot about employment and its promotion in remote areas. I have no doubt that it will take account of factors such as employment in the disbursement of the money.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

How will the voluntary code of conduct be monitored, to ensure that it is being adhered to? Obviously, a small number of people will make difficulties for the whole industry, so how will they be dealt with?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Again, that is a difficult question, because it is not possible for our inspectors to be on every fish farm around the coast of Scotland every day of the week. Clearly, good practice in the industry depends heavily on professionalism, good training and good practice of the work force and management of the farms, but my officials, and scientists from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, will be keeping a close eye on the situation.

I hope that there will be a degree of self-policing in the industry, because if anybody is aware that there is bad practice or a problem on an adjacent site, it could affect the whole area. This is an industry that we all want to see succeed, but bad practice could cause collective failure. We are all in this together, and it is important that the highest standards are observed everywhere.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Can the minister give any preliminary indications, from the wild fish surveillance that he mentioned, of the prevalence of the virus in the environment? Can he confirm that tests on the specimens in the Tweed have proved negative?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

That is what I said in my statement. The scientific testing is complicated—apparently it is not straightforward to isolate the virus. What is possible is to identify antibodies to the virus, which is an indication that the virus is almost certainly present. We received disturbing information that consequences of the virus had been identified in certain wild fish, including one salmon parr on the River Tweed. That is alarming, because it rather debunks the theory that all ISA is connected with fish farming. The Tweed is a long way from the nearest salmon farm. That information might point to the fact that the disease might exist among wild fish generally in the sea. However, much more needs to be understood on the subject; our scientists are getting on with the job.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware of the view of at least part of the industry that vaccination should be extended to all farmed salmon and not simply to those in the so-called buffer zones? If so, can he outline the Executive's response to that?

On the £9 million being put through Highlands and Islands Enterprise, will the minister tell us the value of the applications for assistance received to date? Will he confirm whether it is more than £9 million? If it is more than £9 million, will he explain the rationale that will be used for the disbursal of that money? In other words, who will win and who will lose?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

It is hypothetical at this stage, because there is no vaccine yet. I imagine that it would be up to the industry to decide the appropriate use of the vaccine: whether to use it as a general, precautionary vaccine on all fish everywhere, or whether to target it in particular areas. That will require veterinary and scientific advice. However, at this stage we do not have a vaccine. At our initiative, the European Union is taking the decision that, whereas in the past vaccines were banned, it is now possible to use them; we can take that forward.

I do not know the answer to Duncan Hamilton's question about the applications that have been lodged with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, because ministers in the Executive are not directly involved in the disbursement of that money. The idea is that we make those funds available to HIE to apply in the way that it feels is most appropriate in the light of the economic circumstances in the areas concerned. [Interruption.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

That noise indicates the end of the statement and nearly the end of Mr Jamie McGrigor, too. [Laughter.]