Avian Influenza Outbreak — [Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 30th November 2022.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 9:30 am, 30th November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the avian influenza outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I am grateful for the opportunity to debate avian influenza, which is an incredibly important issue. Avian influenza is not a new phenomenon—the industry and wild birds have been affected by it for a long time—but the current outbreak is by far the worst on record. Since the beginning of October, 136 cases of H5N1 have been identified, with millions of birds dying or being culled. The outbreak is affecting every part of the country, but particularly East Anglia. In my constituency of Maldon we have already had three cases in the past few weeks.

The disease spreads rapidly, possibly because the mutated virus that is affecting the population has an increased ability to replicate, and is extending to infect a broader range of species. That issue is not specific to this country, but global. In America, a record outbreak has led to more than 49 million birds in 46 states either being culled or dying since the beginning of the year. Across Europe, the disease has been found in 37 countries, with about 48 million birds being culled. Every country across the globe is affected, including even penguins in South Africa.

An epidemic on such a scale is a disaster for wildlife and agriculture. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that 65 species of wild bird have tested positive, with tens of thousands of birds dying every day. For a number of species, there is what the RSPB describes as a population impact, and guillemots, kittiwakes and Svalbard barnacle geese are all dying in such numbers that those species are being put at risk in this country.

However, the disease is not only affecting wild birds; it is having a dramatic effect on the poultry industry—a major industry worth £2 billion to our economy. It employs more than 34,000 people and provides about half the meat consumed in Britain. The industry has already had to cope with serious challenges: the seasonal labour shortage, which came about immediately after we left the EU and remains a challenge, as the Minister is aware, and, following that, covid. Just as the industry was beginning to recover from those blows, along came avian influenza. It now faces an existential threat.

We need a clear plan. The Government have rightly identified biosecurity as crucial in trying to stop the spread of the disease, and I welcome the move that has required mandatory housing of birds since the beginning of November, but the spread is extremely rapid, and a single wild bird can infect thousands in a short time. It is right that we have established protection zones around areas where the disease has been identified, and there are more measures that we can take, particularly around the collection and disposal of the carcases of wild birds—one infected wild bird can massively affect a flock in a short time. We probably need to improve oversight of those backyard businesses involving a small number of chickens that supply eggs for families or perhaps for neighbours. They are equally at risk and the disease is equally likely to spread from them. Those businesses need to be more visible to regulators.

We have to accept that, although biosecurity is tremendously important, it will not stop the spread of this disease. The Government have instituted a policy of culling, which has already led to the death of thousands, if not millions, of birds. In the case of the very biggest producers, the entire flock in a shed will be culled if the disease is identified there, but at least they will have some remaining birds in other sheds, and of course compensation will help if there needs to be a cull.

However, smaller producers can lose their entire flock overnight, and the compensation available is totally inadequate. Under the Animal Health Act 1981, compensation is payable following culling, but it was passed at a time when there was a relatively low pathogenic strain that did not kill all the birds in a very short time. That has now changed: birds die extremely rapidly, which means that smaller producers can lose almost their entire flock without being eligible for compensation.

In my constituency, I have KellyBronze Turkeys—arguably the finest turkey producer in the country, as vouched for by Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and so on. In one flock, it had 10,000 birds. It identified the disease on a Thursday evening, informed the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which said that it would send vets round, but by the time the vets arrived on Monday morning 9,850 of the 10,000 birds were dead. It was likely therefore to get compensation for the 150 remaining. That is the situation facing poultry farmers right across the country.

The answer is that compensation needs to be payable from the moment of the identification of the disease or notification. The change that has taken place is welcome, but it will not make a great deal of difference: 48 hours post confirmation is simply not enough. We need compensation to be paid on the same basis as it is paid for four-legged species. I understand that that requires an amendment to the law, but it is absolutely essential if we are to preserve the poultry industry in this country.

In the longer term, the answer is likely to be vaccination. At the moment, there is not an effective vaccination, but we need to work on that as rapidly as possible. We saw what could be done during the covid epidemic. We need to identify an effective vaccine, and we need to talk to our international partners to ensure that trade restrictions are lifted. This disease is affecting every country, and the answer is likely to be the same in every country. It is notable that the head of virology at the APHA, who previously was not in favour of vaccines, is now saying that we have to establish an effective vaccine rapidly.

We are in the run-up to Christmas—a time when millions of families will want to eat turkey or goose. This year, we are already seeing dramatic shortages of turkeys, and geese are almost impossible to find. The situation next year is likely to be even more serious, because unless the Government give farmers some confidence, who will invest in a turkey flock for Christmas production when they could lose the entire thing due to an outbreak of disease and have no compensation payable?

We have just emerged from the covid crisis; this is the equivalent of the covid crisis for birds. Biosecurity is important to stop its spread, but ultimately will not be successful. Vaccination is probably the key, and in the meantime the Government need to step in to support the businesses affected. Those things happened under covid. They now need to happen again if we are to have a viable poultry industry in this country.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, but if Members could stick to five minutes, it should be possible to get everybody in. That is an informal time limit.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 9:40 am, 30th November 2022

It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Sir George. I want to pay a genuine and heartfelt tribute to Sir John Whittingdale, who has successfully secured this debate on a hugely important and significant issue for us all, particularly in communities such as mine.

Animal diseases pose an enormous threat to UK farming, trade and rural communities. We are in the midst of the worst outbreak of avian influenza that we have ever seen. H5N1 has stayed with us all year round for the first time ever, and it is more virulent than previous strains. Yesterday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard evidence on this; I am grateful for the work it does, and many of its members are here today. There have already been more than 140 confirmed avian influenza cases in poultry and captive birds in the UK—in previous years, getting to double figures was considered to be bad news. The fact that we are well into three figures is terrifying.

As of 20 November, 1.6 million birds had been culled directly because of bird flu on farms. Half of the free range turkeys produced for Christmas in the UK have been culled, as we have heard. British farmers are under immense pressure, both emotional and financial. Poultry farmers often rely on the Christmas trade to pull their annual income out of the red and into the black, but that Christmas trade has been wiped out in an instant, and the small independent farmers, particularly in Westmorland, are bearing the brunt of it, fearing that their businesses will be wiped out completely.

It is not just avian flu that we should worry about. The UK faces real threats from bovine tuberculosis, new diseases such as African swine fever and, of course, diseases affecting domestic pets, including rabies. These outbreaks do not just threaten our food security, trade and farming; they also threaten our natural environment. All birds are being culled, not just those sold for meat—the great skua population, for example, has declined by between 55% and 80% in the UK this year. The species has immediately been placed on the red list, and its population will not recover for decades. If the Government do not intervene effectively, the ecosystems and food chains we rely on—the very fabric of Britain’s countryside —will be changed forever.

A report from the Public Accounts Committee this month found that the Animal and Plant Health Agency has been

“left to deteriorate to an alarming extent.”

It said that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had “comprehensively failed” in its management of the agency’s Weybridge site. That is the site where the science happens—surveillance testing, disease tracking and so on.

We have seen what the consequences of inaction and not learning from the past can be. The foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 devastated communities in Cumbria, not just financially and economically but socially and emotionally. A friend of mine who passed away just a month ago was among those 20-odd years ago who were involved in the large-scale culling in the Rusland valley. It broke him—and 20 years on, it continued to live with him.

A year after foot and mouth happened, I remember the children of Kirkbie Kendal School doing a play they had written themselves about the emotional effect the outbreak had on them. One of them likened it to Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach”—waking every morning and thinking, had the disease got closer to them? Had it hit their valley yet? Those people are adults now, and the impact on them, on all of us and on our shared memory is huge. We must never think that animal disease outbreaks only affect animals; they have a huge impact on human beings as well.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the contribution he is making, particularly on the impact of foot and mouth in Cumbria. I was one of those schoolchildren in Cumbria at that time. Given the closeness of Cumbria and north Lancashire to the Scottish border, does he share my concerns that, while we are housing birds in England we also need to see the devolved Governments following suit when it comes to biosecurity?

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I absolutely agree that this needs to be a whole-UK project. I thank my friend and neighbour for her contribution—not least for reminding me how much younger she is than me. If we had an outbreak of foot and mouth on the same scale today, it would have an economic impact of £12 billion. As I said, there are impacts that are not quantifiable but even more devastating.

What do the Government need to do? I will briefly suggest three things. First, they should support our farmers through the current crisis. As the right hon. Member for Maldon rightly said, the compensation scheme is not fit for purpose, and the Government must bring it into the 21st century. The legislation that it was built on was introduced in 1981. It is practically prehistoric —like me. Farmers are able to receive compensation only for birds that are alive when the flock is seen by a vet.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

As the representative of a constituency that has a large number of intensive poultry farms, and as someone who has kept a backyard flock and been the financial controller of a poultry farm, I have seen at first hand the difficulties of trying to house poultry. Most importantly, I have seen the difficulties that the farming industry faces when trying to insure against avian influenza. It used to be possible to obtain insurance, because the disease was an unlikely event—it was a peril that insurers would happily insure against—but now it is almost impossible. Does my hon. Friend agree that taking preventive action—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. If the hon. Lady wants to make a speech, she should indicate so. Interventions should be brief.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I agree with my hon. Friend, and am grateful for her intervention. The uninsurability of flocks is a reminder of why the compensation scheme must work and be effective.

In 1981, avian flu had a low pathogenicity. It did not kill the poultry, so farmers could get a vet to confirm an outbreak and command a cull before the livestock was dead. That is the crucial thing. Now, the disease has a high pathogenicity. Turkeys are dying within four days. The legislation was introduced to incentivise farmers to take their birds to be culled, and it is no longer serving that purpose. The Government must therefore intervene to correct the compensation scheme accordingly.

Secondly, the Minister should take evidence-based decisions. Earlier, I mentioned that the Animal and Plant Health Agency is where the science happens. It is vital that our approach to the disease outbreaks is based on science. Scientists think that avian flu probably lasts for around six weeks after death, so why do farmers have to rest their sites for 12 months? Why are some being told to strip six inches of soil off their free-range paddocks? Farmers are ordered to move their bird flocks indoors, but it takes longer for avian influenza to spread among a flock if they are kept outside on the ranch.

Thirdly, I ask that the Government ensure that they properly prepare for future outbreaks. I expect that the Minister might say that the Government are investing £2.8 billion to redevelop the Animal and Plant Health Agency. That is welcome, but the programme is not due to complete until 2036, and the Treasury has not yet agreed to fund it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Maldon for bringing forward the debate. It is a huge issue for farmers in my patch, for rural communities across the board and for the infrastructure of our natural environment across the UK. Action must happen now.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 9:48 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale on securing this debate on an issue that affects many businesses and communities.

Avian flu is not just about commercial poultry farms or agricultural interests; it has the potential to strike at the heart of the work being done to conserve some of the most endangered species on our planet. The Government must ensure that the approach taken, and the policy structure around it, is suitable for all situations in which avian flu may strike.

Some Members may be aware that Paignton zoo, which is part of the Wild Planet Trust and located in the heart of my Torbay constituency, was recently the site of the first avian flu outbreak at a zoo in England. It is highly unlikely to be the last. Zoos are innately open places. Local wildlife and human visitors are able to access them, and wild birds can mingle with some of the zoo’s stock, especially those species that do not need to be kept in an aviary. It will be obvious to Members that, in breeding birds, zoos have a very different purpose from that of commercial poultry operations. That means that the response to avian flu at a zoo that is focused on conservation objectives needs to be very different from that at a farm that is focused on egg or meat production.

It was late August when avian influenza arrived at Paignton zoo. At the onset of the outbreak, on the late August bank holiday Sunday, the zoo was ordered to close at no notice and with immediate effect. Thankfully, the outbreak was successfully contained and the zoo was permitted to reopen, with the birds under quarantine clearing through the surveillance regime, yet the zoo was closed to visitors for 10 days.

The approach to culling that would normally be taken at a poultry farm would have had a devastating effect at the zoo. I pass on the gratitude of the team at the zoo for the Secretary of State’s intervention, which prevented the unnecessary culling of healthy birds that posed no risk of disease spread. However, the zoo derives much of its revenue from the peak tourism season, so the final week of the school holidays is one of its biggest trading periods. The revenue lost from the enforced closure and additional related costs came to just under £1 million. The loss of a week’s trade for a zoo is not a simple one-out-of-52 loss; a week lost in summer can be equivalent to losing five to six weeks at another time of the year.

As I said, the normal approach to culling would have been devastating, and I am grateful that it was not applied, but the situation where a zoo is affected highlights a tension between the two fundamental strands of the current avian flu strategy—those relating to wild birds and to captive birds. The wild birds strategy is to monitor, because little can be done, while the captive birds approach is to stamp the flu out.

There are inherent tensions in simultaneously applying two fundamentally different approaches to the same disease, which can lead to practical challenges and inconsistencies on the ground in the case of a zoo. A more nuanced approach that recognises the challenges for a range of stakeholders impacted by the disease would help to mitigate the tensions, especially at a zoo such as Paignton, where, inevitably, both wild and captive birds are present on the same site.

The compensation scheme is similarly designed for the poultry industry, where the biggest impact for the business concerned is likely to be the value of the birds—their lost sale value. Despite the £1 million impact in lost sales and costs from the outbreak, Paignton zoo was offered £207—the value of the birds—as compensation. The £1 million loss will have a material impact on the charity and constrain investment plans focused on animal welfare and support for the zoo’s biodiversity protection programmes. Following the impact of the human pandemic, which heavily affected tourism, that is a bitter pill to swallow.

It is always easy to outline the problems, but it is vital we also highlight how the situation can be solved. Following the outbreak, the Wild Planet Trust conducted an after-action review. In addition to internal learnings, the review identified two important issues that merit further attention: ensuring fairness in financial compensation for zoos, and making changes to outbreak response arrangements that will help to deliver better outcomes in such circumstances.

First, the compensation scheme should be revised to ensure fairness and equitable loss-of-revenue treatment for all entities that are required to close as a result of a bird flu outbreak. That would recognise that compensation simply for the value of the bird does not reflect the overall impact on zoos. Secondly, decentralising testing capabilities and promoting delegated outbreak management decision making would allow more flexibility when dealing with unique locations. Thirdly, we should adapt the avian flu strategy to the new reality and ensure that lessons learned in a specific location such as a zoo are identified, and improvements are embedded, in parallel with continuing to conduct outbreak response operations.

Sadly, we are likely to see the experience of Paignton zoo repeated at zoos elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will take the lessons learned from the outbreak at the zoo, which the trust and I will be happy to share with him directly, and embed them in our future approach to dealing with avian flu. We simply cannot allow vital conservation work at our zoos to be the next victim.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:53 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank Tim Farron for his important comments. As always, he has a real grasp of the situation.

We have seen increasing numbers of outbreaks of avian flu in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, which is now a zone where no movement of any poultry of any sort is allowed to take place. We started with a smaller response with restrictions in certain areas, but it now applies everywhere across the whole of the Province. It is crucial to the safety of animals, plants and individuals that the signs of avian flu, and the correct way to prevent its further spread, are known. It is great to be here to address that today.

Some six weeks ago, we had the first indication of avian flu in my constituency in Ballywalter, where there is a fairly large pheasant shoot and 6,000 birds were put down. In one fell swoop, all those birds got avian flu, and the shoot has been closed and will be closed next season. I should say that I thank Sir John Whittingdale for securing the debate. On the east coast of Strangford lough, just across from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Castle Espie, wildfowl and swans were found dead at Mount Stewart. Some of the wildfowlers who shoot there tell me that they have found dead geese, ducks and other smaller birds, which indicates the deadliness of avian flu in my constituency. The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs took significant steps to try to prevent the disease, but unfortunately it was unsuccessful, and all those things have happened across my constituency and, now, across Northern Ireland as a whole.

As a farmer myself, I am aware of transmission and can understand how crucial preventive steps are to stop potential spread to poultry or even humans. The mandatory avian housing order, which I mentioned earlier, was introduced on the 25th of this month and came into force on Monday. All bird owners are to keep their birds inside and completely separate from wild birds, to try to contain the outbreak of avian flu. Swift action was taken to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2021, when Northern Ireland witnessed its worst ever outbreak of avian flu, which resulted in the cull of 80,000 birds and potential damage to our £450 million poultry industry.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eggs, pigs and poultry, which is a wonderful APPG to chair; if you start your morning with a bit of bacon and an egg—I always start my day with an egg—that is the one to be on. I go to work on two eggs in the morning, which I think was an advertising slogan back in the ’60s and ’70s—that ages me.

The British Egg Industry Council asked me to mention two things this morning. The first relates to compensation, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The present compensation system does not give the industry what it needs. The British Egg Industry Council said in its correspondence:

“With this particular H5N1 HPAI virus causing high levels of mortality in a short space of time, any delay in culling and assessment for compensation can result in little or no compensation being paid to an affected farm.”

The council has some fears about that, and I am quite happy to share the letter with the Minister. The second thing the British Egg Industry Council asked me to mention is the avian influenza vaccination. It says:

“Over the last few months, vaccination against AI has been a subject of significant discussion within the poultry industry.”

The Minister will know that, because he knows this subject well. The council continues:

“The current strain of H5N1 HPAI appears to have spread globally and there is increasing interest in AI vaccination both in the UK and also among a number of our trading partners.”

I will pass the letter on to the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, but those are the two requests we have from the sector.

I am conscious of the time, so I will push on. I want to say a couple of things for people—not farmers, but those who go out walking in local parks and near ponds, of which we have plenty round about where we are. The authorities have stated that people must not, on any occasion, feed the swans and ducks. The hon. Member for Torbay referred to zoos, which are also of great concern. There must be greater awareness among members of the public that if they see a dead or injured bird when they are out and about, under no circumstances should they handle it. If is important that dogs are kept under control, on a lead. That is the message from DAERA, DEFRA and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Steps can be taken to ensure that the disease does not spread further, including the use of protective equipment such as eye protection, avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes, and washing hands with soap and water after touching birds. I am sure we are all comfortable with that, as the pandemic has taught us well, but this time we do it for the protection of wildlife and our poultry industry. That is what we are here for, and that is why we are very pleased to see the Minister in his place. I thank him and look forward to his comments later.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 9:59 am, 30th November 2022

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale, who is my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate and on highlighting how badly this epidemic has affected Essex and the east of England. This debate follows the one that we held in Westminster Hall last week on support for British farming. Of course, we are all here to pay tribute to those whose livelihoods depend on farming, and to recognise the valuable contribution that they all make. As has already been said, with Christmas fast approaching, there is rightly a significant amount of public interest in this issue. Agriculture, whether it is our poultry industry or other aspects of farming that have been mentioned, is crucial to Britain. It fills our tables and keeps people employed in this country. This is a challenging and worrying time for farmers.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, farmers in Essex, the east of England and other parts of the country have been heavily hit by bird flu. I pay tribute to those farmers; what they are enduring is incredibly difficult. Anyone who keeps birds, whether on large farms or smallholdings, including hobbyists who keep heritage breeds, is living in fear, with genuine concerns. Those concerns are not short term; they are long term with significant impacts.

We should note that many farms already maintain strong biosecurity measures but have still been infected. As this strain spreads across the wild bird population, the damage is now severe. In the Witham constituency, between 1 October and 15 November, a highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected in poultry and captive birds; it was detected in three premises out of six in Essex. Nearly 50,000 birds have died or been culled in Essex as a result, including around 7,600 in the Witham constituency.

Members have already heard and discussed the impact, but there is one example from my constituency that I would like to highlight. Blackwells farm is one of many fantastic farms in Essex and is a great business. It has been rearing its own free-range poultry and meats for many years. The farm shop also showcases other local producers. There is, of course, a knock-on effect on the supply chain and access for other producers. Bird flu was detected on Blackwells farm in October, and I raised that with the Secretary of State and the Minister. I am grateful to the Minister for his diligent response. Within days, thousands of birds were infected and died. Those that were left by the time officials arrived from DEFRA were humanely culled. That process was a devastating time for the farm.

We have heard from Members about the processes and procedures, but first there are some specific issues that need to be addressed, such as the lack of information about what other activities could or could not take place on the site of a working farm and business. Local businesses with diverse operations need to factor in all those matters. The situation became very much about certainty and clarity of advice from DEFRA on what constitutes business as usual, so that the farm could operate. I would welcome the Minister’s feedback on those points, which he has heard raised before. I would also like clarification on the compensation arrangements, which have already been debated.

Blackwells has received some compensation for approximately 5,000 of the 7,300 birds affected, which were either culled or died. Compensation was not paid in respect of all the birds lost. The arrangement for compensation is an issue. The Department knows well that compensation and payments not only need to be on time, but must reflect the scale of the damage and the impact of the pandemic on businesses.

The farm, along with other businesses, will need to know about compensation measures, and the measures in place need to be reviewed, with details of what further support can be given to farms affected to help them get through these tough times. This is not a period of four to six weeks; the disruption is becoming persistent, and it is affecting businesses. As well as compensation, we must look at the timescales for the restrictions that are in place. Blackwells now faces 12 months of restrictions on poultry, which will hamper its ability to get the site up and running and to plan not just for now but for next year’s Christmas and all its other business operations. It is unclear why the restrictions are so lengthy, when they will impact the farm and many other businesses.

Small and independent poultry producers, including those that help fulfil Christmas orders, are being affected by the restrictions. The cleaning regime has already been highlighted. We also need to consider the cost of the restrictions, and what they mean in terms of time for the operations of these businesses. I would like the Minister to respond specifically on those issues and to say what the long-term plan is. Avian flu is here to stay, and its implications for businesses are significant. Poultry farmers cannot be expected to face regular patterns of restrictions and disruption to their businesses.

As ever, I pay tribute to our farmers, and to our poultry farmers in particular. They are part of our rural communities—part of the rural backdrop of our country—and I know the Minister will do everything he can to ensure that our farmers are supported during this very difficult time.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind those who are yet to speak that I intend to call the Front Benchers starting at 10.28 am.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood 10:05 am, 30th November 2022

I pay tribute to the poultry farmers of Lancaster and Fleetwood, many of whom I have had some very challenging and emotional conversations with in recent months. Clearly, the poultry industry is facing huge challenges from labour shortages, and the avian influenza outbreak is further compounding those challenges. Colleagues have articulated well the challenges posed by the compensation scheme not meeting the needs of those businesses. The scheme clearly does not work. I am sure the Minister will have heard that loud and clear from colleagues, so I will not dwell on it.

On the issue of biosecurity, which will not stop this pandemic but is a very important part of controlling the speed of transmission, I tabled a written question about what conversations the UK Government are having with devolved nations regarding the housing of birds. I gently ask the Minister to look again at his response, which was basically to explain devolution. I am well versed in how devolution works; what I would like to know is what the Government are doing to come up with a UK-wide response that controls the speed of transmission of the disease.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

I appreciate the point the hon. Member is making about the need for a UK-wide approach. She and the Minister may be aware that there have been five outbreaks in Scotland in as many weeks, all of which have been in my constituency. My constituency happens to be in the north-east, but as I think the hon. Member mentioned earlier, if it was closer to the border, that would be more of a concern in Cumbria and other places in north England. Will she join me in asking the Scottish Government—or the SNP representative, Steven Bonnar—to comment on that?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the fact that the outbreaks in Scotland have been so far from the border highlights the speed with which this disease is spreading and the requirement for us to act in a co-ordinated way, not just with different Governments in the UK but with our European neighbours. The whole nature of the disease is that birds move around, and wild birds are obviously spreading it. Many of my constituents have raised with me the difficulties they now face in getting insurance for their farms, so will the Minister touch on any support that the Government might be able to give farmers with that particular issue in the years ahead?

One issue that has not yet come up is that of free range. I have a lot of free-range egg producers in my constituency. Currently, of course, there is a 16-week grace period during which a farm can maintain its free-range status. It is likely that a lot of those producers are going to breach that 16-week grace period because of the status of the avian influenza outbreak, and they will face additional costs from rebranding their products, which will no longer be free range, at the end of that period. What specific support will be provided to those free-range egg producers, who are going to face particular challenges?

Vaccines are probably the only way out of this situation, and that is going to involve huge Government support. Colleagues have already touched quite a lot on this issue, but it is going to involve an international effort, so I would like to hear from the Minister what steps the Government are taking internationally on vaccines. Given that 50% of the UK’s protein comes from consuming poultry products, this is actually a food security issue. Indeed, the speed of the response is so critical because farmers will be making decisions in February about whether they go ahead with producing turkeys and geese for Christmas 2023. February is not that far away, and farmers will be making those decisions in the coming weeks. This could have long-term effects. Even if a vaccine were discovered tomorrow and rolled out, the reality is that if we have not taken control of this avian flu outbreak by February, then we will be looking at the consequences into the coming years.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, a fellow Lancashire MP, for giving way. Many of the farmers in her constituency are associated with the farmers in South Ribble. I want to emphasise her point about decisions and the future of the industry. Does she agree that it would be great if the Minister could provide some certainty, not only to clarify the rules on farm access, but to keep people in the industry, because they are seriously considering their future?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I thank my Lancashire neighbour for making that point; she is absolutely right. Farming is a difficult industry. It is not an easy way to make a living. When I speak to farming constituents, many of them tell me that they are concerned about whether their children will go into the industry. In fact, many want their children to have more secure work and an easier way to make a living. That concerns me, because this is an issue of food security. I completely agree with the hon. Lady. To echo her point, I urge the Government to take prompt action and to communicate it clearly with the farming community.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 10:11 am, 30th November 2022

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale for raising this important issue. I declare a strong personal and professional interest as a veterinary surgeon. My thoughts go out to the farmers, vets, officials and anyone on the frontline in this catastrophe. It is incredibly distressing. I pay tribute to the vets and officials at the APHA for all their work at this unprecedented time.

We have heard about the impact of the disease on birds in the domestic market and on wild birds. I want to talk about its impact on people on the frontline. I sit on the EFRA Select Committee and in our urgent session on avian influenza yesterday, we looked at the impact not only on birds but on humans. It very much goes in parallel with our inquiry on rural mental health and the long-term effects of these situations on those on the frontline.

I spent a period as a veterinary surgeon on the frontline during the foot and mouth crisis, and I witnessed sights that I never want to witness again in my lifetime. People on the frontline in the current situation are seeing things on a similar scale. We need to be cognisant of that moving forward. In the Committee’s session yesterday, we found that there needs to be more collaboration and more data collection, so that we understand more about the incidence of the disease in the wild bird population and the transmission pathway.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon mentioned that we have learned lessons from covid. Work needs to be done at pace to develop a vaccine. This is a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, and the available vaccine is not suitable for this particular strain. This work needs to be done internationally; we need international collaboration and Government support. There needs to be a lot of research on the difference between naturally infected birds and birds that have been vaccinated. That technology needs to be moved forward at pace. We have learned lessons from covid, and this is a similar situation. Where there is a will, there is a way.

We need to remember that viruses do not respect international or domestic borders. We need to have a UK approach and a global approach to tackle the disease. I pay tribute to the people at the APHA. They really are on the frontline and they are coping at this point. The EFRA Select Committee had the chief executive and the chief vet before us yesterday.

As a member of the EFRA Committee, I guested on the Public Accounts Committee with the National Audit Office for the session on the APHA site at Weybridge. It needs a radical redevelopment and it is going to cost £2.8 billion. We know that there are fiscal constraints, but it is so important that we spend that money now to prevent us from having to spend a lot more in the future and, as we have heard, to stop the devastating impact on human and animal health. I urge the Minister to bat for DEFRA and make the case that it needs that £2.8 billion; £1.2 billion has been earmarked and we need the additional £1.6 billion as a priority. The APHA is coping, but heaven forbid that we get something else like foot and mouth disease, African swine fever or African horse sickness coming in. The potential outbreaks could be catastrophic for our country. We need resources, people and expertise.

In some quarters, this situation has been likened to fighting a war with a peacetime army. That is probably where we are now. We are coping, but we must make preparations to ensure that we are resilient into the future, so we need sufficient vets and officials. The EFRA Committee has produced reports that recommend that the Government look at veterinary workforce issues and workforce issues across the agricultural sector, and ensure that our farming communities, who are so important to food security, are supported with the workforce they need.

We have talked about compensation, and this highly pathogenic strain means that the compensation needs to kick in earlier in the cull process. I would like to hear from the Minister—this has been raised by other colleagues—whether there could be some help through insurance schemes, perhaps underwritten by Government, to help farmers have a bit of security. In addition, at what point would the Government act according to the Agriculture Act 2020 and say that we are in exceptional market conditions and that they can use the powers in the Act to help farmers?

Cat Smith spoke about free-range classification and that movement from post-16 weeks to not being free range. There is discussion at EU-level about whether, if the state vets say that the birds need to be indoors, the free-range status can be carried on longer. The UK needs to be cognisant of that and make preparations to ensure that our farmers are on a level playing field. I thank everyone on the frontline; my thoughts, feelings and prayers are with them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 10:17 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I will make some comments about compensation and timescales for restocking.

On compensation, although the Government have made some moves in the direction of valuing the destroyed birds earlier following the avian flu outbreak, it is still not good enough. I want to describe the situation for one of my constituents. The birds that she and her family keep were infected in spite of being inside. Perhaps the avian flu got in via some fresh straw, but over 30,000 birds were destroyed. The valuation of the stock by the APHA was made promptly but, despite the outbreak occurring in early August, they have still not received any compensation for the second of their two sites. It was only last week that they received compensation for the first. This is entirely unacceptable given that their incomes ceased at the point of the cull and compensation was needed to ensure that bills were paid. Speedier payment of compensation is critical.

Secondly, I will comment on restocking timescales. The secondary cleaning and disinfection protocol, as described by DEFRA, is not fit for purpose. It provides three options for restocking the farm. The quickest restocking option is unavailable to many small and medium-sized farms and free-range producers, which means that they are forced to choose restocking the poultry, and that cannot be carried out until 12 months after the avian flu outbreak. That is catastrophic for farm businesses whose main income is from poultry. They are stopped from trading for an entire year because of this legislation. It is causing otherwise viable businesses to go to the wall. In one case in my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, when the bank became aware of this requirement for a 12-month pause in the farm being restocked, the lender requested that the constituent’s banking facility be removed.

In addition to the volume of avian flu cases expected this winter, this legislation means that there will be shortages lasting well over a year, especially in the seasonal Christmas turkey market. Many farms, if stuck with the 12-month restocking option, will be unable to produce turkeys not only this Christmas, but next Christmas. I have not read any scientific evidence that backs up the 12-month restocking rule. Professor Ian Brown, head of virology at the APHA, confirmed at a conference this week that the virus can live during the winter period for six weeks. If the longevity of the virus is only six weeks, I see no reason why a farm should be forced to cease trading for a whole year.

The secondary cleansing and disinfecting requirements, which must be achieved to restock a farm with poultry, are not fit for purpose. That is especially the case for a small, family-run and free-range farm, for seasonal poultry producers and for those operating on earth or stone floors. My hon. Friend Tim Farron is absolutely right that any enforced shutdown of a farm needs to be based on science. At the moment, there seems to be little or no scientific justification relating to the longevity of the virus that requires a 12-month shutdown.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is one more speaker to be called and I will be calling the Front Benchers at 10.28 am.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

Thank you, Sir George; I will be brief.

My constituents and I suggest that the current 12-month period should be reduced to six months, and the onerous and expensive cleansing and disinfecting requirements should be reduced. We propose that no differentiation should be made between the treatment of earth, stone or concrete floors. Having farms out of production for two Christmas turkey-producing seasons is catastrophic for small, family-run businesses. To summarise, the Government should think again about the payment of compensation and the timescales for restocking.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 10:21 am, 30th November 2022

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale on securing the debate and everyone who has spoken to highlight not only the real and practical challenges the poultry industry is facing as a result of this incident, but the impact on our wild bird population.

I alert the Minister to an incident that happened in my constituency last week. Members of the public reported to me and, as they should have done, to Shropshire Council and the Environment Agency sightings of dead geese around the River Severn near the bridge in Bridgnorth. I immediately contacted Shropshire Council, which promptly sent an animal health officer to investigate. By the time the animal health officer had arrived, the birds in question were in the river and not on public land, as had been thought. They were therefore inaccessible to the animal health officer. The council contacted the APHA, which did not have a watercraft available to assist. There was therefore a delay. The next time there was an inspection, three days later, the birds had not surprisingly disappeared—it is a fast-flowing river.

There is a question over resourcing and the capacity in the EA’s workforce to respond to incidents. I appreciate that it is difficult to do this right across the country, but there is no doubt that this disease is becoming endemic in the wild bird population, in particular in migratory wildfowl, which can travel all over the country, as we have heard from hon. Members.

On the poultry industry, my constituency in south Shropshire has a significant number of poultry farmers of several types. I pay tribute to my constituent James Mottershead, who is present in the Public Gallery today. He is a poultry farmer and happens to be chairman of the National Farmers Union poultry board. He has been engaging well with the Minister’s officials in DEFRA, and I pay tribute to their efforts in trying to find a resolution.

I will mention a couple of challenges, building on what has been said by other hon. Members. On compensation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said, given the speed with which this disease can take hold in a shed that has become infected, it is simply no good to pay only for birds that remain alive, because the vast majority may have been killed by the disease before the approval was granted. We need to look at the compensation mechanism. One of the knock-on effects of having inadequate compensation for farmers is that the insurance has now been withdrawn because the insurer did not expect there to be a contribution towards the loss. That means that sheds will not be restocked in the event of an incident, even once biosecurity efforts have been completed, because insurance is not available. Even if it were to be available, the cost would be far too heavy. A more realistic compensation payment would help to resolve that problem. That applies to layers as well as broilers.

Finally, as I am conscious that I need to conclude, clearly the solution will be an effective vaccination. I encourage the Minister to pick up on the observations made by Members across the Chamber today that that has to be given the same level of priority as we gave to vaccinating against covid, if we are to have a poultry industry in this country and wild birds flourishing, as we would all like.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 10:25 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir George. I thank Sir John Whittingdale for securing this important and timely debate, and for informing us all so well about the current avian influenza outbreak in the UK and further afield. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

The latest outbreak of avian flu, commonly known as bird flu, is the largest and most invasive we have seen in the UK to date. The highly virulent H5N1 strain of the disease has meant that the virus has lingered persistently in wild and farmed birds since October 2021, even during the summer months, with no slowing down or dissipation of the virus due to its high pathogenicity. It is affecting wild bird populations as well as commercial or farmed birds and, of course, backyard flocks as well.

Each member nation of the United Kingdom has handled the epidemic similarly, with avian influenza prevention zones being declared across the four nations to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading among poultry and other farmed birds. From Monday 17 October, it became a legal requirement for all bird keepers in the United Kingdom to follow strict viral security measures to help protect their flocks from the threat of avian flu. In early November, DEFRA and its Irish counterpart introduced a mandatory requirement to house all farmed birds in England and in the Republic of Ireland. We in the SNP welcome continued cross-border collaboration on both islands of Britain and Ireland to mitigate the risk of bird flu. The outbreak emphasises the need for pan-European and international co-operation on pandemic issues, now and in the future.

Turning to the Scottish perspective, in July, the Scottish Government agency, NatureScot, announced it was setting up a taskforce to respond to bird flu. That followed outbreaks over the spring and summer months among our wild bird populations around Scotland’s coastlines. The main birds affected at that point were gannets, skuas, geese and gulls. Shetland was one of the worst affected areas, with carcases also found from the Mull of Galloway to St Kilda and East Lothian. The number of contact zones in place in Scotland has risen from six to nine as the risk of exposure increases.

Scottish Government veterinary advice is that the current risk from avian influenza in Scotland does not justify mandatory housing of commercial birds, as has been announced in England, Wales and Ireland. Scotland’s chief veterinary officer, Sheila Voas, states that the evidence in Scotland does not currently justify a housing order being imposed:

“Whilst we are keeping the situation under review we don’t believe the evidence, as yet, justifies mandatory housing here. We are keeping an eye on number of cases, we’re keeping an eye on wild bird results coming through and if the position substantially changes here then we may choose to go to a housing order as well.”

Ms Voas added that keeping birds indoors should not be seen as a silver bullet for tackling avian flu and that other measures, such as keeping feed and bedding away from wild birds, can also be effective. I reiterate that the situation is being monitored and kept under constant review, and all breeders should be concerned and take whatever precautions they can to keep their flocks safe.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I am not being critical of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do have some concerns. Scotland has decided not to house its birds in the way that has been decided in the rest of the United Kingdom, and indeed in the Republic of Ireland, but it seems to me to be logical that we all work together, as Cat Smith said. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not being critical, but we need to have a policy that we can all agree on for the betterment of us all.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and I appreciate the points he has made. I think that DEFRA and the Scottish Government have an excellent working relationship, and work collaboratively across all areas to ensure the safety of our industries at all times. However, I must say that I think it is extremely rich, considering that we are coming off the back of a human pandemic that has seen hundreds of thousands of lives lost across the UK, when the Government were putting people back to work and telling people to eat out to help out, against the wishes of the Scottish Government. There was no such collaborative working then and there was no such good will coming forth from the UK Government.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

I was about to ask to intervene just before Jim Shannon, so I will not comment on the most recent comments made by Steven Bonnar, but I welcome his remarks about how the situation is being kept under review. I plan to meet—hopefully very soon—the chief veterinary officer for Scotland, Sheila Voas, who he mentioned. Does he share my concern, particularly as the most recent outbreaks are in my constituency and are very concentrated—although across Scotland it may look like there are not a lot of outbreaks on average, there is such a highly concentrated and focused series of outbreaks in one area—that housing orders, perhaps even in one location, may be required?

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. This is a concern for every Member of Parliament, across all four nations of the UK. Of course there are specific outbreaks in his area. I am glad that he is meeting our chief veterinary officer. I am always quite willing and able to take the advice of the experts on these matters. The current advice from the Scottish Government is that mandatory housing is not yet required in Scotland, and I am quite happy to maintain that position.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, can I just point out that I will call the Opposition spokesman shortly and I think the hon. Gentleman is about to run out of time?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

Thank you, Sir George; I will be brief.

I do see a contradiction between the hon. Gentleman’s party’s approach to the human pandemic of covid and the approach it is taking now, by which it is trying to protect farmers in Scotland. I draw his attention to the fact that his party is in government in Scotland and David Duguid has pointed out that many of his constituents have had outbreaks. Frankly, it seems that there needs to be a little bit more compassion from Steven Bonnar about the devastation that this disease is having on the livelihoods of Scottish farmers.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

I take the hon. Lady’s comments on board. I disagree with her comments about compassion; I am very compassionate about animal welfare right across the board, and of course I have compassion for anybody’s constituents in Scotland who are affected by this situation.

I will move quickly on. Sadly, more than 100,000 birds have had to be culled at three Scottish farms so far. The National Farmers Union of Scotland has revealed that 72,000 birds had to be taken out at two farms in Aberdeenshire, while down in Ayrshire farmer Billy Robb has lost 32,000 hens in the past week. This is devastating for all those concerned with the keeping of animals and it has a profound effect on people in the farming community. As we heard at the EFRA Committee yesterday, livelihoods have indeed been lost due to the outbreak.

Of course, it can also be concerning for members of the general public when they come across dead birds Just last week, 23 swans were found dead in and around Hogganfield Loch—a well-renowned and much-loved nature reserve, which borders my constituency and is frequently utilised by my constituents in the Stepps area. The severity of the outbreak has limited public access to the surrounding paths and advice has been given to people to avoid bringing dogs to the area, as they can also be at risk of infection.

The risk of incursion to wild birds of highly pathogenic avian influenza has remained very high. NatureScot launched a surveillance network in October to track migrating geese and wintering waterbirds arriving in Scotland. Alastair MacGugan of NatureScot said:

“As we head into the winter months, we are still very concerned about the potential impact of avian flu on our wild bird populations and we remain vigilant to ensure we can respond to the evolving situation. We’re monitoring wintering goose populations very closely for avian flu and are working with colleagues in Iceland and Norway to identify cases in migrating populations. Here in Scotland, we’ve set up a network of site managers and volunteers to provide real-time reporting on what is happening out in the field, helping us take swift and targeted decisions.”

I will turn briefly to consumption. It is important to stress that the risk to the general public’s health from avian influenza is extremely low. Food Standards Scotland advised that bird flu poses only a very low food safety concern for consumers, and does not have an effect on the human consumption of any poultry products, including eggs. The Scottish Government are aware of a number of issues affecting egg supply; some shops, including Asda and Lidl, are starting to ration the number of eggs that customers can buy due to supply issues. Although the impact of avian influenza on all commercial flocks is a consideration, the cost of living increases and a number of other issues, such as labour shortages across all sectors of the industry, feed into that. It was refreshing to hear a Conservative MP identify that Brexit has caused a severe shortage in the workforce, and that a fuller workforce would have helped to combat the outbreak.

As we head towards the Christmas period, people might be wondering whether any of the 10 million turkeys, 200,000 geese and 100,000 ducks, which are sold to some of the highest standards in the world each year, will be available as normal. The answer to that is yes. Of course there concerns, but about 50% of those tasty festive dinners are sold frozen, and the industry has managed the situation very well by carrying out early plucking, and using industry standard freeze and thaw processes.

We can all play our part in combating this outbreak of bird flu. I will finish with some advice for my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and people across Scotland. If they encounter any dead birds, they should not touch them, but should report the findings of the following: a single dead bird of prey, three dead gulls or winter waterfowl, such as swans, geese or ducks, or five or more dead wild birds of any other species at the same time and in the same place. Any such findings should be reported to DEFRA’s UK-wide telephone number, which is 0345 9335577. In addition, although wild birds of high-risk species cannot be taken directly to Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal rescue centres, sick or injured wild birds in Scotland should be reported to the SSPCA via its telephone number, which is 0300 099 9999.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:37 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I join other Members in congratulating Sir John Whittingdale on securing this crucial and timely debate. Like me, Members are rightly concerned about the impact of this virus, and they have made excellent points. I thank Tim Farron, my hon. Friend Cat Smith, Richard Foord, Priti Patel, Kevin Foster, and the esteemed Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne. Of course, no debate could exclude Jim Shannon, who shared an egg anecdote.

I am delighted to be stepping in for my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner, who is addressing farmers at the Norfolk Farming Conference and therefore could not be here. Norfolk and the east in general have suffered acutely from this crisis. He is disappointed not to be here himself to continue to press the Minister on this important matter. He has been asking repeated questions of the Minister in recent weeks at the Dispatch Box and in this Chamber, often not receiving direct answers, but we will try again—never fear. On my hon. Friend’s behalf, I am more than happy to keep the pressure on. Hopefully, we will get more answers today to the questions we have posed.

The UK is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of bird flu, which is impacting the wild bird and farm bird populations. As the chief vet said in a DEFRA statement on 31 October,

“We are now facing, this year, the largest ever outbreak of bird flu and are seeing rapid escalation in the number of cases on commercial farms and in backyard birds across England.”

According to data provided by the Minister’s Department last week in response to a written question, 2.8 million farm birds have either been culled or died because of bird flu in 2022. Just under 2 million of those were since September. That figure is made up exclusively of chickens, ducks and turkeys. That relates to the many points that Members have made about Christmas.

The rate of the spread has been alarming, with wild bird populations severely affected, and the problem has been known about for months. The RSPB, which gave evidence to the EFRA Committee yesterday, is helping to remove wild bird carcases, and I want to put on the record my thanks to it for that vital work. Some 65 species of wild bird have so far tested positive for avian flu in the UK, and population-level effects have been seen in seabirds including guillemots, kittiwakes, terns, great skua, gannets and barnacle geese, as other Members, including the hon. Member for Torbay, mentioned.

The Government’s response has been criticised for being reactive instead of proactive in spite of early warning signs that there was a worsening problem. However, in the past month we have finally seen action from the Government, which we welcome. A full housing order was implemented on 7 November, which legally required all bird keepers to keep their birds housed, regardless of type or size. The Government altered their compensation process so that farmers could be compensated from the outset of planned culling, rather than at the end, and some regulatory liberalisation was introduced to allow poultry producers to freeze and then defrost birds between 28 November and 31 December to limit any supply issues in the run-up to Christmas, but has that been too little, too late?

When the Minister delivered the Government’s statement on the housing order to the House of Commons, it was clear that he thought biosecurity was the most effective tool in tackling bird flu. I am sure he recalls what he said:

“It is fair to say that the housing order has a twofold impact on the spread of avian influenza, whereas biosecurity can have a 44-fold impact on the spread, which is why our focus has been completely on biosecurity.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 806.]

We accept that biosecurity is crucial to preventing the spread of bird flu, but the industry was calling for a full housing order weeks before one finally arrived.

Will the Minister tell us what impact the housing order is having on the spread of avian flu? Is it proving successful in stemming the spread? As we have heard—I join the criticism from other Members—some devolved nations have not yet implemented full housing orders, so what can the Minister tell us about the situation there? I am sure he will want to comment on that, considering the debate we have had. Does the evidence suggest that, in England, the housing of birds has been successful?

On support for farmers, we need to ask whether the Government are doing enough. The evidence provided yesterday to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee by the chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, and poultry farmer Paul Kelly of KellyBronze Turkeys, who was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Maldon and is from the right hon. Gentleman’s area, showed that they argue that the compensation scheme laid out in legislation from 1981 is out of date and does not reflect the consequences of the disease in 2022. With compensation being issued for healthy birds culled, smaller producers might see all their flock die before the APHA is able to arrive to cull, and be left without compensation.

The growing worry is that financial loss, coupled with the trauma and mental strain of losing an entire flock—we heard from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about the historical effects of previous crises on other types of farming—might lead to producers deciding not to restock for next winter, so that they effectively leave the sector. It is not hard to understand why after hearing what Paul Kelly said yesterday during the Select Committee hearing after detailing the £1.2 million hit his farm has taken as a result bird flu this year: “Could we take the risk to produce Christmas poultry based on what we’ve seen this year? We couldn’t.” That is pretty telling.

The Department issued £2.4 million in compensation in the six weeks from 1 October. Will the Minister put that in context? How many birds does that involve? I appreciate that the compensation scale is complex, and I hear that there are 13 different documents just for turkeys, but are farmers getting enough support to be able to restock and continue in business next year? To put it frankly, will they have confidence that the Government have a grip on the situation such that they stay in the sector?

Avian flu has been returning year on year, as was stated by the esteemed Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow, so it seems as though there is no long-term strategy. Are discussions being had in the Department on vaccinations? Is consideration being given to speeding up the development of an effective vaccine? What discussions are being held with trading partners to ensure that vaccination becomes a viable proposition?

Can we hear from the Minister about capacity in the APHA? We have heard many speeches here discussing that and capacity in the Environment Agency, but the recent report from colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee hardly inspires confidence. Do those agencies have the capacity to respond to another disease outbreak? The Public Accounts Committee doubts that. When my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood put that issue to the Secretary of State during EFRA questions just two weeks ago, the Secretary of State ducked the question. I hope we get a better response today.

Crossing one’s fingers and hoping it does not happen does not constitute a plan. That is what Labour is concerned about—DEFRA’s long-term strategy for our agriculture sector. The Government seem content for the public to believe that bird flu is the cause of egg shortages and worries about Christmas turkeys, but we all know that farmers face more fundamental problems, and there have been warnings of egg shortages for months because producers could not make a return. Avian flu should not be used as cover for wider systemic problems and failings.

Avian flu is a horrible disease that is dreadful for wild birds and harrowing for farmers and their flocks. Overall, the advice is that numbers lost should not cause supply problems on the shelves, but the Government need to keep on top of the outbreak. For individual farmers who lose their flocks, the impact is dreadful, and they deserve our support, not least because we need them to farm in the future. Across the country, staff at the APHA and other agencies, including local authorities, are doing everything they can to keep the country safe and our food system secure. We thank them for that. They are doing their job. The Government must support them, and enable them to do what they need to do.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:44 am, 30th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale for securing the debate. The debate has been positive, and many Members have made similar points. I shall try to address as many of those points as I can over the next 10 minutes.

My hon. Friend Kevin Foster was probably an outlier in talking about Paignton zoo, which is a matter that he has raised with me in private before. There are many zoos up and down the country that face specific and challenging circumstances. Highly valuable birds have to be protected, and many are quite difficult to manage. I am told that penguins, in particular, are of significant value, and that it is difficult to vaccinate and manage birds such as flamingos and ostriches, which are difficult to physically handle and are very wild in their nature. I can perhaps pick up some of those comments with him afterwards.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I thank the Minister for his response so far. I am very happy to meet him, perhaps with a representative of the Wild Planet Trust, so that we can go into those areas in more detail.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s supportive comment.

DEFRA’s avian influenza disease control measures aim to minimise the economic burden of the current outbreaks. We are working closely with industry to address the impact on the sector and protect public health and the wider economy. We recognise that the poultry industry is under serious pressure, and we also recognise the impact of avian influenza on wild bird populations. Outbreaks of avian flu in both the kept and wild bird populations are at an unprecedented scale: for the first time, significantly, new cases have been confirmed for the second year of the outbreak.

October saw a massive escalation in the number of cases confirmed. Although the number of confirmed cases in poultry and captive birds is slowly reducing, which is good news, there were 124 cases in England, nine in Scotland, three in Wales and one in Northern Ireland as of last night. That compares to a total of 158 cases between October 2021 and September 2022, and 26 cases in winter 2020-21.

In responding to avian flu in kept birds, our priority has always been to get as quickly as possible to the farm where the disease is suspected, and to get on with the issue of compensation. Despite the unprecedented scale of the challenge, the APHA is staying on top of it. I thank the people working at the APHA and DEFRA; they are working day and night to deal with the pandemic, in very difficult circumstances. I know that they will continue to respond effectively as long as the outbreak continues. They are taking steps to improve the operational and policy response, even as it is under way, to support our vital food sector.

We produce approximately 11 million turkeys in the UK every year, so the numbers of them affected are relatively small. We believe that the outbreak will not affect the overall supply of Christmas turkeys, which is a huge credit to the industry. Its response has been robust, and it is keeping us well fed and supplied at Christmas.

Wild birds have also been hard hit over the summer for the first time, and breeding sea birds have been particularly badly affected. DEFRA and the Welsh Government have joined forces to produce a mitigation strategy that provides practical guidance for land managers, the public and those involved in environmental organisations, so that they can work alongside the Government to monitor the disease. Together with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, DEFRA is working closely with the APHA, Natural England, NatureScot, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and other non-governmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology, to monitor and respond to the effect of avian flu on wild birds.

I turn specifically to compensation. We recognise the significant financial pressure and emotional impact that the outbreak can have on producers. Current rules are designed to encourage good biosecurity standards, which means being careful about every single movement on and off farm and into poultry sheds. I cannot underestimate the importance of good biosecurity. Alex Sobel mentioned my comments about housing orders; my direct answer is that they help. It is not a silver bullet, but housing poultry helps. As I indicated during that statement, it has a twofold impact, but biosecurity can have a 44-fold impact. We must not underestimate the importance of biosecurity.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I took the liberty of passing to the Minister’s PPS the BEIS request forms on compensation and vaccination. There is an argument that the compensation system, as it is now, does not respond to the help needed. Has the Minister had a chance to look at that, and is he able to reply?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Let me try to address that directly now. What we cannot do as a Government, which is much more challenging, is to underwrite the whole poultry production system; UK taxpayers would find that too much of a challenge. Of course, we want to try to support the industry and ensure that it is there for the future. That is why we changed the rules, so that we start the conversation process from the second that the APHA vets recognise there is an outbreak of avian influenza. We have become much better and quicker at getting those APHA vets on to site—within 24 hours, in most cases—to identify the disease and start the conversation process from that moment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon made reference to four-legged animals—that is almost identical to the compensation scheme for foot and mouth disease, for example, whereby the Government pay compensation for animals that are not diseased that are being culled to stop the spread of the infection. We are working day and night to ensure that this system works. We have improved. People in the industry recognise that that is a better place than we were in at the beginning of this terrible disease, but it still brings huge financial and emotional challenges to the people working in the sector.

We have also moved to assist with defrosted products. They will be properly labelled and accompanied by in-store signage, along with the online information for customers, and this option will give producers certainty over business planning. There have been a number of calls, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, to extend that scheme to next season, and to give producers the confidence to step back into the marketplace. The Department is genuinely open to a conversation about whether to roll that forward to next year. We do not want to allow competition from overseas to undercut our sector. We are genuinely open to a conversation on what producers see as the best route forward, as we want to support them into next season and next Christmas. Our work with the sector has shown that, in the past, there has been too much uncertainty about the compensation schemes, and we are keen to engage and work with it moving forward.

I return to biosecurity, which is an essential defence against avian influenza, and, when done extremely well, can reduce the risk of infection by 44-fold. Despite a legal requirement for an avian influenza prevention zone as a baseline for the industry, veterinary investigations at infected premises continue to reveal unacceptable lapses in biosecurity in some cases. The industry must play its part in helping to prevent further outbreaks. That means maintaining buildings properly, ensuring biosecurity is done as robustly as health and safety with senior leadership in companies, and effective training for all staff. One small lapse can have a devastating effect, allowing this terrible disease to enter into a poultry house.

The measures legally require birdkeepers to keep their birds indoors and to follow stringent biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the disease, regardless of type or size. I urge all birdkeepers, from those who keep large commercial flocks to those who have one or two birds in their back garden, to adopt the best practice biosecurity advice measures that are required in law.

Any future decisions on disease control measures, including the use of vaccination, will continue to be based on the latest scientific and veterinary advice. A lot of work is going on in the background internationally to develop that vaccine and make sure it works. As many Members have identified, the covid pandemic has given us much more professionalism and put much more of a system in place to develop those vaccines, and we will call on that expertise to try to find a vaccine that is effective, in order to prevent this disease internationally. That will also require a lot of co-operation in terms of trade, making sure that the markets we export to are willing to receive vaccinated meat products and eggs in future. That has to be an international agreement, because we do not want to damage our ability to export products.

We have seen a tightening in the egg sector, as some Members have referenced. The UK supply chain is resilient: there are currently 38 million laying hens across the country. Avian flu is not having an impact on the overall supply, with only 2% of the national flock having died or been culled due to avian flu. The disruption to the supply of eggs we have seen recently is mainly due to the commercial decisions that businesses are taking as a result of the rising costs of feed and energy over the past year, mostly caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

We welcome the announcements made by some retailers that they will provide additional financial support to the egg sector in recognition of the challenges that the sector faces, and we encourage those retailers to continue to support the egg industry. We are working closely with devolved Administrations to keep the egg market under close review, and will continue to do so. We have also been keen to work closely with the egg industry; we have done so in recent weeks, and I will chair a roundtable on 6 December with representatives from across the UK egg supply chain to discuss the challenges that the sector is facing and determine how we can assist.

This has been a very positive debate. Lots of Members have identified the way out of this challenge in the long term, which of course will be vaccination. I sincerely hope that our scientists can find a solution that will solve our challenges. I express my extreme sympathy with those people who have been caught up with this terrible disease, and we will continue to work closely with the sector to make sure we have a thriving poultry industry moving forward.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 10:58 am, 30th November 2022

The fact that we have had contributions this morning from Members from all parts of the Chamber and every part of the United Kingdom is an indicator of how important this issue is to our country. I am grateful to all those who have contributed to the debate; I am particularly grateful to the Minister for setting out what is already in train, and for demonstrating that the Department will continue to have urgent talks with the industry and is open to suggestions. I therefore wish everybody a happy Christmas, and that they enjoy their turkey at that time and, hopefully, for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the avian influenza outbreak.