§ 8.14 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order extends to avian influenza and Newcastle disease powers introduced by the Animal Health Act 2002 in relation to foot and mouth disease. I am sure I do not need to remind anyone of the foot and mouth outbreak. We learnt lessons. We must be properly prepared for any future outbreak, whether it is foot and mouth or any other disease.
§ Although the Animal Health Act was somewhat contentious in this House, we introduced it in order to bolster our powers and introduce new powers for foot and mouth which allowed powers to be extended to other diseases by order approved by a resolution of both Houses. That is the background to the draft order.
§ Your Lordships will be aware of the outbreak of avian influenza on the Continent this year. There were 250 confirmed cases, mainly in the Netherlands, and over 31 million birds had to be slaughtered. The outbreak, occurring as it did so near to the UK and spreading to Belgium and Germany, naturally heightened concerns here. As a result of the outbreak, the Dutch authorities have shared their experience 94 with us. One of their findings is that they believe that up to 20 premises were already infected when avian influenza was first suspected. In order to get on top of the disease and stop it spreading, the Dutch authorities introduced preventive culls, involving commercial holdings within a radius of 3 kilometres around infected farms. In the main affected area, all commercial poultry within a radius of 10 kilometres around infected farms were slaughtered.
§ We have considered the need for the possibility of a preventive cull here, should an outbreak occur. In the Netherlands, where the structure of the industry is slightly different, there was a very high density of poultry holdings in the areas affected. but these were small farms with shared labour. Our industry tends to be more concentrated in that we have fewer locations but with more birds in them. The veterinary advice being given to me and my colleagues is that the need for a preventive cull in the United Kingdom is unlikely. Nevertheless, in the light of the Netherlands experience and the strong advice from the Dutch authorities, the need for such a cull is not ruled out. Having the powers would be essential to our armoury.
§ Your Lordships will recall that during the debate on the Animal Health Act there was much concern that we should use vaccination wherever possible as an alternative to a cull in relation to preventive culls. Vaccination, however, is not practical for avian influenza, at least with the current technologies. Birds would have to be dosed individually by injection, and immunity can take up to three weeks. Some poultry require two doses. Vaccination, moreover, does not prevent birds becoming infected and shedding virus, mainly via faeces. Thus we do not see vaccination as an alternative effective tool in this context.
§ If we were ever to use these powers there would need to be a disease control slaughter protocol. This describes the purpose, factors and procedures behind the use of a preventive cull. We have one in place for foot and mouth disease—it is incorporated in the FMD contingency plan. We intend to produce a separate one for avian influenza and for Newcastle disease.
§ The 2002 Act allows two further measures to be introduced by affirmative order. They involve the provision to slaughter vaccinated animals and the power of entry for testing and sampling. I have already said that given current technology it is unlikely that we would vaccinate, and therefore the first measure does not apply. As far as powers of entry for the purpose of slaughter or vaccination are concerned, they apply automatically under the 2002 Act. It is only powers of entry for the purposes of testing and sampling which need to be extended by this affirmative order. In the event of an outbreak, delays in our ability to test poultry for virus or disease control could lead to the spread of disease and prolongation of an outbreak. Hence, these powers of access for testing are needed.
§ The advice given to Ministers is that we are as much at risk of an outbreak of Newcastle disease as we are of avian influenza. It would therefore he deficient of us to prepare for an outbreak of avian influenza without 95 covering Newcastle disease. Both diseases require amendment to the same pieces of legislation. Therefore, it is important to do both together today. I commend the order to the House.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th June be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee] —(Lord Whitty.)
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for taking us through this statutory instrument. Many of us are very concerned about the avian flu outbreak on the Continent, because it spreads very quickly through the poultry sector. The noble Lord was right to give us the figures on that. I had them as well, so I will not repeat them. However, I have one or two questions for him.
This instrument is being introduced in our House; I do not think it has been debated in another place. It is the first time that we have had a chance to look at it. In his comments the Minister referred particularly to "commercial poultry". Will he look at Article 4(3)(c), which defines,any poultry the Secretary of State thinks should be slaughtered"?I have some questions regarding that phrasing, because if the order is only for commercial poultry, the statutory instrument should define it as such, but it clearly does not.
What animals—that is bad English—or what poultry are included in the definition of "any poultry"? Does that include game birds, for example, or exotic, expensive birds kept in wildlife parks? Would somewhere such as Slimbridge have some of its animals killed in a cull if the Minister thought it fit? What about endangered species and pets, which many people have? I believe that after cats and dogs, birds are the most popular animals kept. I am concerned that the Minister clearly said in his comments that the order refers to commercial poultry, yet the statutory instrument states "any poultry". I would be glad for that to be clarified.
I appreciate what the Minister said about vaccinations. We had a long debate on the Animal Health Bill and we would obviously be in favour of vaccination rather than slaughter. In this case, as it stands, medical science is not far enough advanced along that line and therefore there is no option, so I do not take the Minister to task on the matter.
Why does the order refer to the 1981 Act, since I understand that in the Animal Health Act 2002 the matter is covered under Schedule 2A on page 13? We need to clarify that point; we should not have to go back to previous Acts if the new updated Act can cope with it. From my interpretation of reading through, that is how I viewed the matter.
The Minister is right to say that we have fewer and much larger farms and therefore many more birds; and so our problem may be different from that on the continent. I accept that the order is necessary. With those few comments and questions, I thank the 96 Minister for bringing it before us and explaining it, but I would be grateful if when he winds up he could answer my questions.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the order, but I would like to clarify a few points. Some while ago in your Lordships' House the Minister mentioned that Defra had a horizon-scanning department—I think that is how he termed it. I am slightly surprised that, given that horizon-scanning ability, there was an outbreak in March, but we are only now getting the order in July, so I am questioning the speed with which the department scans the horizon.
I have been reading the comments of the chief vet with regard to avian influenza. He is clear that,While wild birds are as susceptible as domestic poultry to the disease … Water fowl, especially ducks, posed a potentially greater risk in that they could carry high pathogenic strains of the virus without showing signs of disease".The point in my quoting him is that Article 4(4)(c) says that poultry should be culled which,have been exposed to the infection of avian influenza or Newcastle disease",and on some occasions it will he difficult to judge whether they have been exposed.
I wonder what sort of guidance keepers of ducks, in particular, can expect from Defra. I would not want to think that the result was that all free-range keeping of poultry would be so constrained so that they would not be exposed to these diseases. I have in mind the Welfare of Ducks Bill, which was introduced in the House by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, quite rightly, because ducks need water and they often do not obtain it. This may he a step further in making it more difficult for poultry-keepers to ensure that they obtain it.
I wish to make a point about the number of regulations. The Government have said that they encourage small producers. I looked at the British Poultry Council's very helpful web site to see how many pieces of legislation that, as a small poultry keeper of around 100 chickens supplying the market with very high-quality free-range birds, I might expect to deal with. There is almost one regulation or piece of legislation for each of the 100 birds. There are 97, of which 39 are concerned with housing, keeping, feeding, transporting, marketing and slaughtering, and 58 relate to processing and labelling. I urge the Government, when they feel that they have time, to consolidate those provisions as was done in the Water Bill. That would be particularly helpful to small producers, who cannot spend their entire time reading legislation; otherwise, they will never have time to produce anything.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I appreciate the welcome given to the order by both Front-Bench speakers. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was wrong in saying that the House of Commons had not considered the order. For the record, it was considered in the House of Commons this afternoon.
97 The noble Baroness questioned my reference to "commercial poultry". She is right that the definition of poultry in the order includes domestic fowl, turkey, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons, pheasants and partridges and would therefore cover a range of fowl outside commercial premises. The structure of the industry is such that exposure is likely to arise within commercial premises. However, the powers would extend to breeds defined as poultry under Section 87 of the Act. The powers may be extended, although we would need a separate statutory order to do that.
The problem with avian influenza is that almost any bird can carry it. Indeed, the most likely incursion to this country would be via a bird. That is a slight problem, but, in general, it is likely that any preventative cull would be in the commercial sector.
The noble Baroness asked why the order referred to the 1981 Act. Footnote (a) to the order explains that the Animal Health Act is an amendment Act to the 1981 Act. Noble Lords will recall that that difficulty arose during the passage of the Animal Health Act. Although the noble Baroness is right to say that the issue was covered in the 2002 Act, it was as an amendment to the 1981 Act. Reference is therefore made to the 1981 Act, as it has now been amended.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to horizon-scanning in the department, which happens on this front as on others. We did not introduce the order on the basis of the outbreak in the Netherlands because the Dutch authorities thought that they could contain the disease in the initial stages without engagement in a substantive preventive cull, as did we. The Dutch authorities have shared much of their report with their European colleagues. It is clear that the outbreak was very similar to foot and mouth in that the disease was not detected until at least 20 premises had already contracted it. In those circumstances, the authorities had to engage in a preventive cull to stop the further spread of the disease to areas where they had not yet detected it. In the light of the experience of the Dutch after the outbreak, we decided that we needed to introduce the extended power.
The noble Baroness asked whether the order would cover free-range poultry. Regrettably, free-range poultry are more vulnerable, in a sense, because the most likely arrival of the disease would be via a stray wild bird from the Netherlands. I am afraid, therefore, that free-range birds will not be exempt from the order.
I note the noble Baroness's reference to the complexity of regulations covering poultry and the need for consolidation, or at least a better explanation, of them. I shall take that message away.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he answer my question about the birds in wildlife communities such as Slimbridge? Is there a chance that such birds might be considered, should a disease outbreak be known in a certain area? They are commercial flocks in a way, although not in the same sense as the Minister mentioned earlier.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the fowl in Slimbridge would not be covered by the list of poultry that I read out. We could extend the cover, but that would need a separate statutory instrument, which is not before the House tonight. The definition does not include the type of fowl at Slimbridge.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.