02 October 2008

Speech in the Scottish parliament

Debate on Foot-and-Mouth

There can be few more critical episodes in the life of agriculture than an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

As other members have said, over the past decade, we have seen the devastating impact that an outbreak of FMD anywhere in the UK can have on livestock and livelihoods across the entire country.

It is right that we should learn the lessons of the most recent outbreak and apply them in planning our response to any further potential outbreaks.

Over the time of the previous and current Administrations, we have been fortunate to have at our disposal in Scotland highly expert and dedicated Executive staff to advise ministers. In such situations, ministers always have to take a science-based approach.

Only the rashest minister would ignore the expert advice and guidance that is available to them.

Scudamore makes the point that we need to retain that expertise in Scotland.

I share that view, and I hope that his reference does not imply that there is a threat to that expertise.

I am sure that the minister can reassure the chamber on that matter in his summing up.

Scudamore makes many recommendations.

I have no doubt that the cabinet secretary will want to implement them all—indeed, many are entirely uncontentious and technical in nature.

Scudamore is clear on the need for Scotland to remain part of the GB epidemiological unit; industry stakeholders endorse that view.

He makes it clear that Scottish agriculture is so woven into the UK market and supply chains that it cannot be seen as a separate entity.

That is the context within which the report refers to the debate on regionalisation. Scudamore makes it clear that the matter is not straightforward but highly intricate, and that the price of any change that is not thoroughly thought through could be high.

On regionalisation, the report can give the impression of facing two ways.

In paragraph 7 of the executive summary, the report makes it clear that

"Unless there is a change in the trading patterns within GB it is difficult to envisage how many of the potential options for regionalisation of Scotland would be economically viable or practical to administer."

That points us in the direction of doubting the practicality or wisdom of adopting a regional approach, using Scotland as a region.

There should be no glib talk of regionalisation being a simple process or panacea.

However, the report then appears to open up the debate about possible regionalisation by referring to a number of scenarios and discussing the need for detailed cost benefit analysis, full economic appraisal and the like.

It concludes:

"This would enable the Scottish Government and stakeholders to evaluate the options and to agree a clear policy on regionalisation in the event of a future FMD outbreak."

We must be clear that Professor Scudamore is not saying that there should be a policy of regionalisation; he is urging a clear policy debate about the question of regionalisation.

After close examination, the conclusion could be that regionalisation was not in all circumstances in Scotland's interests.

If there is to be further investigation and examination of regionalisation—I have no problem with that and support it—the debate must include the merits or otherwise of Scotland not being one unit or one region.

At the time of the last outbreak, I was struck by the talk about how far Surrey was from the Scottish border.

The implication was that somehow because the outbreak was far to the south it was wrong that we were caught up in its consequences.

However, such comments ignore the fact that parts of Scotland are much further away from the Scottish border than Surrey is.

Scotland covers a huge area and if, God forbid, Caithness, for example, were to be the source of a future outbreak, might not the people of Dumfries and Galloway wonder why they were caught up in a single Scottish region for some purposes?

As Sarah Boyack said, the unique position of our islands is an issue. In any debate about regionalisation, we must consider what special provisions and arrangements could be put in place to give them maximum protection, but also maximum freedom.

I noted what the minister said about that and am encouraged by his comments.

Our amendment draws attention to the issue.

I am not naive enough to believe that any of this is easy—it is not at all easy.

Just as the GB agriculture industry is interwoven between Scotland, England and Wales, it is also interwoven between different parts of Scotland, with animal movements taking place on a vast scale.

All I say, in the context of a regional approach, is that the question whether Scotland is naturally one region must be explored.

I have an open mind about the outcome.

As other members have said, opening up a debate on a regional approach raises issues about where current slaughtering activity takes place.

The supermarkets are hugely influential in that regard.

What seems like sound commercial sense to the supermarkets in the normal foot-and-mouth-free periods that we enjoy can suddenly seem like a major impediment to our markets when an outbreak occurs.

However, change to that process will be colossal. Rob Gibson alluded to some of the economic facts that might come to bear in thinking about alternatives.

Without the co-operation of the supermarkets in a wider national emergency planning framework, the issue will present massive challenges, but we must think about it as part of the debate about developing a more local approach to slaughtering and to our food market.

We should not underestimate the challenges that we face.

Sarah Boyack referred to the plight, which is still outstanding, that faces the pig industry as a consequence of the previous FMD outbreak.

The NFUS has been critical of the Government's response to its own task force.

In fact, yesterday's NFUS press release made it clear that none of the task force recommendations had been followed through.

The Rural Affairs and Environment Committee will ask the minister to come and give further evidence on the matter—I hope that he can do that.

Professor Scudamore points to some friction between the Scottish and UK Governments.

He highlights the belief in the south that some of the suggestions that have emanated from Scotland are politically motivated rather than scientifically based.

I am sure that ministers would deny that and Professor Scudamore states that, in his view, any such belief in the south was not correct. However, the fact remains that that belief was held and it could have had an effect on inter-Government relations and actions.

It is a serious matter.

If I wanted to do so, I could make trenchant political points about the way in which the Scottish Government sometimes conducts itself, but I will resist that temptation and make only the following point.

The way in which Governments deal with each other is hugely important.

If an atmosphere is engendered in which motivations for actions can be questioned, that can have real consequences.

If those consequences affect the action that is taken in emergency situations such as foot and mouth, they can be very serious.

The fact that Governments develop apparatus to deal with each other, for the most part very civilly, is not an accident.

I encourage the Scottish Government to reflect on that matter as part of the process of re-examining the concordats to which Professor Scudamore refers.

Richard Lochhead: Given that the member raised the subject, can he provide clarity by saying whether he believes that the Scottish Government took any decisions during the foot-and-mouth outbreak on a political basis?

Peter Peacock: I make the point that Professor Scudamore makes—he does not believe that the people in the south should have thought what they did.

My point is that they thought that, and that there are reasons why they thought that. I simply suggest that the Government should reflect on that.

Professor Scudamore has written a good report, which should help to improve future planning arrangements.

I am sure that the actions that will flow from the report will do just that.


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