Why the 20-day Rule Needs Changing

Posted on: 18th May 2011

Originally posted November 18th 2002

The Government has promised to review its 20-day livestock movement restriction on farmers, but will not make a decision until next February.

Meanwhile, many farmers find that the livestock movement control can mean an almost indefinite ban on the transfer of any animals off the farm if they regularly bring new animals on.

The ban on moving livestock for 20 days after animals had entered a farm from another premise or market made sense during the Foot and Mouth crisis. By limiting the number of times animals could be moved, one of the causes for the rapid spread of infectious disease was eroded.

But 14 months on, we have to question why the measures remain in place.

My Liberal Democrat colleague in the Lords, Lord Richard Livsey, has been at the forefront of the debate over the 20-day rule. Earlier this month he put down an amendment to the Animal Health Bill which would end any movement restrictions 8 weeks after an outbreak. With cross-party support the amendment was included in the Bill but fell when Government Whips in the Commons ensured that it was thrown out.

Since that time Margaret Beckett has announced her departmental risk assessment and cost benefit analysis. The final decision, when taken in February, will occur two years after the first outbreak of Foot and Mouth.

Of course, it is vital that any change to the movement regime does not increase the likelihood of infectious disease. But I am concerned about news that some farmers feel that the only way they can survive is to break the law by moving their animals before the 20 days are up. Clearly, the prospect of compromising biosecurity on British farms has become that much more real.

Although I cannot condone anyone breaking the law, I do understand that the movement ban has obviously added further pressure on many farmers. The Government cannot divorce itself from farming by issuing directives and rules without fully discussing with the industry the likely and on-going impact they are having.

I believe that a way forward can be found which is flexible enough for farmers to carry on with their work, but which does not weaken biosecurity controls.

North of the border this is already happening. In Scotland, where the Liberal Democrats are in charge of rural affairs, Ross Finnie MSP has introduced a system which accommodates farmers’ needs and also biosecurity requirements. Separation authorisations are in place, which enable new animals coming onto a farm to be kept apart from those already present. As a consequence, new animals are subject to the 20-day rule, while others within the same business are not affected. The Scottish Executive is able to check farms to make sure the system is working and so far there have been no problems.

This approach could be rolled out to the rest of Britain.

Rather than waiting until February, DEFRA should engage in a dialogue with the farming and wider rural community now.

I do hope that DEFRA will realise that it is in everyone’s interest that more rapid progress is achieved soon and I will continue to press Ministers on this important matter.