Committee of Public Accounts - Meetings

Press Notice No. 27 of Session 2003-04, dated 6 July 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that there was an urgent need for improvement in DEFRA's systems for tracking livestock in order to provide the public with effective but efficient ways of protecting health, and maximise the commercial benefits for farming.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 27th Report of this Session, which examined the progress made in implementing livestock identification and tracking in England to meet domestic and European Union requirements to safeguard human and animal health, assist in control of farming subsidies, and improve the industry's commercial performance.

In England, the government spends £30 million each year on livestock identification and tracking. The main bodies involved are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, responsible for policy, and the Department's British Cattle Movement Service, which since April 2003 has been part of the Rural Payments Agency. Computer systems track individual cattle genealogy and movements (the Cattle Tracing System) and movements of batches of cattle, sheep and pigs (the Animal Movements Licensing System). The Department's State Veterinary Service uses separate computer systems for animal health and disease control. The Department plans more integrated and effective systems through the phased introduction of a £136 million Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme.

The Committee found that the Cattle Tracing System is more expensive and less efficient than systems used in other EU Member States. Whilst the British Cattle Movement Service employs one person per 5,000 cattle registered, in Denmark the ratio is one person per 40,000 cattle. The Cattle Tracing System was developed in haste, and has suffered from serious technical difficulties in terms of access, ease of use, maintainability, adaptability and its link with other systems.

Making markets responsible for reporting all relevant animal movements would reduce anomalies, and could save around £1 million in postage costs a year. Currently the Cattle Tracing System requires notifications from seller, market and buyer, and where these fail to match, or not all are received, they result in an anomaly. Triple and postal notification, involving handwritten entries, increases the numbers of these anomalies, with some 1.2 million anomalies remaining to be corrected. Most livestock markets have well developed and audited systems, and would be better placed, when a movement is through the market, to report all relevant elements of a transaction.

Reducing error levels through greater use of more efficient notification methods could save around £15 million a year. Most anomalies and other errors arise in postal and email communications, with the lowest error rates occurring on web-based and electronic methods. The Department needs a strategy to increase the use of electronic notification whether via the internet, or for example, touch tone telephone notification. Larger farms, reporting the most transactions, are likely to have little difficulty in using electronic media, and might be required to do so from an early date. For others, the Department should consider the case for incentives and assistance to use electronic methods.

Poor interfaces between the Cattle Tracing System and the Department's Common Agricultural Policy subsidy databases prevented full cross checking of farmers' claims. This situation has resulted in European Commission penalties of £14 million already, and the Department estimated that up to £50 million might be payable in total.

The Department should learn from the weaknesses in its current systems, and experience in other Member States, in developing its replacement Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme. Particular areas that merit attention are the cost and error rates associated with eartags; the speed and cost of registering births and recording deaths; the extent to which industry can access centrally-held records; and best practice in data validation and movement notification.

The Department's new Livestock Register should be an important tool in controlling disease outbreaks. The Register is being developed through the Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme, and should be fully integrated with the computer systems used by the Department's State Veterinary Service. Movements between artificially "linked holdings" some distance apart could pose a significant risk to disease control, and the exemption should be limited to regular movements of cattle between nearby sites under the same management regime.

A minority of keepers persistently submit inaccurate and/or incomplete information. Enforcement is a matter for local authorities, and the Department still has only partial information on the sanctions imposed. The Department needs to improve this information and use it to develop a coherent range of penalties.

The Department's new systems should also benefit the industry in areas such as livestock management, breeding and supporting quality assurance. To maximise these benefits and win industry co-operation, the Department should work in active partnership with the industry on the design, management and operation of its new systems, rather than just consulting with the industry as a stakeholder. The Department should also, with the industry, establish a clear plan for the recovery of costs of livestock identification and tracing systems for the future, with greater sharing of costs as happens in other Member States.

Mr Leigh said today:

"There is an urgent need for improvement in DEFRA's systems for tracking livestock. The Cattle Tracing System in particular is inefficient, overly burdensome, and based on obsolete technology. And it does not fully meet the needs of state veterinarians to control outbreaks of infectious diseases amongst cattle, which is all the more unacceptable given that it was introduced in response to the BSE crisis in the 1990s.

In developing its new systems, DEFRA must learn from practices in other EU Member States, and work in real partnership with industry, in order to provide the public with effective but efficient ways of protecting health and maximise the commercial benefits for farming."

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