Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. His farming constituents, like mine, no doubt suffered during the foot and mouth crisis from MAFF's continual changes of instructions on biosecurity measures. In those circumstances, how is a farmer expected to know what the correct biosecurity measures are?

Mr. Todd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I disagree with him. I think that steps were taken. It is fair to say that the recommended measures changed from time to time, as experience demonstrated what measures were most effective. At a very early stage, all farmers received clear guidance on how to identify foot and mouth disease—which is extremely difficult in the main carrying species—and on the measures that seemed appropriate at the time. Farmers with longish memories remembered the use of footbaths and other measures to improve biosecurity. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I think that some steps were taken and some learning done. I do not blame MAFF for that.

My third point was made by the hon. Member for East Surrey and, indeed, I have made it before repeatedly. For the Bill to be a balanced approach to controlling the risk of disease in our land, the most sensible accompanying measure would be steps to control illegal meat imports. The main route is not illegal imports presented as legal imports but illegal imports on the backs of trucks labelled as containing vegetables, or in people's luggage. Thus far, the measures that have been taken are clearly inadequate and have been widely criticised. There would be greater hope of engaging with the other stakeholders in the rural community if more positive action were proposed to accompany these steps.

My fourth concern is that consultation has been extremely limited, although I appreciate why. I am reassured by my right hon. Friend's statement about substantial consultation on the various schedules and regulations. I hope that they will be extremely detailed and that they will fill the obvious gaps in the Bill.

12 Nov 2001 : Column 594

Fifthly, although the Bill places specific obligations on farmers, it does not balance them with obligations on Department officials to carry out tasks within a certain time. There is the 21-day rule for determining whether people have properly followed biosecurity measures, but there is no precise timetable within which an official will be obliged to decide, for example, whether a farmer is entitled to compensation of 100 per cent., 75 per cent. or something in between. There is certainly no obligation on the Department to pay compensation within a certain time, which has caused a certain amount of grief in my constituency.

Margaret Beckett: Obviously, these are issues that the House will want to discuss, but the Department has it in mind to set a target of three weeks.

Mr. Todd: I thank my right hon. Friend. I take that as meaning that the Department will have three weeks in which to pay compensation. When the Select Committee asked the Under-Secretary about decisions on compensation, we had difficulty in drawing an answer out of him, but I got the impression that those decisions would be made in days rather than weeks, and that, in many cases, it would be plain to the official visiting the farm that a decision could be made on that day. I shall return in a moment to the reasons for my concern about that lack of definition of the Department's obligations.

I am concerned also about the lack of definition of what biosecurity measures will be required. The Select Committee asked questions about that. We asked how these measures differ from the requirements that the law already imposes. The Under-Secretary made it clear that several prosecutions for biosecurity lapses were in hand, so the law does affect farmers, particularly on matters such as dirty vehicles. That might be covered in a schedule defining the circumstances in which different biosecurity measures would be appropriate. There is a great deal more work to be done on that.

There are different farming practices and different means of species management, which will have to be reflected in the steps that are taken. The Under-Secretary, speaking to the Select Committee, rightly drew attention to the extreme biosecurity measures taken in pig units. There is such a property in my constituency, and it would have been extremely difficult to visit it or even to get near it when those measures were in place, and rightly so. Clearly, we need to reflect on such experiences and draw up specific regulations.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend's argument is cogent. Does he agree that there remains a significant problem with the division of responsibilities between central and local government in monitoring biosecurity?

Mr. Todd: I thank my hon. Friend for his typically astute remark. I was about to turn to the management of powers, which is another area of doubt. As those of us who have had foot and mouth in our constituencies are aware, the role of county councils and trading standards officers is vital. There was significant variation in the ways in which functions relating to movement restrictions were carried out. I commend the people involved in that task in my county, who worked extremely hard and were assiduous. When I asked queries, they answered promptly and pursued lengthy inquiries into the movement of

12 Nov 2001 : Column 595

animals. One point that certainly came through was that often they did not receive sufficient information quickly enough to carry out their responsibilities as they felt they should. My hon. Friend is thus right to highlight that concern.

My final point has been touched on by the Opposition and it troubles me greatly: the Bill will pass considerable powers to a Department that, if we are honest, did not in all respects perform in a way of which we can be proud as public representatives. That does not mean that I criticise many of the junior officials who worked extremely hard. During the outbreak in my area, farmers were most complimentary about MAFF officials and spoke of the sensitivity, kindness and care with which they carried out their responsibilities. The problem lay further up the chain.

Although the problem was handled with great care and sensitivity, frustration arose when bills had to be paid and issues signed off at a more senior level in the Ministry and in relation to the overall strategic management of the outbreak. There is concern, which I have conveyed to the Under–Secretary, about passing more powers to a group of senior managers whose adequacy many people may criticise, even though those managers may have felt that they carried out their responsibilities in the best way, given the circumstances.

We require some assurance about the way in which such diseases will be managed in DEFRA in future, such as the accountability and roles of Ministers and the essential management tasks that will be allocated to the Department's personnel. Most of us will require greater reassurance on those key matters—not on the willingness of junior staff who, in many ways, performed well beyond the call of duty, and certainly not on the role of the armed forces and others who were drafted in to help in extreme circumstances. However, that critical strategic and operational management role was seen as being of poor quality in many areas—especially those that were under the most stress.

Before we pass such severe and draconian powers, even though they may be justified, we must be assured about the quality of the people who will make judgments.

4.58 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) trod carefully on egg shells. He showed a degree of dexterity, and he highlighted many of the concerns felt not only in the House but by people outside.

It is good to know that Labour Members are prepared to express those concerns. Opposition Members can be a little less constrained in the force with which we express our views, but it is good that Government supporters recognise that the Bill does not seem to justify its introduction as an emergency measure. It seems neither timely nor to have been subject to proper preparation or consultation. The Secretary of State has not explained why there is such a desperate need to pass the Bill in haste.

Although many of us who called for a public inquiry still believe that the Government will live to regret not holding one—many questions will go unanswered and will fester beneath the current performance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I wholly accept that a public inquiry would not of itself

12 Nov 2001 : Column 596

allow for the introduction of more urgent measures. If the Government believe that legislative changes are required—no one is suggesting that they are not—they have a duty to explain exactly what is informing their policy and to explain the reason for their haste. They have not even taken time to consult those directly affected—the farmers—and the other agencies concerned for animal health and welfare. Although the Secretary of State said that the Government would consult on the secondary legislation, that apparently could not be done for the primary legislation.

Ministers must be well aware of the feeling—I am sure that the Secretary of State has encountered it—that the Department and the Government are indifferent, if not hostile, to the interests of those engaged in agriculture and the rural economy. The absence of consultation does not help to reassure those people that there is a genuine desire to engage them in a partnership to deal with a problem that has destroyed many people's livelihoods, and continues to do so. That is why I and my colleagues do not believe that the Bill is justified.

Next Section

IndexHome Page