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Mr. Todd: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that my plea on this subject was based on rather stronger ground than his, bearing it in mind that exactly the measures that he now criticisesand that I criticised in my speechapplied during the 18 years of Conservative government?
Mr. Hague: This problem has existed for a long time. I stand on exactly the same ground as the hon. Gentleman on this subject. He tactfully explained in his speech that he supported the Bill, then went on to give seven or eight reasons why he had grave reservations about it. I am standing on exactly the same ground, except that I am freer, on this side of the House, to vote against it, which I suspect from the hon. Gentleman's speech is what he would dearly love to do.
Mr. Morley: I do not dispute for a moment that biosecurity in relation to imports of animal products is a serious issue. In fact, I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), about the measures that the Government are taking. In many aspects, we do not need primary legislation to tighten up those procedures. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if disease gets into this country illegallywe can never guarantee 100 per cent. that that will not happenwe must take measures to prevent it spreading? That is the problem that the Bill addresses.
Mr. Hague: Of course I agree with the Minister's argument that, if disease enters the country, we must be equipped to prevent it spreading. That brings me to my third objection to the Bill, which is that it seeks to extend ministerial power in ways that are both sweeping and vaguea terrible combination. It seeks to extend the centralisation of ministerial power. I put it to the Minister that, in this year's outbreak, centralised Government decision making was often part of the problem, and that many people will, therefore, be sceptical that the extension of that decision making could be part of the solution.
I know that the Government like to conjure up the idea that Ministers knew what to do all along, but that recalcitrant farmers sometimes stood in their way. The experience in my constituency was often the exact reverse. In many cases, farmers desperate to slaughter their own and surrounding stock were waiting for a decision from London, with local vets entirely on their side also trying to get a decision.
I remember one instance in April, when I telephoned the office of one of the Ministers in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on a Friday afternoon on behalf of a farmer, begging the Department to make a decision on farmers who were wanting to carry out a cull in an area of Wensleydale. No decision was made for days. We could not get a decision from London over the weekend. Foot and mouth disease did not take the weekend off; it continued its march, whatever day of the week it was.
I know that there are many hard-working people in what was MAFF and is now DEFRA. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) asked about the staff and the civil servants earlier, and they are hard-working people. I am not someone who takes potshots at civil servants; indeed, I was so fond of them when I was a Minister that I married one. However, it must be said that the administration of the affairs of MAFF during the foot and mouth outbreak left a great deal to be desired. In the words of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, it was not something of which we could be proud. It often took five days to get a decision; that has been recited in some of the evidence to the Royal Society inquiry, and may have contributed to the spread of the disease.
In my constituency, lorry loads of dead animals were transported 40 miles through uninfected areas. Then, a reversal of policy from London meant that they had to be taken 40 miles back and, in one case, they were delivered right back to the farm on which they had been killed. If we had such instances, it is no surprise that the Government ended up in battles with farmers later on in the outbreak about whether their livestock should be culled.
Today, administration of the Leeds office of DEFRA is hardly an advertisement for smooth competence. Again, I have no doubt that it is full of hard-working people, but there is a big problem in terms of its recent work and the granting of movement licences. Licences have been delayed for weeks; they are often lost, or duplicated; they have been sent out after movements have taken place on the authorisation of a previous licence; frequently, they are full of errors; and sometimes the licences are sent to the wrong place.
If it were necessary today, with a fresh outbreak, for the Minister to trace animal movements in Yorkshire from the records of the Leeds office of DEFRA, he would find that any knowledge of what had gone where was surrounded by complete chaos. When we are told that the same Government Department is going to decide on the level of compensation by criteria that are not set out and on what animals will be slaughtered without any criteria being set out in the Bill, people are deeply sceptical and they are right to be so. Is it any wonder that the agricultural community is hostile to greater powers going to a Government Department that, in their daily experience, is so deeply disappointing?
For farmers in the dales, there is a further problem, which adds to their scepticism about the Bill. The 21-day standstill period on animal movements, proposed by the Government, may mean that farmers who buy animals cannot then sell livestock for 21 days. If so, the consequences for the hill livestock industry in the dales are serious, since a huge amount of trade must be carried out within a short few weeks in the autumn. I acknowledge that more work may be necessary on that and that we may require better tracing mechanisms to go alongside any relaxation of the rules that the Government allow. Such a mechanism should be introduced urgently for the benefit of the economy of livestock farming in our country, particularly in North Yorkshire. That is the type of thing the Government should be doing.
The Bill is not the correct response to the disaster in the countryside. Good legislation would be based on the results of, or accompanied by the setting up of, a clear, open and comprehensive public inquiry. It would be founded on widespread consultation, part of an overall strategy to improve the nation's defences against animal disease, and on an understanding of how Government
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): It is worth acknowledging that the Bill has been introduced in the context of the Government's growing recognition of the importance to national life of the countryside, farming and food. That is an important backdrop to today's debate. However, it is also a specific response to the current foot and mouth outbreak, although not exclusively so.
Given the devastation caused by the outbreak, the fact that there remains a real risk of further cases at the tail end of the epidemic, and its heavy financial and psychological costs, it is deeply disappointing that many commentatorsincluding some Opposition Membershave put so much of their energy into deliberately stirring up exaggerations about the Bill's intentions. There are certainly serious matters to be addressed, but energy must be put into serious constructive scrutiny to serve the interests of farmers, which will not be assisted or advanced by some of the things that we have heard.
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) missed an opportunity to set a constructive tone. That was quickly put right by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who might be looking for his job. One never knowstime is a great healer.
Matters have been raised here and outside that must be carefully addressed. Unfortunately, the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny has not yet allowed that to take place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Ministerboth today, and more particularly in Committeewill take on board all measured and constructive suggestions for amendment.
I am prepared to accept the Minister's explanation that the Bill is urgently required and that it would have been helpful had some of its measures been in place in the past, because of the experience of the 1967 outbreak. About three months after everyone believed that that outbreak was over, there were several further outbreaks and they lasted many more months. I am prepared to accept that these are urgent matters, although some of them are controversial and need careful scrutiny.
I am also prepared to give a fair wind to Ministers' contention that nothing in the Bill will override any conclusions and recommendations in the "lessons learned" report or yet to be made by future inquiries into legislative and scientific aspects of the foot and mouth outbreak. If any conclusions arising from those inquiries suggest a need for amendment of this or other legislation, or for other measures not requiring legislation, it is vital for the Government to be open to them. I am pleased that the Minister and the Secretary of State have given assurances that that is the case, but I would like it to be confirmed again today.
There are concerns that must be taken seriously about the contiguous cull, compensation, vaccination, appeals and the justification for the enhanced powers of enforcement in the Bill. They are indeed controversial matters. The Bill does not promote a particular method of disease control, but the answer to the question, often posed in the media, as to whether the Bill facilitates the contiguous cull policy, is yes. It removes barriers to the process and puts it on a statutory basis.
Much commentary on the Bill has focused on, and attacked, the proposed new powers. That is sometimes done on the basis that the majority of animals killed under the contiguous cull were not diseased. However, it is entirely consistent with such a method of disease control that that be so. It is logical that such a policy could not succeed if only infected animals were culled. By the time animals are infected and the infection is confirmed, there is a high chance that the disease will already have moved elsewhere and be incubating in other animals in the neighbourhood or even beyond, if biosecurity has not been effective and movement bans have not been introduced or respected.
A contiguous cull is undoubtedly rough justice, but the evidence of last spring and summer's experience shows that it has merit. I hope, however, that vaccination and other measures, such as more effective biosecurity or different management, might lead to changes, reducing the need to rely on it.
There is strong evidence that, if the disease is to be contained, action must be swift. Time is of the essence. If the contiguous cull policy is to be followed, it must prevail. That is the hard logic of the matter. Anything that obstructs or delays its implementation must be examined carefully.