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Mr. Patrick Hall: Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing for the retention of the current system, whereby DEFRA officials would have to apply to the High Court for an injunction, with all the inherent delays?
Mr. Curry: No, I am not, because one has to follow the logic. If a slaughter policy is to be implemented, it has to be effective. But I want reassurances. Because farmers had the right that the hon. Gentleman explained to the House in his speech, it was imperative for the Government to get them on side and ensure that the maximum number were willing to co-operate. One of the instruments for doing that was a compensation scheme for compulsory slaughtera scheme that everybody agrees was relatively generous.
If the Government do not need to do that because they can get the farmer on side through compulsion, does that mean that in any future outbreaks, they are likely to take a more stringent view of the appropriate level of compensation? I ask that as a speculation born of an eternity of suspicion of the Treasury, both when I was a Minister and under the present Administration. The Treasury is unchanging; perhaps that is good for society as a whole, but it just does not feel like it at the time.
The Bill also provides a penalty for poor biosecurity by docking up to 25 per cent. of compensation. That provision needs a great deal of examination in Committee. How do we arrive at 87.75 per cent. as opposed to 74.66 per cent.? Is there a scale of biosecurity? Will it be published so that the farmer has a checklist and can ensure that he does not fall foul of it? How will the Minister ensure that biosecurity measures are not installed at the last minute? It is perfectly possible to make things look impressive for an inspection, as the Government, having introduced such a gendarmerie of inspectors, must surely be aware.
Mr. Martlew: Does the right hon. Gentleman think it fair that farmers who did not give a damn during the outbreak, leaving gates open and going from one farm to anotheralthough there were very few of themshould receive the same amount of compensation as those who took the proper precautions and still got foot and mouth? Or should there be some way in which the farmer who took precautions is compensated fully?
Mr. Curry: I am not arguing against the principle of a penalty. I want to ensure that the farmer knows what measures he will be assumed to have taken to comply fully with the regulations, and I want the process by which the figure is finally arrived at to be transparent. He should also have assurances about the means that the independent person he can appeal to uses to undertake the task. As in much legislation, the principle might be difficult to dispute, but how it works in practice is the key for people on the ground. Will it work in a way that is clear and evident to everyone?
Then we come to the Bill's curious nooks and crannies. We have all heard the rumours that have abounded during the course of the epidemic about farmers infecting their own flocks, with infected apples, and tongues, bits of tail
Mr. Morley: The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. He made it before in the Select Committee, which is one of the advantages of pre-scrutiny. I have discussed this with officials and understand that the advice remains that we have to pay the 75 per cent. compensation because of human rights legislation. The animals are being compulsorily taken and killed. However, if someone deliberately infects their animals, there is the possibility of implementing action for fraud and getting the money back in that way.
Mr. Curry: I am glad that the Minister has discovered a way. When he discovered this curious fact in the Select Committee, he gave the impression that he had trodden in an unpalatable substance and wondered what it was doing in the Bill and why someone had not told him about it. No doubt he had an earnest conversation with his officials immediately afterwards. I am delighted that he has sorted the matter out, even by this curiously circuitous route.
If farmers are to be discouraged from infecting their own animals and if they are to maintain the rigorous attitude that they have maintained until now, it is important that those who are struggling to carry on farming in these most difficult circumstances have all the help that they can get. They want things to be rigorous; they do not want risks taken. They have the right to expect that schemes reflect their circumstances, work and can be accessed easily.
The other big question that inevitably haunts this debate is that of vaccination, because it would have avoided the need for a contiguous cull and the shutdown of the hundreds of thousands of businesses that were part of the epidemic's collateral damage. If there is an effective option for vaccination and effective equipment to test in the fieldthe two prior conditionsit is a persuasive argument.
We were told categorically that the equipment to test reliably in the field was not ready for use. There have been some arguments that it is, but we were told categorically by our witnesses that that was not the case. We were also told categorically that present tests do not distinguish between an animal that is infected with the disease and one that has been vaccinated and displays the antibodies.
We need vaccines that are available and efficacious. They must be able to deal with all strains of polyvalent viruses and should be long-lasting: what the Government's chief scientist called "smart vaccines", to use the jargon. Even he emphasised the danger of vaccinating an already infected animal in a ring around an infection.
I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said with regard to the public inquiry. I do not think that it needs to replace the more rapid inquiries. I do not see why it cannot crown the various,
I do not want the scrapie issue to be entirely lost. I draw the Minister's attention to an article on the back page of Farmers Guardian, a journal to which I have warmed considerably since it invited me to write a column. The article refers to Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith of Cambridge university, who argues:
The issue of tests is important. Professor Donaldson has argued that the Government are not carrying out adequate tests for BSE on cattle. Similarly, tests on the continent are not adequate, even though they are dealing with greater cattle numbers, because they are capable of detecting only the last stage of the disease.
Finally, a number of colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) mentioned meat imports. A sense of equilibrium and balance needs to be achieved. If we are introducing increasingly draconian measures at homewhich, for the most part, farmers agree to and think are necessaryand curtailing the right to appeal so that a policy can be dispatched rapidly, it is incumbent on the Government, out of simple fairness, to ensure that equal rigour should be exercised so that inadvertent or false imports cannot put the health of the country at risk. I know that that may have to go through the European channels. My concern is not that arrangements exist to permit tradeI am in favour of thatbut whether the formal arrangements that exist operate in the conditions that are prevalent, and that we are as satisfied that the rule is enforced there as we are that it is enforced here.
Secondly, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said, we must deal with the level of illegal imports. We can ask people to make a particular effort only if they believe that other people are making the same effort and that the Government are, in that sense, on their side. A sense of solidarity has held the farming community together, and apart from the sheer problems of administering the regime, the one thing that farmers have constantly mentioned is that if they are to be exposed to meat from abroad, there is no point to their efforts because there is no equivalence of pain.
The Minister and the Government said that they are considering that matter, but what we have been told is very imprecise, and I invite the Minister to clarify the point. It is in his own interests to do so, and he owes it not only to farmers but to the whole rural community to ensure that we are taking every step to prevent another such outbreak, so that the draconian measures in the Bill need never be used.