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8.23 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South–East Cornwall): There have been some tremendously good, informed and experienced speeches in this debate because so many hon. Members have had direct experience in their constituencies of the problems during the foot and mouth crisis. There has been a large measure of agreement on the aims of the Bill, but—perhaps this is a problem for the Government—there has been considerable agreement across the House that these measures have not been well thought out and are not the best way of proceeding.

We have heard it suggested in the House and in the Select Committee that speed is of the essence, but one must wonder whether, this time, it is a matter of more haste, less speed. We have not had the benefit of the inquiries set up by the Government; in fact, these have only just started to take evidence. We are told that the foot and mouth disease outbreak is not actually over. Originally we were told that no inquiry was to start until the crisis was over; yet here we are proposing legislation before the crisis has finished, although I very much hope that we are at its tail end.

There has been no public inquiry, however much one has been demanded. Because of that, one might have expected a significant period of pre-legislative scrutiny. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for securing one evidence session last week for the Select Committee—at rather short notice—but no one believes that that was the real consultation that would be necessary to give proper consideration to the proposals and to ensure that all stakeholders have had their opportunity to be consulted prior to the Bill coming to this House.

The Bill proposes extremely wide-ranging powers, and it surprises me and others that, in the Minister's view, the Bill does not breach the European convention on human rights. If the proposals were enacted and we had another foot and mouth crisis, one wonders how long it would be before the proposals were challenged and ultimately tested in the courts. The right to submit evidence in a court of law appears to have been taken away. Any system that looks at the evidence on one side only must be undemocratic and not in the best interests of justice in this country. All persons affected by the Bill's provisions, and not just the Minister, must have the right to contribute to the appeal process. The right of a post-slaughter judicial review is not sufficient to protect animal owners. I do not think that farmers, or other fair-minded people in this country, would consider that to be so either.

Mention has been made of pet owners. That reminds me of an incident involving a pet owner in my constituency, who was a long way from an outbreak and had a family pet—a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig. She had to move house and, quite properly, she telephoned to make certain what the arrangements were. She could not get any real indication and enlisted my support. The advice that I was given was perhaps not entirely helpful: it was suggested that my constituent have a farewell barbecue. In the end, a licence was granted. The initial response may have been given in the heat of battle, but that is not how we should treat what are very serious situations.

The Bill paves the way to enshrining contiguous culling as the principal weapon against any foot and mouth outbreak. The Minister is shaking his head. I understand

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why, and I know that there will be other alternatives, but as things stand now, regardless of any future proposals, that is what the Bill does.

Mr. Morley: There is nothing in the Bill that pre-empts future responses to any epidemic of whatever kind. It does not enshrine culling as the principal weapon but says that if culling is to be done, it must be done quickly and effectively.

Mr. Breed: Precisely. At present, that is all we have to go on. Should other proposals be made following the current inquiries, will the Bill be revisited and the provisions amended or improved accordingly?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the contiguous cull. Did the Minister's response mean that there would be a contiguous cull where an outbreak of foot and mouth has been identified and proven, or where there is a suspected contact and the Department wants to slaughter the animals on all the adjacent farms? If the latter is the case, it is absolutely outrageous. I stopped one such cull in my constituency, when there was a suspected contact in Rainow. Unfortunately, I missed the immediately adjoining farm, where people slipped in and slaughtered, but I managed to stop them doing it on the next farm. I believe that a contiguous cull must happen only with a proven case.

Mr. Breed rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has used his considerable experience to get in a question to the Minister. I suggest to the hon. Member for South–East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) that he reclaim ownership of his speech.

Mr. Breed: I will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, despite my considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's inquiry. I think that the powers in the Bill will mean that his latter alternative is the case. It will provide for indiscriminate culling on the flimsiest of justifications. There will be a "just in case, shoot first and answer questions later" policy, which I think is unacceptable.

The compensation provisions are being used as a weapon to beat the recalcitrant farmer into submission. The proposed sliding scale of penalties, based on the whim of a DEFRA inspector, is unsatisfactory. There should be a proper independent assessment of the risks that the farmer might have caused. Why do we need a system of penalties and compensation? Surely we should leave the compensation as it is and invoke fines for those who transgress. After all, we are to fine people who walk their dogs on footpaths and beaches, so why can we not fine the farmers who breach the biosecurity provisions, rather than tinkering with a compensation system?

I agree with most of what has been said about the control of imports. Last year I visited Felixstowe, a huge port through which there is significant trade. We inspected some of the ways in which imports were being handled. There were between 40 and 60 cases a week of illegal imports—of potatoes, meat, anything. We asked how many prosecutions there had been in, say, the past five years. We were told that that was very simple to answer, because there had been none.

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When we asked why, we were told that the sheer time spent in prosecuting a case would impinge on the ability to conduct investigations; that the burden of proof needed and the hurdles that had to be jumped in order to get a case to court were extremely high; and that, even if all that had been done and the case won, the fine that can be imposed is so insignificant that the offender would probably hand over a cheque and run laughing from the court. The legislation is in place but we need to try to make it a little more effective.

The proposals for eliminating scrapie are quite sensible. Arguably, they could have been introduced some years ago, when other countries were clearly trying to eradicate scrapie from their flocks. Eliminating the disease will take time, so perhaps we need a timetable with annual targets so that we can be sure that we are bearing down on it over a reasonable period.

Consideration must also be given to the value of genetic diversity. We should not eradicate one disease from our national sheep flock only to reduce genetic diversity to such an extent that it causes other problems. We need vital sheep production in the future, giving us the necessary biodiversity, and we should remove scrapie if possible. Current scientific evidence suggests that we cannot achieve both, and we should weigh up the value of genetic diversity of our stock against the problems caused by scrapie.

The greatest omission from the Bill is also significant. The Government's advisers have said that if the animal movements ban had been introduced on day one instead of day three, the outbreak would have been significantly reduced. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we should remember that the first outbreak was in pigs in Essex, but I am sure that, next time, animal movements will be stopped on day one. The Bill should address the issue of animal movements, especially as they are such a significant part of the way in which FMD, and possibly other diseases, are spread.

Animal movement restrictions, or the standstill proposals, should have been part of the Bill, in advance of the draconian provisions that we are now considering. I know that there would be practical difficulties and that farmers have well founded concerns about how they can run their businesses if all animals are subject to a 21-day standstill. However, we need some proper solutions, because animal movement is as important a factor as import restrictions. Before we address how we manage the disease when it has become endemic, we need to consider proposals that could prevent that from happening. The NFU and most farmers recognise that the status quo is not acceptable.

Another important factor is traceability. We need a technically and economically feasible identification system. Several commercial operations are considering methods of traceability through electronic identification, and they should be given assistance with that. Traceability, in its widest sense, is an area in which this country could lead Europe. We are already way ahead of the others and if we have a system that requires full traceability, we will need a good identification system.

All those factors would achieve more than this sledgehammer of a Bill. In some respects, the Bill is a knee-jerk response. It fails to wait for the inquiry proposals,

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and some aspects of it are against natural justice. If implemented, it will produce much confrontation at a time when we need co-operation. It will involve the unnecessary slaughter of many animals and cost millions of pounds. It must be resisted. The Minister should go back to the drawing board and produce a coherent, sensible contingency plan, perhaps with some legal backing if necessary, to deal more effectively with any future disease outbreak.

My colleagues and I will vote against Second Reading, and if the programme motion goes to a Division, we will also vote against that. That is not because we are against programme motions or, indeed, the aims of the Bill, but because of the speed with which the Bill has been introduced, the haste with which it is passing through the House and the implications it carries. If we take the measure of the debate we have had tonight, the clear implication for the Minister is that he may have the votes of his hon. Friends but he has not won their hearts and minds.


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