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8.56 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am grateful to be able to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), before he leaves for the gulag. I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak on this serious Bill, as the subject affects a great number of my constituents.

The Bill could have provided additional powers by order to tackle foot and mouth and other animal diseases. Secondly, it could have provided additional powers to deal with transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in sheep.

In principle, the opportunity to legislate on those matters is most welcome. Such legislation could try to improve the speed at which the Government control the

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outbreak of those diseases. However, despite such obvious benefits, the wording of the Bill is such that in practice many of them have been lost.

The Bill comes at a time when the entire countryside is crying out for a full public and independent investigation into the handling of the foot and mouth crisis. The Government said repeatedly that that would be too expensive and too slow, so they opted for three separate sub-inquiries. However, now that we have seen the size of the death toll of farm animals, the size of the compensation bill and the damage done to people's livelihoods both in tourism and in farming, there is no justification for preventing a full independent and public inquiry, such as the one held by the Government into BSE—albeit covering only, conveniently, the period up to 1997. I reject the Government's excuse for further avoidance of an inquiry and urge the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reconsider.

Part 1 of the Bill deals with the power to slaughter. To what extent does the Minister need extra power to slaughter any animal that he thinks should be slaughtered in order to prevent the spread of foot and mouth? Since the last confirmed outbreak was reported on 30 September, 2,030 cases have been notified. Since 3 February, 3.9 million animals have been slaughtered for disease eradication purposes; 1.9 million animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme; Farmers Weekly estimates that as many as 2 million dead animals may have been left out of the Government's statistics; hundreds of thousands of young livestock have been excluded from the official figures; and the direct cost of foot and mouth may have amounted to almost £2 billion. It is hardly surprising that my spellcheck rejected DEFRA and offered me "death row" instead.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman made that up.

Mr. Wiggin: No, it is entirely true.

On a slightly light hearted note, not only animals that carry foot and mouth—we saw the effects of the disease on the horse racing industry—are affected by the Bill. I have written to the Minister about my constituent who farms worms but is unable to sell them because he fears that the virus may be in the soil. I hope that the Minister will reply to my letter of about three months ago.

Will the Minister also clarify whether the measure will affect cats and dogs that stray across restricted ground? Will they be subject to the slaughter policy?

Mr. Morley: Scurrilous comments appeared in some of the Sunday papers to the effect that the Bill would give us powers to slaughter cats, dogs, horses, gerbils, goldfish, rabbits and just about anything. The Bill applies only to farm animals that are susceptible to the disease.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification.

The Bill will also enable the Minister to pursue the other group likely to commit infringements—ramblers and those who ignore "footpath closed" signs. It provides severe penalties for people who deliberately bring about the spread of the disease. Not only might they face six months in prison, but they could also find that their pets are confiscated and that they are no longer allowed to own animals.

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Such provisions are draconian and the burden of proving deliberate infection may well lie with the Government, who, in the case of many farmers, may rely on hearsay or very thin evidence. Banning the ownership of livestock will destroy not only farmers' businesses, but their way of life. The Minister will be aware that it is simply not possible for a Welsh hill farmer to grow wheat on the side of a mountain.

On vaccination, I recognise that the Minister has every reason to cause to be slaughtered any animal that has been treated with a vaccine for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease. I originally thought that that was possibly one of the more necessary provisions in the Bill, but clause 4(4) deals with the compensation payable to farmers after their animals have been slaughtered. There seems to be no reason why vaccinated animals should be considered inferior in terms of value simply because they have been vaccinated to prevent the spread of the disease. If they are so considered, farmers will have no incentive to assist officials and it will immediately lead the farmer to oppose the Government instead of encouraging co-operation. Farmers who vaccinate voluntarily to save their stock because of its rarity or genetic value will also be put at a disadvantage. How else can farmers save their stock while contributing to the firebreak effort to end the epidemic?

Part 3 deals with enforcement powers. I wonder how necessary such powers are, because it appears that the Government are trying to close the door long after the horse has bolted. Newspapers take particular delight in reporting any case in which farmers or smallholders resist the Government's slaughter policy, but I am not aware of any case in which it was suggested that people had harboured an infected animal. I am happy to give way if my understanding is not correct.

Mr. Morley: In some cases tests showed animals to be positive, yet officials were refused access and court injunctions had to be sought. I want to be careful about giving particular examples, because they can be subjective. We must consider the Bill's overall objective, which is to speed up culling if it is used as an option. The Bill does not presuppose that culling will be the option chosen but, if it is, it must be carried out quickly and efficiently.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply.

In most of the cases that we have discussed, farmers exercised the highest standards of biosecurity. The only animal to escape the contiguous cull was Phoenix the calf, which was spared and given Government protection for emotional reasons. I suspect that the decision owed more to electoral opportunity than to a determined attempt by the Government to eradicate the disease. However, that example would not be possible under the Bill, so does the Minister deeply regret the sparing of that small calf?

Clause 6 amends the Animal Health Act 1981, new section 16(4) of which refers to a justice of the peace—not necessarily in court—issuing a warrant to an inspector. I have grave misgivings about this provision. Are the usual checks and balances in place, because the inspector need invent only a minor excuse for the farmer in question to lose 25 per cent. of the value of his stock? Under new subsection (9), the inspector also has the power to request or demand

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However, that will not leave the farmer with much opportunity to appeal if he deems the inspector's request to be unreasonable.

Many farmers may for legitimate reasons have problems providing "such assistance" as the inspector "reasonably needs". Perhaps it would have been better if the wording had referred to the farmer providing "any possible assistance" that he could provide. For example, it is no good asking him for something that he does not possess unless that is part of a Government strategy to cut payments for compensation.

Given the stories of horrendous abuse of my constituents by Department officials and given the fact that no qualifications are specified for inspectors, the provisions relating to refusal to be obedient to any whim of any inspector are wrong. Once again, the Bill is over-draconian.

Under proposed section 65, an inspector may examine any vehicle to ascertain whether the provisions of the Act are being complied with. There is no mention of time scale. Can we envisage people's vehicles being impounded for long periods? Conversely, vehicles such as those shown on television dripping with blood and other liquid could be impounded in an area that was not previously infected. I hope that the images that we saw will not be repeated when or if the disease recurs.

Under the Bill, the Minister may by order amend the Act to allow for the adjustment of compensation. That is worrying because it creates an area of political judgment and subjectivity instead of objective, fair and well- understood compensation. Under proposed schedule 3A, the Government have split compensation into three sections. Only 75 per cent. of the value of the animal prior to slaughter will be payable, and in all cases the Minister must decide, after considering an inspector's assessment, whether to pay all or part of the remaining 25 per cent.

Although I recognise that in some cases the Government might want to penalise farmers who do not practise biosecurity, surely we should start from full compensation rather than build up to it. The Bill approaches the matter from the wrong direction. Will farmers be fully aware of which biosecurity measures they are expected to implement before inspectors come to slaughter their flocks?

People are being put in a virtually impossible position. The inspector must decide whether the occupier of the premises created a significant risk of the spread of foot and mouth during the previous 21 days, but how on earth will the inspector know what has been going on during the previous three weeks? The answer is that inspectors will not know and will therefore generalise. Farmers will be forced to go to court to claim 25 per cent. of the value of their stock because they will not agree with the wording of the inspector's report.

Surely it would be useful to retain local vets, who are sensitive to local conditions, to advise all their clients on appropriate measures. That advice would then be the benchmark against which compliance could be judged. That would of course take into consideration all local difficulties and conditions.

A fee is due for appeals. Although I recognise that the intention is to prevent nit-picking, it shifts the burden from the Government to the farmer. The intention cannot be just to hold back the farmer's money and then to make him pay to try to reclaim it. That is compounded by the

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Government's record on paying their bills. Surely a bad payer should not be able to legislate on paying interest on sums that they have held back. That is wrong. The National Pig Association described the Government's attitude to farmers during the crisis as inhumane. Desperate farmers complained that the Government have turned out to be the country's No. 1 bad payer. Jean Turnbull of the NPA said that that was maladministration of the most vicious kind.

The lateness of compensation payments is due to civil service bungling. When people telephoned asking when compensation would be paid, officials refused to give their names. I have had many complaints from my constituents that they could never get hold of the same person, so were forced every time they telephoned the DEFRA office to begin from scratch. It is very difficult for farmers at the best of times; such problems make things worse.

On scrapie, the Minister may by order specify sheep genotypes that are susceptible to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. That is a laudable approach to cutting the time frame for the eradication of scrapie and the introduction of genetically superior sheep in the British flock. I hope that full compensation will be payable because, as the Minister will be aware, the price of sheep is not high at the moment. Perhaps he has chosen a particularly bad time to introduce that positive step.

A person who receives a restriction notice may not appeal until the end of a 21-day period. The Ministry does not have a very good record of dealing with any problem in 21 days, and it therefore seems unfair that it should insist on farmers reacting quite so speedily. Given that the Government took more than four years to decide that the sheep brains that they had been looking at were in fact cow brains, the Ministry is painting itself into a very small and potentially expensive corner. Given the enormous power of enforcement, perhaps a slightly longer notice period would have been valuable.

There are elements of good news. Miles Blackwell left £10 million to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, but he did so without the knowledge that the Government were planning to slaughter many rare breeds because of their lack of resistance to scrapie. That funding could not have come at a better time and is desperately needed.

The Bill is about shifting the blame for the gross mishandling of foot and mouth disease from the former Ministry to the farmer. It is designed to subordinate the farmer to the Minister and his inspectors. It will put the farmer in a position of dependency, yet Professor Mark Woolhouse told Members of Parliament that if the Government had simply imposed a ban on livestock movement 72 hours earlier than they did, the spread of the disease would have been halved.

The Countryside Alliance criticised the Government—[Interruption.] It did so for the very good reason that the system for identifying, slaughtering and disposing of infected animals is cumbersome and substantially increases the risk of spreading the disease. The gap between diagnosis and disposal should be hours, not days. The Government should prioritise the disposal of animals, not the slaughter of uninfected animals. Indeed, animals lay dead for nine days at Winforton in my constituency.

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One question that an inquiry should answer is whether animals were killed in greater numbers and more quickly because the Prime Minister wanted to call an election. Newspapers have also reported that DEFRA employees could have helped to spread the disease. Indeed, in my constituency, I found that vets who lived in Worcestershire were travelling across Herefordshire to cull in Brecon. I wrote to the Minister asking about that very serious risk, but, again, I have not yet had a reply.

The importation of meat from abroad is the most important threat to British farming. It would cost the Government about £8 million to provide bio x-rays and staff to prevent the importation of bush meat at Heathrow airport. The cost to the Government would be passed on to the passengers. In the 14 checks carried out at Heathrow last year, 5 tonnes of meat were found. A single body would need to be responsible for the prevention of the importation of infected meat, and the cost would work out at less than 10p per passenger. That would also help animals in the wild by reducing the poachers' markets.

The early introduction of the Bill has greatly surprised the NFU, and we would all have welcomed a longer consultation period, involving the farming industry.

Parts 1 and 3 contain the slaughter and enforcement provisions. Although discussions have been held on the prevention of scrapie, genotype research is still in its infancy, and there does not seem to be a great deal of explanation of how the Government will enforce the cull or control.

The Food Standards Agency has always maintained that there is no danger in eating lamb, yet the Bill contains measures to tackle BSE in sheep, although we are no nearer knowing whether BSE can infect sheep.

The lot of farmers and their stock would be significantly improved if the Government were to take steps to stop the European Parliament amending the directive on veterinary medicinal products. Farmers are currently free to purchase non-prescription medicines—such as wormers, vaccines and sheep dip—from tightly regulated distributors who employ qualified staff, trained to industry standards and controlled by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and its inspectorate.

New proposals would force farmers to buy such products from vets or pharmacies—and then only by prescription. That proposal will introduce further impracticality and higher costs, and it will finish the jobs of 3,500 people. Without doubt, all that would have a direct, negative impact on animal welfare standards. There is no evidence to show that any improvement in food safety standards or animal welfare standards would result from implementing that change; instead a whole legion of qualified people would be removed from the food production process, damaging the businesses of my constituents David Pryce of Medicrop, John Hancock of Hanco National Pig Supplies, Mrs. Dickson of Westhope Livestock Supplies, as well as Mr. Davies and Margaret Edwards. What we need is legislation to protect us and to maintain the standards of animal welfare, while keeping the cost to farmers competitive.

At a time when farmers' incomes average £5,200, any step to help them would be welcome. It is a shame that the Government are not doing more to cut red tape at this difficult time. Indeed, they did not even manage to claim the full agrimonetary compensation.

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The Bill will require detailed scrutiny if we are to capitalise on the lessons learned from the crisis. We must ask about the position of the National Assembly for Wales in the light of clause 14. Has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had discussions with the Scottish Assembly about the Bill so that we might have co-ordinated legislation for cross-border outbreaks? I see the Minister nodding, and I am grateful.

We should question whether the power to slaughter is compatible with the European convention on human rights. Will the Government publish their legal advice on that as well?

It is clear that to introduce the Bill before any of the three inquiries have concluded their findings is premature. The timing of the Bill is curious and its drafting looks like a rush job. From the huge numbers of dead animals to the vast cost to the tourist industry and to farmers, it is clear that the Bill covers only the tip of the iceberg.

The Government cannot consider that the Bill represents a positive step until all the facts are known. Separate experiences of both farmers and people working for the Ministry throughout the country need to be heard. Introducing legislation is no substitute for equipping people with the facts. That is why we should not support the Bill until the need for it is brought out by a full and independent public inquiry. Nor should we support the Bill until the Government take real steps to prevent the importation of diseases.

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