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6 Nov 2002 : Column 382—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The question that the hon. Gentleman should ask himself is about the warrant conditions. His remarks so far indicate that he is going wider than the ambit of Lords Amendment No. 14.

Mr. Bacon: I respect what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if you will bear with me very briefly, I hope to show that these matters are intimately related because they go back to the non-existent trust between farmers and the Government. That lack of trust causes the power of entry that the Minister seeks to cause so much suspicion among farmers.

The fact is that there was no statutory basis for the cull; neither was there a basis in case law. Lord Willoughby de Broke referred to three relevant cases. The Government won the first two—that of Westerhall Farms v. Scottish Ministers and MAFF v. Winslade—but, crucially, not all the required scientific information was available to the courts. However, the Government lost the first case based on correct science—MAFF v. Upton—in which all the scientific information available to the Department was available to the court.

In his speech, Lord Willoughby de Broke said that, if the Minister was looking for a bedrock case for or against the continuous cull, he could find it in the Upton case. In that case, Dr. Donaldson's scientific evidence was produced by the defending solicitors and won the day for the defendants.

Mr. Hayes: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bacon: Of course.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I imagine that he is making the case—and he is doing it very well—that there is an intimate relationship between the lack of trust that farmers feel for the action taken by the Government in culling healthy animals and the Government's proposals for warrants and entry conditions. My hon. Friend suggests that farmers will mistrust the warrants in the form that the Government propose. The Lords tried to amend the warrants, but the Government clearly do not want to accept those amendments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has provided an escape route, and I hope that the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) will take it. He has to be concise when he puts his argument, or he will be ignoring the ruling that I gave earlier.

Mr. Bacon: I am utterly serious when I say that I am not looking for an escape route, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has precisely enunciated the argument that I wanted to make. The Government forfeited farmers' trust because MAFF officials went to farms and slaughtered healthy animals even though their actions had no basis in statute, case law or science.

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Various hon. Members have noted the importance of farmers being represented in a warrant hearing, and one might be able to give the Minister's case more credence were it not for the experience of what happened. Farmers generally have no trust in the Minister's proposals because of the way in the which the Government acted during the crisis. That was precisely the point that I was in the process of making. In his speech, Lord Willoughby de Broke asked why the Ministry never fought a case for an injunction to enable a contiguous cull to proceed after the decision in the Upton case was given. The reason was that the Ministry knew that it had been proceeding on a wholly inadequate basis.

That is the context for our consideration of the proposal that there should be no right in advance of slaughter for a farmer to go before a justice of the peace and contest a warrant.

Mr. Wiggin: Earlier, the Minister commented on the number of cases that the DVM upheld. That gave me cause for concern, as farmers are worried about whether warrants will arrive before or after animals are culled. I hope that the Minister, when he closes the debate, will say whether the cases to which he did not draw attention were also relevant. Does my hon. Friend think that farmers' human rights may be infringed by the proposal? Farmers who go to court must have a reason for doing so, and it is not fair to proceed without them.

Mr. Bacon: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have had the grace to admit that they cannot abolish judicial review for administrative action, but their proposals seem to mean that big-ticket farmers with deep wallets and access to big lawyers can go straight to the High Court to secure an injunction. The Minister will be able to do nothing about that, as people have a legal right to obtain injunctions. Hundreds of people got satisfaction from the DVM, but that does not alter the fact that MAFF, as the Department then was, exceeded its powers and acted in excess of what a court would have considered reasonable. They may have been a minority, but many people were involved in such cases, which have been the subject of much comment and which have caused a great deal of mistrust.

Our courts are too full already, and we do not want them to become any more clogged up, but farmers should not have to have deep wallets so that they can take out a High Court injunction. Farmers should be able, in a simple and short procedure, to go before the magistrate when the warrant is being applied for and make their case. As I said to the Minister earlier, one could believe this to be a heinous alteration to the way in which warrants were issued if one were talking about big criminals. We would not want to give drugs dealers the right to contest a warrant—[Interruption]—well, the law could be changed. We do not want to give big drugs dealers the right to contest the warrant before a judge. If they knew that there was about to be a drugs bust, they would be long gone. As the Minister said, we are not talking about big criminals.

Mr. Wiggin: One of the problems throughout the debate is that it seems as though the Government are

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always blaming the farmers for the entire foot and mouth crisis. My hon. Friend's point emphasises once again that it is difficult, when discussing this, to distinguish between proper criminals who deal in drugs and people who are desperately trying to eke out a living farming livestock without having their stock slaughtered.

Mr. Bacon: Whether they meant it or not—and I am willing to accept that that at the highest levels of MAFF they did not mean it—the Government's actions made many law-abiding people feel criminal, when they were struggling to keep themselves afloat and seeing their farm income dropping through the floor.

In conclusion, the Government's basis for the slaughter was illegal and scientifically flawed. The basis of the Bill is to repair that deficit but in the context of the lack of trust created by the Government through their own actions, it is entirely reasonable to expect a farmer to be able to contest a warrant.

Mr. Morley: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say a few words about some of the points that have been made.

I recognise that this is an important aspect of the Bill. I repeat that the Government are trying to be reasonable and proportionate. We want to reassure people and ensure that these measures are used only when necessary. We want to ensure that there is a right of representation to the DVM and that farmers are aware of that right. Indeed, we have no objection to people making representations on their behalf. We have accepted other changes, such as retaining warrants for 12 months. Hon. Members have referred to the dating on the warrants and how they would be applied. That is in reflection of legitimate cases.

I am very aware of the United States system to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred. Indeed, aspects of that system are being built into some of our responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman and I seem to be talking different languages, but I agree with him about the need for maximum flexibility. The whole point of the Bill is to give our veterinary scientists and divisional managers maximum flexibility in dealing with any future outbreak.

Let me say to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George)—and I stress again that I am not a legal expert—that I have a distinct feeling that it would be difficult to set time limits for representations if there was a right for individuals to make representations against the issuing of a warrant. I am pretty sure that if the time scale is too short it will be challenged by lawyers who will say that they do not have enough time to make their case. That is inevitable. If the time available is too long, people will simply utilise the maximum time leading to delays and restricting flexibility.

There was a range of reasons for delays during the last epidemic, which we understand. We are trying to address that and we are willing, as I have always been, to consider a range of options in this case. However, I am convinced, because of the advice that I have received

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from the highest level, that this proposal would set a precedent that we cannot concede in relation to the changes in the issuing of warrants.

Mr. Hayes rose—

Mr. Morley: I cannot give way, I am afraid, because I am about to conclude.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) seems to have an obsession with claims and conspiracy theories about healthy animals being culled. Many of the animals that were culled were developing the disease. There may well be a case for fire break culls in the future, although it is not my preferred option—I would much rather use vaccination. However, there must be flexibility. We recognise the points about people's trust and concerns. That is why we have made these changes to the Bill, which I hope that right hon. and hon. Members recognise. I hope that they also recognise that although we understand the reasons for the Lords amendments, they go too far in setting an unwelcome precedent that we cannot ignore and cannot accept.

It being five hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr Speaker, proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings to be concluded at that hour pursuant to Order [this day].

Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 14 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 14, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 7

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