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7 Nov 2002 : Column 471—continued

3.11 pm

Sitting suspended, pursuant to order [29 October].

4.10 pm

On resuming—

7 Nov 2002 : Column 472

Animal Health Bill

Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed, considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to acquaint the House that a message has been received from the House of Lords relating to the Animal Health Bill. A paper setting out the Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments is available in the Vote Office. There is also a separate paper containing the motions and amendments in lieu to be moved by the Government. Under the Order of 6 November, any message received from the Lords relating to that Bill must be considered forthwith.

I remind the House that proceedings on the Lords message must be concluded in one hour from now.

Clause 6

Treatment: Power Of Entry

Lords Reason 14B.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment (a) in lieu, Lords Reason 22B, the Government motion to insist and Government amendment (a) thereto, Lords Reason 35B, the Government motion to insist and Government amendment (a) thereto and Lords Reason 65B, the Government motion to insist and Government amendment (a) thereto.

Mr. Morley: We held a detailed debate on the issuing of warrants, and I made it clear that we understood the arguments of Opposition Members and some of my hon. Friends, especially in Committee, on representations.

I made it very clear that it was impossible for the Government to accept the Lords amendment because of the difficulties with legal precedents that it would create for the process of issuing warrants. However, I took the point made by Members from both Opposition parties and by my hon. Friends that we should give some reassurance to people who choose to make representations to the divisional veterinary manager. Their case might be accepted or rejected. I explained to the House that many hundreds of applications to the DVM in relation to contiguous culling and other issues had been accepted and exemptions had been made. However, it is not impossible that, for the purposes of disease control, the Department would apply for a magistrate's warrant to enter private property.

I followed the debate in the other place, where a few people still seemed to be obsessed with the culling issue, so I must emphasise that the Bill is not just about culling, as I think this House accepts. There will be cases—as there have been in the past—where people will refuse access for serology and even for vaccination. I stress that point.

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In cases where representation to the DVM has been made and turned down, a magistrate's warrant is sought. I repeat again that the magistrate has an obligation to take into account the representation made by the Department and to grant a warrant for such application only if there is a reasonable case to do so. I am sure that magistrates will take that obligation seriously.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): During the last foot and mouth outbreak how many powers-of-entry cases did the Government lose?

Mr. Morley: I think that there were four cases and the Government lost two, although I am not sure that all of them involved powers of entry—there was a range of issues. I can give my hon. Friend the details. In fact, in one case that we lost, the premises were subsequently found to be infected.

Our proposals would speed the process and ensure that people have opportunities to make representations to the DVM. As I pointed out, the magistrate's obligation is only to grant a warrant when there is a reasonable case to do so. The intention of the amendment was to allow the farmer to ensure that his or her side of the story is taken into account by the magistrate.

We cannot concede the idea of having a High Court-type hearing in front of a magistrate because it is impossible to move one legal procedure to a magistrates legal procedure, and there would be all sorts of difficulties relating to precedent. However, what we propose is that the information that the Department will make available to the magistrate must include a statement on whether any representation has been made by the occupier of the land or premises to an inspector about the purpose for which the warrant is sought. First, the magistrate will need to know whether an objection has been made. Secondly, there will be a summary of any such representation.

Obviously, the Department will put its side of the case in the application and say why it seeks a warrant, but it will also provide a summary of the objections made by the occupier of the land or premises, so that the magistrate can consider both sides of the argument in deciding whether to grant the warrant. Those are the principal points that Opposition Members made, and I understand them, so I am trying to respond in a way that reflects not only the legal process, but the concerns that have been expressed.

Andrew George (St. Ives): The Minister will understand that the primary reason why the amendment was tabled was to ensure that both sides of the story are fully presented to the magistrate. Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that the summary will be a fair representation of what the farmer or landowner has put to the DVM? Will the farmer or landowner have an opportunity to inspect that summary before it is forwarded to the magistrate?

Mr. Morley: Of course we will issue internal guidance on the details of the summary and the way that our Department, vets and DVM will proceed. Of course that internal guidance will be open to parliamentary scrutiny by asking parliamentary questions, and we have no reason to keep it secret.

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The arrangements must not be too bureaucratic and complicated, but there is a legal obligation on any member of the Department to be truthful and honest in his or her submission when applying for a warrant. Therefore, there is a legal obligation on the Department to ensure that the principal points are fairly and accurately represented in relation to the submissions that the farmer, occupier or landowner may make to the DVM, so I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Of course, the work of the Department will be open to normal parliamentary scrutiny.

I return to the fact that I accept the point, which has been made on several occasions, that trust is an issue. We understand that and want to ensure that there can be trust in relation to what the Department is doing. In the end, we want to control disease effectively, minimise the impact on the livestock sector and, if there is a disease outbreak, control it while keeping the number of animals culled to a minimum and causing minimum disruption to the livestock industry, the countryside and the rural economy. That is our priority. That is why we are developing the contingency arrangements and the animal health and welfare strategy, all of which will be public documents and open for consultation and scrutiny in the parliamentary process. We very much welcome such participation; it is part of the trust- building process.

I acknowledge the constructive role of all parties and parliamentary spokespeople in both Houses in relation to the quite significant changes made during the proceedings on the Bill, and we have tried to acknowledge the genuine concerns and perfectly reasonable points that have been made by my hon. Friends and Opposition Members. That is reflected in relation to these amendments.

I very much hope that the House will agree to the motion and accept the amendments in the spirit in which they are offered to complete the passage of the Bill.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The Minister's gracious and generous approach is a healthy sign of the Government's recognition that the amendments made throughout the Bill's progress in the other place and the comments made in this Chamber were designed to be helpful. The amendments have been largely non-partisan, although they were of course pioneered principally by the Conservative party with help from Cross Benchers and the minor parties, including the Liberal Democrats. It is in that spirit that the Minister has come to the House with a helpful amendment to allow us to make progress.

I shall, however, briefly rehearse why the matter is significant. I want to amplify the point acknowledged by the Minister, which is that warrants are important. Magistrates should make a balanced and reasonable judgment based on a full understanding on each side of the argument, so that the landowner or farmer knows that his case has been heard, and the magistrate can be confident that he has all the facts at his disposal before he issues a warrant. That is important because most of these warrants will result in the culling of healthy animals. Obviously, that will always be done for proper purposes, but we must remember that dramatic events will ensue from the process.

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Warrants are important also because they are emblematic of the trust mentioned by the Minister. Yesterday I repeatedly made the point that the trust of farmers and the industry in the Government's approach to important matters of animal health will be fundamental if we are to put together an effective strategy for dealing with these events cohesively. That trust was damaged by the foot and mouth outbreak.

I understand why the problems arose and I know that the circumstances were not easy, and one could make several points in mitigation, but trust was damaged. In that knowledge, we have to proceed with great caution, and in a spirit of generosity and co-operation, to rebuild the trust that predicates the right approach to dealing with any future such problems. Warrants are the salient issue, and the House of Lords has made such a great issue of warrants because they are at the apex of the concerns about trust, partnership and the rebuilding of relationships.

The issue boils down to people's ability to make their case to magistrates. The Government have said that the method suggested by the Lords is not legally possible. I am not qualified to make a judgment about the law, so we must take the Minister's statement at face value. We have been presented with a solution that is reasonable, although not perfect—the House would hardly expect me to say that it is perfect.

I am also reassured by the Minister's response to the intervention by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), in which he said that representations would, of necessity, be made in a balanced and fair manner. That clearly answers many of the points made by Baroness Byford, who, with Lord Plumb and others, has played a remarkable role in framing so much of the important content of the Bill alongside—I will not say ahead of—those in the Government, who have also done their best. In those circumstances, it would be inappropriate for Conservative Members not to acknowledge that considerable movement and the splendid victory on the part of all Members on this side of the House, who have, by the force of their persuasive argument, encouraged the Minister to offer this generous settlement.

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