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7 Nov 2002 : Column 475—continued

Andrew George : Like the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), I appreciate the concession that the Minister has brought to the House, and the graciousness with which he has handled it. We have had a proper debate, which has resulted in effective scrutiny of the relevant clause of the Bill. Although the measure does not go as far as we would like, we have reached a satisfactory concessionary position, which at least takes us considerably further forward in respect of making sure that the two sides of the story are clearly and transparently presented to magistrates.

Mr. Drew: May I pose one issue that worries me? If a warrant is issued, and, for whatever reason, the people concerned do not want the vaccination or cull, but a third party does want it, will they also be mentioned in the warrant, or will it be left to the divisional veterinary manager to take up their part?

Andrew George: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is directing his question through me to the Minister. I shall

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happily act as a conduit on this occasion if he so wishes. If he is thinking of an example in which a landowner takes a particular view, but a tenant farmer takes a different view, that matter needs to be resolved. Perhaps the Minister will ponder on that before I conclude.

The Minister was gracious in acknowledging—the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was almost as gracious, although he did not properly reflect this fact—that the concession under discussion is the result of amendments tabled by Liberal Democrats in another place. My noble Friend Lord Greaves has been particularly assiduous in pursuing this matter to a rightful, better and more positive conclusion than might otherwise have been the case. Some issues still need to be clarified, however, and I shall quickly refer to four.

First, farmers need to know about their right to appeal to the DVM. Will the Minister make it clear—because it is not clear in the Bill—that when the farmer or landowner is informed of the intention to seek a warrant, a right of appeal is available to them at that stage? At the same time, will the Minister also address the question of what other information and transparency this process will be afforded? In particular, will it be made clear to the farmer or landowner what time scale is available in which to respond to any suggested application for warrant? What procedure must they follow, and in what form do they make that appeal? Will he ensure, too, that the procedure is clear and transparent?

Mr. Hayes: I do not want to prolong the debate or test the patience of the House by continuing too long. The hon. Gentleman may be mindful of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) last night, however, and it is important to point out that, in these circumstances, a landowner or farmer will often be in some difficulties. They may be trapped on their farm, and bewildered and confused by what they face. It is particularly important in those circumstances that clear and comprehensible information is made available to them, and that they are given every support in making their case as the Minister has described.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that the Minister fully appreciates that much trauma and emotion is associated with the process. As throughout the Bill's passage, I know that he understands that clarity and transparency are essential, because farmers and landowners might not think quite as straight in such circumstances as they would do on other occasions. That is why they need to be helped through the process.

4.30 pm

Farmers must be clear about their rights, the time scale and the procedure to be used. The Minister dealt with my earlier question about whether the farmer would be assured that the summary statement made to the magistrate would be a fair reflection of the message that the farmer intended to send. Therefore, on the basis of the Minister's clear and reassuring response to questions, I again make it clear that we think this is a

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helpful concession that goes some way to addressing the genuine concerns that were properly articulated in yesterday's debate and in the debates in another place.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), far be it from me to be anything other than gracious. However, I want to consider two or three points briefly.

The Minister said that Conservative Members appear to be obsessed with culling. That is not the case. We all recognise that the Bill is about many different issues. However, I merely point out that part 1 is entitled XSlaughter", so the issue is at the heart of the Bill. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to want to discuss that point in relation to the powers of entry, the misuse of which caused so much concern to farmers.

My second point is about whether the warrants would entail a novel legal principle. A moment ago, I was reading Hansard and the Minister's response to my second intervention when I said that it would surely be possible to distinguish between different kinds of warrants issued for different purposes. His only answer was:

Therefore, everything will depend on the quality of the legal advice that he receives from his departmental lawyers.

Mr. Morley: It is first class.

Mr. Bacon: I am sure that it is first class, but the Ministry went around merrily slaughtering perfectly healthy animals without either a legal or scientific basis for doing so until the case of MAFF v. Upton. At that point, the court had the full scientific information before it and MAFF stopped doing what it was doing and did not contest the action any further. That suggested that it had been wrong all along. The Minister did not address that point yesterday.

That brings me to my next point. The Minister is determined to avoid the creation of novel legal principles, but the creation of a situation in which the Government go into a magistrates court and effectively bat for both sides—they make the case for a warrant while carrying statements from the farmer saying why there should not be a warrant—will be nothing other than a novel legal principle. The Government will bat for both sides, but the farmer will not be allowed to act in his own interest or have a solicitor acting for him. That seems to be a novel principle.

However, it would be wrong to be graceless. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings assures me that we have achieved a valuable victory, and if he is right, that can be due only to the work of the fine and noble Baroness Byford who is probably the heroine of the hour.

Mr. Morley: I am grateful for the comments of hon. Members. On the question raised by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the important point about the warrants is the procedure under which they will be issued. The magistrate must consider whether the request is reasonable, whoever applies for a warrant,

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and must also take account of why someone should want to resist a warrant. We are going a little further by providing information to the magistrate, who has an obligation to take into account all the arguments when making the decision.

In response to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), I very much hope that applying for a warrant will be an act of last resort—that it will not be common, a standard procedure or something that we would want in the normal course of any disease-control strategy. Sadly, as with a range of issues and not only those relating to disease control, there will always be times when we might need such a power, especially in disease control when facing a national emergency. We accept that this is a major issue, which is why the power should be used only as a last resort. It is important that we engage stakeholders in considering disease control and management in a way that minimises any need for such a measure. That is the Government's declared objective.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Will the Minister clarify whether the magistrate would if he thought it necessary be able to offer a hearing to the farmer or tenant farmer against whom the warrant had been issued?

Mr. Morley: That was the intention of the original Lords amendment, but as a Government we cannot concede that. All our legal advice suggests that it would be unprecedented to allow, in effect, a court hearing in front of a magistrate. As we debated yesterday, if that concession were made, we would have to allow the individual time to find a solicitor to seek legal advice or secure legal aid. The time taken would expand and the situation would become so complex that it would negate the idea of moving quickly. I am trying to retain the facility to move quickly on disease control in an emergency while respecting people's right to put an alternative point of view. The procedure will be to make representations to the DVM, who can decide to support them. The next step would be to apply for a warrant—now with the guarantee of a written submission on the other side of the argument.

It is true that when the Prime Minister met Cumbrian farmers during the last epidemic, they told him not that there was too much slaughter but that there was not enough and that culling needed to be speeded up. For whatever reason, people might argue that animals should be culled—I assume that that is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was making—but the decision whether to do so must be taken only on veterinary grounds, and that depends on the veterinary and scientific advice at the time.

We want to support alternative approaches as part of engaging the industry and relevant stakeholders in future contingency plans for a range of diseases, and in the longer term strategy on animal health and welfare. That is all part of building confidence and trust and involving the industry—giving it a say in the strategies and helping it to understand the reasons and arguments behind them. That must be a priority. I very much hope that the measures in the Bill will be of last resort.

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