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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

TSE (England) Regulations 2002

Thirteenth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 19 June 2002

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

TSE (England) Regulations 2002

4.30 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the TSE (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 843).

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I see some more familiar faces: the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Government Whip, my Liberal Democrat colleague, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), and some old sweats on the Government Back Benches, temporarily posted to the front.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): Perspiring.

Mr. Simpson: And some sweat-heads as well.

These are important regulations. The crucial question on any legislation concerning farming, animal welfare and animal and human health—we have debated this before in similar Committees, and also on the Floor of the House—is whether the public have confidence in the Government's intentions, in the aim and purpose of the legislation, and in the Department responsible for originating and implementing the legislation. The Minister is faced with both a general and a specific crisis of confidence regarding his Department and legislation. I do not say that in any parti pris way; I base it on, for example, evidence given to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning by the permanent secretary, who was given a fairly rough ride by everyone—both Labour and Opposition Members—in connection with many aspects of the Department, not least the question of public confidence and the confidence of the House. I think that when the Minister has had time to read the verbatim report of the question-and-answer session, he will note the profound disquiet felt by members of the Committee about whether the Department could deliver on many vital issues. I fully accept that the Department faces grave challenges on issues relating to farming, animal welfare and human health.

Credibility is a serious problem for the Department and for Ministers, whether in relation to farmers, the food industry, environmentalists or the public. There is a worrying tendency to disbelieve what the Department says now. The public should be able to assume that, within reason, they can believe what the Government tell them. There will always be those in opposition, or specific groups, who do not want to believe a Government or a Department, but the current tendency to disbelieve automatically extends beyond the Opposition and the media, and I think that that is a specific problem for DEFRA. Ministers and the Department therefore have a great obligation to

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get things right. There must be total transparency, and they must fully justify any legislation, especially in the highly sensitive area of human health and animal welfare.

There is no doubt that one of the problems affecting this legislation was the whole sorry business of the Animal Health Bill. It had a rough passage through the House. I distinctly remember debates on the Floor during which the Government had great difficulty in finding any of their Back Benchers, many of them distinguished members of the Select Committee, who were prepared to give it any form of enthusiastic backing. The Animal Health Bill eventually fell in the other place. It has left a cross-party feeling of grave disquiet in the House and in the other place about the Government's motives and the practicalities of the matter. It certainly caused grave disquiet in the farming community and among people associated with animal welfare. One might have thought, given that experience, that the Government would have been very sensitive in the way in which they introduced legislation, even legislation required by the European Community.

We now have the unhappy experience of these regulations. The Government have no one to blame but themselves for the muddle that they have got themselves into over the regulations. They conform with the European Community TSE regulations and revoke and replace much existing national legislation, providing powers and penalties. The statutory instrument is 89 pages long and has 104 regulations. It is not an easy document to follow and we now know that it was somewhat hastily drafted, and not particularly well, according to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. You will be aware, Mr. Cummings, that the 29th report of that Committee said that it

    ''draws the special attention of both Houses to these Regulations on the ground that they are defectively drafted in a number of respects.''

I will not detain the Committee by reading out the relevant aspects of that report. The Government have, quite rightly, had to respond to it. I think that this is an example of where bad drafting of a complex piece of legislation has made worse the Department's credibility on an issue that was bound to be controversial.

A further problem is that the Government have failed to take informed opinion with them. I refer in particular to the opinion to be found in the House of Lords. Not only has the legislation concerned many people in the other place, it has concerned large numbers of outside bodies. One would have thought that when the Government drafted and printed the statutory instrument, one could have found it almost straight away on a Government website. I am informed that it in fact took several weeks to appear in a proper form on either a departmental or a Government website.

That is a challenge for the Department, not least because the Government have rightly placed a great deal of emphasis on electronic communications. More and more farmers, people in the food industry and people concerned with animal welfare use electronic methods to get immediate up-to-date information on

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highly technical pieces of legislation. I know that the Minister believes that that is important and that he has laid much emphasis on it. Can he tell the Committee why there appears to have been a delay in putting this detailed piece of legislation on the website?

We all realise that Governments have problems with drafting statutory instruments, but that delay has reinforced an impression among many farmers and Members of both Houses that the Government were attempting to slip through parts of the controversial Animal Health Bill by gold-plating the TSE regulations. Ministers in this House and the Minister's hon. Friend in another place categorically denied it, but the problem that the Minister and the Department now face is the credibility gap. The muddle, to say the least, of the way in which the regulations were drafted meant that many people in another place and many farmers and others outside were prepared to believe the worst. The problem is not for farmers or necessarily for the legislature; it is how the Government recapture credibility.

The debate on 15 May in the other place shows the level of concern about the legislation on both sides of that House. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government were panicking then, because they realised that there was so much opposition to the way in which the regulations had been introduced and explained that there was a danger that they would be voted down. That would have been a disaster, because there would have been a great legal black hole in which the Government and everyone connected with the food industry and animal welfare would have been open to all kinds of legal challenges. To make certain that the legislation did not fall, the Government had to whip large numbers of Government supporters in the other place who would not normally participate in such a debate.

I understand that consideration is now being given in both Houses to whether it will be possible in future to amend such a statutory instrument. I do not have to tell you, Mr. Cummings, that hon. Members vote either for or against a statutory instrument; there is no way in which we can amend it. Therefore, this legislation has in a small way alerted the Government, the Opposition and other senior people in both Houses that there is a loophole in this respect.

I shall briefly consider certain aspects of the regulations and try to tease out from the Minister answers to the questions that have been raised in this House, in another place and by interested bodies outside Parliament. My first point was that the Government must be open and honest about the legislation and re-establish trust with the public and the farming community.

The core of the regulations is the need for inspectors to have the power to slaughter animals suspected of being infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or scrapie, and those confirmed as infected. There is a certain irony in that, because the committee of the European Parliament that is looking into foot and mouth has taken evidence from a large number of scientists and vets, and they all advocate vaccination rather than slaughter. There are also suggestions around the bazaars in Whitehall that the

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Government's own committees of inquiry may reach similar conclusions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Coincidentally, I happen to be reading the transcripts of the evidence that scientists gave on vaccination to the temporary committee at the EU, and it is not true to say that they all advocated vaccination. In fact, most advocated using vaccination alongside slaughter, in varying degrees. It is certainly true that they all advocated greater use of vaccination, and we do not rule that out for the future.

Mr. Simpson: I am grateful for that contribution. The Minister will also be able to confirm that the Government's own inquiries are likely to reach similar conclusions.

Mr. Morley: They are independent inquiries. I do not know.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister does not know, but I thank him for his previous point. The issue of vaccinations and slaughter is still very controversial. It depends on mixed scientific evidence and causes anxiety and bewilderment, to say the least, among not only the farming community, but those concerned with animal welfare. The issue comes back to the point that I made at the beginning, which is that it is vital for the Government to get their position correct. They cannot be held responsible for misleading newspaper reports, but they must be certain that the information that they provide to the public is as accurate as possible.

I have several questions. How do the regulations interact with the Department's national scrapie plan as outlined on the DEFRA website? In the debate in the other place, there appeared to be concern and some confusion about terminology. The Countess of Mar was concerned about the definition of a ''TSE-susceptible animal'' and claimed that EC regulations give the definition as

    ''an animal suspected of being infected by a TSE''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2002; Vol. 635, c. 379.]

That is a crucial difference, so will the Minister clarify that point once and for all?

Lord Whitty agreed to re-examine appeals against slaughter notices. Has that been done? A related issue is giving farmers a chance to contest powers of entry to premises, and what is the Minister's legal advice on that? There is a cap of £400 on compensation for sheep and goats, but is the Minister aware that many consider that the price, including for prize pedigree stock, should be the market value? There are only a small number of pedigree animals, but to the people concerned they are crucial.

Is the Minister aware that the British Veterinary Association is concerned that the legislation includes equines in the definition of livestock? They are not currently subject to any known TSE, and the BVA claims that it could set a precedent for future legislation. The Minister may regard that as totally wrong—

 
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Prepared 19 June 2002