Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: There was a programming meeting on Monday, where the hon. Lady did not raise a single objection to the programming of the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: You were not there.

Mr. Morley: I was there. It was over in one minute, which shows how many objections Opposition Members had.

I must say how much I appreciate my hon. Friends who are members of the Committee. I am glad that the Whips have chosen a brigade of guards from the parliamentary Labour party to support me; I appreciate my colleagues' expertise.

Mrs. Browning: I must put on record that I was shadow Leader of the House when the Government first introduced programming. At that time, the Government stressed how important it was for Programming Committees to be properly minuted, and we have just seen a classic example of why that is the proper procedure. Not all Members have the privilege of sitting on such Committees, and there can be disputes about what was and what was not discussed. It is unusual for such an important procedure not to be properly minuted or, if a vote is taken, for that not to be recorded in Hansard. It is improper, and it is characteristic of how the Government carry out their business.

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister is taking it in good humour, and I appreciate that he must hold his position. However, it is worth putting on record that the Minister was not present at the Programming Committee.

Mr. Morley: I was there. I was one minute late.

Mrs. Gillan: It is remarkable that the Minister says that there is a great deal of room for negotiation on Programming Committees and Sub-Committees. I look forward to him revisiting the programme motion. The Government can say what they want and stick to their guns, which is exactly what they have done with the Bill. If the Minister is so willing to ensure that the legislation is absolutely right, he will accept—

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend will recall that I was rather involved in the way in which programme motions were introduced into the House—a way that was against my better judgment. It was clearly stated by Minister after Minister, including the then Leader of the House, at the Dispatch Box—

The Chairman: Order.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: Before I call the first amendment, I have an announcement that relates to page 35 of the amendment paper. Hon. Members will have noted that amendment No. 38 is listed as an amendment to clause 1, when it is an amendment to clause 2. That amendment will therefore be called as the last amendment to clause 2.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I signed amendment No. 54, but the Public Bill Office has left my name off it.

The Chairman: I am sure that the Clerk will take note of that and make the necessary changes, if the amendment was signed in time.

Clause 1

Foot-and-mouth disease

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 1, leave out lines 9 and 10 and insert—

    ``(c) any animals the Minister has reasonable justification to believe should be slaughtered after consultation with an independent veterinary surgeon and the owners of the animals, and the provision of a notice containing a reasoned justification, with 48 hours notice of slaughter with a view to preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.''

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 8, in page 1, line 9, leave out ``thinks'' and insert—

    ``, after consultation with the animal owner, has reason to believe''.

Mrs. Winterton: We have had a lively debate on the programme motion and will now get into the meat of the Bill. On reading in page 1 of clause 1,

    ``any animals the Minister thinks should be slaughtered with a view to preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth disease'',

the word ``thinks'' leaps from the page. One wonders what ``thinks'' precisely means because there has to be much more than just thinking by the Minister, district veterinary officer or any DEFRA official, before a decision is made to slaughter sheep, cattle or any other animal which may contract, or be in danger of contracting, foot and mouth disease. That is why my hon. Friends and I felt that we should try to include conditions that must be fulfilled before such a decision could be made.

We believe that there must be ``reasonable justification'' to believe that slaughter should take place and that that must follow consultation with an independent veterinary surgeon and the owners of the animal, who can both give much information about the local situation.

During the recent foot and mouth epidemic, a valid criticism made of the contiguous cull was the crazy way in which it was implemented, almost following a computer model, which took no cognisance of the topography of the land, how the animals were farmed and husbanded, or the likelihood of the disease breaking out on a farm adjacent to premises where it was alleged to have broken out. Here we reach the nub of the problems with legislating in this way. The Minister said that urgent action is being taken, but, in fact, it is being taken to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. Urgent action was not taken at the beginning to try to prevent the disease in the first place. We understand that the virus may have entered this country through illegal meat imports, although that is not yet known and I doubt that it ever will be in the absence of a full, independent public inquiry, which could call for people and papers and answer difficult questions.

9.30 am

In the meantime, the Government have not taken urgent action on preventing re-importation of the disease. There has been a lot of activity, but what it has actually led to heaven alone knows—probably just a few more learned committees talking among themselves about what they may or may not do.

We are an island nation surrounded by sea, which should be a tremendous barrier to the importation of disease, both animal and human. Yet at our airports and seaports, defences against such diseases are minimal. Since the beginning of the foot and mouth epidemic, the Government have taken no meaningful preventive action—certainly no urgent action. As soon as the disease manifested itself, action should have been taken immediately to stop animal movements. Those three days in February caused tremendous difficulties. Urgent decisions should also have been taken on how to approach the problem in general. I accept that it is more difficult to diagnose FMD in sheep than in cattle. As a Member of Parliament for a Cheshire constituency, I am very much au fait with what happened in 1967, but I recognise that that outbreak was perhaps less difficult to deal with, given that it affected cattle and not sheep.

Had the decision been taken immediately to slaughter animals that had definitely been in contact with foot and mouth, the disease would not have spread throughout the United Kingdom. As we all know, foot and mouth is not a new phenomenon; much research and veterinary advice is available on the subject. Whether the animal is alive or dead, the infectious virus emanates and spreads dramatically, so one needs to kill it and dispose of the carcase immediately.

Mr. Morley: May I clarify one point? Veterinary and scientific evidence suggests that, once the animal is dead, the spread of the virus stops completely. As soon as cattle and, indeed, other animals die, the pH in the carcase rises, which effectively kills the virus. The animals are also sprayed with disinfectant as soon as they are killed. That is why the speed of the cull is important—dead animals do not spread disease.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister makes a valid point, but he has carefully avoided the important point about the initial delay in slaughtering animals. There were delays of several days because nobody could make up their mind and the arrangements were not in place. It was at that time, and because the Government failed to take urgent action, that the disease spread dramatically.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I was interested to hear the Minister's veterinary advice, because we all know that there is no way that foot and mouth was introduced to this country through a live animal. It was much more likely to have been introduced through infected meat, and the idea that meat is not infectious is highly implausible.

Mrs. Winterton: That is an interesting observation—

Mr. Morley: I do not want those who read Hansard to be misled. The hon. Gentleman seems not to understand that the problem may not be meat but bone marrow. One reason why procedures are applied to legal imports is to ensure that they are de-boned. Illegal imports, on the other hand, could consist of uncooked meat or contain bone.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister will recall that the 1967 outbreak was caused by imported beef from Argentina, which did indeed contain bone. It created immense difficulties in dairy counties such as Cheshire and Staffordshire. It was an horrific outbreak, but it was handled by the then agriculture Minister, who later served in the House of Lords, with great expediency. Many lessons can be learned from the way in which that outbreak was handled compared with the handling of the present outbreak. There is no doubt that the dithering at the beginning of the current epidemic caused further spread of the disease.

It should also be said that the decisions made once the Secretary of State had fixed the policy left a lot to be desired. I refer in particular to the contiguous cull. I mentioned topography and said that, for dairy cattle that were far distant from a boundary where slaughter might have taken place merely on suspicion, it was a heavy-handed instrument to try to bring the disease to a halt. Many farmers and those with animal sanctuaries and pets that might have been culled challenged the Government's right to implement such a policy.

I speak from personal experience because the parish in which my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and I have lived for 30 years had such a case. Two flocks of sheep were slaughtered, the one nearest our property on suspicion only. It took so long for the blood tests to be taken and the results to come back that the Ministry decided in the meantime that there should be a contiguous cull. I hasten to add that the farmers involved were not informed; they merely heard on the grapevine that there would be a contiguous cull. I reiterate that the sheep were to be slaughtered on suspicion, because there was no way of knowing at that stage whether they had the disease.

The problem was one of welfare. I am not criticising the veterinary surgeon involved, but many others who had come to this country from overseas and many UK vets had not only not seen the symptoms of foot and mouth, which would have been difficult, but appeared not to be aware of the symptoms of other diseases, particularly in sheep, so they decided that almost every case was a potential outbreak of the disease. Many farmers objected, rightly, to the draconian slaughter when it was ordered merely on suspicion of a local case. The results could not be obtained quickly because there were huge blockages in the system and decisions were not made.

In my parish, three farmers were going to be affected by the contiguous cull and were extremely concerned. They had built up their dairy herds over many years and were convinced that the cows were disease free. The Minister may say that they could not have known that, and it is true, but they were not aware of their legal rights at the time. The Ministry tried to bounce farmers into having a cull by almost blackmailing them and saying that if they had the contiguous cull, they would receive compensation, but if they did not agree, they would not receive compensation. The legal basis for that was extremely dodgy, which is perhaps why the Minister is introducing this measure.

There were many examples, including the three that I have given, of the farming community standing up to the contiguous cull policy, and in my parish none of the herds was affected. A veterinary inspection was carried out every day and the farmers were careful with biosecurity and other measures.

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