Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Wiggin: Does my hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that we are discussing the Bill before the inquiries have reported? Much of the sense and wisdom behind it may be justified, or it may not. It is extraordinary to shoot first and legislate later, before asking questions.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that valid point and I agree that it seems silly. The Government have set their face against a full public inquiry, despite every rural organisation believing that it is absolutely necessary. They have set up three in-house inquiries, only part of which will be held in public and that perhaps because of the pressure on the Government. It is extraordinary to legislate before seeing the results and recommendations of the three inquiries, on which some distinguished people are serving.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Is it the view of the hon. Lady and her party that the Government should take no action to address the legal anomalies until such an inquiry has been undertaken, which might take two or three years?

Mrs. Winterton: First, there is no reason why any inquiry should take two or three years, so that is a red herring. Secondly, I do not believe that the Bill is the right mechanism--

Mr. Edwards: I asked the hon. Lady whether it was her view that no legislation should be introduced pending the outcome of the inquiry.

Mrs. Winterton: That is an extraordinary question. Why should legislation be introduced now? The Government could have taken urgent action, and could do so even now, to prevent further infection coming into the country, but they have not acted. Perhaps that is the urgent action that they should take before introducing measures that will give more powers to DEFRA officials, whose biosecurity was often appalling. I shall give examples of that later.

Mrs. Browning: We hear Labour Back Benchers supporting the Bill on the grounds that there is a legal anomaly in existing legislation, which justifies the haste with which the Bill has been presented to the House. I was a MAFF Minister for three years and dealt with animal health. The powers of the 1981 Act are wide-ranging and have served animal health crises in the past. One example is the selective cull that was necessary after BSE. The powers of that Act allowed animals over 30 months to be culled whether or not there was definitive proof that the beasts carried infectivity, proof of maternal transmission, or scientific proof of horizontal transmission. The 1981 Act has been used an emergency power in addition to the general powers enshrined in it. The Government say that they need the Bill now to enhance the Minister's powers to cull, not because they cannot wait for a proper inquiry--they have the powers now--but as a smokescreen for their mismanagement of the crisis. They are taking powers but are not resolving the matters for which they are responsible.

Mrs. Winterton: I really am most grateful to my hon. Friend, because no one could have explained the position more clearly or succinctly. Her comments back up the case that I made earlier. Her intervention was telling and I am most grateful to her. It is always good to hear from former Ministers who have held such responsibilities.

BSE was a new phenomenon--many scientists are researching the disease, but it burst on to the agricultural scene--whereas foot and mouth disease is totally different, because it has existed for a long time. There have been several outbreaks over hundreds of years and it has been very well researched. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention.

9.45 am

To return to the amendment and the word ``thinks'', it is important that the Minister or his officials have ``reasonable justification''. Every person who farms or owns animals—for example, many people keep small herds of sheep in their orchard as a hobby—has rights that come before their being dictated to by a district veterinary officer or a DEFRA official. It is right and proper that an independent veterinary surgeon who knows the local topography and local circumstances should be involved in making informed decisions about what should happen.

Mr. Drew: Will the hon. Lady define what she means by an independent vet?

Mrs. Winterton: I mean anyone from the private sector who has sufficient experience and knows the locality. One need define ``independent'' in no other way. Although there are excellent vets in the state veterinary sector, they were hard pushed to do even what they were required to do. People from local private practices know the farming community and its land and methods. If problems arise from their being accused of erring towards supporting their own clients, it would be easy to get independent veterinary advice from someone in another part of the county, who would still have the requisite basic knowledge.

Mr. Drew: Does that definition include temporary veterinary inspectors who worked with the state veterinary service during the course of the outbreak, which meant that many of them were no longer necessarily independent in the true sense of the word?

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, not many independent vets worked with the state veterinary service.

Mr. Drew: That is not true. All mine did.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman's might have done, but others did not. In fact, the state veterinary service ignored and overlooked the offers of many recently retired veterinary surgeons with previous experience of foot and mouth to come back into service for the duration of the epidemic. One such vet who did so was Alan Richardson from Cumbria, who has written a paper about how the epidemic was handled in Cumbria compared with how it was handled in Cheshire in 1967, when he was a veterinary officer based in Macclesfield.

The hon. Gentleman might care to read that paper, because it lays down markers for the right way in which to handle an epidemic. Essentially, it should be based much more on decisions that are made locally rather than by regional veterinary officers. Page street ran the whole show, and bad decisions were taken because the fight against the epidemic was centrally controlled.

We have had a useful debate about the basis on which the Government seek to introduce a carte blanche policy of being able to slaughter any animals that they think should be slaughtered with a view to preventing foot and mouth disease. That should be changed completely by implementing the safeguards that I described.

Mr. Breed: The Minister has often said that speed is of the essence. We all found the way in which foot and mouth spread so quickly alarming. Speed in getting on top of it was essential, but reactions were rather slow at the beginning of the outbreak.

However, that must be balanced by two other considerations: first, protecting the rights of farmers; and, secondly, the overall economic cost, which has implications for taxpayers. We must not apportion matters so as to disadvantage the people who have the most to lose. Some devastated farming families will never recover, yet the Bill gives many of them the impression that they are being seen not as victims, but as villains who need to be harshly controlled. We must balance the need for speedy action to get on top of the problem with the proper rights of individuals.

During the months when we were trying to get ahead of the disease, the co-operation of the farming community was absolutely essential. People were asked, sometimes by rather nefarious means, to do many things to try to control it. They should be involved in the decision-making processes. The Bill gives the impression that they are being taken out of the equation, and that whatever the Minister and his officials and advisers think is right and proper should prevail, regardless of independent veterinary advice. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud that getting such advice can be difficult, but it is important to get it and utilise it within a time frame that is helpful to the farmer and the local agricultural community.

I doubt whether the average farmer, faced with the possible devastation of his business through the culling of all his animals, will think it reasonable, or be totally co-operative, if the cull is happening only because the Minister thinks it should and he has been able to contribute nothing to the evaluation process. The amendment is a valuable attempt to address the fundamental dichotomy of involving those most affected in the decision-making process within a time frame that will allow control of the disease.

When we were going through the foot and mouth crisis, everyone, including people at MAFF--then DEFRA--MPs and farmers, was learning from the experience. I wonder whether farmers will be as compliant next time, having seen what happened to them, to their neighbours and to agriculture in general. The Bill may not help in that respect.

We have not got the balance right. The Minister balance what he thinks should happen with recognition of farmers' legitimate concerns about their involvement in the decision-making process. The Government should come forward with an arrangement that involves the farmers in that process, while ensuring that the time frame used achieves the objective of limiting the spread of disease.

I have examined many of these issues, but part of the fundamental problem with the Bill is that there has not been sufficient consultation to allow people to put their own experience into the pot so that we can begin to understand how to achieve the necessary balance. We all support the aim of preventing the spread of disease, but we have not got the balance right yet.

Mrs. Browning: Right at the beginning, we have seen the Minister's agenda of taking greater powers for himself. I am very concerned about whom he will consult when he uses the new powers. In the FMD crisis, his actions were not always based on veterinary advice, as he has claimed this morning. I shall discuss that at a more appropriate point, but I wish now to draw attention to a matter pertinent to the clause, which I raised on Second Reading.

When it suited the Prime Minister, rules were changed in response to public concern about Phoenix the calf. After that example of the Government's cavalier disregard of sensible veterinary advice to placate The Mirror readers, I have no confidence in a Minister who seems to be taking greater and greater powers to himself, who is not clear about the terms of reference under which those powers will be exercised and who finds the current legislation inadequate for his purposes.

The amendments would oblige the Minister to consult veterinarians and owners in exercising the powers that he wishes to take. I remind the Committee that the existing legislation, where clause 1 seeks to amend it, states:

    ``The Minister may, if he thinks fit, in any case cause to be slaughtered—

    (a) any animals affected with foot-and-mouth disease, or suspected of being so affected; and

    (b) any animals which are or have been in the same field, shed, or other place, or in the same herd or flock, or otherwise in contact with animals affected with foot-and-mouth disease, or which appear to the Minister to have been in any way exposed to the infection of foot-and-mouth disease.''

I should have thought that that gives the Minister pretty wide powers, but we are asked to consider adding to that list

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

without consultation with owners or veterinarians being required by the Bill.

It is no good the Minister praying in aid flexibility, saying, ``I can't at this important stage in the Bill's scrutiny give an example of how that power would be used, or under what circumstances I would wish to use it, that is not already in the 1981 Act'', and then expecting the Committee to pass it nem con without further commitments from him.

It is still the case in this country—I say ``still'' deliberately—that Parliament legislates and courts then interpret. That will change, because we are fast moving towards a stage when judges legislate and interpret. However, we have not reached it yet, so let us hope that those of us sent here to scrutinise legislation are aware of our responsibilities, as I hope that the Minister is. Under the current system, what we say during our proceedings may be used in a later court case, if the court needs to determine Parliament's intention. Unless the Minister can state the Government's practical intentions in respect of the consultation with veterinarians and owners that the amendments propose, courts will be left to interpret the matter based not on what we say in the Committee, but on what judges deem to have been our intention.

10 am

I therefore seek from the Minister clarification about his intentions on consulting with veterinarians and owners. If he intends to reject the amendments, he must reassure us that his intentions in clause 1 are just, fair and proportionate. I shall need much convincing that the words before us are exactly that, unless the Minister is prepared to spell out his response to the amendments.

I remind the Minister—I know that he is familiar with the document—that a committee that has looked at the experience of foot and mouth, the Devon county council inquiry chaired by Professor Mercer, has published preliminary findings. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out in her opening remarks, the Bill could have included many of the recommendations already made by Professor Mercer and others to assist with some of the problems involved in getting on with a cull after identification of the disease.

Professor Mercer's inquiry said:

    ``We find that there should be an immediate ban on animal movements from Day One of any future outbreak.''

I agree with that. It would almost certainly have assisted the Minister with disease control, but the Bill does not refer to the idea.

 
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