Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I do not have the report of the Devon foot and mouth inquiry in front of me, but I recall from my reading of it that paragraph 1.2, which I think is the first recommendation that Professor Mercer's committee made, relates to illegal imports. Does my hon. Friend agree that the absence of any reference to illegal imports in the Bill is an extraordinary omission?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The committee's first recommendation states:

    ``We therefore find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation.''

If the Government felt a compelling need for emergency legislation, surely that should be the reason. I am sure that I am not speaking out of turn and that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton agrees with me that they would then have had the full support of this side of the House. We could have had an important, really useful piece of legislation, dealing not just with the handling of the disease but with preventing it from getting into the country in the first place. Yet the Government have ignored that necessity. I shall not digress, Mr. Illsley, because I can see you giving me a certain look.

Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have suggested independent veterinary advice and consultation with owners as an addition to the amendment. The Mercer inquiry's findings stated:

    ``The State Veterinary Service was greatly overstretched during the outbreak and its aftermath, the Inquiry was told, while the knowledge and experience of many local vets was not used. Retired vets, some with experience of previous outbreaks, volunteered their services but were rebuffed. In some cases the eventual hiring of vets from other countries, while very welcome at the time, created new problems arising from a lack of local knowledge and unfamiliarity with the language.''

I hope that I shall not break any of the new rules—which I have not studied in great detail—and be regarded as a racist, but that what I am about to say has parliamentary privilege, because I believe it to be a statement of fact. The training of veterinarians in some other countries does not follow the same pattern as in this country. In many countries, some of them European, veterinary training does not have the same approach to, for example, farm animals and animal husbandry of farm animals as it has to companion animals.

Somebody who is qualified as a vet on an international basis may not have the same in-depth knowledge and training in farm animal husbandry as vets trained in this country. If the Minister is to take advice from local vets, the point made by Professor Mercer's inquiry must be taken on board because it would help the Minister to bring the disease under control. The advice that Ministers desperately need from veterinarians when they are trying to manage such a crisis must come from people who are fully conversant with the disease, and who have the necessary experience and knowledge. This is another measure on which the Government could have taken action, because it would help if the crisis were to flare up again in the future.

I accept that the Government are seeking to put in place preparation for ``what if?'' I do not criticise that principle, but I criticise the fact that the ``what if?'' is not based on good scientific advice or the recommendations of inquiries. The Government have not seen fit to base the Bill, especially this clause, on the Mercer inquiry. They are pressing ahead with legislation that they have plucked out of the air. I want reassurance from the Minister that he will consider adding the amendments tabled in the names of my hon. Friends about advice and consultation with owners and veterinarians. Otherwise, I cannot see where the Minister could show accountability if this were ever challenged in the courts.

Mr. Drew: I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. With your strong constituency interest in agriculture, you will find not only the Bill but every element of animal anatomy fascinating.

The amendment is a nice try by the Opposition, but the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton ended up arguing the same point that I shall make, which concerns how one defines independence, and how people who work within the veterinary profession are able, through experience, to know exactly what an outbreak of foot and mouth looks like. Farm vets, who might not have experienced foot and mouth, found it difficult to identify in sheep. Temporary veterinary inspectors and younger members of the state veterinary service with whom I discussed this issue said that despite their training including as much guidance and insight as possible into what animal diseases look like their particular problem was that they had no experience of foot and mouth. It was only when foreign vets from strange parts of the world arrived that there were vets with direct experience of the disease, but that was too little, too late. With the benefit of hindsight, we can all look back at that.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He recognises that if the Government had a contingency plan—we were assured that such a plan was in place—none of these matters had been considered. Bearing in mind that foot and mouth is a devastating disease, I should have thought that those in the state veterinary service could have been sent overseas in the intervening 30-odd years, when we did not have an outbreak, to learn a little about it. That shows a remarkable lack of preparedness.

Mr. Drew: I do not deny the hon. Lady's point—one can always have better preparation. Government Members who struggled with foot and mouth will recognise that point, which is why some us asked to serve on this Committee with the aim of trying to learn from those experiences. We are discussing the Bill with the foot and mouth outbreak in mind, but we could talk about classical swine fever and other diseases. Budgets are always limited, and although it would help recruitment to the state veterinary service if we were to put on interviewing notes that we will be sending vets around the world to examine every strange disease, that is not practical.

My main point concerns practicability. It is a nice idea that we can define an independent vet, and I tried to tease out what an independent vet is in my exchange with the hon. Member for Congleton. When we have an outbreak on the scale that we have just experienced, many—incorrectly, I used to say that all private vets worked on the past outbreak—vets work for the state veterinary service. Because we had to have clean and dirty vets, many of them could not go onto different holdings. Many vets who had no particular experience of dealing with farm animals were employed because of the nature of the outbreak. In such an outbreak occurred in future, it would be difficult to find an independent vet because it is likely that somebody working as a temporary veterinary inspector would be going onto a holding for which they were also the vet. Such a person could give the work to colleagues in their practice, but it is difficult for vets within the same practice to argue against each other.

Mr. Breed: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Bill may make such a situation more difficult? DEFRA inspectors could go onto a holding and insist that a vet works for them on pain of committing an offence if they do not do so.

Mr. Drew: This is the crux of the matter. It depends on how one defines the words ``insistence'' and ``consultation''. My experience, which I hope to bring to the Committee, is that the people who were working for MAFF as it was then, DEFRA as it is now, did everything they could to persuade. Mistakes were made and people found it difficult to give the bad news that they thought a holding had foot and mouth. There are many emotional stories that those of us who were directly involved can dredge up.

We must accept that people use their best professional judgment, and we must empower those people. As much as we are talking about the people who objected to the cull, most farmers in my constituency accepted what had to happen. They wanted it done quickly; they wanted it done because they did not want the disease; they wanted it done because they did not want other people to go through what they were going through. The difficulty is one of balance. Legislation is a blunt instrument, and we are trying to do the best that we can. I shall look carefully at each amendment, but this amendment fails because it cannot define an independent vet.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman used the word ``think''; the Bill contains the word ``thinks''. However, he rejects this moderate amendment, which tries to introduce a modicum of independent veterinary advice and consultation with the owners. He rejects that because he thinks, and the Government think, that they should be able walk in and slaughter because they think it is possible. The hon. Gentleman, who is a moderate man, represents an agricultural constituency and should make a great quantum leap to support this modest amendment.

Mr. Drew: I am glad to hear that I am moderate because I have always tried to be moderate in everything I do. I shall try to be moderate in the time that I take defending my position. If those who would oppose having their animals taken or, let us remember, having their animals vaccinated—we are not necessarily discussing a culling strategy—do not want that to happen, they will get an independent vet who agrees with them. The problem is that time is always of the essence, and the best device to prevent that from happening is to delay it. There is a danger in talking about particular time periods, although the 24-48 hour argument does not apply here as we are talking about 48 hours. It was said that the Government should have acted more quickly on restrictions on animal movement, and reference was made to the period of three days. That is a nice idea with hindsight, but here we are talking about a period of 48 hours after the initial inquiry has begun. Such a delay could lead to further spread of the disease.

10.15 am

 
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