Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman says that retrospect is a wonderful thing—it is something that his party had the benefit of on BSE. Would he acknowledge, retrospectively, the reports, which are well researched, that say that because of the initial delay in stopping animal movements, about 50 per cent. of the stock that were culled need not have been?

Mr. Morley: I think that 50 per cent. is going it a bit. Such matters have to be examined.

Mrs. Winterton: By an independent inquiry?

Mr. Morley: We shall see. There will be an independent inquiry. Speed has an impact, and its effect is something for independent scientists and epidemiologists to consider. It is hard to make predictions, given the number of animals going through so many livestock markets. I am not sure that an immediate stop would have made a huge difference—it may have made a difference, but not by 50 per cent.

Mr. Breed: I was in the Select Committee meeting when those comments were made, and they may have been given more prominence than the professor had meant. The question of how many animals would have been involved is highly subjective. However, it is not subjective but clear that the movement restriction would have decreased the number considerably—whether it be by 50 per cent. or not. One might therefore suspect that the Government would focus on that first to try to introduce a sweep of regulations that showed that the lessons of foot and mouth disease had been learned. Most of us agree, however, that we have started at the wrong end. If we have learned lessons, why are we not concentrating on movements?

Mr. Morley: We are. We introduced a 21-day stop proposal for livestock movements, which we are now applying as part of other measures for the disease. We shall have to discuss with the livestock industry the future of those stops because they are controversial in that industry. The hon. Gentleman is right that the issues that will be highlighted will be the speed of the spread, how the disease was spread, and the role of stops on movements, which are currently applied to the pig industry but not to the sheep and beef industry. All that is now taking place.

Imports are also important and I am not complacent about them. Some people talk about imports in a rather overblown way, and some in the livestock community do not want imports. They want a protectionist policy, for which they are using the outbreak as an excuse. We are considering the notice given and spot checks taken, but we do not need primary legislation to strengthen that; if necessary, it can be achieved by order, so it need not be included under the Bill. If further changes are required, we would not hesitate to make them. We have considered such matters during the various inquiries.

I thought that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton was rather harsh on Phoenix the calf—Phoenix's agent will not like what she had to say. One of the many myths associated with that story is that a sudden decision was taken because Phoenix looked cuddly. I have followed the course of the outbreak and can tell the hon. Lady that the proposals for exemptions for cattle in the contiguous cull were simply applied. No sudden decision was made. Throughout the outbreak, different methods and changes have been introduced in light of experience, and that is right and proper.

Mrs. Browning: It would amuse the Committee to hear Andrew Rawnsley's account, but I shall not take up time to read from his well-known book, ``Servants of the People''.

Mr. Morley: Very authoritative—a well-known vet and scientist.

Mrs Browning: That is the point. The decision about Phoenix the calf was not made on veterinary or scientific advice; it was made by the Government's spin doctors because the Prime Minister was under pressure. It worries me that the Government make decisions in that way. Later in our proceedings, when it may be a tad more appropriate, I may read to the Committee a little from the book on the Phoenix clause, so that it is understood that the decision was made in Downing street and was not based on veterinary science.

Mr. Morley: Much as I enjoy reading Andrew Rawnsley and much as I respect him as a journalist, he provided a rich vein of myths about the outbreak.

Let us get to the crux of the issue. The need to explain to farmers and to apply the measures proportionately is accepted. Some reasonable points have been made about how to apply the measure and I shall give further thought to it. Some of my hon. Friends have tabled amendments that also have a bearing on this.

I want to make it absolutely clear that there is already a requirement on the Government to provide reasonable justification. That will apply in practice. It is not necessary to spell it out, because it is taken as read. If the Government do not operate in a proportionate and justified way, of course we shall be open to legal challenge.

Mr. Breed rose—

Mr. Williams rose—

Mr. Morley: In stereo. I give way first to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams).

Mr. Williams: The farming community would be encouraged if the Government could give an assurance that the Bill will be accompanied by a commitment to examine the available tests for foot and mouth disease, particularly a test for the virus in blood. If that test could be advanced and if we could be assured that it is acceptable and done on the farm, the knowledge could be used in deciding whether to slaughter. Such decisions would then have much more credibility and the farming community would be better assured about them.

Mr. Morley: I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Pirbright is working on such a test to give an immediate reading of antibodies in an animal. However, even with the new tests, there is still a problem and it is the same as with the current blood test--the Elisa test. Blood tests do not pick up the antibodies until the disease is well established in the animal. We want to remove the animal before the disease becomes established. That is one of the problems. Many of the tests on animals that were taken out in contiguous culls or on suspicion came back negative, but the system worked and the animals were taken out before they developed the disease. The results of the blood tests may have come back negative, but they were probably not negative. I return to the point that speed is essential before an animal develops the disease.

Mr. Williams: The test for antibodies will always be retrospective. What is needed is a test for the virus in the blood, which is entirely different. The Government must give an assurance that they are working on that, because it is what the farming community wants.

Mr. Morley: The tests that are being worked on pick up live antibodies. There may be antibodies when the animal has had the disease and recovered, and there may be antibodies when the virus is active. The tests are designed to pick up the active virus, but the disease will still be in the later stages. The technology is developing all the time and there will be different decisions and responses as wider choices become available. I am very keen on that, because I am not one of nature's cullers. It is not my preference to go round knocking off every animal that moves.

Mr. Drew: You are not Stalin.

Mr. Morley: Absolutely. I refute the allegation that was made on Second Reading.

I want a range of options, including vaccines. We have contingency plans and we shall have a chance to discuss those later. We have always had contingency plans and have held the door open to the use of vaccination. We are trying to develop vaccine technology.

In reality, if there were an outbreak now or in the future, I suspect that the initial response would always be an immediate contiguous cull, and fast and efficient action to try to stop the virus in its tracks. If that did not work, there would probably be a trigger point for vaccination, but one of the difficulties would be to decide what that trigger point should be and how it should be applied. Those are difficult technical issues and we shall have to consider the lessons learned from the current epidemic. I assure the Committee that that will be part of the Government's response.

I suspect that there will always be an element of culling, so we are back to the same issue. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton asked about the justification and referred to the sweeping powers in the 1981 Act. It is true that they are sweeping powers, but they have provided an opportunity for all sorts of legal challenges for all sorts of reasons--some have been reasonable and some have not--which delayed contiguous culling. The Bill makes it absolutely clear what the Government may choose to do on the basis of veterinary and scientific advice. An example is the 3 km cull in Cumbria, which was carried out under the 1981 Act. We are convinced that it was legal and within the provisions of the Act, but people argued about suspicion and exposure, which led to many legal challenges and a lot of time-wasting. It is one of the reasons, but not the only one, for clarifying the powers so that everyone knows exactly what they are and what is being done.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister mentioned legal challenges, the number of them and how they delayed matters. Can he tell the Committee how many legal challenges were made and how many the Government won?

Mr. Morley: To the Department's knowledge there were about 102 legal challenges, most of which were withdrawn and the animals were culled. I cannot remember the exact number that finally went to court, but it was quite small. The Government's record on court cases was very successful and only a small number of legal challenges was lost. The issue is not whether we win or lose; it is the time that is taken up while legal challenges are made, during which the animals are still alive and at risk of developing the disease. That happened in Thirsk, where a high proportion of the animals in the cases that went on to appeal developed the disease. Each animal that developed the disease affected the contiguous farms. The key is to get ahead of the disease, which is why we are against the 48-hour delay.

I understand the reason for the amendment and we want to try to explain to individual farmers the reason for the application and the procedures that our vets will follow. I am prepared to give some thought to doing that. It need not be in the Bill; it could be in guidance to our vets, which we could make public and consult on. I am willing to consider that. However, to put a requirement for 48 hours' notice in the Bill is not acceptable.

 
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