Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Breed: While my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and I were dancing the military two-step a little while ago, the Minister was saying that reasoned judgment would have to be tested at some stage. Is it not likely to be tested by way of judicial review, which would take place after the animals had been culled?

Mr. Morley: As I said to the Select Committee, that is likely, but it depends how fast people can move. It would not necessarily take place after the cull, but in reality it probably would in most cases because the issue is speed. We are talking about a war against the disease and, like all wars, this one has rough and ready aspects. The outbreak of foot and mouth cost taxpayers billions of pounds, put enormous stress on individual farmers and did enormous damage to non-farming interests and the tourism industry. We must deal with that as quickly as possible. That is the whole reasoning behind the Bill.

I accept the perfectly reasonable case about the need to apply good practice. In reality, vets would always aim to talk through the reason for culling animals with the owners prior to slaughter. The use of the new power is based on veterinary judgment, and national policies will have to be applied to fight the disease.

10.45 am

Hon. Members have mentioned the need for a balance between speed—getting on with it—and trying to explain things to owners and having reasonable procedures. I am not unsympathetic to that, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that, whether we liked it or not, the contiguous policy was successful. Some say that the price paid for it was too high, and we could argue about that, but it was successful. I accept that we can consider other options for the future. However, having followed the matter in great detail, I suspect that, given the spread and distribution of the disease, the contiguous policy was probably the only way of stamping it out. Had it not been applied, on the worst case projection 50 per cent. of the country's animals would have been affected. There would have been terrible, catastrophic consequences if fighting the outbreak had gone wrong.

I understand the spirit behind the amendments, but 48 hours is not acceptable. Another problem with an obligation to consult the owner is that he might not live on the farm or want to co-operate, which would cause further delay. I accept the perfectly reasonable points about the proportionality of application and the need to explain to owners and farmers the basis and reasons for the decision. I am sure that there are ways of dealing with that and that they do not need to be included in the Bill. There will, however, be discussion on that as the Bill progresses, and I shall give it some thought.

Mrs. Winterton: We have had a wide-ranging, good debate on the amendments, relating to weighty matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the wide-ranging powers in the 1981 Act and the added powers in the Bill, especially as they might be interpreted by courts in the future.

I shall not go into detail about comments that other hon. Members made, so as not to hold up the Committee, but I was grateful for the support of the two Liberal Democrat Members, especially the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who is a farmer. He described his extreme concern, which we share, at the further powers that will be given to DEFRA, and rightly described them as premature and unwise. He talked of chaos, confusion and mistakes in a more robust way than I should repeat, and pointed out, as have other hon. Members, that many younger vets were not given the support of their superior, more experienced colleagues and had to make decisions on the ground in difficult conditions about whether a herd or flock should be slaughtered.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point, which I also tried to make, but not as well as he did. It was that the greatest difficulty is caused when it is not 100 per cent. clear that FMD is present. I have never met a farmer whose flock or herd has the disease who thinks that there should be any delay in slaughtering. All farmers are very responsible about that. If a farmer is sure that the disease is there, he has no problems with slaughter. It is when the symptoms could have an alternative explanation and when vets cannot diagnose clearly that there is the greatest difficulty. Those cases will be affected by the Bill.

The Bill is unjust and does not give enough power to owners of farms and livestock to get advice and to be consulted thoroughly. During the epidemic, decisions were made in haste, which filled many people with fear and trepidation. Farmers have lost any trust that they might have had in DEFRA and its officials, and believe that the actions taken were disproportionate. My hon. Friends and I think that the Bill should contain safeguards. Although I heed the Minister's comforting words, we cannot accept them. We wish an amendment such as this one to be included in the Bill, so that there is a sensible fall-back to limit the powers given to officials, which are indeed draconian.

During the outbreak, one of my farming constituents asked me whether I could tell him what his rights were. He pointed out that he knew what his responsibilities were, and always discharged them fully, but wanted to know what rights he had if officials were to come on to his farm and tell him to do this, that and the other. He owns the land and the animals. If he had the disease, he accepted that they would have to be culled, but said that he would have no say in how the animals would be disposed of.

That was someone who went through the 1967 outbreak. Members of the farming community face up to their responsibilities. They have no problem with that, but they believe, as do I, that the Bill gives more and disproportionate powers to the Ministry, which we should resist. Sadly, I cannot accept the Minister's assurances, and I shall press the amendment to a vote.

Mr. Breed: Considerable discussion has taken place about the 1981 Act that the clause will amend. I am not entirely sure whether the Act was deficient and needed such additional powers to make it enforceable, or whether the Act has been appropriately used for 20 years. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that it was successfully used during the BSE crisis.

I return to the question of balance. There is little doubt in my mind that clause 1 is unacceptable. Discussion on the amendment has exposed certain difficulties, and the amendment is more in tune with a balanced approach and inclusive decision making. I am glad that it is being pressed to a vote, and we shall support it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided : Ayes 7, Noes, 9.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Breed, Mr. Colin
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill
Williams, Mr. Roger
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

NOES
Atkins, Charlotte
Drew, Mr. David
Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick
Morley, Mr. Elliot
Organ, Diana
Owen, Albert
Reed, Mr. Andy
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Browning: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in page 1, line 10, at end insert—

    `(d) but, notwithstanding the power in section 87 of this Act to amend the definition of ``animals'' by order, no animals shall be slaughtered by virtue of this paragraph which are not susceptible to infection of foot and mouth disease.'.

Clause 1 adds to the categories of animals that may be slaughtered because of foot and mouth any animal that the Minister thinks should be slaughtered with a view to preventing the spread of the disease. The amendment would ensure that in taking that power he cannot include animals that are not susceptible to infection by foot and mouth. The definition of ``animals'' in section 87 of the 1981 Act is

    ``cattle, sheep and goats, and . . . all other ruminating animals and swine'',

and Ministers are given powers by order to extend the definition to

    ``any kind of mammal except man''—

I am relieved about that, and presume that the Minister is not planning to make any changes in that respect; or perhaps only women are to be exempted. The definition continues:

    ``and . . . any kind of four-footed beast which is not a mammal.''

The measure then continues in some detail to include the right to issue orders in respect of other species, including

    ``fish, reptiles, crustaceans, or . . . other cold-blooded creatures''.

The Minister must try to convince the Committee that that extension of his powers will prevent the spread of foot and mouth. Why should he need to add animals that cannot carry or succumb to the disease? Does he think that species that are not already covered by the 1981 Act might have contributed to its spread? I know from his biography that he takes a close interest in birds—of the feathered variety; I could not comment on the other kind.

Has any evidence come out of the recent experience of foot and mouth to necessitate the provision? Such powers should be taken only on the basis of scientific evidence, and I do not recall any data being given in parliamentary debates or anything that I have read suggesting that DEFRA has identified any species not already covered by the 1981 Act that contributed to the spread of foot and mouth. It would be wrong for the Minister to take such powers without proper scientific advice. Why does he believe that he needs them?

11 am

Mrs. Winterton: I rise briefly to support my hon. Friend. It is important that the Minister should explain why section 87 of the 1981 Act, which allows him by order to extend the definition of animals to include any kind of mammal except, as my hon. Friend has just said, man, and any kind of four-footed beast that is not a mammal. It is therefore possible to use the power to slaughter other species, for example, horses and farm dogs, which, although they are not susceptible to foot and mouth disease, could carry and spread it. The obvious purpose of the amendment is to limit the wider power of slaughter that is sought in clause 1 to animals that can catch foot and mouth disease.

In evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 6 November, the Minister said that he wanted to make it absolutely clear that the Bill related only to farm animals and susceptible animals, and to the actual wording of the Act. He said that it related to animals defined in section 87 of the Animal Health Act 1981, and that unless the context required otherwise some other species were not covered by the wide incoming powers.

It is not 100 per cent. clear. We should be told categorically which case is true. Is what he said in the Select Committee absolutely right? Can the power to slaughter extend beyond the listed animals that can catch foot and mouth disease to those animals that might unknowingly spread the disease? There are many animals on farms that can do precisely that.

 
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