Animal Health Bill

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Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Sixteen farms went to appeal. When I was asked how many people had farm animals as pets, I took a stab in the dark and estimated up to two dozen, merely because that is the number that has contacted me or I have heard of through the press.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I accept that it is an approximate number, but it gives an idea of the scale of the number of farm animals kept as pets that were threatened by the policy to which so many of their owners objected.

The hon. Lady talked at length about an enterprise in her constituency called Oaklands Park. I hope that she will not mind if I refer back to her comments. She may recall that I intervened on her speech for clarification on a couple of points. Since then, the people at Oaklands Park have written to say that they

    ``have a commercial farm and gardening enterprise which produces food not only for the 116 residents here, but also for a box scheme delivering produce to 90 families in Newnham and the surrounding area, as well as selling wholesale to Organic food distributors in Bristol.''

That demonstrates the scale of the enterprise. The letter continues:

    ``Much of that produce comes from our large market garden, but we also sell meat to the box scheme customers, as well as being self-sufficient in meat and milk in this community and for our sister community of 100 in Newnham. All this is achieved together with our adult residents with learning difficulties, who gain enormous pride and satisfaction from their work on the land and with animals.''

It is clearly a very particular kind of community, and one that is to be admired.

The letter goes on to say that the fact that Oaklands is

    ``a self-sustaining mixed biodynamic farm does not mean that we are non-commercial. It means that we have already diversified to the extent that the government is now starting to propose as a viable way forward for agriculture in this country.''

The park appears to be going in the right direction. The letter goes on to say that the hon. Lady's comment about livestock being regarded as companions

    ``is a correct one. Our cows are known by name, and there are several generations living side by side in the Byres.''

It states that the aim is to

    ``give our animals as healthy and contented a life as possible and, when the time comes for slaughter, a dignified and fearless death. (This latter point is becoming increasingly difficult due to Government policy to close down small, local abattoirs.)''

It reasserts that it is

    ``not an animal sanctuary but a commercial farm which, like many other farms, want to provide our animals with care and affection due to them being sentient beings.''

9.15 am

Diana Organ: On that point, the people of Oaklands Park are concerned that local abattoirs are kept alive and well. The Forest of Dean has two successful local abattoirs that have received good hygiene assessment scores—HAS.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's clarification. I was merely quoting from the information that her constituent sent to me, but if Oaklands Park can send its produce for slaughter to two small abattoirs, that is excellent and I wish that it were the case throughout the United Kingdom. We all know how often the big supermarket chains insist on slaughter taking place in a specified slaughterhouse, which is often hundreds of miles from the farm. No one feels happy about that.

The Oaklands Park people went on to comment on the Minister's assertion that the contiguous cull was a success. Their letter states:

    ``On the contrary the contiguous cull has been shown to be heavy-handed due to unnecessary means to control FMD in the light of international developments in vaccination and blood testing that the Government were aware of in March if not earlier.''

The letter states that the hon. Lady said:

    ``the Forest of Dean is considered as one premise for the purpose of the contiguous cull''

and asserts that that is an unworkable and unreasonable ruling, given the large area and the diversity of the farming practices that border it. It continues by stating that it was alleged that

    ``the Forest of Dean suffered 47 confirmed cases.''

This relates to the pets and animal sanctuaries issue—there is little difference because all are animals that could contract foot and mouth; they are parallel arguments. The letter asked:

    ``How many of these `confirmed cases' were tested, and how many were merely clinically confirmed, later to be shown negative when tests were returned from Pirbright after culling?''

It stated that the national foot and mouth group had been requesting that information from the DEFRA headquarters in Page street since 1 May and still does not have it. Will the Minister look into that?

The letter continues:

    ``It is possible that the actual number of positive cases in the Forest of Dean, could be minute. This is information that should be in the public domain by now, and its absence begs more questions.''

Diana Organ indicated dissent.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but if that information were in the public domain, there would be no arguments. I give way because I can see that she is brewing for another intervention.

Diana Organ: We had a devastating time during foot and mouth. The divisional vets operating in Elmbridge Court in Gloucestershire confirmed the 47 cases. Some were confirmed from clinical diagnoses and some from blood tests, but all cases were confirmed positive.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but her constituent is not satisfied that that was the case. I do not want to enter into an argument with the hon. Lady and her constituent because that would be wrong, but I feel that many, if not all, of the points that her constituent made are valid and relevant to the parts of the Bill that deal with animal sanctuaries and pets, and with farm animals. The same rules should apply to those animals. We have a tabled a new clause that would be helpful to pet animal owners and that has received certain support from Labour Members.

In the letter, the lady goes on at length about farming in the Forest of Dean. I shall not continue to read her letter, although its points therein are valid. The Committee will have noted that new clause 1 states:

    ``Where it can be shown that a pet animal has been in contact with an animal affected by foot-and-mouth, it shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known.''

Bearing in mind the amount of research underway, and that which has been neglected by successive Governments since the previous outbreak, we should expect tremendous progress on blood testing in future.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I want to be clear: can the hon. Lady confirm whether she is proposing to remove any discretion on the part of vets to make on-the-spot diagnoses of foot and mouth? Is she saying that such vets would be irrelevant because one could simply send off a blood test?

Mrs. Winterton: The problem throughout the cull was the issue of doubt. We know that veterinary surgeons saw clinical signs of the disease but that, in many cases, signs were showing that were not foot and mouth. Many younger vets did not know of some diseases that affect sheep—[Interruption.] No, they did not know of them—they are very difficult to diagnose. If doubt exists, we should be able to test farm animals and pets; there is no difference because they are all animals and can contract the disease. We will get much smarter at that in future and it will be possible to have a test that will reinforce, or deny, the veterinary surgeons' view. Veterinary surgeons cannot be right in every case—how could they be? They are human like us, and make mistakes as we do—in good faith—from time to time.

New technology and science, better testing and quicker results being returned to the veterinary officer and the owners of the animals, whether they be farmers or pet owners, will show us the way forward. That is not so far down the track. The new clause is one way forward that would prove satisfactory. As I said earlier, nobody has the slightest problem with slaughter if they know the disease is present, but they do if doubt exists, or they believe that the disease is not present.

That is particularly so in respect of pet animals. At times, people in this country like their pets rather better than members of their family. We are an animal-loving country and great emotion is tide up with pet animals. If they must be slaughtered—[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) finds so amusing; perhaps, he has no pets. However, I am sure that he agrees that the issue arouses strong feeling and emotion.

Mr. Breed: That is the crux of the matter, not compensation. No compensation for slaughtered farm animals is adequate. Such animals may be considered as pets by their owners and those who look after them. That is why we must take special care.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a telling intervention, with which I could not agree more. I cannot further embellish what he said. I prefer the phrase ``compulsory purchase'' to ``compensation'', because that is, in effect, what happens even though the word compensation is always used. The hon. Gentleman made a valid and telling point, and I agree with it 100 per cent.

Diana Organ: The hon. Lady makes a comment about a trait in the British character: that we are sympathetic and loving to animals, including those in the wild. That is why the overwhelming majority of people want a ban on hunting with hounds.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Lady, as always, shows her lack of understanding. I was talking about pet animals.

Mr. Drew: Foxes.

Mrs. Winterton: Foxes are not pets; they are vermin.

I respect the hon. Lady's view, which she has held for a long time, but I do not believe for one moment that she is right. If she farmed and saw the destruction—I did because I kept chickens when I was a teenager—she would feel differently. The issue, for people whose view of field and country sports is different from mine, is how to contain the fox population without wiping it out. Over the years, hunting has ensured—

 
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Prepared 29 November 2001