Animal Health Bill

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The Chairman: Order. We are drifting slightly wide of the mark again, so perhaps we could return to the Animal Health Bill.

Mrs. Winterton: Mr. Illsley, you are quite right to draw me to order. I get carried away down country lanes to the right and to the left. I shall return to the issue of animal sanctuaries and pets.

I assure the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that, like her, I have domestic cats at home—only two now, sadly, because the old one went—and I have never known such assiduous and cold-blooded killers. They bring me presents almost every morning, which they leave on the door mat. None the less, we love our pets and are upset when one disappears and goes to meet its maker. I am just as sentimental about domestic pets as any other member of the Committee.

The proposal in amendment No. 54 and new clause 1 is a sensible way forward, but in my mind there is no difference between pets and animals in sanctuaries, and farm animals. They should all be treated in the same way.

Mr. Drew: I apologise for my lateness, Mr. Illsley. I had an interesting travelling time after a bad night last night, but I share that with many people. When one's team loses 11-10 on penalties, it is not the happiest time.

I should like the Minister to answer two questions. First, in response to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), I should be interested to know the number of cases in which vets made a diagnosis that was different from the eventual blood test result. My understanding from what vets have told me is that the accuracy of a blood test depends on how and when it is taken. Clearly, there is always a question mark over the accuracy of a test, and that reduces vets' ability to diagnose. Contrary to what the hon. Lady said—I made this point last Thursday—there was a lack of knowledge among vets about what foot and mouth looks like. That had an impact on the handling of the disease in the early stages, but in later stages, most vets, including those from abroad on whom we relied a lot, were confident about what they were seeing. They were able to diagnose foot and mouth, but the diagnoses were not necessarily borne out by the blood tests.

Mrs. Winterton: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support my call for a full independent public inquiry. Those are the very issues that need to be flushed out in public so that they are transparent. The problem with the Government inquiries that have been set up, part of which will be in public, is that they will not restore the confidence of the general public, including farmers and those who own pets.

Mr. Drew: Some of us have supported the call for a public inquiry, but not necessarily on tribunal grounds, which, as I have said, would cause delay and allow lawyers to play around with the evidence.

Mrs. Winterton: I wish to make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are not calling for an inquiry on tribunal grounds such as the Government introduced for BSE. There is no need for that, but there is a need for the chairman to be absolutely independent and respected for that, and for all sessions to be held in public. It should be full, so that no difficult questions can fall between the cracks of the three inquiries that the Government have set up. People should be able to listen to the evidence and witnesses should be cross-examined in public.

Mr. Morley: That is a judicial inquiry.

Mrs. Winterton: No, it is not judicial and it can be quick.

9.30 am

Mr. Drew: I suggest that the hon. Lady talks to the shadow Attorney-General, because he very clearly called for an inquiry along the lines of a public tribunal. There seems to be some confusion on the Opposition Benches, which I hope I shall not add to.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point that concerns us all. It does not have to be a judicial inquiry, but the Government could volunteer to make available to the inquiries, as the last Government did for the BSE inquiry, Cabinet and ministerial papers.

Mr. Drew: I am trying to clear up in my own mind some of the confusion that exists. I have talked to the shadow Attorney-General, who is clear about what he means by a public inquiry and, unless there is a split among the Opposition, that is what I take their position to be. I support a public inquiry, but I do not support a public tribunal.

My second point concerns the definition of a pet. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that someone who keeps a pet does not draw a sheep subsidy or suckler cow subsidy? A pet is cared for and looked after, and the state has no involvement in that. Will the Minister confirm that no one who keeps a pet draws a subsidy?

Mr. Morley: There are certain rules concerning subsidies, including size of holding and number of animals, but there is nothing to stop people who have animals that they describe as pets from claiming a subsidy if they meet the rules.

Mr. Drew: I find it somewhat disingenuous that people who keep an animal that they call a pet might rely on the state to help them to support that animal. Part of the problem is how to define livestock and pets. I support my hon. Friend the Minister, but we need to tease out that information and clarify it. There may be different rules, but if people keep pets they separate themselves from the normal procedures of headage payments for their animals. If my hon. Friend could clarify that, it would help considerably.

Mrs. Winterton: Can the Minister clarify how he would class four or six sheep? People who have orchard space and so on often keep sheep so that they do not have to cut the grass. If they receive no support or subsidy, are those sheep pets or farm animals? It is a difficult matter.

Mr. Drew: I have thought so hard about this that I have tabled written questions to try to obtain clarification from the Ministry. My point is serious. We must be clear on what grounds someone keeps an animal and how he or she is treated if the dreadful scourge of foot and mouth disease returns, although we all pray that it will not. When I dealt with mainstream farmers, they were clear about the policy. They did not like losing their animals, but they knew what was happening. People keep animals for many reasons, and pets are different from livestock. I hope that the Minister can clarify—he may not be able to do so now—the grounds on which public support is given for those animals.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I have an addendum to the hon. Gentleman's question, based on the number of foot and mouth cases. If only 2,030 cases were confirmed, the number of vets who had the opportunity to witness the disease is not great. When judgments were made between orf and foot and mouth, there very possibly was room for error. Will the Minister tell us roughly how many vets witnessed the 2,030 cases? Given that 5 million animals were slaughtered, the number of vets might have been small.

Mr. Drew: I reiterate my earlier remarks. Because of the incidence of clean and dirty vets, there might be more. Thankfully, not every vet will have experience of foot and mouth. I see no reason, however, why such information should not go on the public record. There will be difficulties, because some people played only a marginal role in attempts to control the disease, and how they and their time are defined might vary, but all such information should come out through the inquiries. It is important that we in this place do everything possible to help clarify the situation. I accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Morley: This has been a useful debate, and I listened to my hon. Friends carefully. They have made a persuasive case that has touched on reasonable concerns that people have about the Bill. It is perfectly reasonable to raise issues such as blood testing and how it can be applied. I do not believe that such things have to be in the Bill, but it is reasonable to raise the various options and alternatives.

It is not in the Government's interests to have large-scale culling. It is expensive and causes huge logistical problems. We will always look for alternatives to culling where possible. However, in the range of scientific and veterinary advice, culling in some cases cannot be ruled out. That brings us back to the whole purpose of the Bill: if there is to be culling, it should be done quickly and efficiently to control disease and prevent its spread. I doubt whether anyone disagrees with that as a concept.

Mrs. Browning: Given that the inquiries have yet to report, and that the basis of the Minister's argument for introducing the Bill now is urgency, will he put in the public domain for all to see the information about computer modelling schemes that he apparently has now collated and which he claims justifies the need for the Bill? Many people challenge the way in which data was prepared and used. Unless we can examine that information, arguments about the necessity for the Bill go by the wayside. Can he put it in the public domain so that Committee members can examine it, and take advice?

Mr. Morley: I have no objection to putting the details of the modelling in the public domain. Two detailed reports by the expert epidemiologists who advise the Government have now been printed and are in the public domain. I have no problem with putting all that evidence in the public domain, and people are welcome to look at it. I will deal with that point in a moment, but there are people who will not believe any evidence that they are shown because they have set their face against the whole idea of contiguous culling. In the end, action must be based on the best available independent scientific and veterinary advice. The Government, like all Governments, have followed that policy.

For the record, I want to make some points clear. First, the hon. Member for Congleton said that it was Government policy to close small abattoirs. There is no such Government policy.

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Prepared 29 November 2001