Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: I was in fact reporting what a constituent of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said in her letter to the hon. Lady and me, objecting to some of the remarks made in the previous Committee sitting.

Mr. Morley: I accept that explanation, and stand corrected.

On that claim, however, as all hon. Members know, it is not Government policy to close small abattoirs. All abattoirs are subject to EU hygiene rules, and no special treatment is given to large premises. Closures can result from various causes. It is like the supermarket and corner shop syndrome. The big slaughterhouses have economies of scale and have put pressure on smaller ones. If premises consistently fail to meet hygiene requirements, they should not be allowed to continue operating. I do not think that any reasonable person would think that they should, because it would put public health at risk.

The lady who wrote the letter should be aware that the Government made funds available in the rural White Paper to support small slaughterhouses. We recognise that they have an important role. The main pressures on them are market pressures, as well as regulatory ones. There are various reasons for closure, and one cannot put one's finger on any one.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister raises valid points. He is correct that there are market pressures on the running of abattoirs, but he rather skipped over the fact that there is so much regulation. On hygiene, we expect abattoirs to be clean but in this country we gold-plate the directive from the EU because we enforce and police them. If one went to an abattoir here when they are slaughtering, one would find many men in white coats standing around. If one went to an abattoir in France, Germany, Spain—horror of horrors—or Portugal, one would not find that.

My point is that although regulation is there to protect the public, we over-regulate and go over the top. The costs involved have forced small abattoirs to close.

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister responds, may I say that I am not prepared to tolerate a debate on EU directives, gold-plating and abattoir closures? We should return to pets and the amendment.

Mr. Morley: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Illsley. You are absolutely right, although I would like to say that I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Lady's last point, having seen some abattoirs abroad. One can mix up xenophobia and reason.

I turn to information. We are holding an independent scientific inquiry, which is very valuable, to look at all aspects of animal disease. The Anderson inquiry will look at ``lessons learned''. I want to make it clear that we will make available to that inquiry whatever papers are asked for. Whether it publishes those papers is entirely a matter for the inquiry, and we will not seek to influence it.

Mrs. Winterton: Will the Minister request the chairman of the inquiry to publish all the papers?

Mr. Morley: It is an independent inquiry. It is not for the Government to tell it what to do. We will not interfere with Dr. Anderson.

Finally on meat hygiene regulations, we do not gold-plate. We have not implemented all the 1995 directive on that. Not all the points made about that were fair.

I turn to the crux of the serious issues in the amendment. I recognise the sensitivity about pet farm animals. I must make it clear that those are the animals that we are talking about, because I have yet again seen a Sunday newspaper that says that the Bill relates to cats, dogs and horses. As its author knows that that is not true, it seems that people have resorted to telling lies about the Bill because they do not have valid arguments against it.

9.45 am

Pet farm animals are susceptible to disease. No one disagrees with that. That those animals can get and spread the disease must be taken into account, but there is sensitivity to that. I was delighted to hear about Bella and Pippa and am very pleased that they did not have to be culled. I understand that people get attached to their pet animals in the same way that the hon. Member for Congleton is attached to her pet cat. I also have a pet cat. That only brings in leaves and twigs. That is the difference between a New Labour cat and a Conservative cat: the hon. Lady's cat has been causing carnage.

The sensitivity on culling goes beyond pet animals. There are difficulties in the definition of a pet animal and of sanctuaries. There are issues about rare breeds and important blood lines of herds spanning generations. There are sensitivities involved in cases such as Oaklands Park. We recognise all those.

I would like an element of flexibility in the setting of standards. The risk assessment that the RSPCA was asking for is not unreasonable. We can give guidance on appeals to the deputy veterinary manager. The fact that Bella and Pippa were spared through an appeal to the deputy veterinary manager shows that the appeal system works.

Issues of biosecurity and risk were taken into account during the last epidemic, and there is no reason why we cannot do that again.During the passage of the Bill, I seek to make the measures better and more transparent, to explain them and to involve the farming industry and the public in the consultation on how to achieve those aims.

Mrs. Browning: I am sure that Mr. and Mrs. Bennett will be pleased that the Minister shares our joy that their pets have been spared.

Forgive me if I am just being a cynical old politician, but I must point out one or two other factors to the Minister. We were just going into the first week of the general election campaign, and the decision by the Minister to spare those animals was preceded by two weeks of constant campaigning by newspapers, by me and by the local community. I do not know how typical that will be of situations in future, but I do not think that the decision was totally unrelated to the election campaign.

Mr. Morley: There were many cases where appeals to the deputy veterinary manager were upheld; that is not the only one. Sixteen premises, including Oaklands Park, made appeals to the DVM. There was a time lag in the appeals. Logically, the number of outbreaks of the disease in the Forest of Dean had to be taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean made representations to me as a Minister. Our vets decided that, given the decline in the number of outbreaks and the increased capacity of blood testing, all those farms in her constituency would be blood tested rather put into the contiguous cull. That is another example of how reasonable standards can be applied in a logical, common-sense way to exempt such premises. I am glad that those premises were exempted. That is the issue that we need to address: how can that be achieved in a reasonable way?

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister is pouring oil on troubled waters yet again. Oaklands Park has featured in this debate on animal sanctuaries, although it is a commercial farm. Is the Minister aware that it took legal action? It did not have a cosy chat with the deputy veterinary manager. Well, it did initially, but then it had to go to court, and so did many other farmers. It was an expensive route and took up a lot of energy. In the end, a lot of the farming community gave into the bullying by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and complied with the contiguous cull.

Mr. Morley: Some went to court, and some did not. There was a repeated claim that Alayne Addy assisted 200 farmers to resist the contiguous cull in Devon. We have no record of legal cases concerning 200 farmers there. We had many appeals to the deputy veterinary manager. The hon. Lady rightly said that we introduced exemptions for cattle if the case was reasonable. Those cases did not have to go to court. It is in solicitors' interest to claim that some great change was brought about by legal action. There is a vested interest there.

Incidentally, it was stated— it may be a mistake by the newspapers—that not one premise on which there was a challenge became infected. That is not the case. At least three premises dealt with by Burges Salmon were later confirmed as infected. Three cases went to the High Court. We lost only one case, and the premises concerned went on to become infected. That is incorrect because I have details of three cases that went on to be confirmed as positive. One of only three cases that went to the High Court related to Alayne Addy, whose premises went on to become infected.

Mrs. Winterton: The people from Oaklands Park whom I quoted earlier said:

    ``Only because we legally challenged that decision to cull are our animals alive today. The new law would mean that if the magistrate grants permission, we could only appeal after the animals were dead.''

That is it in a nutshell. They also said that

    ``all those who did contest the cull in the Forest were consequently blood-tested and shown to be negative. Indeed none of the 34 contiguous culls proved positive when blood tested, although 19 farms had already been culled.''

Mr. Morley: That is wrong. In 16 cases the cull was held up because individuals appealed to the divisional veterinary manager. Those premises, which included Oaklands Park, were exempted from our powers to blood test. Oaklands Park made a legal appeal, and if it had gone to court there is no guarantee that the court would have upheld it. Indeed, few such appeals were upheld, and of the cases that went to court most judgments were in the Ministry's favour.

The Bill must contain a system that ensures that such situations are dealt with quickly and efficiently, and the issues about which people are concerned are taken into account. We are putting this in place when we have no epidemic raging, and we have sufficient time to discuss the matter.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall pointed out that we should not rush the Bill through. We do not have to rush: we can consult; we can talk with the National Farmers Union; we can talk to interested parties; we can put in place a better system.

The hon. Member for Congleton made the reasonable point that science and technology move on all the time, and there may be other options that we can use in future.

The Bill is an opportunity to deal with two things: first, the national scrapie programme—the sooner we get on with that the better; and, secondly, the epidemic that is not yet over—I hope that we see no further cases. It was good news yesterday that the last infected area, Cumbria, which is where my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) has his constituency, is no longer classified as a high-risk infected area because it has been downgraded. It was the last such area in England, which means that we are making good progress in stamping out the disease.

We need the widest range of options when we obtain independent advice, and such advice may come from the independent inquiries. The Royal Society inquiry into disease control will take a view on future measures to tackle both foot and mouth and other diseases. Nothing in the Bill commits us to one course of action, and nothing in it precludes the outcome of the inquiries.

 
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Prepared 29 November 2001