Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman asserts that nothing in the Bill precludes the outcome of the inquiries. However, the Government are taking increased powers that would allow them to slaughter animals to create a firebreak before the results of their inquiries are known. They are putting the cart before the horse. It is ridiculous that the Bill should be rushed through the House. The Minister says that he will consult widely; he should have consulted widely before he brought legislation to the House.

Mr. Morley: This is enabling legislation that allows us to get on with things. I like to get on with things because I find that the wheels of government move slowly enough, and I should like to move forward on making options available on scientific and veterinary advice. Whether we would use those options depends on the circumstances. If we were to use a combination of disease control measures, such as vaccination, in any future outbreak, culling would be unlikely to be eliminated. Vaccination could be used, but if there were an outbreak in intensive pig units there would be a downward plume—it is possible to model downward plumes of the spread of a virus. Members know that pigs can pump out an enormous volume of virus, so it might be desirable to carry out firebreak culls within that downward plume. Vaccination may be an option, but if other intensive pig units are within that downward plume, it would be very difficult. I present that as an example of why these options are in the Bill.

Mrs. Browning: Clause 32(1)(a) of the 1981 Act already gives the Minister that power. It states:

    ``The Minister may, if he thinks fit, cause to be slaughtered any animal which—

    (a) is affected or suspected of being affected''.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady is right. That is our legal power under which the 3 km cull in Cumbria was applied. However, that does not stop the invitation to lawyers to quibble with the language of the 1981 Act, which is why the Bill makes the matter clear.

We are entering a Second Reading debate and I do not want to be distracted. I want to deal in detail with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Albert Owen), who made an important point about his experiences in his constituency. I shall also address the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mr. Hall), for Forest of Dean and for Stroud. Much of what I shall say will deal with their concerns.

I have been thinking carefully since the Committee previously sat about how to achieve a balance between rapid culling on veterinary grounds as a disease control measure—presuming that that is the advice—and ensuring that the powers to cull are not exercised in a disproportionate, inconsistent or unfair way, so that farmers and livestock owners have confidence in the basis on which those powers are exercised and, where necessary, have the opportunity for a reasonable hearing. That is the balance that I want to strike. I want the arrangements to be better than the rough and ready appeals system in the 1981 Act. Lawyers are not necessarily better arbiters of these matters than vets.

The new measures are designed to ensure that delays in culling are minimised once the decision to cull has been taken, so it would be wrong to introduce new procedures that delay the process further. I recognise the genuine concern that a farmer or owner may not agree with a decision to slaughter animals and should therefore continue to have the opportunity to make representations where they have reasonable grounds for thinking that the powers are not being applied in accordance with the Government's stated policy of proportionate action.

There is a problem with the definition of pets. Although pets and animal sanctuaries are sensitive subjects, I do not want farmers to think that we have no regard for their animals. The measure is a general appeals system and reflects a proportionate approach. Transparency is the key, enabling people to see from the beginning how decisions are taken on whether to cull animals.

I want full consultation with the industry on the criteria that will govern the way in which the new slaughter powers are used. That consultation, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has been pressing, should achieve three results. First, a protocol will be published, explaining clearly how the new powers will be used. People will be able to consult it so that before any future outbreak, they can determine in which cases the powers will be used and what the criteria are.

Secondly, the consultation will provide revised instructions to DVMs and our vets—as hon. Members will know, many local private vets also work for us as temporary veterinary inspectors—on how to implement the powers in line with the criteria. Again, the information will be made public so that people can consult it and see the instructions that we are giving to our vets. As a result, people will understand how the instructions are being applied and in what circumstances.

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Thirdly, there will be widespread publicity of decisions, so that farmers can understand how the powers will be exercised and receive assurances about the Government's commitment to proportionate action based on risk assessment. That is in line with the wishes of certain hon. Members and of the RSPCA.

Mrs. Browning: I am very interested in the Minister's comments, and I suspect that a lot of work has been going on at the Ministry since last Thursday. One senses that, in keeping with our earlier comments, a certain language is now being used by the Minister. Is he still contemplating the 24-hour time limit for appeals against a decision, to which he referred last Thursday, or is the limit subject to further consideration?

Mr. Morley: All these issues are open to consultation. As I understand it, the hon. Lady is talking about the time limit for infected premises, but here we are talking mainly about contiguous premises, for which the target was 24 to 48 hours. However, I have no objection to discussing whether those time scales are appropriate. Most people would agree that the sooner such things are done, the better, but there has to be some proportionality. As far as I am concerned, those objectives are open for discussion.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I, too, am fascinated by what the Minister has been saying. I have lost count of the number of times he has used the word ``proportion'' this evening. [Interruption.] Did I say this evening? I am sure that we will still be here this evening.

The Minister will know that the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates not only the European convention on human rights but all the jurisprudence, including the concept of proportionality, which is much broader than the concept of reasonableness as understood in English law. Has its introduction had any bearing on his thinking and his frequent use this morning of the word ``proportionate''?

Mr. Morley: Basically, any Government measure must be applied in a proportionate way—there is nothing new about that. I am seeking to reassure people, to take their views into account, to make public the criteria and how they would be applied, and to give people a chance to comment on and influence matters. I am therefore saying nothing different from what has been said about any Government legislation, or the way in which Government powers are used. I want to ensure that people's views are taken into account during consultation, so that farmers will be better placed to understand why, and how likely it is that, their animals will be slaughtered in given circumstances. What I want is a no-surprise approach, given some of the concerns expressed by farmers during this outbreak.

The outbreak was indeed huge. The demands placed on resources were enormous, and the need to get to grips with it was paramount. Obviously, we learn certain things in retrospect. We want to influence future policy and give people a greater understanding of the different circumstances in which particular policies will be applied.

The consultation will also cover cases such as pet farm animals, animal sanctuaries and rare breeds. We cannot give a blanket exemption to any category of susceptible animal, although I appreciate that no member of the Committee has actually asked for one during our deliberations. As I have said, we recognise the sensitivities, and we can draw attention to any particular factors that may apply. Once instructions to our vets have been finalised through consultation, we will do all we can to ensure that they are widely publicised through press releases, web sites and so on, so that people can understand how the process works. Of course, understanding that process also helps to guide appeals. If farmers and animal owners are aware of the steps that can be taken to enhance biosecurity, they can think about how to meet the criteria for exemptions, for example. I am happy to make these points public.

Although from the outset we are putting in the public domain, through consultation, the procedures that will be applied, I accept that in certain circumstances a farmer might disagree with the decision of the DEFRA vet who is following the criteria. In the first instance, such a farmer should discuss the decision with the vet on the ground, as I am sure he would. If they cannot agree, the farmer still has the right to make a representation to the DVM.

Where there are grounds for believing that the criteria are not being properly applied, the DVM will be obliged to listen to reasonable representations and to take them into account in reaching a final decision. Naturally, that process will be limited by the need to ensure swift action to control disease spread, but that is already an imperative. None the less, we will lay down that procedure and consult on the criteria, and the DVM and all our vets will be obliged to follow it.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I have been listening carefully to what the Minister is saying and I trust that I have not missed anything. How long will it take to complete the consultation and when will the guidelines be issued?

 
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