Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): That point applied in the case of the Anglesey seven. Several farmers who had complied voluntarily with the contiguous cull to prevent the spread of the disease became very concerned when a number of hobby farmers, pet owners and smallholders resisted it and, in the farmers' view, put the commercial farmers beyond in danger again from disease spread.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is right. Such points were made during the outbreak, and we are trying to deal with all such issues. I am suggesting a way of proceeding. The Bill covers a range of concerns and would leave us in a better position than under the 1981 Act. It is a reasonable and proportionate response to people's concerns. I have listened to the points carefully and taken them on board. I intend to start acting on such issues by the end of the year. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean will withdraw the amendment.

Diana Organ: I thank the Minister for his detailed response to the amendment. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that it was a change from what was said on Thursday.

Mrs. Winterton: It is.

Diana Organ: Yes, it is. The Committee stage of a Bill is all about looking carefully at the Bill, laying down amendments, and changing it to make it more fair, transparent and reasonable. That is surely what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee seek to do.

What the Minister has just spoken about will be tremendous progress. One problem was that people did not know what was being done, how or why it was being done, and what decisions were being based on. That ignorance caused a problem. The Minister laid ghosts to rest when he mentioned press reports about which animals the Bill covers. Press reports and a meeting in the Forest of Dean have suggested that the Bill relates to dogs, cats and horses when patently it does not. It concerns sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Another problem is the widespread myth that the Bill will take away the option of an independent judicial review. That is clearly not the case.

Mr. Breed: I presume that African horse sickness is likely to affect horses. [Interruption.]

Diana Organ: As my hon. Friend the Minister said from a sedentary position, that would have to be done by order.

The Minister has usefully dispelled myths. What he has proposed—a full consultation on criteria, a published protocol, widespread publicity and revised instructions to vets on applying the criteria—is a real move and will allay many concerns over how disease is to be dealt with. As a result, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Hon. Members: No.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Division No. 5]

AYES
Bacon, Mr.
Breed, Mr.
Browning Mrs.
Gillan, Mrs.
Wiggin, Mr.
Williams, Mr. Roger
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

NOES
Ainger, Mr.
Atkins, Charlotte
Cunningham, Tony
Drew, Mr.
Edwards, Mr.
Hall, Mr. Patrick
Morley, Mr.
Organ, Diana
Owen, Albert
Reed, Mr.

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: We are now coming to what I hope will be a brief debate on clause 1 stand part. This has been a wide-ranging debate on clause 1. I have allowed such a debate because the clause is obviously essential to the Bill. From here on in, I expect the Committee to concentrate specifically on the amendments before it, otherwise I shall be unwilling to allow further debates on clause stand part.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Illsley. Clause 1 is an important and weighty matter. Many hon. Members have questioned whether the Bill contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998 in three specific areas—the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life and correspondence, and the right to property. Members of the Committee raised those issues frequently during our debates on amendments to clause 1.

The Bill is designed to give absolute power to the Government to cause the slaughter of animals. It allows them to claim that it is immaterial whether animals are infected with foot and mouth disease, whether they have been in contact with infected animals or even whether they have been vaccinated. These powers would allow animals to be slaughtered at the whim of authorities with no definitive control, and I say that in spite of the Minister's statement this morning. His conversion on the road to Damascus is too late. Had he made that statement before he legislated and amended the Bill accordingly, he might have received the Opposition's support.

Many organisations object to the Bill, and the Minister mentioned that he has consulted with many of them and seeks to consult with more. However, the National Sheep Association described its ``discomfort''--that is a good word--at the possibility that the Government could be given further powers such as those described in clause 1, in view of their appalling reaction to this year's outbreak. It said:

    ``Bearing in mind the very considerable shambles associated with entry and slaughter during the recent outbreak, we are extremely concerned that even more power should be given to a group of people who in far too many cases proved that they did not understand farmers, livestock, livestock handling''—

it would be fair to add modern farming methods to that list—

    ``and frequently had extremely poor management and organisation skills.''

That message comes back loudly and clearly from every part of the United Kingdom that has suffered from this appalling epidemic. Unnecessary slaughter was imposed in an abundant number of cases. The experiences of those who resisted culls are evidence of the weak and changeable slaughter policy adopted by the Government. Early in the debates on clause 1, I raised specific examples of that, and I have some more here.

10.30 am

Guy Thomas-Everard, who owned 980 healthy pedigree cattle in Somerset, was served with an A notice by MAFF, which stated that his farm had been visited 12 days before by contract workers, who were suspected to be a dangerous contact. Only two weeks earlier, MAFF had declared Somerset to be a disease-free county. After Mr. Thomas-Everard contested the cull for five days, MAFF dropped its slaughter plans, stating that the herd

    ``no longer posed a risk''.

Another case that has been brought my attention concerns Adam Westaway of Devon, who also contested a Government slaughter order in March. Although he had permitted the slaughter of his 160 sheep, which had been grazing in close proximity to a neighbouring outbreak, he was adamant that his 100 cattle, which were valued at £300,000, should be saved. He argued that they had had no contact with the possibility of infection, having been kept indoors since the previous November. That point that relates to the housing issue. After Mr. Westaway contacted Exeter-based lawyer Alayne Addy, whom the Minister quoted, MAFF stated that it would not carry out the cull.

The Minister stated that MAFF had won most cases that went to court. He has not told the Committee the number of court cases from which MAFF withdrew, which would be an interesting statement for him to make, and I hope that it comes out in the inquiries that the Government have set up. After his experience, Mr. Westaway also criticised the Bill:

    ``I would oppose any attempts to stop farmers from appealing against slaughtering their animals. The Government doesn't seem to listen to farmers and seems to make it up as it goes along.''

Opposition Members feel that the Government are going too far in taking draconian powers that fly in the face of natural justice. A proper right of appeal must always be available before slaughter.

A Scottish farmer was told that he must lose his pedigree herd and rare Cheviot sheep because infection was suspected some miles away on another farm of which he was a part owner. Although the farmer explained that he had not visited that farm, MAFF officials allegedly behaved as if he were lying. Because officials were delayed by another confirmed case nearby, there was time for tests from the allegedly infected farm to come back, and—surprise, surprise—they proved to be negative.

Throughout the crisis, the Government showed a lack of consistency and understanding regarding their powers to slaughter. The Private Eye special investigation listed three main areas in which MAFF and DEFRA are believed to have been in serious breach of the law. I am sure that the Minister has read the article, which makes some interesting comments.

It is questionable whether the Government had legal powers to kill healthy animals without proof that they had been directly exposed to infection. By the end of April, a respected west country law firm, Clarke Wilmott Clarke, was preparing a test case against MAFF contesting that the contiguous cull scheme, under which 2 million animals had already been slaughtered, was illegal in EU law. Directive 85/511 states that only infected animals can be killed, which was the understanding of many farmers whom I met in Devon when I visited recently.

A London barrister, Stephen Tromans, argued that it was ``highly dubious'' that MAFF had the power under the Animal Health Act 1981 to slaughter uninfected animals without proof that they had come into contact with the disease.

Mr. Drew: Let us be clear on this, because some of us must deal with other diseases such as bovine TB. Occasionally, a whole herd will be slaughtered because some animals clearly have the disease, and others will suffer from it if and when it spreads to them. The hon. Lady would completely rule that out because there would be no further slaughter unless an animal had a proven case of TB.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a false point, because we know what must happen where there is TB in a herd. If there is infection in a herd, nobody will stand out against its slaughter. I hasten to add that many veterinary surgeons in the west country have told me that they are slaughtering far too many cattle and should be slaughtering other animals that they believe—I stress, they believe—may be spreading TB. There is no argument about the slaughter of a herd if TB is proven—it is an open-and-shut case.

Christopher Booker is another famous journalist who is always well worth reading.

 
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Prepared 29 November 2001