Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: For a laugh.

Mrs. Winterton: Not for a laugh. I shall tell the Minister about a serious case involving the contiguous cull policy in the parish in which my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and I live. A suspected case in sheep which was later found to be only a welfare problem—a minor foot condition—led to three very valuable dairy herds being threatened with the cull. I cut out The Sunday Telegraph article by Christopher Booker that explained what was and was not legal and gave it to the three farmers in question, one of whom is my own producer-retailer, saying, ``The decision is entirely up to you; I am not trying to persuade you one way or the other because the responsibility is yours.'' They were convinced, because of biosecurity, housing and the topography of the land, that their herds were in no danger.

I am grateful to Mr. Booker for giving the advice on which the three farmers were able to stand up against the MAFF vets and officials, and their herds are alive to tell the tale. [Interruption.] No. There was a lot of argy-bargy. The Minister was not involved in what happened on farms, so he did not really know about it—how could he have done? He is a very distinguished Minister, and he was tied up in policy making and meetings here. He should hear about the experiences of people who went through it, which were exceptionally difficult. They were bullied, but they were convinced that they were right to resist. In the case of the three farmers—I do not say in every case—they were right, thanks to Mr. Booker having given them the information that they needed to stand up against the slaughterers. Incidentally, they did not even hear directly that those people were coming on the Monday; they heard it indirectly, on the grapevine. I do not know how the Minister would react to that, but I would be absolutely livid. I would feel ill treated and ill served.

Mr. Booker asserts that the Government were guilty of breaking the law through wholesale breaches of the Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 by those carrying out the slaughter. As someone who comes from a farming background and knows all about caring for stock and the practices of farmers in my constituency, I found some of the scenes that we saw on television shocking. I do not wish ever to see such scenes again, and we must take action to ensure that we do not.

None of this takes into account slaughter that is mistakenly proposed or enacted by DEFRA. I heard about a case when I went up to Cumbria, where, as the Minister may know, the land often includes so-called blind lanes with a stone wall on each side. DEFRA officials turned up to slaughter on the farm in question, drove the sheep into a nearby blind lane because it was convenient to carry out the slaughter there, and only afterwards found that that land belonged to the farm next door, so that farm also had to be slaughtered out. That is just one example of the many examples in Cumbria where things went wrong.

Clive Davies, a Gloucestershire farmer whose 255 cattle were mistakenly culled due to a ``clerical error'', stated that, under the DEFRA slaughter rules,

    ``you became a statistic. It becomes a rollercoaster. There is no stopping it.''

Such views are expressed by people who were affected by mistakes, and they have every right to do so in strong terms.

In another example, a vet and two soldiers were sent to a farm in Great Broughton in Cumbria, where they slaughtered 200 ewes and 300 lambs, claiming that they were inside a 3 km cull zone. They also killed a pet pig belonging to the farmer's young son—we have just debated that subject. The soldiers later discovered that they had got the wrong grid reference and should have been slaughtering 100 miles away. Where was the organisation? Was DEFRA in control? What was going on?

These draconian proposals will provide little spirit of confidence between farmers and DEFRA. In introducing stronger powers, the Minister and others must consider what happened before and how the farming community feels about the future. It would be better if they withdrew the whole Bill right now, went back to the drawing board, consulted widely and introduced any necessary extra powers in the light of the conclusions of the inquiries by the Royal Society and Lord Anderson.

Mr. Morley: Dr. Anderson.

Mrs. Winterton: Dr. Anderson. He will probably be a lord eventually—we shall have to wait and see.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Clearly, we should all learn from the mistakes that we make. Appalling mistakes were made, and we all hope that the circumstances in which they were made will not arise again. However, if the hon. Lady were at some future time to be in charge of a policy to tackle an outbreak—

Mrs. Winterton: I demur.

Mr. Hall: I said ``if''. She cannot seriously be saying that if she was in that position she could guarantee that there would be no mistakes. That could arise only if the Government of the day chose not to carry out a slaughter policy to tackle another outbreak. If that is what she is driving at, she should spell it out, but surely she must accept that human beings can make mistakes, unfortunate as that is.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman clearly did not hear what I said. Of course all individuals and all Governments make mistakes. I have been explaining to members of the Committee, and to others who may not know, the scale and kinds of mistakes that were made and how they affected farmers and their families. The Government have the responsibility to ensure, first and foremost, that the disease does not get into the country again and, secondly, that they have a meaningful contingency plan that would stop the disease in its tracks.

We have rehearsed the arguments several times in debating clause 1, but the hon. Gentleman has clearly not listened to a word of it. Of course people make mistakes, but I ask him, rhetorically, how he would feel if he were a victim of one of the serious and unforgivable mistakes that I described, which had a terrible impact on the lives of the farmers involved. It is all right for us: we get a salary every month; we operate in a heated building; we have a pension. What about the people farming at the margins in the uplands whose livelihoods and futures were seriously affected by the epidemic? Does he think that they want further powers to be introduced to make the situation worse?

Mr. Morley: They do.

Mrs. Winterton: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they do not.

10.45 am

Diana Organ: We recognise the scenario that the hon. Lady described of farmers who have been through a very difficult time with many losing their livelihoods, particularly hill farmers in marginal areas. She asked a rhetorical question about the further powers in the Bill, which suggested that farmers did not want the cull at all or want action to be taken speedily to eradicate foot and mouth disease. I suggest that that was not the case and that, in fact, farmers wanted the quick and efficient eradication of the disease so that they could return to full productivity of their livestock.

Mrs. Winterton: I shall take no lessons from the hon. Lady. She was one of those who tabled a perfectly good amendment and then voted against it. That does not show much principle.

At no time during this debate have I said that there should be no culling. Most farmers accept absolutely—more than that, they know—that if the disease is present, there must be a cull and it must take place as quickly as possible. However, they object to some of the things that happened—we have described them many times—because they were unjust. The Government are taking further powers and farmers are worried because of their experiences.

I want to quote from a letter from a Cumbrian farmer's wife who said:

    ``Our community believes that the Government hates us and is determined to destroy us. They are putting forward a rural vision which is as unrealistic as Pol Pot's urban one. We are, to put it bluntly, frightened''—

[Hon. Members: ``Disgraceful.''] I am quoting. The letter states:

    ``We are, to put it bluntly, frightened of our own Government. We do not have a voice and there is no control over their power.''

In fact, with the new provisions, they will have no control over the power because animals will be slaughtered and there will be no right of appeal. That goes to the very heart of the Bill in clause 1.

We do not want reassurance after the event. We want it in the Bill, which is where it should be—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend agree that the noises from the Labour Benches indicate the fundamental misunderstanding that Labour Members have of the effects of foot and mouth disease? They cannot ignore the emotional side of it and the way in which communities feel. Is it not important that the lady whom my hon. Friend is quoting, who feels that she does not have a voice, at least has her voice echoed in the Committee? Is that not a proper use of the Committee's time so that Ministers and Labour Back Benchers can understand the depth of feeling in the countryside?

Mrs. Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend who has stated what to me is obvious. So often, we at Westminster get sucked into talking about trying to amend legislation and so on but forget the basis on which legislation is introduced. The terrible experiences that many people out there in Cumbria, Staffordshire, Cheshire, down in the west country and so on suffered will live with them for the rest of their lives. We must also remember that organisations such as the rural stress network are doing tremendous work. The incidence of mental health problems resulting from what has happened will continue.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) rose—

Mrs. Winterton: I give way to my next-door neighbour over the border in Staffordshire.

Charlotte Atkins: Does the hon. Lady recognise that she debases her argument by using such exaggeration? I appreciate that it was in a letter from a constituent. I have received letters from constituents—even threatening ones—but I would not think of reading them out in Committee. I would never do that. As the hon. Lady recognised, I have a large rural area in my constituency and there has been a deep emotional response from people, whether to bovine tuberculosis, foot and mouth or scrapie. However, to compare that with Pol Pot is a gross exaggeration and debases the hon. Lady's argument.

 
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Prepared 29 November 2001