Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: I understand the Minister's argument about incentives, and I would generally support it. I am a little concerned that the Government's regulatory impact assessment associated with the Bill--I am afraid I cannot quote it because I gave the document to Hansard this morning--gives the impression that this measure is to save money. It cannot be for both reasons.

The Minister has made a sensible case for the incentivisation of compensation, but let us bear in mind that document. It is not made available to Committee members. I do not know how many of them have a copy, but such documents never form part of our general discussion in Committee. I always read them, because I find them fascinating. Perhaps I am a bit odd in that way. Will the Minister look at the wording of that document? It does give the impression that the motive is to save taxpayers' money.

Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Lady that saving taxpayers' money is not the primary purpose. That, however, has to be a consideration; the money must be used in a reasonable, proportionate and justifiable way.

There is nothing sinister about the fact that the Bill does not specify 100 per cent. compensation. That does not necessarily mean that 100 per cent. compensation will not be paid. There may, however, be cases where we want some flexibility over the structure of a compensation scheme. I do not want the Committee to close that door.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister has been extremely helpful in responding to the valid points that were raised. He has gone out of his way to state, on more than one occasion, that 100 per cent. compensation or full market value could be paid, and that although under certain circumstances that may not happen, he hoped--if he did not quite say that, I, at least, hope--that those who had to lose their stock would be compensated in an appropriate manner. I would have liked him to go a little further, but he has been generous. He has said, ``Trust me; all will be well'', and on this occasion I think that we will give him the benefit of the doubt. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Adjusted compensation

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 12, line 6, leave out from `slaughtered' to end of line 8.

This is a small amendment, and I seek clarification on it. It would omit paragraph 2(1)(b) so that that part of the Bill concentrate on the time when the animal is slaughtered. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could give the reasons why paragraph (b) should be included in the Bill. Perhaps I have a mental block, but I would be grateful for his comments.

Mr. Morley: The problem with the amendment is that it would limit the scope of the adjusted compensation scheme. When animals that are dangerous contacts are slaughtered, including those on contiguous premises, we cannot be sure whether they are infected: they may be slaughtered on clinical grounds, or on suspicion. Samples are taken and analysed in the laboratory, after which it is confirmed whether the premises is to be declared as an ``infected place.'' If blood results come back negative, the premises is clear, but if they do not, it will be recorded as an ``IP''.

The blood sampling process requires a period of four to five days after slaughter--that is sufficient. However, at the height of an outbreak laboratories can be under severe pressure, so we allow a maximum of 28 days to cover all eventualities. At the height of the recent outbreak, enormous pressure was put on blood-testing capabilities. The main reason was that we expanded the availability of blood testing in this country from a capacity of 400 to 200,000 tests per week. That is no mean achievement. The restraint is that we need category 3 laboratories, but they are not easy to find, so we had to convert and build laboratories to make testing available. That is why the 28-day period exists. Having spent a lot of money on increasing our laboratory capacity, we should be able to deal with tests more quickly, but that time gives us flexibility.

It is essential that we have the ability to apply assessments to premises that are subsequently declared as IPs. Otherwise, a category of farmers could escape from the application of the scheme--we are trying to be fair about how it is applied. It is intended that an assessment of the premises will be carried out at the time of slaughter. That is the explanation for the way in which the Bill is written.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister has clarified that point. Although 28 days is a long time--

Mr. Morley: It is the maximum.

Mrs. Winterton: Indeed, it is the maximum, but I should have thought that with better and more efficient blood testing, and after the experience of the foot and mouth epidemic, the process could be undertaken more quickly and the time taken to turn a premises into an infected premises could be foreshortened--the Minister has almost said as much. That would be helpful to the farmer and to everybody.

In the light of the Minister's reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 12, line 16, leave out `B' and insert `A'.

This is a more meaty amendment. Under the terms of the adjusted compensation scheme, and in the case of infected premises, the Bill provides for only 75 per cent. of the value of animals to be paid in compensation to farmers in the first instance. Disease risk assessments are to be made in every IP case. Despite that, Ministers have said on many occasions that they believe only a small minority of farmers failed to meet appropriate biosecurity standards and risked spreading the disease by their action--or, indeed, their inaction.

At best, the Bill would significantly slow down the delivery of full compensation for the majority of farmers. The Minister talked earlier about the balance in the Bill, but I he will appreciate that the balance is quite wrong in this regard. The amendment would address that balance. It would also introduce a resource-intensive regime, whereby state vets would spend substantial amounts of their time, which is a scarce professional resource in the middle of an epidemic, producing disease risk assessments. It is reasonable to suppose that, in most cases, those would merely confirm that the farmer had done everything that he could have reasonably have done, and was therefore entitled to 100 per cent. compensation.

In paragraph 46 of the explanatory notes, it is conceded that additional costs to the Government will result from these arrangements. However, it also says that

    ``it is not possible to predict these costs with any certainty''.

Mr. Wiggin: This small amendment will go some way to reassuring farmers that the Bill is not designed to penalise them. If 25 per cent. of the perceived value of a farmer's property is immediately withdrawn under this Bill, what sort of co-operation can we possibly expect between farmers and the Ministry? If animals are due to be slaughtered, it is fundamental that full compensation be delivered.

Does my hon. Friend have any further views on how much more compensation should be paid to farmers who lose their livestock? They have to wait 28 days to find out whether their premises are infected, so they are already down on the deal. The amendment is an important step that the Committee should take to reassure farmers that they are not a persecuted group of people and that we are not legislating to take away at least 25 per cent. of the value of their stock.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend has raised some valid points. The farming community feels that it stands accused of spreading the disease. Indeed, that type of statement has been coming from Ministers. Perhaps the balance in the level of accusation against the farming community has been wrong, which is regrettable. On Second Reading, the Minister used the word, ``minority''; it is a minority that is involved, and all Committee members agree that the balance seems to have been struck in a wrong and unjust way. Farmers will be given, as a matter of right, only 75 per cent. of the value of their stock and, as my hon. Friend said, they will have to wait for their initial payment for a maximum of 28 days before it is determined whether their premises are infected. They will probably have to wait considerably longer for their money because, sadly, DEFRA repayments take a long time at the moment. I suspect that the delay is due to the current dispute among staff and the creation of the brand new Department.

Conservative Members want the Bill to provide a more equitable way of treating our farming community. The purpose of the amendment is to reverse the approach in the adjusted compensation schedule so that it is presumed that farmers are complying with biosecurity standards unless the Minister, advised by state vets, has reason to believe that the required standards may not have been maintained, in which case and only in such cases, a disease risk assessment would be made. Under the amendment, 100 per cent. compensation would be payable, except when the Minister decided it would be appropriate for a disease risk assessment to be made. The number of assessments would be confined to those cases in which it was thought there could be a biosecurity problem. That would also have the benefit that valuable veterinary time would not be diverted from the prime task of controlling the disease into a bureaucratic jungle of producing reports and even more paperwork for someone to examine and on which to make a decision. It would also respond to representations from the farmers concerned, which, in most cases, would prove to be unnecessary.

3.15 pm

There should be a clear policy on biosecurity, with clear and unequivocal advice not only to the farming community, but to DEFRA and other bodies that might visit the farm. Such a policy was not available during the last foot and mouth epidemic. It must be farm sensitive--but perhaps that is an issue for later. The argument for the amendment is forceful and sensible. In one fell swoop, the Minister could prove to the farming community that he believes that the great majority are decent, law-abiding folk who do not want to risk passing on disease because of inadequate biosecurity arrangements. I hope that the Minister will respond to the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled.

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