Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Wiggin: The Minister's approach is pessimistic, given the Government's record on claiming their own agrimonetary compensation. He knocked the previous Conservative party leader for the potential cull in the Brecon Beacons, which, sadly, did take place, although it was delayed.

There is now no obligation for farmers to come forward with foot and mouth cases if they are putting at risk at least 25 per cent. of the compensation. By failing to pay out 100 per cent. initially, albeit delayed by the machinations of DEFRA, there is no reason why anyone should ever report foot and mouth cases--especially sheep owners, because sheep suffer only from the equivalent of a minor cold.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman can put a point to the Minister, but must not make a speech now. He will have an opportunity to speak once the Minister sits down.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Conway. I simply wanted to ask the Minister what incentive he hopes to achieve by denying 100 per cent. compensation in the first instance. I hope that he has a better answer than what we have heard so far.

Mr. Morley: The incentive is that people take biosecurity seriously. I repeat that the Dutch have had this system in place for many years. Theirs is a much more complex system than the one that we propose, which is easy to apply and easy to understand.

I do not believe that there is no incentive to report the disease. Foot and mouth cannot go unnoticed, because it will spread in a big way, as we have just witnessed in the recent outbreak. It is wrong to say that there is no incentive to report it. The incentive is to make sure that the measures are acquired, and that is the idea of the measure. I do not believe that responsible farmers will suffer under these measures. Indeed, they will gain if the standards of the worst are raised to the standards of the best. We shall consult fully on the detailed assessment and publicise the decision, as I have said.

The idea that foot and mouth is just like a mild dose of the flu is another myth. It is a serious welfare issue for sheep. It leads to a very high percentage of abortions and it damages their immune system, which makes them vulnerable to a range of other diseases and illnesses. People should not think that it is just a mild dose of cold, because it is not. It can be much worse in other species.

Mr. Bacon: The Minister said that no responsible farmers would suffer. Does he not appreciate that all farmers, including the vast majority who are responsible, are suffering hugely now? They are bleeding. Is he aware that the average income of a farmer in this country is 5,200, and that for a cereal farmer it is 4,400? In the light of that and given the history of relations between farmers and his Department, does he not think that making a gesture to pay 100 per cent. upfront and prima facie assuming that the farmer has done the right thing would be a terrific gesture in the right direction?

Mr. Morley: I understand what the hon. Member is saying about gestures. The average income is not 5,000 per farmer, but that is the way that it is recorded. New figures will come out shortly on total farm income, and they will give a more accurate impression.

Mr. Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: I shall give way in a moment.

Average income is not 5,000 per farmer, but that is how it is recorded. New figures will come out shortly on total farm income, and they will give a more accurate impression. I do not dispute for a moment that many farmers have suffered hardship and great stress; I am trying to ensure that disease is brought under control as quickly as possible and that the irresponsible minority do not jeopardise the responsible majority. The vast majority of farmers would not contest that argument because they know that there have been problems with biosecurity. It is not good enough to say that they have been caused by DEFRA staff as well. We have dismissed contractors who have breached biosecurity. We expect it to apply to everybody, and we are not singling anybody out for criticism.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will local authorities have a responsibility to report breaches to DEFRA so that action can be taken in terms of payments? What is the role of local authority trading standards officers?

Mr. Morley: We work closely with local authority trading standards departments, and their officers played a key role in relation to blue box areas. I pay tribute to them for that. The nature of their role will form part of the consultation. We are not putting burdens on local authorities; DEFRA staff will carry out the assessments. We want to make that process as efficient as possible.

I understand the arguments about whether compensation should be 100 per cent. or 75 per cent., but what we want is an incentive for good standards of biosecurity. I repeat that we are not obliged to pay 100 per cent. That is not the case in Holland, where there is a farmer contribution. We are not going as far as that, but we are saying that if certain farmers cannot comply with perfectly reasonable biosecurity measures, it is reasonable, as an incentive, to say that the maximum that they can get is 75 per cent. I do not believe that it will apply to many farmers. Sadly, however, it does not take many people to ignore biosecurity rules for the disease to continue to spread.

Mr. Wiggin: I have a massive problem with the explanation that I have just had to sit through, despite my attempts to intervene. I am still very unhappy. If farmers are guilty of wilfully neglecting their biosecurity, thereby putting at risk their county, colleagues, friends and neighbours, why stop at 75 per cent.?

The Bill is hopelessly inadequate in terms of guaranteeing biosecurity. Instead of starting with the premise that the man is innocent until proven guilty, it starts with the premise that he might be a little bit guilty, so compensation will start at 75 per cent. That is wholly unfair. It means that it is extremely unlikely that a person who has breached biosecurity will own up, because he is already at a disadvantage. A farmer who thought that he had broken the rules might feel that he would be better off if he sold his flock or his pigs, despite the effect on his neighbours, because he was already presumed to be guilty.

That is why we must begin by assuming that all farmers care about their livestock, and why the amendment is a fundamental step in the right direction to correcting the draconian and repulsive nature of the Bill. I have heard nothing from the Minister to change my mind, and I am heartily disappointed about that. The Bill does not even begin to encourage people to follow the right sort of biosecurity, nor does it properly penalise those who do not. I hope that the Minister will reconsider.

Mrs. Winterton: No one in the Committee or outside it would fail to condemn people who had spread the disease through lack of proper biosecurity. However, the problem is wider than the Minister suggested. I start from the premise that I would rather give the farming community the benefit of the doubt because the majority are straightforward and upfront. I would rather say to them, ``We trust you and you should have 100 per cent. compensation for your stock.''

I have great problems with the way in which any lack of biosecurity will be decided by inspectors. The state veterinary service will decide on the evidence from the inspectors, but who will the inspectors be? Will they be suitably qualified? Will they work closely with trading standards? Will they be people who have been picked from the unemployment register and given a little training? Who will act as judge and jury on cases where there may have been a biosecurity lapse? In every case, there will have to be onerous biosecurity inquiries because the Minister will not trust the majority of farmers.

When there is a biosecurity lapse, or it is alleged that there is, will it always be the farmer's fault? How can anyone prove or disprove whether an individual or organisation has brought infection on to a farm?

Mr. Morley: It is possible that somebody could bring infection on to a farm, but it is the farmer's responsibility to ensure that it does not happen.

Mrs. Winterton: If it is farmers' responsibility to ensure that it does not happen, they must provide footbaths and mats--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Forest of Dean says ``yes'', but if she waits for a moment she may say ``no'' to one or two of my remarks. It is easy to check whether such measures are in place, but one cannot necessarily check that every single person uses them because sometimes people come on to a farm without the farmer knowing, so there could be cases in which other people introduce infection. Although farmers can put up signs at the gate, they must milk and perform other tasks; they cannot stand there with a shotgun saying, ``Do not come on to my farm.''

Mr. Morley: Theoretically, that is possible. However, an agreed checklist is in place and the farmer complies with it, even if someone sneaks in or refuses to use the facilities it is not that farmer's fault, and he would not be penalised. That the disease is on a farmer's premises does not mean that he will not get 100 per cent. compensation. What it means is that he must comply with the various checklists in relation to biosecurity, which is reasonable.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister. Therefore, as long as the measures on the checklist, which has not been available during the recent epidemic, are in place, no questions will be asked because the farmer will have implemented biosecurity arrangements, and that will be the case irrespective of whether someone has been come on to the farm without using the facilities. That is a little dodgy.

The Minister has said that instructions were given to DEFRA staff and contractors that biosecurity arrangements should be followed. I mentioned that I was in Devon last week. I did not ask to visit the DEFRA headquarters because the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food forbade my predecessor to visit DEFRA in Exeter, and I thought that it might be a sensitive issue if I asked to go. However, I was taken to the DEFRA headquarters by people involved in one of the farming organisations. They showed me the biosecurity arrangements, which they said--I have no reason to disbelieve them--were in place at the height of the epidemic.

4.15 pm

As the Minister probably knows--my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton certainly knows--the DEFRA headquarters at Exeter is up a long and winding drive. Part way down it are two strips of matting or carpet that are not very wide, and it is difficult to imagine that a wheel that just touches them would be completely disinfected. Unlike in parts of Cumbria, there was no bath in which properly to disinfect a vehicle's wheels. I recently visited a dairy show at the Royal Bath and West showground, and the biosecurity arrangements there were very good. The same cannot be said of DEFRA's. Apparently, a back-drive into the headquarters was frequently used by slaughterers, contractors, veterinary surgeons et al.

I do not mind the Minister's preaching at the farming community, and I agree with him in condemning those who fly in the face of common sense by failing to fulfil biosecurity arrangements. However, I ask him to look at the biosecurity arrangements at DEFRA's headquarters in general and at its Exeter headquarters in particular. Prominent members of the farming community who belong to a farming organisation told me categorically that those arrangements have not been altered since the height of the epidemic.

 
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Prepared 29 November 2001