Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: Such is the stuff of myth. The cleaning arrangements at the headquarters depend on what type of vehicles and staff are visiting. The wheel-cleaning facilities are useful, but limited. We should remember that normal DEFRA staff do not have contact with livestock, and staff who visit farms are given guidelines. For example, they are told to leave their vehicles outside farms, and as the hon. Lady said, they use disposable clothes. The standards that the staff apply are very sophisticated. To point to the use of a wheel bath at the DEFRA headquarters and conclude that there is poor biosecurity shows a gross lack of knowledge of how biosecurity is actually applied.

Mrs. Winterton: If any of the facts that I have described became public and were proved not to be myths, one or two of the Minister's statements would not stand up to the light of day. I have repeated what I was told by three people in a genuine fashion. Given that off-farm visits were indeed made to DEFRA's Exeter headquarters, it should have offered the best-case scenario for good biosecurity. However, it did not. Rather than defending what happened, the Minister should be concerned that orders were given but not carried out.

Mr. Morley: I shall check.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, because this is a very important point. Is my hon. Friend poised to make his contribution?

Mr. Wiggin: I am indeed. We are not talking about biosecurity for people alone. I do not know how effective, in percentage terms, wheel dips and mats are. We take what precautions we can to prevent the spread of disease, but in practice it is extremely difficult to ensure that every rat, badger or hedgehog crossing a farm boundary has dipped its feet. Indeed, we cannot even control county councils' efforts at biosecurity, or their management of footpaths for that matter.

It is extremely unfair to place the onus solely on the farmer. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton agrees that the reason why there was, apparently, only one outbreak in Holland is because it was in Dutch farmers' interests not to tell their Government about the others. She will certainly agree that the emphasis on biosecurity, while laudable in principle, is impossible to put into practice if one starts from the premise that the farmer is 75 per cent. guilty.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend makes his points forcefully. I have made them before myself, and I shall no doubt do so again.

As the Minister knows, the biosecurity video that was sent to farmers

Mr. Wiggin: Dirty video.

Mrs. Winterton: I am not sure whether it was a dirty video, because I have not seen it. I wonder whether the Minister has.

Mr. Morley: Yes, I have.

Mrs. Winterton: Well done.

The video arrived far too late--after the horse had bolted from the stable. If the Government win the day on this part of the Bill and we do not persuade them to change it by accepting the amendment, I hope that the Minister will give the Committee an undertaking that, in future, farm-specific biosecurity advice will be provided early by DEFRA, his officials and so-called inspectors so that it is available and understood if the disease recurs. It should include back-up measures should another outbreak occur.

I turn to the point that my young, dashing hon. Friend the Member for Leominster made a few minutes ago. It is completely wrong in principle--I know that the Government do not agree--that farmers should be assumed to be guilty at the outset. They should receive compulsory purchase money or compensation for 100 per cent. of the value their stocks at the outset. I would support the Government if the Minister would take the minority to court and introduce increased fines for those who were found guilty. That is the right way forward. If the fines were sufficiently large and draconianperhaps as draconian as some of the powers in the Billthat would cover the point that the Minister made in his speech. It is not a question of inconveniencing farmers; the measures will certainly increase the Department's costs. As they are justified in only a tiny minority of cases, they are unnecessary and we intend to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division No. 7]

Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Roger Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 12, leave out from beginning of line 20 to end of line 2 on page 13.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 150, in page 12, line 20, leave out `must' and insert--

    `may, where in his opinion it is appropriate to do so,'.

No. 14, in page 12, line 21, at end insert--

    `(1A) A disease risk assessment must take place within 7 days of the Minister having reason to believe such an assessment is necessary and at a time decided in agreement with the occupier of the premises.'.

No. 15, in page 12, line 22, leave out `person' and insert

    `local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner'.

No. 64, in page 12, line 31, at end insert--

    `(aa) any document drawn up pursuant to the consultation exercise required under section 7 of this Schedule;'.

No. 151, in page 12, line 31, at end insert--

    `(aa) the extent of compliance with any biosecurity advice given to the occupier of the premises by a veterinary adviser retained by the Minister to advise on appropriate action to prevent a significant risk of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease taking into account local conditions;'.

No. 16, in page 12, line 38, leave out `14' and insert `28'.

No. 17, in page 12, line 40, at end insert--

    `(6A) If the Minister fails to respond to any written representation made under sub-paragraph (6) within a period of 14 days, compensation shall be payable for the animal at the level of 200 per cent. of amount A.'.

No. 30, page 13, line 2, at end insert

    `or since the owner was notified of the requirement to comply with biosecurity rules, whichever is the shorter period'.

Mr. Williams: The amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall. Let me say at the outset that this is a poor schedule in a poor clause in a poor Bill. If the Minister is intent in obtaining the co-operation of farmers--I am sure that he is--he is setting about it in the wrong way. The provision tars all farmers with the same brush and gives them a bad name. That is how it is seen in the farming community. The assumption should be that farmers have co-operated and done all they can to control the disease, which is the case in almost every instance. They should be paid the full amount of compensation for animals that have been slaughtered under foot and mouth regulations.

The Minister spoke about an incentive. This measure is no incentive at all. If it were, it would encourage farmers to report any possible cases of foot and mouth at the earliest opportunity so that the disease could be controlled. Farmers fear that if they report worrying symptoms among their stock and the presence of the disease on their farm is confirmed, full compensation could be withheld at a later stage. It might be discovered later, through tests, that the premises were not infected, and that the farmers had been penalised unreasonably.

We oppose the schedule, especially the parts referred to in the amendment. I shall go through the schedule and explain our reservations. Paragraph 3(1) of new schedule 3A that the Bill inserts in the Animal Health Act 1981 states:

    ``the Minister must cause a disease risk assessment to be made.''

The point has been made that that would divert resources that could be used to fight the disease. Those resources would be better used to deal with the disease where it still exists, rather than where it has been diagnosed and dealt with.

We are also concerned about the person appointed to be an inspector for the purposes of the Act. That should be examined again, because any inspector must have the confidence of the farming community, especially the farmer whose premises the inspector visits.

We have tabled a new clause that contains provisions for setting up an ombudsman and an appeal process. England is far behind Scotland and Wales, where such an office exists already and where the ombudsman process is welcomed by farmers as an independent way of settling disputes.

Paragraph 3(3) deals with persons under the farmer's control. The issue has been discussed already. Does it refer just to his family and to the people who work on his farm, or does it also apply to people visiting the farm? How much control does the farmer have over those people? He may put in place every facility to ensure biosecurity, but whether people on the farm use those facilities is not under his direct control.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman's point is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Congleton. The farmer is obliged to ensure that people coming on to his farm comply with biosecurity. In cases where someone does something that is completely outside the farmer's control, regardless of the farmer's compliance with the biosecurity requirements, we would not hold the farmer responsible. However, it is the farmer's responsibility to ensure that people coming on and off the farm--vehicles, visitors--comply with biosecurity. We would expect that to be part of the assessment.

Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for that clarification, but the fact remains that farmers and farmers' organisations remain concerned about the implications of the provision and the work that farmers may have to do in order to comply.

Paragraph 3(4)(c) contains the phrase ``any relevant report''. The Minister said that the Government would publish a list of the requirements that would satisfy any inspector in the case of an outbreak on a farm. Putting in a catch-all phrase such as ``any relevant report'' strikes fear into the heart of the farming community. Farmers fear that a report could be plucked out of thin air and they could lose their compensation on the basis that they had not complied with it.

Biosecurity is a responsibility not only for farmers, but for the Department. Rumours continue to go around that much of the disease was spread not by the people working for DEFRA--apparently, there were only four people working directly for DEFRA in Wales--but by those employed by DEFRA to carry out the action, including slaughter men, hauliers, cleansing operators and temporary veterinary inspectors.

4.30 pm

A constituent of mine was unhappy about the cleansing operation that had taken place on her farm. She told me that the inspector was a successful local publican. I am familiar with many pubs in the area, and his is a very successful pub, but the extent of his skill and expertise in inspecting and carrying out the cleansing operation on behalf of DEFRA is another matter. The Department must have employed many people, and we have heard of those who came on to farms intent on cleansing but failing to follow strictly the security measures. That could easily have led to the transfer of infection from the farms that were being cleansed. Inspectors may have travelled through farmyards after leaving an infected farm to return to their homes, and may have transmitted infection in that way.

This is a poor schedule that does nothing to encourage farmers to be responsible or co-operate, and dislocates their relations with the Ministry.

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Prepared 29 November 2001