Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has made a reasonable case. Both the amendments deal with a 14-day time limit, but they cover different issues.

With regard to amendment No. 32, the Department will always aim to inform farmers as soon as possible of the Minister's decision on the amount of compensation that they will receive. The reasons for that are readily understandable. We hope that in most cases, we would fall within the 14-day time limit. Although that is our objective, it would not be sensible to put it in the Bill because there might be circumstances in which it might be difficult, and it would occasionally need to take longer, particularly if information has to be checked with the original farmer. It is difficult to accept amendment No. 32.

Amendment No. 18 brings us back to consistency. I am not against the principle of this. If farmers are given longer to appeal, the downside is that they have to wait for their payment. Farmers might prefer to have the 28-day period to appeal on any dispute about the withholding of the 25 per cent. in relation to the biosecurity. In that respect, I am prepared to give serious consideration to amendment No. 18. I should like to discuss that with stakeholders to get their views, too.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the positive vibe that the Minister gave out on amendment No. 18. Most farmers choose to farm because they do not want to sit in an office all day. They never stop telling me how unhappy they are with the volume of red tape and bureaucracy that they are forced to put up with. They are clearly people who do not want more paperwork. It is therefore only right for us to allow them that extra time limit.

It is incumbent on us when legislating in this way not simply to take the Minister's word for it that they will attempt to pay out within 14 days. That is why I urge the Minister to think again about a clause that would bind his Department. That may be difficult, but it may be difficult to do a lot of things proposed by the Bill. We cannot allow the Bill to go through without ensuring that the difficult circumstances are not a one-way street. They should cut both ways. Having made so many impositions on the farmers, I hope that we can accept that certain impositions should be made on the Dept.

I am prepared to reconsider the idea that the 14 days should be 28 days if the Minister thinks that that would be favourable. However, unless he does we must have some sort of parachute for farmers so that they know how long the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take to deal with them. Most of the complaints I have received from farmers in my surgeries are about being ignored. This would go at least some way to resolving that.

Mr. Morley: I am happy to repeat the assurance that I gave that it would be the Department's intention to pay within the 14 days. The problem of going to 28 days is that it would extend a time limit for the Department to operate under, when we will be striving to operate within the 14 day window. There is a danger of inadvertently making the situation worse. There can be unforeseen and difficult circumstances in relation to the payment window, but we intend to pay within the 14 days.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's intervention. While I recognise that the 28 days could be a problem for farmers, under the circumstances that is a risk worth taking, and they would be better off with their parachute--that is, knowing that they will be dealt with within a certain length of time rather than being left without. It would be worthwhile to include that, so I hope that we will support both the amendments.

Mrs. Winterton: I was somewhat heartened by what the Minister had to say about amendment No. 18, and the spirit of consistency--and whatever else are our buzz words in this Committee. Although he is right that it might delay payment to the farmer, at least the pressure is taken off the farmer to prepare the paperwork and do everything that is necessary, so I think it is not a bad little amendment. The Minister was quite generous and said that he would reconsider, but I wonder if he can give me a cast-iron guarantee that we will return to the subject on Report.

Mr. Morley: I think I am being very generous with Conservative Members, but I would be willing to consider this on Report, after discussion.

Mrs. Winterton: The Committee has heard that undertaking, and I must admit that that is the second small crumb that has been passed over to the Opposition. We are grateful for it, and we will look forward to debating this matter on Report.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 81, in page 13, line 39, leave out subparagraph (2).

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 152, in page 13, line 40, after `such', insert `reasonable'.

No. 82, in page 13, line 43, leave out subsection (3).

No. 19, in page 14, line 1, leave out `an independent person' and insert

    `a local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner'.

Mrs. Winterton: This is very good exercise for skiing: the up and down motion is very good indeed. [Interruption.] Oh no, let me withdraw those remarks, I think that that is the second clanger I have dropped today. I think it was this morning that the Committee were having rather a good laugh at my expense, but never mind. I withdraw those remarks, Mr. Conway.

There are three amendments in the group, which is the sixth group on the schedule. I do not intend to speak to amendment No. 152, because on consideration I think that amendment No. 81 deals more appropriately with the views that Opposition Members would like to express. It would leave out sub-paragraph (2), and its purpose is to ensure that owners are not forced to pay to appeal, and the Minister is not allowed to decide an arbitrary amount as the fee. I do not know of any other case in which owners who wish to appeal would have to pay for the privilege. In his few words winding up the debate, the Minister could say whether there are other examples in which that is enforced, because off the top of my head I cannot think of any.

Mr. Morley: There are other examples.

Mrs. Winterton: Fair enough; the Committee will be better informed because the question has been asked.

It is not appropriate that the Minister himself should decide that the fee should be an arbitrary amount. There should be more clarity. If a fee must be charged--I would very much regret that, as I think that the principle is wrong--people should know how the Minister has arrived at the relevant amount, the justification for it, the range into which it falls, and any other details that he can provide.

5.45 pm

Amendment No. 19 would leave out the phrase ``an independent person'' and insert

    ``a local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner''.

It is similar to an amendment that we debated earlier. Self-evidently, this amendment would ensure that an appeal was considered not by an arbitrarily chosen person, but by someone who was suitably qualified, such as a local veterinary surgeon. He would better understand the situation and would certainly be in a stronger position to exercise professional judgment and discretion. The conclusion at which he arrived might be treated with more respect, because of his professional qualifications and his position in the local community. It is important to ensure that decisions are respected by the farming community and based on good grounds. Again, we return to the fact that we are not sure whom the Minister will appoint to undertake the responsibilities.

We had a debate early on in Committee--last week, I think--after I had tabled an amendment about an independent person. I think that the hon. Member for Stroud questioned what an independent person was. That phrase is used in the Bill, so the boot is on the other foot now, and I shall ask the Minister to describe what an independent person is. I was unable to satisfy the hon. Member for Stroud on that, so I hope that the expert explanation he receives from the Minister will satisfy him.

Mrs. Gillan: I do not intend to detain the Committee long, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said from the Front Bench, she was speaking only to amendments Nos. 81, 82 and 19 in this group, which you in your wisdom selected, Mr. Conway. Therefore, I shall simply put the case for amendment No. 152, because I have a sneaking suspicion that the Minister will not accede to the simple request that we have made with amendment No. 81 and delete sub-paragraph (2).

Just in case Conservative Members' powers of oratory failed to persuade the Minister, I felt it only fair that I should speak to amendment No. 152, not least because the National Farmers Union suggested it. I know that the Minister listens to what it has to say, and it is worth while considering what it has said on the subject. After all, if we could not speak on the NFU's behalf, it would not have a voice in Committee.

The amendment relates to paragraph 6 of proposed new schedule 3A. If a farmer appeals against the Minister's decision on compensation following consideration of a disease-risk assessment, the appellant is obliged to pay a sum of such amount as the Minister may prescribe. I understand that it is recoverable if the appellant wins. The Minister has said that the sum will not be prohibitive, as the intention is not to deter appellants, but presumably the obligation to charge appellants is in the Bill at least to deter everyone from trying it on, regardless of how good a case they have. That raises the question of what would be a fair charge.

As I understand it, the amendment would ensure that whatever charge was prescribed was reasonable. That would provide a basis for challenging the charges if they were considered excessively high. I must admit that I would prefer it if the Government withdrew the whole idea of charges for appeals--an idea that is repugnant in principle, because I cannot think of another instance of an appellant in law having to make a payment up front to have the appeal heard. However, that is just an aside. The amendment is reasonable, and I want the Minister to consider it in the light of what I have said. If he cannot accept amendments Nos. 81, 82 and 19, will he consider seriously amendment No. 152? Although he generously said that he would bring back the substance of amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18 on Report, amendment No. 152 is so simple and clear that he could have the grace to accept it right now. Will the Minister accept it in isolation?

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Prepared 29 November 2001