Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Bacon: I join my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) in expressing surprise, not to say astonishment, that there is a proposal to make farmers pay when they wish to appeal a decision. I have twice raised the issue of the European convention on human rights, and the proposal appears to breach article 6, which provides for the right to a fair trial.

Will the Minister provide examples of other charges that are made in that way? It seems wholly contrary to the principle that people should have access to justice, because the proposal is explicitly designed to deter. Even if the Minister says that it is not, I return to my earlier point about farm incomes. I will be interested to hear the Government's new figures for total farming income. The latest figures that I have seen suggest that total income from farming was approximately 1.8 billion, having fallen from approximately 5 billion between 1996 and now. That is a huge fall. We are not talking about people who have much money.

When I talk to farmers in my constituency, one of their biggest bugbears is that they must pay charges left, right and centre--for the vet, for the abattoir, and so on. They are paying out all the time from a very small pot, and here is yet another charge. I do not understand why the Minister wants to penalise farmers who have so little money in the first place, or why, as a point of principle, there is even a question of charging for access to justice. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham that there can be no possible objection to the word ``reasonable'' in paragraph 6(2) of proposed new schedule 3A, even if the Minister is unwilling to accept the deletion of the sub-paragraph.

Mrs. Browning: I want to focus on amendment No. 81, which would delete sub-paragraph (2), for the reasons given by my hon. Friends. I shall put the proposal in context. The up-front payment would be required for an appeal in circumstances such as the foot-and-mouth crisis, when farmers were having their animals slaughtered, and cash flow was at its worst. There are examples in my constituency of farmers who could not afford more feed during the crisis, and animal welfare charities had to supply essentials to farms. On some farms in my constituency, the farmers were so strapped for cash that they had to have food parcels for their own consumption, let alone animal feed for their animals.

Against that backdrop, the Minister is proposing that the farmers come up with some money, however modest an amount, to appeal against the removal of 25 per cent. of their compensation. There could not be worse circumstances in which to find money. Many banks hung on in there and did not pull the rug when the farmers could not service their debts--but equally, they did not find any additional cash to help their cash flow problems.

The proposal shows the most appalling disregard for what farmers have just been through. It is appalling that new measures are being put on the statute book that require farmers to find such cash, however modest, in those circumstances. I therefore press the Minister to accept amendment No. 81, which would delete this appalling legislation. It is cruel and callous, and shows a total disregard for what farmers have just been through and the reality of what happened on farms.

The Minister does not look as if he will do that--he is a hard man. I was about to say that when he was in opposition he was a gentle pussy cat, and used to make the case for furry and feathered creatures. However, I am not talking about furry or feathered creatures; I am talking about human beings. I want the Minister to show as much compassion to human beings as he shows to furry and feathered things and delete sub-paragraph (2). If he does not, I hope that he will consider the fall-back position in the amendments that my hon. Friends have tabled. The likelihood of people being able to comply with the measures in the middle of a foot and mouth crisis is minimal, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Mr. Morley: We should all calm down a bit. I am not averse to the thrust of the argument about not penalising or deterring people from making an appeal. However, various factors need to be pointed out. First, there is an administrative charge for anyone who appeals to a court. Secondly--

Mr. Bacon: I take it that the Minister means that the court makes a charge. However, the schedule states that the person concerned

    ``must at the same time pay to the Minister''

--I emphasise the fact that the payment is made to the Minister--

    ``a sum of such amount as the Minister prescribes by order''.

The Minister agrees that that is completely different from a charge by a court. Will he give an example of other charges that people are required to pay to a Minister?

Mr. Morley: The principle is exactly the same. The court has an administrative fee to deter people from making frivolous appeals. We seek to deter people from making frivolous appeals, not genuine appeals.

Mr. Bacon: The Minister said that the principle is exactly the same--but there is a big distinction between a Minister and a judge. We are talking about completely different branches of government. It is one thing for a court to assume a charge; it is completely another for legislation to require a Minister to be paid a charge.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is taking the wording a bit literally. I assure him that people will not seek me out personally to give me payments. It is a procedure. The schedule talks about the appeals procedure involving an independent person. As such, the mechanism for appealing to an independent person is exactly the same as the mechanism for appealing to the Court of Appeal. The principle behind it is the same.

Members of the Committee requested some examples, and I can give them assurances. Two spring to mind. First, there are the meat hygiene appeals against the revocation of slaughterhouse licences under the hygiene assessment scores; if one fails the hygiene assessment scores and a licence is removed, there is a charge to appeal against that decision. Secondly, the plant varieties tribunal, which deals with appeals against refusals under the plant varieties legislation, also makes a charge for appeal. Those are just two examples of an identical principle.

Mrs. Browning: The principle may be the same, but the conditions under which the charge is sought are very different. We will be dealing with a crisis, where cash flow and ability to pay will be stretched as far as possible.

Mr. Morley: Take it steady; I am getting there. The order setting out the fees, on which we will consult, will also set out an issue on which we will consult, and the circumstances in which the fee can be waived. The fee will be waived if there is financial hardship, as in the hon. Lady's example. If people have cash flow problems or are coping with disease, we will not deny a genuine appeal. The details of the order will clarify that the fee will be waived in the requisite circumstances.

6 pm

Mrs. Gillan: The Bill does not explain who has competence to waive the fee. Moreover, we must discuss the period of time for appeal. Paragraph 6 of proposed new schedule 3A allows a person only

    ``14 days starting with the day on which a notice is served . . . under paragraph 5(5)''

to make an appeal in writing. The Minister must consider how, in such a short period, people will be able to prove to the satisfaction of an unknown person that they are in dire financial straits. Who has the competence to decide on appeals--the Minister? If so, will they reach him on time? As he has added another administrative burden and hurdle to the system, is 14 days enough?

Mr. Morley: I said earlier that it would be possible to consider a limit of 28 days, and I would be happy to do so. The procedure for waiving fees is commonly applied in magistrates courts. The provisions are designed simply to deter frivolous appeals; I do not want to deter genuine ones. We do not intend to recover the full cost of conducting appeals, and the charge detailed in the orders will be reasonable. The fee will be refunded if the applicant's appeal is successful.

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister has obviously thought about this. To aid our deliberations, will he write to Committee members to clarify the procedures?

Inevitably, the Minister will be dealing with people on low incomes. He is proposing to charge them a fee, which will be returned if the appeal succeeds. Presumably it will be refunded without interest, so it is dead money. We would be most appreciative if the Minister wrote to us with details of the amount.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has made a typically persuasive case. I will give Committee members as much information as possible. We will consult on the arrangements and put them in the public domain. I will discuss the time scale with officials, because I want to answer Members' queries. The amount will be detailed in the order and will include the possibility of waiving the fee in cases of hardship.

Mr. Wiggin: When the Minister was sitting like Blofeld, gazing into his crystal ball and stroking his cat, he did not foresee that the amendment would cause trouble. Does he agree that the provisions return us to the dilemma of people in debtors' prisons? People who have no money cannot pay fees. If he had granted 100 per cent. instead of 75 per cent. compensation, it would not have been necessary to worry about the number of people making frivolous applications. If people are already behind when they start, that automatically makes it worth while for them to appeal. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister.

Mr. Morley: That was not much of a point. It does not matter if we give 75 per cent. or 100 per cent. basic compensation; people will appeal either to get the extra 25 per cent. or to stop us getting 25 per cent. from them. The difference is that if we give them 100 per cent. payments, we may then have to try to get back money that is no longer around. That is a practical issue. We have dealt with the point, but I repeat that there will be a facility in the order for waiving the charge completely in cases of hardship, because we do not want to deny people the right of appeal if they are in financial hardship. That is a serious point, and I accept the case that the hon. Lady has made.

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