Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: Again, I want to assure the Committee that it is the Government's intention to do our best to pay promptly in all cases, particularly once a decision has been made by the independent person. If that goes against the Government's decision to take a proportion of money from the 25 per cent., we will do our best to pay that as quickly as possible. The same applies to any compensation agreed. Amendment No. 83 deals with compensation for animals culled from infected premises. I come back to the point that there is no obligation for the Government to pay 100 per cent. compensation. Given that we are talking about compensation that the Government are not legally obliged to pay, it would be a bit hard to have to pay interest on top of it, too. The hon. Member for Congleton is smiling. I think that even she recognises that that is pushing the point.

The same applies to amendment No. 84. It would not be sensible to set a time limit in the Bill, because there is always the occasional circumstance in which it takes a little longer to make a payment. There may be legal or technical wrangles.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have not spoken to this group of amendments. What is his Department's record on making payments and what is the average time it takes to make payments? Does it comply completely with the standing instructions for the payment of debts and the length of time for such payments? Does the Department comply with the legislation on late payment of debt?

Mr. Morley: We certainly aim to do that, and also to meet citizens charter targets on payments. I must be honest: at the height of the epidemic, the Department was severely disrupted. We were drafting people from non front-line Departments to cover for people whom we had put into the front line to fight the disease. In those circumstances, we did not meet our targets, but people would not necessarily condemn us for that.

As time went on and the number of outbreaks went down, we managed to get back on track and make payments much faster. That is our genuine intention, but I would not deny that there are occasional circumstances in which we cannot meet the targets. However, it would not be helpful to accept the amendments. Let me reassure people that we will always endeavour to make any such payments as promptly as we can.

Mrs. Gillan: Having heard what the Minister has said, I know that he is trying hard to be reasonable--I cannot think of another word--and that he appreciates the spirit behind amendment No. 84 in particular, and the reasons for tabling it. He has been honest in saying that his Department was in crisis, people were being drafted away from their regular jobs and put into the front line, and a form of chaos ensued.

If the Minister faced such a situation in future--God forbid that he ever should, but that is what the legislation is about--surely our proposal would offer him the protection that he would require in the governmental situation. The amendment would require other Departments, not least--dare I say it?--the Treasury, to provide help and assistance to the Minister and his Department in a crisis. I view amendment No. 84 in particular as offering a form of protection for the Minister as well as the victims.

Mr. Morley: The amendment would not offer protection. The level of the crisis and the pressures and strains on the Department meant that we were drafting in staff from other Departments to help us anyway. I must confess that Members will have been aware of that because of the disruption of correspondence, which I deeply regret. That indicates the level of the crisis and the fact that our priority was to fight the disease and to involve everyone in that. The amendment would not help in those circumstances, because there would be no one else that we could involve in the top priority of preventing the spread of disease.

Mrs. Gillan: I hear what the Minister says, but again the principle applies that we are not talking about this Minister, this time, this outbreak and this epidemic. We are legislating for a future Minister, a future time and, God forbid, a future outbreak.

Therefore, we need to be reassured that we are giving protection to whoever fulfils the Minister's role so that he and his colleagues have one more club in the bag. I am sure that other Departments were exceedingly generous. In fact, I do not think that they had much choice, because this country was in a severe crisis. In spite of all the disputes over how the matter was handled, the country was in crisis and it was all hands to the pump for officials in several Departments. If the appropriate provision were included in the Bill, there would be an additional reason for extra resources to be provided, because when dealing with other Departments, the Minister would be able to pray in aid a time limit stated in primary legislation.

6.30 pm

Again, I hear the Minister's genuine intention. We are trying to add to the Bill something that will help not only him but our constituents, farmers and the farming community in general in the event of another crisis. I hope that he will think long and hard about including a timetable in the Bill, so that we can ensure that his good intentions are reflected in the legislation.

Mr. Wiggin: Paying interest and paying bills promptly is a moral obligation. Amendment No. 83 gives the Government an incentive to pay promptly. Having heard time and again from the Chancellor of the Exchequer how low interest rates are, the Minister should be assured that he has nothing to fear. There is an obligation to pay interest on sums that have been withheld. If the Government have failed to prevent the importation and spread of foot and mouth disease, and if they have failed to reach their targets, there should be an incentive for them to pay compensation with interest. It is immoral to prevent that by voting against the amendment. It is not wrong to pay compensation and it is immoral to withhold funds and then refuse to pay interest on those funds. A Government who are pretending to protect the farmers should not withhold payment and expect farmers to pay the interest on the money that they do not have. That is why it is so important that amendment No. 83 should be included in the Bill. The level of interest may be negotiable, but interest payment is essential and moral.

Mrs. Winterton: Some intriguing arguments have been put forward in support of the amendment. I do not want to delay the Committee because we are all getting weary, but bearing in mind the enthusiasm of my hon. Friends, I have overcome my natural reservations and decided that we should press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 11]

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

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

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Browning: I beg to move amendment No. 85, in page 14, line 27, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 34, in page 14, line 27, leave out `immaterial' and insert `material'.

No. 35, in page 14, line 28, leave out `this paragraph' and insert

    `deciding the matters to be covered by a disease risk assessment.'.

Mrs. Browning: The three amendments relate to the end of the schedule. It is extraordinary that under the heading ``Consultation and publication'', we find that frequently used word ``immaterial''. In the context, it is a puzzling word. The schedule refers to ``disease risk assessment'' and the need to ``consult representative persons'', and the Minister has spent a lot of time in Committee reassuring us that people will be consulted and that the Government want to get the risk assessment right. However, in sub-paragraph (3), we find the words:

    ``It is immaterial that any consultation carried out for the purposes of this paragraph occurs before the commencement of this paragraph.''

We deserve an explanation of that. The Government say that they will consult interested parties--or stakeholders, as the Minister called them earlier--but then they enter a caveat that suggests that they can simply go ahead as they like, and that the preconditions set out in sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) are immaterial. I thought that the Government were keen on focus groups.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister is nodding his head, which implies that they are still keen, even now. However, the addition of that sub-paragraph reflects the theme throughout the Bill. Although the Minister aims to be reasonable, the Bill is very unreasonable because it seeks to take powers even before some of the basics are considered, such as the consultation on disease risk assessment that has been the subject of so much debate. I do not understand why sub-paragraph (3) is in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will make a good case for it.

Amendment No. 34 would exchange ``material'' for ``immaterial''. We have debated the meaning of those words under other clauses. It seems extremely material that

    ``any consultation carried out for the purposes of this paragraph occurs before the commencement of this paragraph.''

Amendment No. 35 proposes a much more reasonable wording of sub-paragraph (3)--if it needs to be in the schedule at all, which I query. [Interruption.] I do not know what is occupying the hon. Member for Loughborough, but he is missing one of the most riveting parts of the debate.

Again, we are dancing on the head of the pin. The Bill is concerned simply with what the Minister deems to be immaterial, regardless of what the rest of us would consider fair and just for the consultees, given that they are being consulted on a most important part of the legislation. The Minister spent much time persuading us of his good intent over the risk assessment, what it will involve and how it will be expedited, yet here we find the get-out clause: the Minister can do and say what he likes and put anything he likes on the statute book, regardless of the focus groups. I am disappointed in him, and disappointed that at the end of the debate we find yet another get-out clause that allows Ministers to ride roughshod over farmers and the farming community.

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Prepared 29 November 2001