Animal Health Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Williams: There is certainly no incentive in the legislation for farmers to report foot and mouth cases as soon as possible. Throughout the outbreak there were many instances in which farmers were responsible and reported foot and mouth at a very early stage, including cases involving sheep, in which it is difficult to diagnose the disease. I am sure that in those instances the diagnoses were sometimes incorrect. Farmers suffered badly, as did their neighbours. Under the practice introduced in the Bill, I can imagine farmers hanging on and on. The real fear would be that their farms might be declared infected, the animals would have foot and mouth, the culls would take place, and then some sort of penalty would be imposed.

Mr. Drew: I am confused about what farmers will do if they hang on in the belief that the arrangement will not be beneficial. They will have to dispose of the animals, and that is an offence. What reason is there not to go for compensation?

Mr. Williams: I shall refer to another instance in my constituency. A farmer in the Builth area asked her local vet to see some sheep that she believed were not well. The vet refused, because he did not want to become ``dirty'' and unable to serve the rest of his farming community. A Government vet went to the farm but was uncertain whether the sheep had foot and mouth. He returned the next day and the day after that--he was young, inexperienced and had never seen foot and mouth--and then rang the office of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or perhaps the relevant Assembly office, to ask what to do. He asked for a second opinion, but that was refused. The diagnosis was then made. All the tests afterwards showed that there was no foot and mouth on the farm.

That farmer had impressive biosecurity measures in place, so would never have attracted a penalty, but some farmers may be unsure whether their biosecurity measures are adequate. Having heard of such misdiagnoses, they might not report symptoms immediately because they felt that they might attract a penalty. Therefore, there is no incentive to report cases quickly.

The Minister talked about rumours and conspiracy theories that spread. I have to take issue with the hon. Member for Leominster, who referred to a mass cull in the Brecon area. That was a rumour. There was no mass cull, only bad politics.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): The hon. Gentleman is right. In certain areas where foot and mouth struck hard, such as the Forest of Dean and possibly Leominster and his own area, Conservative candidates and others created a myth that the problem would explode after 9 June. They said that funeral pyres would be built and that people were covering up. That did not happen, and we never heard any apology for that myth.

Mr. Williams: I agree. When the problem did not explode on 9 June, it was said that that would happen on 16 June, and so on. Then people said that only a partial cull had been intended, and that so many animals had gone on the welfare scheme that a full cull was unnecessary. Those rumours were seen through by the farming community, which was put under a lot of pressure at a time when it was already in fear of foot and mouth. The consequences were bad for the people who put those rumours around.

Mr. Wiggin: It is a sign of enormous weakness that the Liberal Democrats are trying to make the cull that took place on the Brecon Beacons into a political point. It was clear that culling would take place, and it has done. The Government intended to cull the entire UK sheep flock before the brain scandal was broken. [Hon. Members: ``No.''] Yes, they did. If they had found that scrapie existed in sheep brains, as they should or could have done had they not been looking at cows' brains, the entire UK sheep flock could have been culled.

The Chairman: Order. I know that the sitting has been long, but we are drifting a little far from the schedule.

Mr. Williams: Far be it from me to support Conservative Members. It was the hon. Member for Leominster who raised the issue in the first place. None the less, schedule 1 is a bad schedule. It says that the Minister must cause a disease risk assessment to be made, and we have discussed all the issues about diverting essential resources away from dealing with the disease and into administrative processes. There are difficulties about who would be appointed as inspector because that is not defined as clearly as we would like. We have discussed the fact that the farmer will have responsibility for persons under his control. [Interruption.]

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire) rose--

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot rise to move the motion to adjourn until the hon. Member on his feet has finished his speech.

Mr. Williams: I did not realise that--[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The rules of procedure state that the Adjournment cannot be moved while a Member is in the middle of a speech, so as the Division Bell is ringing, the Committee will have to suspend until 7.15, or until 7.30 if there are two Divisions in the House. When we resume, and when the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has concluded his speech, I shall be delighted to allow the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) to move the motion for the Adjournment.

7 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

7.16 pm

On resuming--

Mr. Williams: I should like to thank everyone for taking me so gently through these initiation rites. I promise to serve you better in the future, and not to drag you back. I must re-emphasise the disappointment that we all feel about having this schedule in the Bill. The NFU and other farming organisations are not desperately opposed to there being a penalty for farmers who let the side and the country down by not observing proper biosecurity measures. At the same time, we believe that it should be done the other way. With foot and mouth disease, the assumption should be that farmers should have 100 per cent. compensation, as has been the practice--although I take the Minister's point about classical swine fever.

I should like to put on record the country's success over a long period in keeping foot and mouth disease out of the country. We now need to address the issue of meat imports. I was pleased to see the new clause that required the Government to do an annual audit on the success of the measures to control meat exports--but I cannot think of any part of the Bill, or of any legislation, that would so discourage farmers from working closely with the Government. If the Bill goes through, there will be a fracture in the relationship, and I cannot see the country having the success that it has had in the past in keeping foot and mouth disease out, because of problems with import control. This is a retrograde step and I should not like to see it becoming part of the Bill.

Debate adjourned.--[Mr. Ainger.]

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 4 December at half-past Ten o'clock. {**vert_rule**}

The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Atkins, Charlotte
Bacon, Mr.
Browning, Mrs.
Cunningham, Tony
Drew, Mr.
Edwards, Mr.
Gillan, Mrs.
Hall, Mr. Patrick
Morley, Mr.
Organ, Diana
Owen, Albert
Reed Mr.
Wiggin, Mr.
Williams, Mr. Roger

Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Previous Contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 November 2001