Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: I can give the hon. Lady an assurance on amendment No. 148. The initial sampling and identification of animals by inspectors will be paid for by the Department, as described under the national scrapie plan. The only activities that keepers will have to undertake will be the provision of assistance to inspectors. For example, they may have to round up sheep and retain records of the genotypes of sheep, but those activities are likely to incur minimal cost. We are not contemplating placing a large cost on the industry; the bulk of it will be borne by the Department.

On amendment No. 43, it is true that powers in the Bill could require appellants to meet the reasonable costs of activities connected with further genotyping samples and tests. In appeals of that kind, it is not unreasonable that the Department has the facility to recover some costs if it so chooses, bearing in mind that the initial work is paid for by the Department and the taxpayer.

Mrs. Winterton: I welcome the undertaking that the Minister has given on amendment No. 148 that the Ministry will pay for the identification and testing of sheep, as at present. I think that he made the point that the electronic devices such as boluses will be paid for by the farmer.

Mr. Morley: I did not make that point, but they will be.

Mrs. Winterton: They, and the certification, will be paid for by the farmer. The Minister said that the costs would be minimal. In the introduction of a national statutory scheme, can he give an assurance, given the Government's huge purchasing power, that the costs really will be minimal?

Mr. Morley: I certainly can. I believe that a large-scale electronic identification scheme will considerably reduce the costs of the electronic devices. I am a great

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supporter of electronic identification, which brings the industry a range of benefits. There are various kinds of electronic device including the bolus, carried in the stomach, and electronic ear-tagging. We will want to consult with the industry on what it thinks is the most appropriate. I do not have a fixed view, but I would have thought that the stomach bolus is probably the best method.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend's question. It emphasises the importance of the amendment, because any industry that is asked what sort of tag it would like to put on its animals is bound to choose the most cost effective. Under the amendment, the Government would have a vested interest in ensuring that the cheapest option and the best option are one and the same. Otherwise, the cost will be borne by the industry. We must ensure that the industry not only has the best tag, but does not end up footing the Bill for the most expensive.

Mrs. Winterton: I think that the Minister has covered most of the points that have been raised, and bearing his reassurances in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Breed: I beg to move amendment No. 92, in page 17, line 34, leave out ''reasonable excuse'' and insert ''reason''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 93, in page 17, line 40, leave out ''reasonable excuse'' and insert ''reason''.

Mr. Breed: The amendments are minimal, but are intended to plead the case that farmers do not make excuses, but have reasons. I could not remove the word ''excuse'' without also taking out ''reasonable'' and putting in ''reason''. It is a small point, but farmers rightly believe that their reasons are sometimes strong—they pressed this point during the FMD outbreak—and based on local knowledge. They are not excuses, but reasons based on experience, knowledge and the things with which they have become familiar.

We should not perpetuate the idea that farmers are making excuses for what they are trying to do. I entirely accept that they would have to prove their reasons, but if we change the wording to ''reason'', it removes from the Bill the slight tone of treating farmers as if they are whingeing people, trying to make excuses rather than having sincere reasons for, perhaps, objecting, or putting forward their case.

Mr. Morley: The term ''reasonable excuse'' is used because it is a readily understood legal term. It is understood by the courts and is used to determine what is reasonable in the context of the particular circumstances of the charge before the court. The amendment would create confusion about the nature of events, because the provision of a ''reason'' does not necessarily mean a reason that is reasonable in the eyes of the court. The amendments would thus provide for

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an uncertainty in the law. Although I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, they would confuse the issue because the existing terminology is understood.

Mr. Breed: I am happy to accept that assurance from the Minister, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Breed: I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 18, leave out lines 1 to 3.

Again, this is a simple amendment. It would remove paragraph 4, which is frankly unnecessary and part of the big stick approach. The possibility that anyone could in any way be construed to be obstructing an inspector could have a very wide interpretation. For example, merely parking a car inconveniently could be construed as a direct attempt to obstruct. For that to be counted as an offence is a draconian measure too far. The previous paragraphs are perfectly adequate in terms of dealing with offences. It is the sort of catch-all provision that can sometimes be used inappropriately, and it adds nothing significant in terms of ensuring that the Bill is properly enacted and complied with. It is a paragraph too far, and I should like it to be removed.

Mrs. Browning: The amendment has a read-across to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which states:

    ''Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence . . . There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law''.

I suspect that the Minister will pray in aid that the public body or individual would be applying the law as it stood. However, our experience of the foot and mouth crisis provides clear examples of people whose homes were violated by people in authority in a manner that was in excess of what one would expect from such people. There were some extremely distressing situations. I do not deny that when people are emotionally upset they, too, can behave uncharacteristically. However, it happened once too often in the last outbreak for us not to be concerned about how it will be handled in future. If the authority of officials is increased through the Bill, and we see more of the same with their handling of such matters, many of them will be judged by the courts to be in breach of article 8 of the convention.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall was right to raise his concerns. We have heard nothing from the Minister about what lessons have been learned or what guidelines will be introduced on another occasion, nor about the whole way in which the matter was dealt with by people who must unfortunately be categorised as officials, although they were not necessarily all from one official body. We saw examples on our television screens of the problems that arose, and I spoke personally to many people in Devon who had had article 8 breached in their own homes. That cannot be right.

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Mr. Morley: I understand the concerns of the hon. Members for South-East Cornwall and for Tiverton and Honiton. Wording such as this is not the way in which one wants to deal with any kind of programme. We have all agreed that the scrapie programme is in the interests of the sheep industry, which supports it. Sadly, however, it is not impossible that a handful of people, perhaps singly, will not co-operate, for whatever reason. The scrapie programme will cost the Government millions of pounds to implement. I accept that the sheep industry will be inconvenienced in the course of the eradication programme but it is for its long-term benefit. It would be quite wrong if everything—the expense, the co-operation, the work and the inconvenience—were then put at risk by a tiny number of people who would not co-operate.

If we do not have this provision within the Bill, we will probably have to go to the courts and get it sorted out. It would be better to have this provision from the very beginning to deal with such eventualities. I hope they will not happen, but we cannot rule out the fact that a small number of people will try to obstruct the progress of this programme. That cannot be tolerated.

12.15 pm

Mr. Wiggin: Surely this provision is irrelevant if the number of people causing problems will be small. The Minister will still have to take them to court, and it will not make a great deal of difference if it is in the Bill, so it is entirely superfluous.

Mr. Morley: It does make a difference, because going to court is time-consuming and potentially expensive. This is a measure that has widespread support. I do not believe that we would have to use the measures that are laid out in the Bill. I very much hope that we will not have to use them, but if we are taking such measures, we need to think about all eventualities.

Mr. Breed: I think it is because it is in this part of the Bill that I take most exception. Other parts of the Bill apply to measures taken over 24 hours or 48 hours, but this part applies to scrapie eradication over a number of years. So to go rushing off to court because a few sheep are not going to be castrated, is not really the point. That is why I think this part of the Bill is unnecessary for this particular aspect of the issue. If scrapie were something whizzing through a flock, and we had to zip off to get things done in a hurry, I might have some sympathy, but, quite frankly, we know that it will take ages.

Yes, there may be some people who will not comply with that provision, but all the other provisions cover that possibility. Parts I to III make it very clear, even if I accept the reference to ''reasonable excuse''. This is just a sledgehammer, which is unnecessary in a restricted timeframe, while talking about scrapie.

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