Animal Health Bill

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend reinforces what we have said about the amendments. I was recently in Devon, and many farmers told me that vets and officials visited their farms several times during the foot and mouth epidemic and went over the maps again and again. Those farmers nearly went round the bend because they had already been through the process twice when a third person turned up asking them to mark their fields on the maps. That happened relatively recently and shows the validity of my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): That raises another important point. All sheep may soon be electronically tagged, and Ministry officials will arrive with a bleeper to find out where the sheep are. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be even more sensible to compensate farmers at 200 per cent. of market value if the wrong animals are still slaughtered?

Mrs. Winterton: I do. We rightly put a lot of faith in new technologies and hope that they will improve all the time, but they are by no means 100 per cent. perfect. Added to that is the possibility of human error. For that and many other reasons, the amendments are worth considering.

I turn now to amendments Nos. 100, 101 and 138. Amendment No. 138 would remove proposed new section 62B(4)(b), which states that the third condition is that

    ''the case is one of urgency''.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall spoke to his amendments earlier.

Amendment No. 149 repeats our position on the previous group of amendments and relates to proposed new section 62B(4)(c) which states:

    ''the premises are unoccupied or the occupier is absent.''

That relates to the power of entry for the purpose of slaughter. We believe that we should add to that provision the words

    ''and the inspector can demonstrate that all reasonable efforts to contact the occupier have been made.''

The Bill makes no provision for a reasonable effort to be made to contact the owner of the land or of the flock. That should be a requirement and a responsibility. It is wrong for people to slaughter animals without first making serious efforts to contact the occupier. That should not be allowed.

4.45 pm

Amendments Nos. 41 and 139 relate to proposed new section 62C(3), which states:

    ''The inspector may require any person on the premises to give him such assistance as he reasonably needs for the purpose mentioned in section 62A.''

Amendment No. 139 would replace the words ''any person'' with the words

    ''the owner and any person employed by the owner.''

That is surely the way forward. How can an inspector be allowed to turn up at a farm or premises and press-gang anyone present

    ''to give him such assistance as he reasonably needs''

for the purpose of slaughter? Would the provision include members of the farmer's family or someone who was making a delivery? Could the inspector turn to the delivery man and say: ''I've got a bit of a problem. I can't cope, so you've got to give me a hand to get these animals into position so that I can slaughter them.'' Do the words ''any person'' mean a younger member of the farmer's family? Many farmers' children who are in their teens or a little younger help around the farm, doing odd jobs and learning the business. Would the inspector require someone who was under-age to assist him in the grizzly business of slaughtering stock? The phrase ''any person'' is far too wide and must be focused on what is reasonable.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be interesting to know whether the Minister thought that the words ''any person'' could include members of the police force and the armed services who enter the premises? The Minister should tell us and those who watch our proceedings exactly who was envisaged when the provision was drafted in such a wide and lax fashion.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right that the words ''any person'' must be clarified. She made pertinent points the people who might be involved. The definition is so wide as to be irresponsible.

Mr. Wiggin: Has my hon. Friend considered the possibility that the Minister himself might have to give assistance?

Mrs. Winterton: There is the potential under the provision for the inspector to lean on any person with any reason to be on a farm at any time. If they are unlucky, they could be asked to assist in a process of which they do not approve and in which they do not want to take part. What will happen if they refuse?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend will know that there are some clear recommendations in the preliminary conclusions of the Mercer report for Devon county council. At 1.13, the report states:

    ''Reports received by the Inquiry of insensitive and even belligerent operatives and bungled culls do little to enhance the professional reputation of all those involved, from Ministers downwards''.

It then goes on to state that,

    ''training in slaughter management is needed''.

That does not concern solely those licensed to kill animals, but also those who handle animals. There are clear animal welfare problems in relation to the training of those asked to assist in such operations. Some of the most appalling pictures on our television screens showed the results of culls carried out by people who clearly did not have experience of dealing with animals outside a slaughterhouse or in the open air. It is incumbent on the Government to get that aspect right; they should put forward their recommendations on the handling of animals in such circumstances before drafting this sort of detail into a Bill.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a telling point; one which has been mentioned before and clearly needs to be repeated. What went on previously would not be at all acceptable now; it was not acceptable then, but it did happen. Much thought must be given to the training of those who are to slaughter animals on farms. It is an extremely sensitive issue; the farmer's life's work may be about to be put down before his eyes. His family will be upset and he will have suffered much stress in the run up to the event. Years ago we had an old pony, which had to be put down. People said: ''Let him go away to be put down,'' and I said, ''No, I will have him put down at home,'' and I held him while the deed was done. It upset me greatly at the time, but I knew that he had been handled properly. I had fulfilled my responsibility to an animal that had been a family pony and was by then quite old. In an identical way, farmers are not heartless people. They do not want to see their stock being put down in the way that we saw during the foot and mouth epidemic. They want to ensure that, if slaughter is to take place, it is carried out properly and they must be accorded certain conditions to ensure that those needs are fulfilled.

I turn to proposed new sub-paragraph 62C(3), which states:

    ''The inspector may require any person''

We have commented that ''any person'' needs positive definition; that it should mean the owner and any person directly employed by the owner. That person is required to give the inspector

    ''such assistance as he reasonably needs for the purpose mentioned in section 62A''.

Amendment no. 73 seeks to insert, after ''reasonably needs'',

    ''and that the person can normally give.''.

What does ''reasonably needs'' mean? You have to be an able-bodied person in order to help people who have come in to slaughter a flock of sheep, for example. How does one define what the inspector ''reasonably needs''? Can it be described and quantified so that we know precisely what it means? Or should we look at it from the perspective of the person who is being roped into the proceedings and consider the assistance that that person could normally give under the circumstances? Many people would feel under such circumstances that they could not give the inspector assistance. I do not believe that they should be required to do so. If the inspector needs assistance, he himself should ensure its provision before he visits the farm.

Mrs. Gillan: As my hon. Friend her case on this powerful and lengthy group of amendments, I am becoming increasingly alarmed. Under proposed new section 62C, which relates to the amendments, the inspector is turned into a demigod who has total power over everyone and everything that moves and breathes, without any restriction on his powers when he is in situ. The more I read the drafting and listen to my hon. Friend's comments, the less there seems to be a right of appeal or anyone sitting in judgment on the inspector's actions. The Bill gives him an absolute right to walk over everyone and slaughter everything in sight, without safeguards for farmers or their animals. The proposed new section gives an absolute power that is abhorrent in our country and situation.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to say that the proposed new section gives inspectors carte blanche. We have used the word ''proportionate'' in previous debates, but we have not used it today. The powers that the new section gives the Minister and his official, the inspector, are simply disproportionate. The farmer, the landowner or the occupier appears to have no rights whatever.

Mrs. Gillan: Once more, would my hon. Friend care to speculate with me? Does she not think that the draftsmen worked in such a hurry that they could not put the fine detail into the Bill? We need much longer to scrutinise such new sections, because they have been drafted in such a hurry, but we are in danger of letting down the farming community because we have no possibility of considering them in real detail in Committee.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to say that more time is needed. We have kept strictly to debating the amendments and have tried to reflect the concerns of the farming community about the Bill, which, as my hon. Friend says, is being introduced with undue haste. I understand that my hon. Friend wanted some of its stages to be delayed until the new year, but that proved impossible. The Bill will be considered on Report and Third Reading a week on Thursday, as the Government are in a tremendous rush to get the Bill to the House of Lords in the first weeks in January.

It is a shame that, consequently, the Bill will threaten the freedom of farmers and those who own herds or flocks. As we said in previous sittings, the Bill is premature and should have been held back until more information was in the public domain and Government inquiries had published their reports. We should then have been legislating with knowledge rather than reacting to a situation and introducing sweeping andóalthough I hate to use the word againódraconian powers. They are disproportionate powers that keep the owners of flocks on the back foot. The inspector holds all the cards, and nothing can be done to restrain him.

Previous Contents Continue

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

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 4 December 2001