Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: Before my hon. Friend moves too rapidly through this large group of amendments, I would like to draw her attention to two key situations. The inspector may demand that anyone he chooses should assist him, and if that person does not comply, that person commits an offence under the Bill.

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Let me give my hon. Friend two examples of how that might work on the ground. First, an employee of the farmer or animal owner might be required, at the inspector's request, but against his own better judgment, to take action against his employer which could lead to litigation. I am not a lawyer, but I would have thought that the employee might be challenged over any action that he might take.

My second example actually occurred during the foot and mouth outbreak. A veterinarian might refuse to do what the inspector wanted because, in his or her judgment, what he or she was being asked to do was wrong.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister shakes his head, but I assure him that if he sends me a bundle of letters, I shall send him one about my constituent, Mr. Julian Heath, a veterinarian who refused to slaughter animals on professional grounds and was sacked by the Minister—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend has raised two important points. The relationship between an employer and employee is a personal one, especially in agriculture. It is disgraceful for a third party to interfere in that relationship by insisting that an employee might be charged if he does not conform with the inspector's demands, when that employee knows that his employer—let us imagine that he is absent—would want a certain course of action to be taken but the inspector has instructed him to do exactly the opposite. That defies common sense—how can the potential for such a situation be drafted in legislation?

My hon. Friend also referred to a veterinarian who refused to slaughter animals because his instructions to do so ran contrary to his professional judgment. In such circumstances, could an inspector insist that a third person who was professionally qualified and was asked to take action against his professional judgment, be required to assist the inspector?

Mr. Morley: It may save a lot of time if I outline for the hon. Lady what would be regarded as reasonable assistance. It would include identifying which animals are owned by the farmer, helping to round up those animals and providing information such as movement records. Those are examples of reasonable assistance, beyond which people will not be requested to do anything.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister seeks to reassure me, but where might the records be kept, for example, to which he referred?

Mr. Morley: It is a legal requirement.

Mrs. Winterton: Of course it is a legal requirement, but let us imagine that the owner of the flock was not on the farm but was away for some perfectly legitimate reason, and that the house was locked up and the records in the farm office. How could anyone be expected to produce records in that situation? It could not be done. Therefore, technically, the employee might be construed as preventing the inspector from undertaking the duties placed on him. After all, some of the duties include slaughter. The Minister says that any persons assisting the inspector would not be involved in slaughtering. However, they would have to gather up the animals and do other things to assist. They would not have the right to say: ''I am sorry, I do not want to do this,'' for any good reason. They would be drafted into doing it, and if they did not give assistance, they might find themselves in hot water later on. The phrasing of this part of the Bill is completely one-sided and is not proportionate.

As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said earlier, at this time the Government should be seeking to work with the farming community. The farming community will support anything that is reasonable, but unreasonable powers are being vested in people about whose qualification for the position we know very little and who will have tremendous powers of entry and slaughter. They will also have powers to dragoon others into assisting them in what some people may consider to be nefarious purposes.

Mrs. Browning: I want to add to my recent intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and discuss further the refusal and obstruction of an inspector, not just by the owners of animals but by third parties on whatever grounds. I understand the Minister's remarks, but during the recent foot and mouth outbreak, one of the Ministry's problems was that its plans to slaughter were thwarted when people made reasonable demands for delay while blood tests were carried out and other factors were taken into consideration. There were many reasonable propositions against slaughter, yet the Bill tries to get rid of every extraneous reason why the Ministry cannot proceed at a rate of knots regardless of people's rights and considerations.

I raised with my hon. Friend the question of employees of the owner of the animals, or employees working on the land when the owner may not be present. The Bill states that it is an offence for employees not to co-operate, but surely there are limitations on what one can expect them to do in the absence of the owner of the animals. I do not mean just people who winter animals or run rearing units for pigs, or those who have an arrangement whereby they keep other people's animals on their farms. This has a broad read-across for any person who the inspector thinks might be useful in getting what he wants.

I want to pick up on the question of professional people involved, who could be veterinarians, licensed slaughtermen, or anybody who feels that they are being asked to do something against their professional judgment. I will not make the rather invidious comparison between veterinarians and doctors, but one cannot think of an example of a third party demanding that a doctor do something against their better judgment. However, there is a slight read-across here—the Minister is shaking his head—

Mr. Morley: That is mad.

Mrs. Browning: It is not appropriate for the Minister to say from a sedentary position that I am mad. If I am mad, I must stand in very good company with a lot of other mad people, including most of people in the county of Devon.

Mr. Morley: I would not refer to the hon. Lady as mad on her birthday—that would be very unfair. I was saying that the argument is mad. The hon. Lady's example concerns vets being ordered to do something that they do not want to do. The vets who we use in such situations work for the Ministry. If they do not want to work for the Ministry, they do not have to. We are not dragooning vets against their principles. It is our own staff.

Mrs. Browning: That will not do. Yes, veterinarians were on the payroll of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the Minister knows that vets from other organisations and in private practice were also working for the Ministry. However, the moral argument remains. Regardless of who pays his wages at the end of the month, if a veterinarian or any other professional person believes that what he is asked to do goes against the ethical code of his training, a code that he has applied throughout his working life, that person's wishes surely cannot be overridden by an inspector.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: In a moment; I am answering the Minister. When the Minister was in opposition, he used the moral argument many times on behalf of animals. I do not say that in a disparaging way, but the values that he held then must still apply now that he is a Minister. It cannot be morally right to ask a professional, whoever employs him, to do something that he thinks is wrong.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady is arguing that vets would be hanging around on farms doing nothing, and that the Ministry vet would give them instructions when he arrived. The reality is that the vet who is sent will be the one to make the decision—for instance, on whether slaughter is appropriate. We shall not have unfortunate vets being ordered around by Ministry vets who happen to find them on the farm. That is a nonsensical argument.

Mrs. Browning: I am sorry, but it is not nonsensical. The Bill provides that a person commits an offence if he does not carry out the inspector's instructions.

Mr. Morley: It is the owner.

Mrs. Browning: The Bill does not say that. I wish that the Minister would stand up and speak rather than continually making sedentary interventions. He has just said from a sedentary position that it is the owner. That is not what the Bill states. The Bill says nothing about it being the owner. It states ''person''. The Bill states in several places that

    ''The inspector may take with him such other persons as he thinks necessary to give such assistance as he thinks necessary.''

When he arrives at the farm, the inspector may demand that that ''other person'' does something that that person thinks is morally or ethically wrong or is against his training. That person should have the professional and moral right to say no; instead, saying no will be an offence.

Tony Cunningham: Would not the inspector be a vet?

Mrs. Browning: Not necessarily. The inspector could visit a farm with a veterinarian, and perhaps other staff, to identify what needs to be done. He may leave the vet and the other staff to get on with the job while he goes on to another farm. It is not necessarily the inspector who will carry out all that has to be done there.

Mr. Morley: I think that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is getting mixed up on that last point. A distinction must be made between DEFRA staff who are going on to farms to do a job and those who work on the farm who may be asked to provide reasonable assistance. The Bill refers to an ''authorised person''. It would not be a child or the person delivering the post, but a farmhand or someone involved with the animals. With great respect, the hon. Lady has gone off the argument.

The granting of a warrant on the grounds that refusal of entry is expected is generally combined with the requirement to notify the owner of the application. In that case, DEFRA staff would not go on to a farm without informing the owner. It is worth saying again that we are dealing with enabling legislation. The vast majority of farmers and others dealing with this epidemic and national emergency were fully co-operative in working with Ministry officials and staff. Many wrote to thank the Ministry for the sensitive way in which it handled a difficult situation and that it dealt well with people's great distress. Those enabling powers would relate only to a minority. I have seen conspiracy theory articles, about the Prime Minister attending a secret European Union meeting and about the Department being under orders to reduce the national livestock. Such an extreme view might deter people from co-operating with any kind of disease-control measure. In those circumstances enabling powers might be needed.

In some cases, sadly, it might be necessary to seek powers of entry without informing the person concerned. Such a case might arise if it had been made clear in conversation with the divisional veterinary manager that, if the appeal failed, the animals would be moved or access would be denied. Although a tiny minority of cases is likely to be involved, the powers would nevertheless be needed.

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Slaughter is not the only reason for the measures. They would also be applicable, for example, to the taking of blood samples or to a vaccination policy if people refused to co-operate. It might be necessary to take powers of entry in those circumstances. It might be necessary to seek assistance in identifying animals, ascertaining the number of animals on the premises or obtaining other information that would normally be required to carry out disease-control measures.

Let us not forget that the outbreak was hugely expensive and very damaging, and had to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. I do not believe that such powers are unreasonable in the very few cases in which people refuse to co-operate. They would have to be used proportionately. That has been made clear. A reasonable case would have to be made to a magistrate in connection with a warrant. It is not sufficient to tell the magistrate: ''I want powers to enter someone's property.'' The measures must be carried out in a reasonable and proportionate way.

 
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