Animal Health Bill

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Winterton: They may well be carried out in a reasonable and proportionate way, but the farmer does not have the right to argue his case before the magistrate, as he could in the past. That is why the powers under the Bill are unjust. The Minister said again that the powers are intended to deal with a tiny minority. They are disproportionate if that is so. If only a tiny minority is involved, surely the traditional way, with a meaningful right of appeal, is better. Under the Bill, the farmer would not have that.

Mr. Morley: There is a right of appeal. We are going over old ground, now. I want to improve on the appeal procedure under the Animal Health Act 1981 and I believe that we can do that.

Mrs. Browning: I want to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton about the rights of minorities. It saddens me to hear a Labour Government being so dismissive about a minority of any kind. If the House is for anything, it is to uphold the rights of minorities. The moment we lose that focus, this place becomes meaningless, with respect to what we have understood by democracy.

Mr. Morley: I see; I had not realised that the Conservative party was now embracing the rights of a minority to spread disease to the majority. That seems a funny minority right to protect—[Interruption.] That is what the hon. Lady is arguing for. We are considering how to deal with a devastating epidemic. The powers are intended, in the light of experience, to enable that to be done as quickly as possible, and, incidentally, to minimise the number of animals affected and therefore culled.

Mrs. Browning: May I take the Minister back to the provisions that worry me? Proposed new section 66A of the 1981 Act is headed:

    ''Refusal and obstruction of inspector''

and subsection (2) states:

    ''A person commits an offence if—

    (a) he is required to give assistance under section 62C(3), and

    (b) he fails to give it.''

Proposed section 62C(3) 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.''

Proposed new section 62A, under the heading, ''Slaughter: power of entry'', states:

    ''An inspector may at any time enter any premises for the purpose of . . . ascertaining whether a power conferred by or under this Act to cause an animal to be slaughtered should be exercised, or . . . doing anything in pursuance of the exercise of that power.''

I am sorry; the subject is complicated, but it is important to consider the detail, or one loses track of what the new powers are about. They deal with the right to slaughter under new directions that give inspectors the power to commandeer anyone, and if people refuse they will commit a criminal offence. That must be wrong.

Mr. Morley: If those powers are wrong, I wonder why the then Government introduced the same ones in the Food Safety Act 1990. Let us calm down. The issue is serious and I am trying to tackle the points seriously. Provisions that deal with the insistence on people's co-operation and guilt of an offence are enshrined in the 1990 Act. There is nothing unusual about the provisions in the Bill, as there are precedents in legislation and in how they apply. There is no difference in the principle—the provisions still require co-operation—and the wording is nearly identical to that in the 1990 Act.

Mr. Wiggin: I have a separate concern. Animal owners, by being forced to co-operate under the wording, might go through such traumatic experiences that they might be driven to suicide or other terrible acts. The Bill will not ease the lot of animal owners, so it will not encourage the co-operation that it should. It is deeply flawed. Any responsible animal owner would want to help an inspector and prevent the spread of any disease, even if it were only scrapie, but the Bill is overtly draconian. The impact on the mental state of animal owners has not been considered.

Mr. Morley: Of course there is an impact on the mental state of individuals. We want to minimise that by taking prompt and efficient action, to ensure that many other people are not put in similar positions. Let us not forget that.

Mrs. Gillan: If the requirements are so reasonable, will the Minister outline what will constitute a defence against them? How will someone justify committing an offence under new section 66A(2) of the Animal Health Act 1981, which is proposed in clause 7?

Mr. Morley: That is a strange question. If a farm labourer were asked to produce movement records but he did not know where they were and the relevant building was locked, that would be a reasonable defence. Decisions would have to be made on what was regarded as fair. The definition depends on whether the request was reasonable. If it were not, that would be a defence. I have given an example of the required reasonable requests.

Amendments Nos. 102, 113, 40, 89, 75, 41, 73, 139 and 157 relate to the requirement to give assistance to officials. In nearly all cases, slaughter, vaccination, serological testing and genotyping involve rounding up stock. That can be impossible without the assistance of the farmer or another appropriate person on the premises, which can hinder effective disease control. That is another example of what is regarded as reasonable assistance. In the majority of cases, farmers co-operated fully with officials and provided the vital assistance necessary to carry out slaughter or serological testing. I do not doubt that that will always be the case in scenarios related to disease control.

The provisions cover the minority of cases in which co-operation was not forthcoming. The amendments would change nothing of substance. The Bill already requires inspectors to act reasonably in seeking assistance. Demands that are made on the farmer will not be unreasonable or go beyond what he can be expected to provide. It is important to remember that the provision specifies reasonable assistance. An inspector could not, therefore, make unreasonable demands on a person, particularly one who was not qualified to help.

Mrs. Winterton: I want to take up a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made a moment ago about proposed new section 66A, which is entitled:

    ''Refusal and obstruction of inspector''.

Subsection (1) refers to those who commit an offence by refusing assistance

    ''without lawful authority or excuse (proof of which shall lie on him)''.

The burden of proof will lie not on the inspector, but on a person who might have reasonable grounds for not giving assistance. Surely that is the wrong way round.

Mr. Morley: It is not quite like that. The wording is standard in legislation, and there are precedents for it. The defence lies in the word ''reasonable'', which is a common legal term. It applies to the exercise of powers that are vested in the Government or the Crown. It is for the court to determine the definition of the word ''reasonable'' in any situation, just as it will determine whether someone has acted in a way that is specified in the Bill.

Mrs. Browning: Surely we still accept that people are innocent until proven guilty. Is there not a rather European flavour to the burden of proof in the Bill?

Mr. Morley: I am not sure that it has a European flavour. The form of wording in the Bill is common in a range of legislation, including the Food Safety Act 1990.

It is important to keep the issue in perspective. Sadly, whatever one does to control a disease, someone somewhere will not co-operate. Such people can put many others at risk by spreading the disease and, as we saw during the epidemic, refusing access for the purpose of blood testing. Such behaviour delayed the lifting of the restrictions on the majority of farmers in the area. It is not a reasonable position to take. It is important to protect the rights of minorities, and the law does that. However, it is also important to bear in mind the impact of a disease on the rights of the majority. That is what the Bill is all about.

Mr. Wiggin: This debate is typical of the way in which the Bill is being handled. In every debate, we must listen to the Minister explain that what we read in the Bill will not happen. In every debate, we must take his word that what DEFRA will do will be very different from what it can do under the Bill.

I am reminded of a constituent, Mr. Brodie, whose stock was culled during the foot and mouth crisis. It was a contiguous cull, and he was very reasonable about it. The Ministry valuers came to his farm and valued his stock and the silage that was lost. Unfortunately, after Mr. Brodie agreed the valuation, a Ministry vet turned up and said: ''Actually, we're not going to pay for the silage. We'll only pay for the first two or three feet of the clamp.'' That is extraordinary given the emphasis that the Minister rightly put on biosecurity.

Provisions that are enforced on the ground are clearly a million miles away from the platitudes and calm statements that we hear in Committee. It is extraordinary that we are legislating to chase and prosecute people and to break into their property because they are worried about scrapie genotype and may be hiding a sheep in their attic. That is the kind of legislation that we have put up with.

Technically, an inspector could take the Minister with him to witness what happens on a farm. We have to put up with that sort of nonsense. It is extraordinary that we should take these steps to deal with a few irresponsible people. I know that they exist and that two or three people in Herefordshire refused to let their animals be given blood tests. They held the whole county to ransom for several weeks.

Mrs. Browning: Does my hon. Friend accept that in some cases people refused access to their land for blood testing and so on, because the farming community, most of whom had exercised strict biosecurity measures, did not trust the viability of their farms in letting in other people, including people from DEFRA?

5.30 pm

 
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