Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Gillan: I want to raise with the Minister an issue that falls appositely within the ambit of this group of amendments. The hon. Member for Bedford spoke to his amendments so well that I hope that the Minister is considering at last agreeing to amend the Bill in some respects. When he responds I shall be watching him optimistically. The Opposition will be ever hopeful.

I want to mention the new section 36H that schedule 2 would insert into the Animal Health Act 1981. Subsection (5) of the new section states:

    ''A warrant issued under this section remains in force for one month starting with the date of its issue.''

Will the Minister enlighten the Committee? Why was the period of one month necessary, when other parts of the Bill specify days? When dealing with emergencies, one month seems otiose. Why did he choose that arbitrary timing?

5.45 pm

Mrs. Winterton: I, too, would like to reflect on what has been said about the amendments. I commend the hon. Member for Bedford on the way in which he moved them and the thought that he put into drafting them. On Second Reading, and during earlier sittings of the Committee, concerns were expressed about the fact that magistrates would be asked to issue warrants quickly or even overnight. As magistrates usually come from the local community in which the slaughter is to take place, they might feel under pressure. The hon. Gentleman also said that, as often happens, the clerk might have undue influence over whether a warrant should be granted.

The Opposition have tried to express, probably inadequately, our concerns about the lack of balance and the lack of justice in these provisions. The amendments go some way to addressing that problem constructively and positively. I therefore add my support for the amendment to that expressed by my hon. Friends.

Mr. Morley: I quite understand the thinking behind my hon. Friend's amendment, and I am not unsympathetic to the case that he makes. It is perfectly reasonable in disputed cases, and particularly if a contiguous cull is being called for, that the farmer should be allowed to put his side of the argument. There are already provisions for appeals to the divisional veterinary manager. I have already undertaken to establish a protocol—a procedure to ensure that the farmer's views are taken into account in such appeals.

The farmer's first discussion will with the vet who visits the farm; if they do not agree, the farmer can appeal to the DVM. If the DVM rules against the farmer, the Department can apply to a magistrate for a warrant. That is the point at which my hon. Friend asks for the magistrate to be given the farmer's side of the story. Incidentally, I am not averse to a representative of the farmer making his case. I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that that will be considered when we draw up the guidelines, which will be open to public consultation. I have no objection to giving people the opportunity to have someone make representations on their behalf.

We return to the question of balance; it is about speed in relation to disease control, and the need to balance that against other legitimate concerns. Whatever else we do, I want to give people as much opportunity as I can to make their case and if necessary to disagree with the decisions of the local veterinary inspector. I am not aware of any legislative precedent for representations to be allowed on applications for warrants, but that is a legal problem.

I am sympathetic to the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford. At the very least, I believe that we take that into account in the proposed guidelines, on which we intend to consult and which the DVM will have to follow, without unduly delaying the process. I shall have to get more advice on that. I do not disagree with the case made by my hon. Friend. I want to accommodate his proposals as far as I can, but I shall have to take advice on the way in which representations are made to the magistrate. I cannot accept his amendment without further discussion.

Mr. Patrick Hall: Hon. Members' concerns were not raised for the first time today. They were also raised on Second Reading and in Committee over the past week when the amendments were tabled. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responded to the concern that the right to be properly heard should be included in the Bill, and he has usefully elaborated on that today. It is important that the farmer be heard as fully and fairly as possible. There must, of course, be a balance between undue delay and people feeling that their points of view are taken on board. It is not good enough simply to push for maximum speed and diminish the benefits of supporting, understanding and respecting a system, even in difficult and emotional circumstances.

The Under-Secretary has responded well to our concerns, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 18]

AYES
Bacon, Mr. Richard Breed, Mr Colin Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

NOES
Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Breed: I beg to move amendment No. 108, in page 19, leave out lines 21 to 23.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 114, in clause 6, page 4, leave out lines 10 to 12.

No. 136, in page 4, line 12, at end add—

    'unless there are mitigating circumstances.'.

No. 104, in clause 7, page 5, leave out lines 19 to 21.

No. 141, in page 5, leave out lines 19 to 21.

No. 120, in clause 8, page 6, leave out lines 34 to 36.

No. 145, in page 6, line 36, at end insert—

    'unless there are mitigating circumstances'.

Mr. Breed: The amendments relate to offences and what a person does to commit an offence. It is overkill to try to accommodate a wide range of offences that almost anyone who is taken to court can have committed. Amendment No. 108 would remove subsection (2) from proposed new section 36J. Proposed new section 36J(1) states:

    ''A person commits an offence if without lawful authority or excuse . . . he—

    (a) refuses admission . . .

    (b) obstructs or impedes him . . .

    (c) assists in any such obstruction or impeding.''

We can live with that, but there is the catch all in subsection (2) which a person commits an offence if

    ''he is required to give assistance under section 36I(3), and . . . he fails to give it.''

That refers to any person on the premises. I have now worked out why there is no opportunity to give notice. If notice were given, people would get themselves off the premises because, if they are not on the premises, they cannot be caught within the offence. It is like the sheriff riding into town and deputising people in sight to carry out work within him, whether they like it or not. One reason why there were objections to giving any notice was to ensure that those measures were not frustrated

The proposed new subsection covers anyone on the premises, as has been teased out by other Opposition Members. The Minister said that such people are likely to be farmers or people working with them and that it is reasonable to request help from them. However, that gets us into definitions. Many people who could be found on the premises are not directly concerned with the business or agriculture in general. They may be family members or children. Indeed, we could easily imagine a situation in which young people would be loath to assist anyone with the destruction of their pets. It is possible that neighbours, friends or, indeed, professional advisers might be visiting. It might be the day that the bank manager, accountant, refuse collector or anyone else is round.

We are including unnecessary measures and we should just stick to proposed new section 36J(1). We do not need subsection (2) because subsection (1) clearly defines the three major reasons for committing an offence: refusing admission to someone, obstructing or impeding someone doing the job, and assisting in such obstruction. That could include all the actions that the Minister mentioned; someone who failed to find the records would be impeding or obstructing. That is defined already, and we do not need to include the other aspects. Once again, we are asking the Minister to consider restricting what are wide-ranging powers so that the Government will not only be acting reasonably, but be seen to be acting reasonably. They would do that by defining the people who could be obstructing or impeding scrapie testing or sampling. It is important to remember that we are discussing only that, not the spread of foot and mouth.

That is another problem. There are different circumstances and time scales in testing and sampling scrapie than in controlling spread. We have heard that point often in debating such amendments. The Bill is trying to tackle three different situations with different time scales and potential consequences. We are in danger of saying that, because we must move quickly and in a draconian fashion to control foot and mouth, we should extend that approach into scrapie testing and sampling, even if the same strictures do not necessarily apply. The amendments would show that, in scrapie testing and sampling, we could reduce the draconian aspect of the measures to a more sensible level and ensure that they can be accepted.

We must recognise the potential for civil disobedience. At the start, people who destroyed genetically modified crops were considered crazy, but in recent court cases, such people have not been convicted, as many thought would happen. In fact, the courts have been entirely sympathetic to their views. Those people had clearly committed an offence in destroying crops, but the public felt that they had a legitimate reason to do that.

Some—if not a considerable number—of these measures will be treated similarly. Public opinion will be that people felt very strongly and were acting properly, even if that amounted to civil disobedience. As a result, if the measures were enforced as they could be, the court outcome might not be as successful as the Minister might expect.

6 pm

 
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