Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Bacon: I, too, should like to examine the circumstances in which one is found to have committed an offence, because that subject greatly interests me. In particular, I shall consider the case of Mr. Guy Thomas-Everard, a farmer who acted in a way that I regard as wholly responsible, but who could easily have been found to have committed an offence under the Bill. His farm is at Dulverton in Somerset, on the Devon border.

Mr. Thomas-Everard was classified as a dangerous contact. On Wednesday 2 May, a senior MAFF state veterinary service vet, Mr. Malcolm Wigglesworth, served a form D notice on him, which prohibits livestock movement and usually implies recurring visits from the Ministry. In doing so, Mr. Wigglesworth advised Mr. Thomas-Everard that he did not think that the farmer had much to worry about, given that six days had passed since the contact with the contractor whom the Ministry suspected of having spread foot and mouth. In fact, as Mr. Thomas-Everard contended all along, the contractor was not the cause of the spread.

Mr. Wigglesworth said to Mr. Thomas-Everard that

    ''as we had reached Day 6 we could breathe again, when we reached Day 10 we could sleep again at night''.

However, he went on to say that

    ''for certainty our stock would be regularly inspected by a MAFF appointed 'clean' vet until 3 weeks had passed''

since the contractor's visit.

On Thursday 3 May, Mr. Wigglesworth telephoned Mr. Thomas-Everard to say that a clean vet from a private practice would inspect the cattle on Friday. Mr. Thomas-Everard spent the whole of Friday waiting for that vet to appear. Indeed, he telephoned the MAFF office in Taunton a number of times to find out when he would appear. At 4.30 pm, Mr. Thomas-Everard's father rang and was told that a vet would ring back, although none did.

At 5 pm, Mr. Thomas-Everard received a deluge of calls from friends and the press saying that MAFF had held a press conference saying that his stock was to be slaughtered. As a result, he telephoned the Ministry's office in Taunton and spoke to the state veterinary service disease control manager, Mr. Jonathan Milree. He responded that as far as he knew, London was still deliberating on the matter. At that stage, the Ministry had not contacted Mr. Thomas-Everard directly. I am talking about what others said to him on the basis of what MAFF had said to the press. Nothing direct was said to the farmer who was so concerned—so much for a fair hearing or the chance for consultation.

On Saturday 5 May, Mr. Thomas-Everard's father sent a letter to the divisional veterinary manager, Mr. David Bowman. That evening, Mr. Thomas-Everard's father received a telephone call from Mr. Bowman, who said that his son's cattle would be slaughtered. During that conversation, Mr. Thomas-Everard's father asked Mr. Bowman how he should go about appealing against the slaughter decision, if that is what he wished to do. Mr. Bowman replied that there was no right of appeal. In his witness statement, Mr. Thomas Everard says that that was not true, and he believes that Mr. Bowman was aware that it was not true when he made that statement.

At 8.45 pm that Saturday, a MAFF state veterinary service vet, Miss Sue Waterman, arrived with a Somerset county council trading standards officer at the Broford farm gate, which is more than half a mile from the buildings and the cattle. Miss Waterman wanted to go on to the farm to value the cattle, which seemed rather impractical considering that it was getting dark by that time and there are no lights in six of the eight cattle buildings. Mr. Thomas-Everard's parents refused Miss Waterman permission to enter the farm to value the cattle, but repeatedly invited her to send any clean vet to inspect the cattle that remained free of foot and mouth.

Miss Waterman admitted, after persistent questioning, that she had in fact been on a holding where foot and mouth was suspected, in a foot and mouth infected area near Okehampton, within the previous three days; in other words, she fitted the Ministry's definition of a dirty vet. Miss Waterman and the trading standards officer argued until 11.30 pm with Mr. Thomas-Everard's parents about the need for her to value the cattle that night. Mr. Thomas-Everard states:

    ''We were aware that if a farmer agrees to allow a valuation he waives all rights to appeal against a slaughter notice. My parents realised that was the reason for the determination on the part of Miss Waterman to come in and ''value'' the stock even though it was dark. My father suspected that if he refused entry to Miss Waterman to inspect our cattle as a vet, that refusal would give MAFF justification to obtain a Court Order to enter and slaughter all my animals.''

However, the family had been told that a clean vet would be sent to them, and Miss Waterman had admitted, after persistent questioning, that she was a dirty vet. Mr. Thomas-Everard continued:

    ''My father was therefore particularly careful to repeatedly invite an inspection by a 'clean' vet but to refuse a one-sided valuation by a potentially infected person who was not a professional valuer.''

Mr. Thomas-Everard's father also insisted that the trading standards officer should record, first, that there had been an invitation to inspect the cattle, secondly, that Miss Waterman was not a clean vet and, thirdly, that his father had not agreed to allow a valuation.

At about 11 am on Sunday 6 May, Mr. Thomas-Everard received a call from MAFF to say that a vet would be with him shortly to carry out a further inspection of the stock and at midday, a MAFF state veterinary service vet, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, arrived, with a trading standards officer, at the farm gate. All the cattle on Broford and Week farms were inspected. Mr. Bruce clinically examined the feet and mouths of all the at-risk calves, and he could see no signs of foot and mouth.

At 5 pm that Sunday, Mr. Bruce telephoned the Ministry to say that all the cattle were in good health. Despite that information, the Ministry official to whom Mr. Bruce was talking instructed him to serve a form A notice on the farms. At that point in the telephone conversation, according to Mr. Thomas-Everard:

    ''Mr. Bruce's demeanour changed and he was clearly angered by this instruction. He did however complete and serve a Form A notice.''

The following day, on Monday 7 May, the Ministry held a stakeholder's meeting. Mr. Thomas-Everard said:

    ''I was not invited to attend or send a representative to this meeting, which surprised me, as I was surely someone with a stake in this matter.''

At the meeting, Ministry officials persuaded those present that Mr. Thomas-Everard's stock should be slaughtered rather than monitored because they were deemed to pose a very significant risk to Exmoor. After the meeting, the Ministry informed the press that it would obtain a court order to allow its representatives on to the farm to carry out the slaughter.

It was reported on the 6 o'clock news on the evening of Tuesday 8 May that the Ministry was reconsidering its position in the light of new evidence that had been brought to its attention by Mr. Thomas-Everard. He received no direct notification from the Ministry that that was going to happen, hearing of it merely through the media. The new information concerned the contractor's movements and the circumstances of those movements. The Ministry had in fact known that for four days when it made its announcement. Mr. Thomas-Everard's statement goes on:

    ''I have experienced many problems as a result of MAFF's handling of the FMD crisis and like many other farmers want to see a public inquiry so that someone is accountable for the bad handling. These problems are primarily in connection with their insistence that my cattle by slaughtered despite the fact that a vet had undertaken a thorough inspection of my cattle and confirmed they showed no signs of FMD. MAFF continued to instruct the same vet to serve a Form A notice. This was 10 days after any possible link with FMD. Further, MAFF sought to imply on 10th May that new evidence had come to light which caused them to reprieve my cattle. The truth in fact is that MAFF had had this information for some but appeared to be desperate to try and find an alternative reason that still justified their slaughtering my cattle.

    Despite requests MAFF would not provide a copy of their report to the central veterinary office detailing their assessment of the need to slaughter my cattle.

    When the Form D was served on me on 2nd May no blood tests were taken of my cattle. Even after a written request for such MAFF still refused.''

So much for farmers refusing to have blood tests done. That farmer begged for a blood test and wrote to the Ministry to ask that his cattle be tested. The Ministry refused.

Mr. Thomas-Everard's statement continues:

    ''Not only might a test have reprieved my cattle from slaughter sooner, but if my cattle had been slaughtered it would have shown that they did not have the disease and therefore there was no need for an expensive clean-up procedure.''

The point surely is that by resisting the Ministry, Mr. Thomas-Everard saved the Ministry and the taxpayer a considerable amount of money on compensation that would, he tells me, have been was somewhere in the region of £1.5 to £2 million. That money was saved and employees who would have been out of a job continued to be employed.

That man did nothing more than protecting his business and his animals against the actions of an irresponsible vet who had to be pressured into admitting that she was in fact a dirty vet. Yet under the Bill, that responsible farmer would be committing an offence. Proposed new section 36J(2) quite clearly states:

    ''A person commits an offence If—

    (a) he is required to give assistance under section 36I(3), and

    (b) he fails to give it.''

I concur with amendment No.114, tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, that the best thing to do is to strike out the clause. Failing that, I would support amendment No. 136, which says that any person will be committing an offence if he fails to give assistance

    ''unless there are mitigating circumstances''.

The case that I have just outlined would surely provide supremely good mitigating circumstances, and I hope, in the absence of any other such balancing measure, that the Committee will consider accepting either amendment. They would bring some balance to the circumstances in which someone might or might not have committed an offence. We should not be willing to penalise people who are trying to do the right thing.

6.15 pm

 
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