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Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I cannot do so. The hon. Lady might raise the question with the Food Standards Agency. I am not totally familiar with the statement that she quotes, and I am not aware on what scientific advice it might be based.
It must be desirable to seek to eradicate from our sheep flock the risk not only of BSE but of the entire family of such diseases. That includes scrapie, which has been present in this country for centuries, although it is not always found in other countries where there are large sheep flocks.
We announced in July the establishment of the national scrapie plan, which is designed to enable us, through a rapid programme of genetic identification and breeding controls, to breed TSE resistance into the national flock. The plan has received much support from the sheep sector, but it is a voluntary scheme and it is becoming clear that take-up of the scheme at the present rate could take too long to have the desired effect. Moreover, the Food Standards Agency has specifically called on the Government to seek to speed up scrapie eradication in this country.
To ensure that we have the means to carry out this work effectively, the Bill contains limited new powers of entry and enforcement, consistent with similar provisions relating to the control of foot and mouth disease. I must emphasise that these powers are not intended to raise the prospect of mass slaughter. Rather, they are designed to facilitate the redevelopment of the flock in a managed way, without causing unnecessary disruption to farmers. Indeed, Ministers will be required to consider whether there are exceptional reasons that justify the continued use even of some susceptible sheep for breeding purposes, and farmers whose animals are subject to breeding restrictions will have the right of appeal to an independent adjudicator. We will be consulting in full on how the appeals process and other detailed arrangements are to be managed, so that producers' concerns can be fully addressed.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. The Bill enables the Secretary of State to make arrangements for compensation in the event that the powers are exercised. Is it the right hon. Lady's intention to lay a compensation scheme before the House and make it available to Parliament?
Margaret Beckett: Those issues will have to be considered in time. I will not say today that the Government intend to introduce such a compensation programme. We shall want to hear from the industry and all involved.
We shall also consider carefully when the powers to which I referred should be introduced, taking account of whether further progress is made under the voluntary arrangements. We shall consult the industry organisations and other stakeholders, as it is essential that we have their views. I remind the House that we have always made it clear that a compulsory scheme was likely to be necessary at some stage. We believe that if we seek the necessary powers now to make that possible, they will enable the Government better to safeguard human health and consumer confidence; the future of our sheep industry and its integral role in the rural economy; and sheep producers who, by moving towards the exclusive production of scrapie-resistant rams, will achieve disease-free animals and a basis for more competitive trading.
The Bill provides the options that we need at this time to tackle risks posed by foot and mouth disease, TSEs in sheep and other diseases. We undoubtedly have more lessons to learn, and the Bill is by no means the end of the story, but the Government regard it as a vital step towards a more secure and healthy future for our livestock industry, and I commend it to the House.
I am acutely aware that, given the scientific uncertainty about whether BSE may be present in sheepan uncertainty that is not helped by the recent mix-up between cows' brains and those of sheepthere is an urgent need to speed up the scientific inquiry into this field and to take precautionary measures.
Mr. Hogg: I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on the same point that I put to the Secretary of State, but does he understand the importance of establishing a compensation scheme for farmers whose stock will be affected if powers are exercised under part II with regard to sheep?
Mr. Ainsworth: If my right hon. and learned Friend will be patient, I shall come to compensation in a moment. He has made an important and compelling point, and we will seek answers to the question that he asked the Secretary of State, who appeared unable to provide an answer.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I should like to make a similar point. My hon. Friend will be aware that, with regard to possibility of the recent experiment concluding that BSE was present in the national sheep flock, serious consideration was being given to total cull of the national sheep herd. The Bill provides that only 75 per cent. mandatory compensation would be available in those circumstances. Will he press the Secretary of State very hard on whether she has anywhere in her Department any current evidence of BSE, because if she has, the Bill could become oppressive?
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is mistaken. If he looks again at the Bill, he will see that the possibility of not paying full compensation at once is linked only to bad biosecurity.
Mr. Ainsworth: We do not wish to give the Bill a Second Reading because it does not take a second glance to work out that it is poor legislation. It is badly drafted and targeted, and, in all likelihood, it is, as many suspect, badly motivated.
The foot and mouth outbreak was a catastrophe that cost millions of animal lives and billions of pounds. It brought heartbreak and financial ruin to thousands of businesses throughout the countryand not only those involved in farming. There are important lessons to be learned, but the Bill contains no evidence to show that the Government have learned from their mistakes. Indeed, it suggests strongly that they are in denial of their role in the whole sad affair. I fear that it represents another blow to the credibility of the Secretary of State and her new Department.
Although the Department has been in existence for only five months, it has already acquired a reputation for being by turns incompetent, feeble and vindictive. Today, it is in vindictive mode. I do not know how many times the Secretary of State repeated that she did not blame farmers for what had happenedI look forward to reading Hansard to ascertain that. However, the notion that farmers were to blame for the disaster of foot and mouth disease is at the heart of the Bill.
Whenever anything goes wrong, it is the Government's natural and cowardly instinct to look around for someone else to blame. However, I have rarely witnessed anything as low or contemptible as their attempt to blame foot and mouth on the farming community. After all that the farming community has been through in the past year, the Government produce a Bill that tries to punish it for a crime that it did not commit. It is a punishment inflicted on the innocent by the guilty.