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Malcolm Bruce: Indeedthe hon. Gentleman's intervention is helpful. I hope that the Minister will understand that our opposition to the Bill is not a knee-jerk or negative reaction, simply produced by the fact that we are in opposition. We believe that very substantial powers may be created in a hurry, and it behoves Minister to justify doing so. At present, we do not think that Ministers have justified them.
When the Secretary of State came to the House after the debacle of the sheep and cow brain research, she indicated that legislation to eliminate scrapie was at an advanced stage of preparation. No reference was made to other powers, and it is interesting that the reference to scrapie in the Bill, as opposed to the schedule, occupies one line. The rest of the Bill relates to foot and mouth disease and all its implications.
There is a general recognition that if we can breed scrapie out of the herd, there is merit in so doing. Obviously, questions arise about how effective that will be. Another question is how to decide which breeds are scrapie resistant. Where is the cut-off point? Where is the determination? Who decides?
As the Government and the Minister have said, measures will be taken to protect special breeds. We need to know what those measures will be. If we want diversity of breeding, we need to ensure that we do not, in the process of trying to eliminate scrapie, create such uniformity among the sheep flock that we make it less resistant to another unknown disease that would have so much of a common thread that it would run through our genetic stock.
We have an obligation to maintain diversity as well as having an attachment to some unusual breeds. That is true in some of the wilder and more remote parts of Scotland and elsewhere. We need to know that we are not going down a path that is incompatible with maintaining diversity. Perhaps the Minister will indicate how that can be achieved when he replies. He will find that many people want answers.
If this measure had merely been the scrapie Bill, I suspect that it would have received a Second Reading without a Division. Given the other provisions that it contains, there certainly will be a Division. We shall vote against the Bill.
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I was rather surprised when the Bill was placed before the House, and I am surprised by some of the reasons that lead us to be debating it this evening. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spoke to the Environment Committee last week and mentioned that there was a slot in the legislative programme that enabled
By rushing through the proposed legislation without much consultation, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and his colleagues risk fanning the flames of opposition within the rural community. I represent a semi-rural constituency that has not been affected by foot and mouth. I recognise that within it farmers are not natural supporters of either the Labour party or a Labour Government. They are happy and prepared to use anything that is done by the Labour Government within the agricultural community as a reason to object to and vilify that Government. Therefore, my hon. Friend's Department must be careful about the handling of any legislation that relates to the agricultural community.
Over the past eight or nine months while foot and mouth disease has been rampaging across England, I have noticed that there has been no consensus on how the disease should be handled. There was criticism that the Government were being too draconian. At another stage, there was criticism that they were not moving fast enough and were not culling enough animals. There were arguments in favour of vaccination, but there was strong opposition when the issue appeared on the agenda of the NFU. It was said that vaccination would be a complete disaster.
As the disease has moved round the country and as it has been handled and seen to flare up again, I have learned from the debates and swings of opinion over the past eight months that there is no consensus among scientists or farmers on how best to deal with it. That makes it difficult for Ministers and DEFRA officials in any Administration to carry out policies that will take the farming community with them. In a way, that is part of the problem. There were strong arguments in the spring for a limited use of vaccination, but I well remember ministerial advisers telling the Select Committee that they would not advise Ministers to use vaccination, even if there were good scientific reasons for doing so, without the support of the farming community.
The same goes for the culling policycontiguous culling and firebreaks. Measures on vaccination and culling in the Bill could be used only when there was a majority view in the farming community in favour of vaccination or contiguous culling. They could be used only against the odd individual in a particular locality who sought to resist the consensus on the right approach to deal with foot and mouth. The extravagant opposition of some newspaper articles and correspondence, which, I am sure, right hon. and hon. Members have received, comes partly from the assumption that Governments would use vaccination or a firebreak policy when there is overwhelming opposition from the farming community. Ministers need to be clear that those powers should be used only when there is a majority in favour of using them and a handful of farmers who do not go along with the consensus.
On the specifics of the Bill, I am concerned about the issue of appeals. I accept that farmers can go to the divisional veterinary manager and appeal against vaccination or a policy of culling. The second stage is an appeal before a magistrate. I understand that that appeal simply involves a DEFRA official going to see a magistrate and saying that the Department wants to carry out a cull or have access to the farm to vaccinate. At that stage, there is no opportunity for farmers to put the contrary case to the magistrate. They can only take action by going for judicial review, most likely after the action has been taken.
There may be good reasons for taking action quickly, but I am not convinced that we cannot devise a system whereby the magistrate is accessible to both farmers and DEFRA officials. We must be careful to carry the farming community with us as much as possible when such measures are used. We are setting up a situation in which a farmer's animals can be culled and then, at a later stage, judicial review can show that he was right all along, and compensation is paid because the Government got it wrong. In doing so, we risk making the Department even more unpopular with farmers and discrediting the policy that we seek and on which there is a general consensus. When the provision dealing with that is debated in Committee, I hope that Ministers will have much more information about how it will work. They need to work hard with the farming community, the National Farmers Union and other organisations to persuade them of the merits of their policies. It would be a disaster if, in two or three months, the Bill is enacted in the face of fierce opposition from the farming community. That is not in the interests of the Government or of defeating foot and mouth disease in the future.
Mr. Morley: Almost all the main farming organisations and some of the special organisations have welcomed the principles behind the measure. They have concerns about some of details, but there is not widespread opposition to the idea of the Bill. Many organisations, understandably, want clarification about how it will work and about some of the procedures.
Mr. Borrow: I accept that. The majority of organisations dealing with farmers can go along with much that is in the Bill. They are worried about how the provisions are to be carried out in practice. The fact that the Bill has been rushed into the Chamber without a long period of consultation has given rise to concerns and suspicion that might not have arisen, had there been a longer period for such consultation. It is important that in the weeks ahead, everything possible be done to ensure that the farming community is on board on the Bill.
The other aspects that are likely to be controversial can be seen as tidying-up measures. In the Animal Health Act 1981 there is no provision making it an offence deliberately to infect an animal with foot and mouth disease. One may consider that a daft thing to do, but as the Bill provides an opportunity to rectify that omission, it seems sensible to do so and make that act an offence. That is not the same as saying that there are thousands of farmers out there deliberately infecting their animals in order to claim compensation.
Finally, I shall comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). As I understand it, the Opposition would hold a public inquiry and only after that would they decide whether any tidying-up measures were necessary to improve the legislation in respect of foot and mouth. I do not find that a sensible position for the Opposition to hold. It may be sensible to argue that there should be a public inquiry, except that that would take a long time.
In the light of their experience of fighting the outbreak, it is sensible for officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to advise Ministers and tell them that if particular powers had been available, or if certain measures had been introduced, the Department would have been more effective in dealing with foot and mouth. Those officials should press Ministers for legislation to be introduced if the opportunity arises. I think that there is a lot of work to be done on the Bill in Committee and I shall support its Second Reading. My final word is on the view that I have expressed throughout my speech: we must do all that we can to ensure that the farming community supports the legislation and that proper explanations are given, point by point, of the way in which it will operate in practice.