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Mr. Martlew: I expect the hon. Gentleman to attack the Government, which is the Opposition's job, but I do not expect him to attack the staff in the way that he has. Is it not a fact that, in Cumbria and throughout the country, DEFRA staff and MAFF staff before them have worked hard and tirelessly for long hours to try to get the disease under control? Can he give his statements some credibility by praising those staff?
Mr. Ainsworth: I am delighted to do that, because many staff, officials, vets and members of the armed services worked extremely hard. However, that does not mean that the instructions to which they worked were adequate or well directed. Nor does it explain why so many people giving evidence to the various public inquiries that have now been established have gone out of their way to criticise officials and the clumsy and often belligerent way in which they operated.
I know that officials will need to get approval from a magistrate before exercising the new powers, but I do not know how a magistrate will know whether a request for mass slaughter is justified. I hope that the Minister will explain that.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): We in the Select Committee questioned the Minister on that point, and I asked whether magistrates were to be given special training. I am afraid that he replied that that was not a matter for him. Given that the magistrate concerned might have to remove the livelihood of a member of his community, I ask the Minister to produce an answer today or, at the very worst, in time for Committee. I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the point, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's answer.
Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. Lady's attempts to run away from an important question are pathetic. She owes it to the people on whom the legislation will impact to provide an answer to my right hon. Friend's question.
Mrs. Shephard: I will happily answer the right hon. Lady, although perhaps she should remember that she is in government and responsible for finding answers to questions. Magistrates are, of course, provided with training to deal with injunctions and other matters. This is a matter of a different order, which is why I put the question to the Minister, and why I was so shocked that he could not find the answer. Clearly, the right hon. Lady does not know either. What a scandal.
Margaret Beckett: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman what my hon. Friend the Minister sought to convey to the right hon. Lady, who should know that the training of magistrates is not a matter for our Department. It would be wrong of us to seek to intervene in that; it is a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department.
The fact is that the legislation will pose serious problems for magistrates if they do not get appropriate training. It envisages a magistrate receiving a telephone call and being told that there is an urgent case. That magistrate will have to rely simply on the word of officials or of the Minister. Given that the Government's credibility, and especially the Department's, is at such a low ebb, the magistrate will be in an extremely difficult position. The Secretary of State clearly has no understanding of how discredited her Department has become. Many will ask why, after all the mess and chaos over which the Government have presided and which they have, in many ways, abetted, anyone should trust the word of the Secretary of State's officials on FMD.
Farmers or other people responsible for animals will not get the chance to put their case. The sentence will, in effect, be summary and based on the evidence of the Department alone. That is not only unreasonable but unjust. On the front page of the Bill, the Secretary of State baldly states:
Why does clause 4 distinguish between the compensation arrangements for animals slaughtered as part of a general carnage and those for animals slaughtered after vaccination? In the case of vaccinated animals, the Bill allows the Minister to
Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend will be aware that matters of compensation must also be considered by the European Commission. Was not it interesting that the Secretary of State made no reference to her discussions with the EU? After all, we are part of a single market.
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend makes a good point, because it appears that the Bill has been drafted without reference to the EU framework. As I said, forthcoming international discussions may have significant ramifications for the handling of diseases and the Government have pre-empted their outcome.
The Bill is as notable for its omissions as for the new powers that it confers on Ministers. The most serious omission is the absence of any new measure to tackle one of the root causes of the FMD outbreak and other forms of animal disease: inadequate import controls. It is widely agreed that as FMD did not originate spontaneously, it must have been imported. The farming community has long argued for more stringent surveillance measures and tougher sentences for illegal or substandard food imports. It is arguable that such measures would make the greatest single contribution to reducing the risk of further outbreaks. As things stand, I am sad to say, we could import FMD again tomorrow, and the Bill does nothing to reduce that risk.
The Bill is premature, has been introduced without consultation, is misdirected, and contains measures that are unfair and disproportionate. It will do nothing to restore the Government's reputation among the farming community, nor to encourage much needed confidence in the wider rural community.
It is indeed an extraordinary achievement for the Government to have earned the severe criticism of both Compassion in World Farming and the Countryside Alliance. That must be a first. Better legislation would follow mature consideration both of the reasons for the outbreak and of the failure of the Government's attempt to bring it under control. I urge the House to accept our amendment.
The parts of the Bill that merit its being sent for further consideration in Committee are, in particular, those relating to the national scrapie plan. I think we would all accept that we have for far too long tolerated a fatal illness in sheep which may also mask other serious animal diseases that may have implications for human health. The national plan, which the Bill will assist, may help us to accelerate the elimination of scrapie from our national flock. That measure alone means that the Bill merits strong consideration. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), commended it, although he said that it needed further detailed consideration. I agree with him; it certainly is a strong feature of the Bill.
The second element that deserves positive support is the recognition that carelessness and ignorance may lead to the spread of disease, and that it may be worth while to give farmers incentives to avoid those risks as far as possible.
Those are the key elements that I think are positive. However, I am afraid that there are other elements that I regard with some doubt, and Ministers will need to persuade me. They will also have to take a more flexible view of the need to improve the Bill in Committee. Bearing in mind the haste with which the Bill has been put together, it would be prudent for Ministers to listen carefully to reasoned amendments in Committee, and to reflect on whether they would improve it.
I am concerned by any step to widen Ministers' powers to destroy animals without having to act according to clear criteria. I recognise and accept the rationale that the disease might have been slowed down by a more vigorous cull process applied with more rigour across our country, so if I can be persuaded that the powers in the Bill will ensure that those measures are available, I shall accept it. However, from Ministers asking for such exceptional powers, I would normally seek absolutely clear criteria for deciding on the application of those powerswhich, as has already been said, would end a farmer's livelihood, temporarily at least.
The second issue that concerns me is the denial of compensation on the basis of biosecurity lapses over a 21-day perioda period that may go back before the outbreak even started. Unless it is the contention that those biosecurity measures should be in place as a matter of course on all farms at all times, the time of the outbreak of the disease would probably be the point at which most farmers would consider the need to introduce additional security measures on their properties. Yet the legislation, baldly written as it is, implies that for 21 days before the outbreak was identified on a property, a farmer would have had to have taken those measures already, even if he were ignorant of the fact that an outbreak had occurred elsewhere in the country.
Ministers should further consider how the 21-day rule is to be interpreted. In the Select Committee, a number of Members questioned the Minister on how the principle operated, bearing in mind the fact that most farmers would receive a visit from a Department official at the time the outbreak occurred but would not normally expect to see such an official during the previous 21 days to identify whether the appropriate measures had been put in place. Of course, those measures are not defined. I recognise that they may be defined in regulations and note the assurance of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there will be consultation on those issues, but at present we are slightly in the dark about them.
It would be prudent to ensure that the 21-day principle were tied much more clearly to matters for which there was a verifiable record, rather than a matter of opinion, such as whether a passer-by noticed a disinfectant trough next to a footpath. The outbreak gave rise to enough urban and rural myths without our encouraging yet more people to speculate, sometimes maliciously, or imagine how various things happened. This principle rather invites that process.