|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The hon. Gentleman is Scottish, so does he share my concern and amazement that there has been no consultation with the devolved Assemblies or Parliaments? In particular, does he share my concern that there will be a different system of compensation in England and Wales from the one that pertains in Scotland? As he suggests, many cross-border issues will prove to be a festering sore for the Government.
Malcolm Bruce: I have read the amendment to which the hon. Gentleman has attached his name and I know that he is concerned about the role of the National Assembly for Wales. I suspect that his concern is shared by my colleagues in Wales. Consultation has taken place between Departments north and south of the border, but I agree that it has not taken place with the Parliament. I shall return to that point.
Given the slaughter that has taken place over the past few months and the appalling spectacle of pyres and bulldozed bodies, the wider public will be concerned that the Government are planning an even bigger scale of slaughter next time. People will want to know whether that is the right way to respond to the crisis.
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire made the reasonable point that the Department needs to put its own house in order before it begins to legislate about the behaviour of the others with whom it has to work. There can be no doubt that the Department has been run down progressively over a number of years. That process began under the Conservatives, but it has continued under Labour. Regional offices have been reduced or closed and policy has been applied inconsistently. The hon. Gentleman may believe that changes were made according to the information available, but different advice or instructions appeared to given at the same time in different parts of the country. I am told that that actively encouraged farmers to take legal advice and action against the Government. That might not have happened if policies had been applied consistently.
Malcolm Bruce: Although we do not know that, my view is based on strong reports. Before 11 SeptemberI am sure this is still truethose of us who travelled to the United States knew that at any international airport we would be surrounded by sniffer dogs. They were not looking for heroin or for cannabis, but for ham sandwiches or anything else that might infect American food. We have no such security in this country, and nothing in the Bill suggests that we will get it.
The hon. Members for South Derbyshire and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) alluded to the definition of inadequate biosecurity, which is now to become an offence that could compromise someone's right to full compensation. There may be a legitimate argument for having such a rule, but the problem is that the Department will decide what biosecurity is and when a breach occurs. A magistrate will have to decide on the basis of departmental information whether a breach has taken place.
Reference has been made to the training of magistrates and to injunctions, which involve a point of law. However, determining questions of biosecurity involves a point of professional judgment with which a magistrate has more difficulty. A farmer might ultimately persuade a magistrate that the advice was wrong, but that might happen after the flock had been slaughtered.
Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is again mixing up parts of the Bill. Appeal on the ground of biosecurity is not to a magistrate but to a separate tribunal, which will be experienced in dealing with such issues. The intention of consultation is to agree the assessment with the industrywhich does not object to the proposal in principleto make it as simple and understandable as possible, and to use it as part of the guidance that we give farmers about the practices that they should be applying. That could be done logically and straightforwardly, and such a provision would be to the advantage of the whole industry.
Mr. Martlew: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that only this weekend 400 sheep were killed in south Cumbria on suspicion of foot and mouth? We are not over the outbreak yet; there was a lull in the 1967 outbreak of the kind we face today. I disagree with the slaughter policy, but we need to pass the Bill so that we can get on top of the disease and reduce the number of animals that have to be slaughtered. We have learned the lessons of the outbreak since the end of February.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I was about to make that point; the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) argued against his own position. Is not one important factor that under clause 1(3) there no longer has to be even a suspicion of infection? Action can be taken simply because the Minister feels like it.
Malcolm Bruce: Exactly. The Minister is much respected in the House and in the farming community, but it is not good enough just to say, "I'm the Minister. I wouldn't misuse those powers." He may not be the Minister who uses them. The point of scrutiny in this House is to justify in an absolute sense the powers that are conferred, regardless of who the Minister may be. The power of the Secretary of State or the Minister to determine that any animal should be slaughtered without any justification seems extremely strong, and one for which the House would have to have an overwhelming reason to grant. The case for that has certainly not been put to us convincingly.
More to the point, the public want the outbreak to be eliminated. I and my party defended the slaughter policy at times when it was extremely difficult to do sofor example, we said that it should not be changed half way through and that there was no adequate alternative. The Minister may accept that or not.
Many of us also said that the scale of the slaughter and the images that it created should never be repeated. We need to find a better way. Indeed, my colleague, Ross Finnie, Minister for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland, is on record as saying that he does not believe that he could get away with such a policy if there were another outbreak on the same scale.
Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is making a fair and reasonable case for his legitimate concerns about the Bill. The powers relate to such matters as a firebreak cull, which was implemented in Scotland following veterinary advice. Such action would not be one of my personal preferences. I should make it clear that I do not want culling on such a scale to occur ever again in this country. The Bill does not pre-empt any different approach, but whatever approach we take is bound to include some elements of vaccination, zoology and culling. The Bill strengthens all those aspects.
Malcolm Bruce: Let me be clear: some practical amendments to the legislation in the light of experience may be justified, but given the way in which the outbreak has been handled, we could have waited a little longer to introduce a Bill. There could have been more consultation, and more questions could have been answered. We fear that the Government are taking more powers than they hope will be necessary just in case they need them. Opposition parties have a responsibility to call Ministers to account and to question and challenge powers that we believe are too sweeping and unjustified.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the different system in Scotland. The Bill will apply to Wales, although the National Farmers Union in Wales is worried about the confusion that might arise over who will take which decisions. Ross Finnie has told me that, after consultation, he will introduce legislation in Scotland and that there must be a parallel rule on the scrapie measures. As the NFU in England has said, we want to know what will happen in Scotland, because there is no point in having a regime in England and Wales if there is no parallel regime in Scotland. I endorse that view as someone who is strongly pro-devolution. Parallel measures are needed.
Mr. Russell Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that much of Ross Finnie's argument for taking that decision centres on the fact that the last outbreak in Scotland occurred on 30 May, so he has had time to consider what has happened?
Malcolm Bruce: Yes, but I am not persuaded that the situation for Ministers south of the border is fundamentally different. I appreciate that there was a bigger, more expensive and extensive outbreak in England and that it is not yet over. I accept all that, but it beggars belief that we cannot manage our way through what may happen without taking draconian powers.
People assumed that lessons were being learned that might be appropriate for the next outbreak, not that measures were being taken this late in the day to finish off the current outbreak. Indeed, the Minister has implied that the Bill is intended for the next time, but he has used the fact that we are not quite in the safety zone to justify its introduction now.
As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) implied in his intervention, the disease affected his constituency very badly, and it affected mine tangentially. Nevertheless, the outbreak in Scotland was more manageable and was dealt with quickly, but there was also much more co-operation, understanding and shorter lines of communication, all of which helped. The watering down of the regional offices in England lengthened the lines of communication there, which created some of the difficulties. Lessons may be learned from that, but perhaps Ministers could have considered the situation in Scotland and said, "This is relevant and this is not" and applied the best practice and discarded the rest, and explained why. It would have been reassuring if that had happened.
The inspector may require any person on the land or premises to give him such assistance as he reasonably needs for the purpose mentioned in subsection (2)."