Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Do I smell a whiff of double standards? In opposition, the hon. Gentleman was one of those who called for a full inquiry into the causes and handling of BSE. Incidentally, the Government of the day received advice not only from MAFF officials, but from top scientists, that the disease was a new phenomenon and that sufficient research had not been carried out. If the hon. Gentleman believed that there should have been a full inquiry into BSE, why do he and his party not believe that there should be a full inquiry into the latest foot and mouth outbreak? That seems to me to smack a little of hypocrisy.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Lady makes a nice point but it goes straight over my shoulder because she has not heard the rest of my speech. I actually support an independent inquiry, but I was responding to her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for East Surrey. He was the one who was exhibiting a touch of hypocrisy; he was speaking for a party that would not hold a full inquiry into BSE, but now demands one into foot and mouth disease.

I supported calls for an inquiry into BSE and I support calls for an inquiry into foot and mouth disease. I want to know how it happened, what went wrong, the criticisms that might be made of officials and what we can do to ensure that it never happens again. The hon. Lady was rather too abrupt; it was too early to accuse me of hypocrisy, but if she stays around she may have ample evidence to make that criticism stick.

I apologise to the House. I cannot resist temptation and when I am dragged into such arguments they take me away from what I was intending to say. I realise that many Members want to speak.

The additional sweeping powers to be given to Ministers are the aspects of the Bill that really concern me. If that involved only my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, I should sleep easy in my bed, but it does not: it will involve all those DEFRA officials and all those so-called experts—the people who got us into all the difficulties in the past and who will undoubtedly get us into difficulties in future. That is why I am uneasy. The Bill goes much too far in giving Ministers additional powers, and I am not happy about that.

Indeed, the idea that Ministers can order slaughter whether or not animals have been exposed to foot and mouth disease is one that I find wholly unacceptable. I hope that my hon. Friend is getting the idea that I am not a happy bunny—[Laughter.] If I were, I should probably be slaughtered by some of his officials in the next outbreak.

During the current outbreak, the policy was to cull contiguously for up to 3 m—[Hon. Members: "3 km".] Yes, three metres would have been a bit close. The

12 Nov 2001 : Column 622

scientific evidence seems to show that that was unnecessary. I hope that my hon. Friend has read the interesting article that was published in The Veterinary Record on 12 May—"Relative risks of the uncontrollable (airborne) spread of FMD by different species".

Mr. Morley: Yes.

Mr. Banks: The resigned way in which my hon. Friend acknowledged that he had read the article suggests that he may not have been wholly convinced by it, but I hope that he will at least answer the points raised in it. That would save me reading them out to the House. As he knows what is in the article, no doubt he will be able to address it.

The scale of the slaughter during the current outbreak was abhorrent. I say "current" because it has not yet officially finished. Although I can understand the logic that if everything is slaughtered we shall eradicate the disease, I cannot go along with the lack of humanity in that approach. As I have said on several occasions, it is just as well that DEFRA is not in charge of the national health service, given its attitude to disease control.

What about isolation, vaccination or surveillance? They are all worth consideration. I hope that an inquiry would examine in detail all those alternatives to mass slaughter so that we can avoid the scenes we witnessed. I cannot accept that contiguous culling was in the interests of animal welfare.

I am trying to find something nice to say to my hon. Friend, but it is a bit difficult at the moment—even though he knows that I am one of his strongest supporters in the House and I pay him due credit for everything that he has done in support of animal welfare. He is being badly advised on the Bill. If Ministers had introduced the Bill during the outbreak, there might have been much greater justification for it and they could have argued far more persuasively for its acceptance by the House. The obvious signs of the crisis were all around. However, it seems strange to bring in the measure at the very fag end of the damn thing. I agree that the outbreak is not officially over, but we appear to have gone way past its strongest point, so to introduce legislation at this stage is not only unnecessary but premature. In those circumstances, it is difficult to understand why we should be asked to support the measure.

We are being asked to support a Bill that gives far greater powers to Ministers before we fully understand the causes of the outbreak. The powers given to DEFRA officials are so extensive that they terrify me. I am terrified on behalf of all the animals that could be slaughtered. I have already mentioned llamas, but elephants, deer, rats and goats can all be affected by foot and mouth disease.

Mr. Morley: And hedgehogs.

Mr. Banks: Indeed. God forbid—if I believed in him—that along should come the DEFRA officials saying, "Minister, it's getting very bad, we shall have to slaughter all those animals." They will go into the zoos, take out the llamas and the elephants and so on. That might sound a bit exaggerated but, given the evidence of the past,

12 Nov 2001 : Column 623

that is the sort of advice that I would expect my hon. Friend's officials to give. It is to protect him against such advice that I tell him that it is a bad Bill.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks: No, I am about to finish. This is my peroration; surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

I do not intend to support the Bill in the Lobby, nor do I intend to join the Opposition's opportunistic attack. I shall abstain in person, as they say. However, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises that I will do so out of concern for him as well as for animals. I hope to serve on the Committee and perhaps to help him to improve this wretched Bill.

6.50 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The speech of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) almost reached biblical proportions in terms of its broad-brush description of the animals that might be vulnerable under the powers in the Bill. He joins a growing list of right hon. and hon. Members who have, in their own ways, asked telling and searching questions about it.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) took his usual careful and considered approach and he almost got to the stage of saying that he would not support the Government. He thought better of that, but asked some important questions. The hon. Members for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) and for Bedford (Mr. Hall) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) did exactly the same as the hon. Member for West Ham. They illustrated one of the major problems with the Bill: the speed with which it has been introduced and the lack of any consultation with the people who understand the problem and, more important, may understand something about how one deals with it.

It is interesting that there has been little mention of the Prime Minister so far in the debate. I recall that he took charge of the foot and mouth outbreak and some improvements supposedly resulted. We can understand the good reasons why he has remained quiet at this time, but it would be interesting to learn whether he had anything to do with the Bill. I always think that one judges a Government by the way in which they handle a crisis. This Government have handled this crisis badly.

The chief vet, Mr. Scudamore, gave evidence to the Select Committee and he is reported as saying:

Such people form the basis of the scientific advice that lies behind the Bill.

As a former Minister in MAFF, I recognise that science has an important and powerful role to play in the operation of DEFRA. However, with the Ministers' advisers learning as they went along, there is also a powerful case for listening to other arguments. As the Minister will understand from the evidence that the Select Committee has received, there is still no definitive science on exactly how the disease started. We know how it spread, but we do not know how it started.

12 Nov 2001 : Column 624

We also learned recently that there is no definitive science that explains how the disease moves from farm to farm. We think that we understand some of the ways in which it can do that but, again, there is no definitive answer. One of the arguments that people have used to challenge the powers that will give DEFRA officials the ability to arrange for slaughter on the basis of suggestion came from farmers in Devon who offered powerful arguments about why their farms should be protected.

The Select Committee therefore held an interesting discussion on contiguous culling. If there is contiguous activity between an animal on a diseased farm and one on a farm without the disease, one can imagine how disease might be spread by contact or by its release into the air. However, when the animals involved are on farms two valleys away and round a bend in the river, we do not know exactly how the disease spreads between them. Yet farmers in such circumstances might be the ones to challenge the powers in the Bill. Therefore, despite the strong science base in DEFRA, it is right to ask questions about the nature of the powers in the Bill.

In a letter that the Minister sent to colleagues in the House, he said:

people with an interest in an issue are now described as "stakeholders"—

Hang on a minute, were we not supposed to be rushing to get the Bill on to the statute book? Yet the Minister said that they would be working with stakeholders

believe it or not—

The man who wished to act swiftly appears to have slowed things down remarkably.

The hon. Member for West Ham made a telling point when he said that the Bill might have been justified if it had been introduced at the peak of the disease. I am also intrigued about the timing of its introduction, so that is why I asked the Secretary of State about that.

The Minister told the Select Committee that the Bill's drafting began in August, which is an interesting month because many people are on holiday then. I suspect, therefore, that officials were thinking about the Bill and making submissions to Ministers in May or June. The Minister would have replied, "Oh, those powers are a bit steep. How am I going to sell that? What am I going to do?" The Bill was probably thought up some time ago but, if it is central to fighting foot and mouth, he should have introduced it earlier and with a degree of proper consultation.

All the arguments made have questioned the Bill's practical implications. Despite Professor King's argument about there being a 17.5 per cent. chance that a contiguous farm would be infected, we have not been able to debate what that means in practical terms just as we have not been able to debate how a decision on the operation of the powers can be challenged. Although reference has been made to magistrates and to judicial review, I can imagine what might happen in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon.

12 Nov 2001 : Column 625

Someone is up on the fells with the wind blowing; telephone lines are down; there has been a power cut and the mobile phone has not been charged, so how would he get in touch with his lawyer to mount a judicial review to challenge the operation of the powers? The provision is not practical in the real world.

Although farmers will have an opportunity to talk to the veterinary authorities about the operation of the powers, I would like some form of stay of execution, at least, to be built into the procedures so that a second opinion can be obtained and the farmer can be heard. Even if he does not necessarily have his day in court, an element of informed arbitration would help to decide whether it was right and proper to use the powers.

Next Section

IndexHome Page