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7.10 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I normally like to welcome Government Bills: this time, I acknowledge the Government's need to introduce the Bill. I have heard reservations about the Bill expressed by hon. Members on both sides of House. Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), I found the title "Animal Health" slightly confusing. The Bill clearly deals with foot and mouth and other livestock diseases, and it could have been given a more accurate title.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham and other hon. Members have said that they might have accepted the Bill if it had been introduced at the height of the crisis, but if such measures would have been right then, they are right now, and I recognise and acknowledge the need to introduce them.

There was a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease in my constituency, especially around Cross Ash, Grosmont, Chepstow, Raglan and Usk. There were about 20 cases when the outbreak was at its worst. When we thought that it was all over, there were further outbreaks in Llanelen, which is very close to the Brecon Beacons national park, and it was felt that the outbreak was related to the serious outbreak in that area.

I will never forget the despair of the farmers who were most directly affected. I also have great sympathy with the farmers who were not directly affected but whose livelihoods have been directly affected as a consequence.

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Many of them have suffered a greater financial loss because they have lost their markets and the price of their livestock has been depressed.

I will never forget seeing farmers who had heard that they had an outbreak of the disease on their farms. In one case, I had to leave the farm, which those who were with me and I did immediately. I will not forget the impact in the Cross Ash area in the northern part of my constituency, or the sight of bloated carcases awaiting disposal after delays. Many of my constituents have written to me because they were repelled by the level of slaughter that was occurring. That put me in a difficult position because I represent a strong agricultural area. Many of my constituents have written to me about the need for vaccination. We should consider what is said by those most directly affected, rather than by mere observers. The general view of those farmers was that the culling policy was correct to get ahead of the disease, even though it caused considerable distress.

I recognise that there are reservations about the Bill, especially in relation to its timing and the lack of consultation. I recognise that many organisations in the industry have expressed surprise that there has not been more time, but I accept that, if these are emergency measures, they need to be introduced as soon as possible. If there were anomalies in the law relating to foot and mouth disease and the way in which officials could intervene during the outbreak, it is right that they should be resolved. We all sincerely hope that there will not be another outbreak next spring, but if there were to be another outbreak, I should not want to hear hon. Members say that the Government should have introduced such measures immediately after the 2001 outbreak. I hope that the precautionary principle is right in this case.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that if another outbreak occurred next spring, people might equally say that the Government had not been sufficiently assiduous in dealing with prevention by introducing measures that would avoid infection from imported meat or meat products, and that they had concentrated far too much on internal measures rather than on the external measures that would provide us with greater protection?

Mr. Edwards: I acknowledge the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I would have made it a little later in my speech. I regret that the Bill contains no provisions dealing with illegal imports or substandard legal imports, and I sincerely hope that other legislation will be introduced as quickly as possible in that respect.

Farmers in my constituency said that other animals may have contributed to the spread of the disease. During the outbreak in the Cross Ash area, they said that deer and birds contributed to its spread. If there is evidence to show that, I will accept the need to have the powers to cull those species.

At meeting after meeting, I have heard frustration expressed at delays in confirming cases of foot and mouth disease, in slaughtering and in paying compensation. This is a slightly different issue, but I tried to get through to the Intervention Board by phone. What a curious body it

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is—and with a curious name. I could never find out who the official relating to Monmouthshire or even Wales was, although there were serious welfare problems and serious delays. I understand that the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Wales is to rename the Intervention Board as it affects Wales, and I am glad that he is introducing such measures.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have recognised that the provisions on scrapie are welcome, but we have heard reservations about the compensation system and the 25 per cent. penalty. I can understand that there might be difficulties in implementing that system and in maintaining consistency in making judgments about whether farmers had taken the right biosecurity measures.

I note from the representations that we have received that organisations such as the RSPCA and the Country Landowners Association have expressed support for the Bill's general principle, as well as some concerns about the details. They have asked us to consider the Bill in detail in Committee and to consult at the same time.

In all the meetings that I have had with farmers they have expressed concerns about illegal and substandard legal meat imports—the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a moment ago. That is the one factor in the spread of foot and mouth disease that they repeatedly mention.

I hope that the Government will consider more search powers and more punishments for offenders. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to the procedures on the carrying of foodstuffs into the United States and other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has told me personally that Ireland has much stronger laws on meat imports. Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, has recently stated that illegal meat imports are seriously threatening animal and public health.

According to the Farmers Union of Wales, it was recently discovered that travellers had brought in 5.76 tonnes of illegal meat on 14 flights at Heathrow. Farmers in my constituency are absolutely appalled by that, and they want measures to be introduced to stop it happening.

The problems of long-distance livestock movements has been mentioned. Hon. Members have referred to the role of certain unscrupulous dealers who have moved livestock around considerably more than was generally known. That also reveals a lack of infrastructure such as local abattoirs. There is no large-scale abattoir in my constituency. If we had resources to invest in abattoir capacity, the number of long-distance livestock movements could be greatly reduced.

It is a great pity that my constituency is outside the objective 1 area. If it was in the objective 1 area, we could get some of the investment that we need. In a strong farming community such as Monmouthshire, there is no doubt that we could have more infrastructure—for example, better livestock markets, meat processing facilities and abattoirs. Those facilities could serve not only Monmouthshire, but south-east Wales and the border areas of England.

Farmers have raised with me the issue of inconsistencies in the payment of the slaughter premium. I recently met a group of farmers who had had their livestock culled and who had been led to believe that they would be entitled to the slaughter premium. I have been

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advised by auctioneers that whereas at one stage veterinary officers were handing out forms suggesting that the slaughter premium would be paid, they were later giving out forms that did not state that it would. Auctioneers believe that the premium should have been paid. I hope that as a result of the representations that I am making in the form of written questions to the Minister, the rules and regulations that relate to the premium will be examined. If it should have been paid, it should be paid as soon as possible.

I think that we recognise the need for emergency legislation that is based on the precautionary principle to deal with the anomalies that have been exposed in the foot and mouth outbreak. It is important that the Bill should be subject to serious scrutiny in Committee and that the relevant bodies with an interest in the industry should be widely consulted on its provisions.

7.21 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Bill has the feeling of a pre-emptive strike about it. From what we have heard from Ministers, the Bill is based on unproven assumptions about the the recent foot and mouth outbreak. Had these proposals come forward as emergency legislation during the outbreak, they would have been more acceptable. There would have been questions to ask about detail, but the broad principle of expanding Ministers' powers in terms of slaughter policy and its definition would perhaps have been accepted. It is not only the timing of the Bill's introduction that we have to consider: if we are looking to the future rather than simply considering a Bill that is too late for the past, it is to be hoped that the measure is part of a clear strategy.

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