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9.29 pm

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I cannot imagine many Second Reading debates in which the House has had the privilege of hearing speeches by the former Leader of the Opposition, who spoke after eight years away from the Back Benches, the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, himself a former Agriculture Minister, and two previous distinguished Agriculture Ministers. It has been a very wide-ranging and interesting debate.

I must mention first my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The reference to Richmond, Yorks always amuses me somewhat. I am aware that there are two Richmonds in the United Kingdom, but there is no doubt that my right hon. Friend represents the Yorkshire one. Not only is he a Yorkshireman, but he is proud of Yorkshire, and I have no doubt that Yorkshire is 100 per cent. proud of him. He and his neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), spoke from personal experience of the foot and mouth epidemic in Yorkshire and about the fact that there had been so much bungling and incompetence in the exercise of powers by officials. They expressed support for a truly public and open inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said that the onus on farmers that is apparent in the Bill should be placed on the Government themselves. He also supported import control and gave a vivid description of some of the imports into this country that could have an adverse effect on plant and animal health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made a very interesting speech. She has much experience in these matters and I very much hope that she will serve on the Committee that considers the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who apologises for being unable to be present for the winding-up speech, also gave of his long experience of ministerial office.

On the Labour Benches, we were very fortunate once again in hearing from the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who was loquacious, as always, but put in a

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splendid performance. None the less, he admitted that he, too, was uneasy about the sweeping additional powers given to the Minister by the Bill. In a very reflective and constructive speech, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who serves on the Select Committee, expressed qualified support for the Bill and said that he wanted improvements to be made at the Committee stage.

The Celtic fringe was also represented. The Welsh case was put by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), although the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) also spoke and might object to my saying that. The Scottish influence came in the form of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). I must refer to one more hon. Member: my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), whom I mention only because, like me, he followed someone of the same name into the House of Commons.

I detected a certain lack of support for the Bill on both sides of the House. Those who said that they would vote in support of Second Reading expressed considerable and numerous reservations. As a result, much work will be ahead of us in the Committee stage.

Despite the fact that almost 6 million animals have been slaughtered at a cost to the public purse of almost £2 billion, and although rural businesses of every sort are reeling and United Kingdom farmers are still suffering from months of over-stocking with little or no income as a result of the epidemic, the Government have chosen to give themselves further draconian powers in the face of a future disease outbreak. They obviously consider the proposals in the Bill to be more important than acting positively to prevent another disease outbreak by improving border inspections to stop illegal meat imports, which threaten human as well as animal health. Moreover, they have taken no action to tackle the issue of cheap food imports that are not produced to our own high standards, which undermine our farmers' competitiveness and carry serious risks of infection with animal disease. For example, urgent action should have been taken as a precautionary measure at the outset of the epidemic to prevent the importation of meat from countries with endemic foot and mouth disease.

The proposals in the Bill do nothing to assist farmers. They are a knee-jerk and panicked reaction by the Government to the implications of their handling of the epidemic, with the dithering, delays and centralised control that resulted in hundreds and thousands of animals being unnecessarily culled.

Conservatives and every rural organisation have persistently called for a full, open and independent public inquiry into the causes and handling of the epidemic to establish the true facts. The Government are running scared and refuse to establish such an inquiry, giving the excuse that it would take too long. That is patently untrue. There is no reason for not producing a comprehensive report in a reasonable time to allow mature reflection before leaping prematurely to legislate.

The Bill makes a mockery of the inquiries that the Government have already set up. Any reform in response to the epidemic should react to the recommendations of the "lessons learned" inquiry. At a stroke, the measure detracts from the inquiry that Dr. Iain Anderson is conducting.

If the Bill is enacted—we shall resist its provisions at every stage—it will empower DEFRA vets and officials to the extent that farmers would have to stand by and

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watch the compulsory slaughter of their stock. They would be powerless to prevent it. Compensation would be determined by DEFRA officials, who would take into account whether the farmer had complied with departmental orders. There would be no meaningful right of appeal and no appeal before the slaughter took place.

In The Daily Telegraph today, Adam Nicolson sums up the position in an article entitled, "How foot and mouth is fuelled by computers and cluelessness". He writes that the new changes

Throughout the epidemic, the Government sought to sully the names of United Kingdom farmers by accusing them of increasing the spread of the disease through allegedly poor biosecurity measures.

If Ministers had deployed appropriate resources in the early stages of the outbreak, the disease would have been eradicated in a shorter time. Scientists such as Professor Mark Woolhouse and Dr. Neil Ferguson have corroborated that view. It is incontrovertible that failure to minimise delays between suspicion of infection, slaughter and disposal of carcases at the beginning of the epidemic, especially in those vital three days in February, meant that the Government quickly and irrevocably lost control.

Anyone who has visited rural communities knows that DEFRA officials were responsible for many biosecurity lapses. There are abundant reports of such errors, whether caused during farm-to-farm blood testing or by the inadvertent introduction of the disease to a clean farm by DEFRA officials or those contracted to the Department through moving infected livestock from one farm to another, unaware of farm boundaries. It will be interesting to know the extent of the biosecurity that the Government will require of farmers before permitting their full compensation cheque to be processed. Will they be given prior, clear advice about the Government's requirements and will it be farm specific?

In this country, we have always believed that people are innocent until proven guilty. At present, the proposals are loaded towards the Government and against natural justice.

Mr. Banks: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Mrs. Winterton: As far as that is concerned, the Government have elevated many millionaires to the upper House. If they had the same work ethic as farmers, they would turn up in the other place a little more often. One millionaire who advises the Government has attended the other place only four times since he took his seat. What a record. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should not shout. We do not have a debate on the House of Lords at this moment. Perhaps some other time.

Mrs. Winterton: I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I had to respond in kind.

Part 2 of the Bill seeks to reduce by about half the likely time horizon for the eradication of scrapie in the sheep flock. There are no objections in principle to that aim, although a voluntary system would have been preferred by the industry.

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Many questions remain unanswered, to which we shall return in Committee. I trust that meaningful consultation with the industry will take place about details and timing, and that a willingness will be expressed to compensate fully for losses incurred as a result of the introduction of the compulsory scheme.

Since the announcement of the Animal Health Bill, it has been recognised for what it is: a dictatorial, hasty piece of legislation that seeks in a cold and calculating way to blame farmers and to absolve the Government of responsibility for the sheer scale of the foot and mouth epidemic. I invite right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote for the amendment this evening and to vote against the Bill.

9.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I welcome the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) to the Dispatch Box. This is the first time that she and I have debated across the House, and I am sure that we shall do so again.

I did not recognise the Bill that she was talking about. She complained about the Bill giving compulsory powers to kill farmers' animals whether they liked it or not. Those powers were introduced in the Animal Health Act 1981. This Bill is about issues such as access.

Many contributions to the debate were thoughtful and sensible, and I hope that I can respond to them in kind. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) asked about the details of the biosecurity assessment, which is a sensible point. We shall hold detailed consultation on those assessment measures, and there is no reason why we should not use that as part of guidance to farmers in future.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) asked about the time scale of the Bill, and I shall say more about that in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) raised the issue of vaccination. Those are important issues that we shall address and that I am sure that the lessons learned through the inquiries will address. I repeat that there is nothing in the Bill that pre-empts the conclusions of any future inquiries, or that specifies one particular way of responding to animal disease outbreaks in future.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, only a minority of farmers caused difficulties; the majority co-operated. I must point out to the hon. Member for Congleton that the majority of farming organisations welcome the Bill in principle. Of course they have concerns about the detail, and I am sure that I shall be able to address them in Committee.

I was pleased to see the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) back on the Benches making a contribution. He criticised MAFF, although, in fairness, I think that he recognises that many of the people working in the regions and for the old MAFF and the new DEFRA worked round the clock and made an enormous commitment to dealing with the outbreak. Some unfortunate aspersions were cast on those people and on their commitment, and I want to place on record how hard they worked to defeat the disease and to bring the world's

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worst outbreak of foot and mouth under control more quickly than the 1967 outbreak. That was no mean achievement.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. He said that no details of contingency plans had been placed in the House of Commons Library. I understand that the national contingency plan was revised and submitted to the EU Commission in June 2000. It has been made publicly available on request, and was deposited in the Library on 14 May. I understand that the contingency plan has not been made available on the DEFRA website, but I give an undertaking tonight to ensure that it is.

The right hon. Gentleman and others referred to illegal imports. As a Government, we take that issue seriously, but many measures to strengthen our procedures do not require primary legislation and there is no reason to include them in the Bill. However, that does not mean that they cannot be addressed. Since the outbreak, DEFRA has been leading interdepartmental discussions with Customs and Excise, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Food Standards Agency, local authorities and health authorities to strengthen the arrangements at ports of entry.

The publicity available to travellers about import rules has been strengthened, as has the effectiveness with which evidence about illegal activities is shared among various enforcement agencies. Steps are being taken to improve the effectiveness of enforcement policy at ports by better targeting of available resources.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman—unlike one or two organisations and individuals, unfortunately—was not saying that illegal imports were the No. 1 issue in relation to the foot and mouth disease outbreak. It is an important issue, but the way in which the disease spread is also important.

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