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I hope that we shall be able to make progress, as there are many other new clauses and amendments that we would like to debate. The new clause, which deals with biosecurity in relation to officials, is extremely important and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to it. The Bill as a whole introduces the concept of conditional payment in relation to compensation for slaughtered animals. In the first instance, it provides for 75 per cent. compensation, subject to the judgment that the biosecurity arrangements on the farm in question are suitable.
I believe that the judgment that is made in the Bill is contrary to natural justice. The Government seem to have tried to smear farmers by saying that they were responsible for the spread of the disease and that they breached biosecurity to such an extent that a penalty must be introduced in respect of compensation or compulsory purchase of slaughtered animals. In Committee, the Minister conceded that that charge could be levelled at only a very few people in the farming community. One must, therefore, ask rhetorically why the Bill does not specify 100 per cent. compensation for the majority of farmers, and 75 per cent. compensation for those whose biosecurity arrangements are found not to be satisfactory by the Minister or officials sent by him.
I recognise that compensation is the subject of several amendments that will be considered later, so I shall not mention the aspects with which they deal, but I must tell the Minister that the outbreak was under way for some considerable time before any biosecurity measures were introduced. Such measures were introduced very late in the day during the recent epidemic. Certainly, no specific advice was available at the outset to farmers or those in the rural community about how best they could stop the spread of disease. That may have been due to the lack of a workable contingency plan. The Minister said in Committee that such a plan was available
Mrs. Winterton: If that is the case, I would be grateful to see it. If such a plan was available, it is obvious that it was not in the least suitable for the sort of outbreak that occurred in this country. The disease obviously spread considerably faster than the Minister and his officials expected, perhaps because of delays in clamping down on animal movements in the first few days of the outbreak.
While farmers are being accused by implication in the compensation measures in the Bill, many cases have been brought to my attention in which breaches of biosecurity occurred in respect of DEFRA officials and people who were subcontracted to undertake duties on behalf of the Department, whether they were the so-called dirty vets, slaughtermen or other officials. In case the Minister accuses me of promoting myths, let me say that I do not believe that these stories are myths. There were many biosecurity lapses among officials.
Farmers are keen to have good biosecurity. However, the Bill almost characterises them as initially having no biosecurity arrangements. We should treat farmers and officials equally. The Minister has agreed biosecurity arrangements, and I understand that Department officials who call on the farmers will go through the check list. If it is right for farmers to put those arrangements in place, those who work for the Department should also be liable for breaches of them. The new clause would redress the balance by ensuring that officials who act on the Minister's behalf are charged with the need to operate under strict biosecurity arrangements. If they are found to have failed and are convicted, an appropriate fine should be levied. New clause 5 provides for that.
Mr. Breed: The term "biosecurity" became common this year. When it was first used, few people understood it precisely. I forget the actual date in February when the outbreak began; it was imprinted on my mind onceI am sure that it remains imprinted on the Minister's. However, it is instructive to consider what was happening then. In my part of the world, we ran out of disinfectant in days. The strategic stores of disinfectant to facilitate biosecurity were not available. Yet we have been told that robust contingency plans were in place. They did not extend to disinfectant for extensive use.
Biosecurity became important, and the practices developed and the protocols were drawn up as we went along. Towards the end of the outbreak, biosecurity measures were considerably better than at the beginning. That betrays the lack of robustness in the contingency planning exercise. We had to make up the biosecurity as the epidemic took hold.
I cannot go on without referring to the Department's refusal to support Cornwall county council in establishing biosecurity on the Tamar bridge. It may have been a small measure, but it would have been effective in making people realise what biosecurity was about. It might not have prevented much infection, but it would have raised awareness and made people more conscious of the need for biosecurity. Nevertheless, it did not happen. I expect that we now have a new definition of biosecurity and I hope that agriculture will continue to improve on it. We will need to ensure that biosecurity is maintained.
I disagree violently with confusing penalties with fines. The idea of reducing compensation until farmers proved that they had taken the right biosecurity measures is wrong. The tiny minority who do not ensure that their biosecurity measures are appropriate should be fined. That should apply to anyone who is not making the required efforts to ensure that we get on top of any future disease outbreaks. After all, we fine those who walk dogs on paths and beaches from which they are banned. There is therefore no reason why farmers who have been convicted should not be subjected to fines. However, they should not be subjected to a summary reduction in compensation.
The point has been well made that everyone, including DEFRA and other Government officials, members of the public and farmers should ensure that they participate in the biosecurity plan. The measures should be properly enforced.
Mr. Breed: It would achieve that. If officials come before a court because they have contravened the regulations that they are there to enforce, they should suffer a penalty. Farmers should suffer a similar fate; their compensation should not be reduced arbitrarily. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If farmers are expected to ensure that they fulfil biosecurity regulations on pain of reduction in compensation, officials should recognise that they do not have special immunity and should be subjected to the same sort of penalties. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that.
Mr. Morley: I do not have much sympathy with the new clauseapart from the point, which I have repeatedly made, that biosecurity covers everyone who has contact with livestock farms. I accept that that applies to DEFRA staff. It also applies to people who do business with livestock farms, for example, by delivering feed or collecting milk, and to farmers. The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) was right to repeat the point that I made in Committee: we are not obliged to pay the 100 per cent. market rate for diseased animals.
We are considering infected premises and we are trying to give people an incentive to focus on biosecurity. We were surprised that the disease was not being spread by wind-borne infection, as we thought originally. It was spread in that way in 1967 and during the outbreak between then and now. The epidemiology showed that in 80 per cent. of cases the infection was locally spread through animal-to-animal contact, movement of people, machines and vehicles. That is serious.
Again, I put it on record that the majority of farmers were considerate and careful and took biosecurity seriously. Early in the outbreak, we wrote to farmers about biosecurity. Later, we sent a video to every livestock farmer. We applied the blue-box control scheme towards the end of the outbreak, when we had the resources to do that. We could not have done that at its height because the resources did not exist. Those biosecurity measures had a real impact on bringing the epidemic under control.