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6 Nov 2002 : Column 371—continued

Andrew George: On a technical matter, can the Minister clarify how the new procedure will work if the Government amendment is accepted? Will the farmer have a right to appeal to the DVM after a warrant has been granted?

Mr. Morley: That is an interesting point. It might be a bit late to appeal to a DVM after a warrant is issued. We want to ensure that farmers are aware of the provision and understand how to make representations to the DVM. That is dealt with in the slaughter protocol. I promised that we would include clear guidance on the procedures to be followed when culling policies are applied so that farmers are aware of their right to make representations to the DVM, so I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that.

Mrs. Browning : The Minister will recall that in Committee I raised the legal basis on which he was introducing the Bill and suggested that it might be subject to legal challenge. I hear what he said about having taken legal advice. He will know that such things are ultimately challenged in the court, which ends up the determinant in such matters. However, I am glad that he took further legal advice and hope he understands the underlying concern—the gravity—with which people view the powers that he is taking to himself.

Mr. Morley: I understand that, but the way in which the powers will be exercised has been exaggerated. People have ignored the fact that a Minister will have to apply a power proportionately and responsibly. It is not possible simply to go and ask for a warrant; it is necessary to make the case and demonstrate why a warrant to go on someone's property is needed. The Department would not take the decision to apply for a warrant lightly and I am sure no magistrate would take the decision to grant a warrant lightly.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being patient with us as we try to understand the process. Having heard representations from a

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farmer, would the DVM be required to provide that information to the magistrate when seeking a warrant and proving the correctness or otherwise of an application? That would allow the magistrate to be in possession of information from people on both sides of the case when he makes an assessment. A response to that would help enormously in ascertaining whether the process is satisfactory.

Mr. Morley: On the detailed questions, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not a lawyer and I am careful not to offend lawyers—it can be an expensive business. People will have the right to make representations to the DVM. It would not be unreasonable for the magistrate to ask whether the farmer's representations had been taken into account. The magistrate would have the right to ask that. Of course, we are making sure that people are aware of their rights. It is entirely up to individuals whether they avail themselves of the right to appeal to the DVM, but it is a provision. As I outlined to the House, many hundreds of farmers did so and the DVM recognised and conceded the cases of many hundreds of farmers, which demonstrates that the system works and that, if people have a reasonable case, the DVM will take note of it and respond—the evidence is there for all to see.

Mrs. Browning: May I put to the Minister a case that was common during the foot and mouth outbreak? It concerns farms that were in a contiguous area and were due to be culled out, but the cull did not take place immediately. He kindly saw me about two farms in my constituency. In those cases, we had reached day 19 before they received notification that they were going to be culled out. Surely, it must be obvious to the DVM that that is unreasonable. As it happens, the four farms in my patch that fell into that category are still alive and doing well. However, when that sort of thing happens, unless a Member of Parliament or some other such person intervenes, orders can be executed in an unreasonable time frame.

Mr. Morley: That is not an unreasonable point. However, we are talking retrospectively about something that happened at the height of an epidemic, when there was a real need to get to grips with the situation and people were under enormous pressure. We have learned a lot of lessons from the epidemic. It would be very irresponsible of us had we not learned them and had we not recognised that there were things that we could do better. That is why the protocols that have been agreed give clear guidance, for example, to the DVM on dealing with contiguous culls and on how the guidance should be applied.

Indeed, there is an argument for taking local conditions into account and for more flexibility. Those are some of the issues that people have put to us and we are not unsympathetic to them.I believe that we have responded in the Bill and, in particular, in putting in place the protocols, which are also published. People can see the sort of guidelines and procedures that our DVMs and vets have to follow.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): In view of what my hon. Friend the Minister has just said about the protocols that are now in place and the lessons that the

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Government are learning, is he convinced that the Government now have the balance right? The introduction of SI 843, Animal Health, England, which applied to BSE, caused some alarm because of provisions on forced entry—indeed, my constituent Mrs. Jones shared that concern. Does he think that there are now safeguards and that people need not be concerned about that power of entry in view of the raft of measures that we are introducing?

Mr. Morley: Absolutely. My hon. Friend is referring to the statutory instrument dealing with the TSE regulations, which we debated in Committee and which was carried with no opposition. I made it clear to the Committee that there had been an enormous amount of disinformation as regards that regulation, which has somehow got tied up with the measures in the Bill. The TSE regulations deal with BSE and TSE. There are no entry powers within that regulation. It deals with BSE and cohort cases—if a cow goes down with BSE, the cohort is slaughtered to safeguard public health.

One of the more incredible allegations was that the TSE order had been sneaked in by the back door, despite the fact that we consulted nearly 1,000 organisations about it, none of which expressed any concern. That shows that even well-meaning people can sometimes get carried away with the wrong interpretation of the Government's actions and intentions. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend and that she can reassure her constituent. I have answered one or two letters on the matter, and have made it clear that people have been misled. I am sure that that is true in the case of my hon. Friend's constituent.

Mr. Bacon: Will the Minister confirm that the amendment requiring warrants to be executed only at a reasonable hour unless the inspector thinks that the case is urgent is the result of an amendment tabled by the Government? If so, does the Minister accept that no one would expect such a condition to apply to a warrant for a drugs bust, when one would not want to give advance notice to drug dealers? His earlier argument that the amendment fundamentally undermines the nature of warrant issue is therefore flawed.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman's example is very different from the warrants under discussion. We are not dealing with criminals. We are trying to deal reasonably with people. The amendment was a Government amendment, tabled in the light of representations that we received in Committee and in the other place. It is a genuine attempt to allay people's concerns. We understand that if we are taking powers to go on to someone's property in order to carry out disease control measures, whatever they are—not necessarily culling—people need to be reassured that they would be used only if it were absolutely necessary, and that they would be applied in a proportionate and reasonable way. That is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Bacon: Of course I realise that we are not dealing with criminals; that was precisely my point. The Minister, if I understood him correctly, was arguing that we could not accept the amendment because it would set a precedent and would have far-reaching implications

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for the issue of warrants. I was arguing that it was surely possible to distinguish between different kinds of warrants issued for different reasons, so there is no reason not to accept the amendment.

Mr. Morley: I repeat that I am not a legal expert, but from my knowledge of warrants I know that they are issued in different ways for different circumstances. What is proposed in this case is a fundamental difference—an unprecedented change in the way in which warrants are issued. It suggests that the farmer and DEFRA officials can stand in front of a magistrate and almost have a mini court scene. If there is to be such a facility, people must be given reasonable time to prepare, to make applications for legal aid, and all the various aspects of representation, which is unprecedented—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Morley: That can be done by a High Court judge, but it is a completely separate matter from the issue of a warrant by a magistrate. The hon. Gentleman, who is familiar with legal procedures, knows that to be true. If the positions were reversed, I do not believe that he would want to change fundamentally the precedents and the entire procedure for the issue of magistrates warrants. That is why we must reverse the amendments.

There are amendments with which we do not disagree. Amendments Nos. 15,25, 38 and 68 expressly permit an inspector to take on to premises equipment that he or she requires. It may be presumed that an inspector will carry relevant equipment, but there is in theory the potential for disputes over whether an inspector may take equipment on to premises. The amendments are required to avoid any doubt.

We support amendments Nos. 16, 18, 26, 28, 39, 41, 69 and 71. They deal with the requirement to give assistance to officials carrying out functions under the vaccination, slaughter and serology entry provisions, and with the issue of those from whom assistance can be requested. They again reflect concerns expressed by hon. Members. We do not want to make demands in respect of assisting officials that would be unreasonable or go beyond what an individual could be expected to provide. An inspector could not, therefore, make unreasonable demands on people who were not qualified to help, such as children or elderly people.

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