Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Minister, we are grateful to you for coming at very short notice to talk about this Bill. I think it was first mooted when the Secretary of State was answering questions in the House only a couple of weeks ago and then it has taken material form very rapidly and, once it did take material form, it appeared to be really rather wider than I had originally thought and it seemed to me that it was therefore the job of this Committee to investigate the reasons behind it and what was in this Bill. I regret that we are going to second reading because it does not enable us to do a proper pre-legislative scrutiny. I do not imagine that there is any way in which the Government are not going to go ahead with it on Monday but at least what you say will go straight onto the Internet so that people will be informed when we come to debate. Can we start with what is always my favourite piece of paper with any legislation which is the explanatory notes, which I always find of such a density and compression that the Bill itself is easy reading by comparison. Could I draw your attention to paragraph 4, "The Bill supplements existing powers under the Animal Health Act 1981 to slaughter animals to control the spread of FMD by allowing animals to be slaughtered wherever this is necessary for disease control reasons. At present, only animals which are affected or suspected of being affected with the disease, have been in contact with affected animals, or exposed to the disease may be slaughtered." Why on earth might you want to slaughter anything else?

  (Mr Morley) I can certainly answer that one! May I begin by saying that Brian Dickinson from our legal department is sitting next to me and he may want to comment on some of the legal aspects if you wish to raise that. May I also begin by saying that I want to make it very clear to the Committee that the Committee should not read into this Bill anything which might suggest that the Government are taking a definitive position on any method of disease control. What we are looking for is maximum flexibility in terms of the range of options that can be applied in different circumstances at different times. I, for one, certainly believe that, in relation to the scale of this outbreak, there might be a case for reviewing that and of course —

  2. I am sorry to interrupt but, under your existing powers, had the Government then decided to do a ring vaccination, was it doubtful about whether you would have powers to slaughter a vaccinated animal subsequently?
  (Mr Morley) I think we would have power to slaughter the vaccinated animals but what we did not have is the power to pay compensation. Chairman, you can obtain power to do that by going to the Standing Veterinary Committee of the European Commission and you get emergency orders through the European Union. We would however prefer to have these powers ourselves so that it is very clear about what we can and what we cannot do. Of course, vaccination was considered on a number of occasions in relation to this outbreak. However, the scientific advice that we had was that it was not effective in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These are all issues that we are going to have to look at and I am sure you will look at them.

  3. We are going to deal with the substantive issue, whether vaccination is a good idea or a bad idea.
  (Mr Morley) I very much welcome that.

  4. As far as the Bill is concerned, it enables you then to pay compensation if you go down that route.
  (Mr Morley) It does. Incidentally, it also deals with problems of people who are resisting teams to come onto farms to do vaccinations. We have power to vaccinate but this Bill, as you know, also deals with obstruction and access. Of course, we were not vaccinating in this outbreak but we did have obstruction and delay on such things as serology which did cause, for example, a 14 day delay in Devon and other parts of the country.

  5. May I just come back to that question—and I acknowledge that I did interrupt you—when I asked you what animals might you want to slaughter. The Bill actually talks about whichever animal the Secretary of State thinks should be killed. What animals might the Secretary of State think should be killed?
  (Mr Morley) Do you mean what species or in what circumstances?

  6. Both. The Bill would enable you to go in and slaughter budgerigars.
  (Mr Morley) No, it would not, Chairman. In fact, I noticed that there was some press commentary that, under this Bill, we were going to slaughter hamsters, goldfish, budgies, dogs, cats and rabbits, and I want to make it absolutely clear that this Bill only relates to farm animals and susceptible animals and it relates to the actual wording of the Act. It relates to animals defined in section 87 of the Animal Health Act 1981 and, unless the context requires otherwise, animals means cattle, sheep and goats and all other ruminating animals and swine, so other species are not covered by these wide incoming powers and I want to make that point clear now.

  7. Minister, the phrase that I just read to you was, "At present, only animals which are affected or suspected of being affected with the disease, have been in contact with affected animals, or exposed to the disease may be slaughtered."
  (Mr Morley) That is right.

  8. What else might you want to slaughter?
  (Mr Morley) Not other species. What I think this refers to is if veterinary advice was for a fire break cull, for example. At the present time, we do not have powers for a fire break cull. There was the three kilometre cull in Cumbria but that was a voluntary cull and people were invited to participate in that. Basically, if there were a situation where it was recommended that a fire break cull would be desirable, then it gives you powers to do that.

  9. My second point is, you have said—in fact you said it just a few seconds ago—that delays which could, or perhaps did, help the spread of the disease were caused by farmers appealing against cull orders. How many cases do you think materially led to the spread of disease?
  (Mr Morley) I think it is very difficult to put an exact number on the cases, Chairman. I can give you some idea of the kind of issues. We are aware of 103 cases where there was legal involvement or certainly appeals against culling. Of those 103 cases, 36 accepted the case and were slaughtered as planned, 42 were looked at by our divisional veterinary manager and they were accepted, 18 ran out of time —

  10. You say "accepted", but accepted by . . .?
  (Mr Morley) The cases were accepted not to cull by the divisional veterinary manager, which incidentally is still the situation within this Bill. Eighteen ran out of time, the time went on so long that, as the animals had not gone down, it was pointless to actually cull them in those circumstances; seven went on to become infected premises. There were three High Court cases and the Department won two and lost one and the one that was lost in Devon went on to become an infected premise itself. As time went on, there was much more attention to this and there was greater concern about the effect of the appeals and our vets on the ground in Thirsk felt that the appeals were a very real risk in terms of disease spread because they were very concerned about it getting into the pig centre and, in Thirsk, there were 55 local appeals dealt with by the veterinary manager—they did not go to court—and, of those, 29 were upheld by the divisional veterinary manager. Even then, nine of those which were actually agreed by our own divisional vets went down as IPs; there were two that were rejected that also went down as IPs. With each of those that went down—and I accept that the latter situation was one where our own vets accepted the case and that would not change—you are taking a risk. Many of the cases which were appealed as contiguous culling did go down; it is a significant number.

  11. I want to tease out those figures. A little while ago, you spoke about 103 cases; is that nationally?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, that is England.

  12. Then you said that seven became infected.
  (Mr Morley) Yes, they became IPs.

  13. Which means that 96 were not.
  (Mr Morley) Of those 103, 36 were slaughtered.

  14. Did you do blood tests on all of them?
  (Mr Morley) I am not sure that blood tests were done on all of them; I do not have that information.

  15. The question I am getting at is, in how many of those cases where there had been an appeal . . . in many cases an appeal is just a letter, they did not reach the point of getting to court.
  (Mr Morley) Not in all circumstances, no, I do not think so.

  16. For example, I have been told that in Devon there were 200 "appeals" and none of those premises actually went down.
  (Mr Morley) I am not sure where that figure of 200 comes from unless they were appeals to our divisional veterinary manager. There were exemptions made in relation to the contiguous culls: there were exemptions made for rare breeds; there were exemptions made where there was a case made that the animals were not infected and had not been in contact; there were cases made for cattle. Of course, many of those 200 would have been within those categories and there is nothing wrong with that. We are not looking to maximise the slaughter of animals, we want to reduce the slaughter of animals. One of the principles behind this Bill, Chairman, is to actually make sure that if you have a contiguous slaughter policy—and I emphasise again that you should not read into this Bill that we are committing ourselves to any one particular policy—then it needs to be done quickly and efficiently and I accept that appeal is only one aspect of this, there is the issue of logistics as well which is a departmental matter. I have spoken to our vets on the ground and in the Thirsk area in particular where I took particular attention because of the blue box scheme and the kind of new ideas that were there —

  17. So did I, it was too close to home.
  (Mr Morley) I am sure you did, Chairman. They were adamant there that the appeals and delays were stopping them getting on top of the disease. They were adamant about that.

  18. We take your point, we do not draw from this Bill any indications about direction on policy: this is a bill which will enable you to implement a policy should you decide to go down that route.
  (Mr Morley) That is absolutely right and it does not preempt the three inquiries and the scientific inquiry.

  19. We need not get ourselves diverted into that. It would be helpful if you were able to produce some figures for us on the number of appeals to help define what they were and what the fate of those premises was subsequently. I am not asking for it now; you obviously do not have that figure but you could have it by the end of the week.
  (Mr Morley) Certainly. I do have figures but I will try and make them a little clearer for you.

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