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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Animal Health Bill

Animal Health Bill

Standing Committee E

Thursday 22 November 2001


[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Animal Health Bill

8.55 am

Motion made and Question proposed,


    (1) during proceedings on the Animal Health Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Thursday 22nd November 2001 and Thursday 29th November 2001 at five minutes to Nine o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock and on Tuesday 4th December 2001 at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock.

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 and 5, Schedule 2, and Clauses 6 to 18, New Clauses and New Schedules;

    (3) the proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. on Tuesday 4th December 2001. Mr Elliot Morley has given notice of his intention to move a motion in the terms of the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee [Sessional Order C (9) relating to Programming (28th June)].—[Mr. Morley.]

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I should like to begin by saying what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I do not think that I have served under your chairmanship before in Committee; in fact, in a previous incarnation I used to sit, as you may recall, where you are now sitting. An even longer time ago, I worked here for many years, but since then there have been many changes in the House. Because of the supposedly wonderful modernisation programme, we now sit at a rather earlier hour than I would wish. Other Committee members may share that view. I am sure that, under your chairmanship, consideration of the Bill will proceed apace, and that we shall have good, full and open debate on this very important issue. It is very difficult to teach an old dog new tricks—I am referring to myself, Mr. Illsley, not you—so I hope that you will be relatively patient if some of us stumble, because we have not held for long our current responsibilities.

I do not want to speak at length on the timetable motion, given that, as a result of one recent change—this is my first appearance in Standing Committee since then—time is very tight. We are to consider a Bill that will give officials draconian powers that, in my view, will be challenged in the courts through human rights legislation. The Bill certainly impinges on the civil rights of landowners and those who own animals. As Second Reading showed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House are extremely concerned about the implications of enacting this legislation without amending it drastically.

I have no intention of revisiting the issues that were raised on Second Reading, but I should point out that the Government are introducing a measure that puts the cart before the horse. I suppose that their primary reason for introducing it is to enable immediate action, should there be a tail end to the present foot and mouth epidemic. The last outbreak was on 30 September, and we all pray that we shall reach the new year without a further case, and that such powers will prove unnecessary. However, I have to say that the draconian powers in the Bill are unnecessary and wrong. They should be challenged throughout its legislative passage, which is what we shall do.

The Bill grants powers to officials without granting any meaningful rights to landowners or animal owners. As the present foot and mouth epidemic has shown, there are many issues that we need to flush out in Committee: including the handling of the epidemic, of the contiguous cull and of the testing of animals, and the results that were considered negative but subsequently counted as part of the contiguous cull. For those who farm and for others who own livestock, these are very serious issues.

With all those points in mind, and given that the longer we speak on the timetable motion, the less time we shall have to debate these important matters, I simply want to point out that the time allocated to us is entirely unsuitable for a Bill of this importance. I hope that the Committee will be prepared, if necessary, to sit later on some days than we might otherwise have imagined. As someone who entered the House 18 years ago, I remember only too well debating certain Bills all night. Newer Members will not have experienced that, and perhaps they might think about doing so to enable us to cover the Bill properly. I merely throw that suggestion into the pot—I note that I am getting smiles all round, along with a few grimaces—but we shall see what progress we make. The programming is so tight that the Bill's major issues will receive inadequate debate, and the inability thoroughly to scrutinise legislation in Committee does not enhance the role of opposition or of Parliament.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I, too, am pleased to serve for the first time in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley.

In keeping with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), I am very concerned about the amount of time allocated to considering the Bill, not least because it is so draconian that it will almost certainly be challenged legally in the courts, should it receive Royal Assent.

On the front page of the Bill, the Secretary of State says that, in her view,

    ``the provisions of the Animal Health Bill are compatible with the''

European convention on human rights--a statement that itself requires substantial debate and consideration. Many organisations and individuals are already suggesting that the measures outlined in the Bill are likely to be subject to judicial challenge if the Minister does not significantly amend them.

I should put on the record that it is my understanding that, in the context of such legislation, Ministers should never knowingly take decisions that involve legal costs, and thereby incur expenditure to the public purse. I do not ask the Minister to disclose legal advice given to him about the legality of actions that he wishes to take under the Bill, but I hope that, as we debate individual clauses—our only option, given the time constraint—he will justify in legal terms the proposals contained in it.

In considering the Bill as a whole, its time constraints and the Secretary of State's statement on the European convention on human rights, we should recall that the following principles are relevant to the Human Rights Act 1998. Wherever possible, legislation must be read in a way that is compatible with the rights guaranteed under the convention. If it is not possible to read legislation in such a way, the Court has the power to declare the legislation incompatible and thus, in practice, force the Government to rethink.

I hope that we are not to spend the next few weeks considering a Bill that the courts will overturn lock, stock and barrel, but I suspect that that is inevitable. I hope that the Government will justify the legal basis for their proposals, and that you and your colleagues, Mr. Illsley, will grant sufficient time to debate these matters as we consider the Bill's clauses. Under the 1998 Act, public bodies, including courts as well as Ministries, must not act in a way that is incompatible with the convention.

Since the 1998 Act came onto the statute book, it has become ever more clear to us, to Government Departments and to the public at large, especially lawyers, that there have been some changes in emphasis. That was demonstrated earlier this year by a decision given by the House of Lords in its judicial capacity, in which it ruled that the scope for challenging an exercise of Executive power under the convention was significantly greater than had hitherto been the case under English law.

I want to flag up that we must consider this important Bill line by line during its passage through Committee and subsequent stages. In the view of most rationally-minded people, it is disproportionate and will almost certainly be challenged successfully in the courts as soon as it has received Royal Assent.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and look forward to serving on the Committee under your chairmanship.

I confess that it is difficult to find words to express my opposition, and that of other Liberal Democrat Members, to many of the clauses in the Bill. Many of those arguments were rehearsed on Second Reading. We recognise that the Government must take action, given what they now know and following the absolute devastation of foot and mouth. However, the Bill is premature. Had measures such as import control and movement restrictions been taken beforehand, we could have looked at it with more sympathy.

The measures are draconian in their intent and extremely serious for many people, not only farmers, who live in rural areas. They are also unfair, unjust and unreasonable. The proposals on rights of appeal go much further than is necessary, and those on powers of entry bring a whole new meaning to the term ``forced labour''. The Government's intentions may be appropriate, but the methods by which they are trying to enact them are draconian. We must give the Bill very serious consideration, because it has great implications for many people. I hope that the programming resolution allows us sufficient time to do that.

Liberal Democrat Members feel that it is fundamentally wrong to mix up compensation and penalties. There are specific compensation scales, and there should be scales of penalties. To confuse the two is not helpful in terms of the possibility of being judged guilty until proved innocent. If there were evidence of large-scale abuse, there may have been some justification for the Bill, but only a small number of people are involved and even within that small group many could be defined as passive delinquents rather than bioterrorists. We need to get the proportionality of some of these measures right. I hope that we shall have sufficient time to debate the ways in which the Government want, properly, to introduce regulation in the light of the foot and mouth crisis.

Finally, we welcome the intentions behind the scrapie regulations, which form part of the aims of the new Department. However, I noticed that although scrapie was to be eradicated, BSE was only to be reduced. That is strange, given that we have lived with scrapie for a couple of hundred years and BSE was so devastating.


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