Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm for the record that his party's position is that in eradicating scrapie from the UK flock--we support that, of course--comparable measures should be clearly demonstrated in other countries that also have scrapie?

Mr. Breed: That is an interesting point. Scrapie is viewed in different ways in different countries with large sheep flocks. In New Zealand it has been eradicated, but other countries are prepared to live with it. There is a balance to be struck between the value of taking such a disease out of the flock and the potential loss of valuable gene pools and breeds of sheep which are important to the indigenous agriculture of each state.

Mrs. Browning: I want to be clear in my mind. We are part of the common agricultural policy and, to all intents and purposes, matters concerning agriculture are part of a single market. When the hon. Gentleman refers to the intention to eradicate scrapie, is he thinking only of the United Kingdom or does he consider the European Union as a single market for such purposes? Would he want parallel action to be taken by other EU member states?

Mr. Breed: Sometimes, it is important for a country to take the lead. I hope that we may take the lead in traceability and identification in advance of obtaining agreement throughout the EU. If we always wait for everyone to agree on everything, we will never move forward. If it is scientifically proven that the balance is in favour of getting rid of scrapie, perhaps we should recommend that for the whole of Europe. If the hon. Lady is saying that we should wait for a Europe-wide agreement on scrapie, I do not agree with her.

Mrs. Winterton: What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that we shall make our own producers more uncompetitive. The problem with the CAP is that in this country we have a culture of implementing regulations and we add to those an almost gold-plated bottom. We place our producers at a competitive disadvantage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that anything that is done must be done throughout the single market?

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I remind the Committee that we are debating the programme motion? A wide-ranging debate now on the principles of the Bill would cover issues that we shall come to later.

Mr. Breed: Thank you, Mr. Illsley.

The hon. Lady made an interesting point that we shall come to later in our proceedings. It is important that we consider all the regulations in a Europe-wide context. There may be a competitive advantage in eradicating disease.

Overall, we are not in favour of the provisions and we voted against them on Second Reading. The Minister's intentions may be correct, but the Bill contains fundamental flaws and seems to us and to many others to be premature.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I welcome you belatedly, Mr. Illsley, to the Chair for what will be a short Committee stage and I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) who speaks for the Liberal Democrats.

Already this morning, there has been a lively debate, which is unusual for this time of the morning. My first protest is that the Committee will start at five to nine on Thursday mornings. That is unhealthy timing and little consideration has been given to Members and their other duties--[Interruption.] That is correct--I am not a morning person.

I shall not be making many contributions to the proceedings of the Committee, as is traditional in my current role. However, I must speak on the programme motion to put on the record, as has been done many times during the previous and the present Labour Government, my total opposition to the principle of programming. The Bill has four parts, covering extremely complex issues with legal connotations that require detailed exploration. It is also obvious that the Bill is of current interest throughout the country. Solely because it covers a current and painful topic, it deserves full scrutiny.

9.15 am

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the draconian measures have been universally challenged. That in itself means that the Bill requires full scrutiny. The rural and farming communities must be sure that this place is doing its job properly for. Frankly, six sittings will not do the job properly. We have already seen that in the selection of amendments—122 amendments and seven new clauses were tabled to the Bill. That is just the start. My colleagues and I have not yet examined a considerable part of the Bill. That the Bill demands more scrutiny than six sittings is evidenced by the fact that amendments have not come solely from Opposition Members. There is general dissatisfaction.

The Government have adopted an attitude of indecent haste to get the Bill to the Lords. They obviously want to get it out of this House before Christmas, and I feel that, once again, they have overplayed their hand. Programme motions are discredited. They reduce debate, and are now applied indiscriminately across all the legislation that we examine. The other day, I sat on a Committee where there was agreement between Opposition and Government, but the Bill was still programmed. That smacks of the heavy hand of a Government with no self-confidence, who are unwilling to debate the issues.

The major issues for the countryside demand more than six sittings. The Government have used their whip hand and abused their power by inflicting such a strict timetable on a major Bill of great importance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I appreciate your presence, and you have already demonstrated its importance for those people, some of whom have been complaining about inadequate time, who stray away from the straight and narrow of dealing with the issues.

I point out to some hon. Members who have spoken that the Bill deals with serious issues of BSE. It is good for the sheep industry—and supported by it—for consumers and for competitiveness. It deals with serious issues of disease control for an epidemic not yet over. I hope that we do not see further foot and mouth outbreaks, but we cannot yet say that the epidemic is over: the risks remain high.

The Bill deals with serious issues of biosecurity. Most farmers recognise that a minority have been involved in disease spread, putting the majority at risk, and they want action on that. It deals with offences that did not exist, such as the deliberate infection of animals, yet some hon. Members object to the measures.

The measures are generally welcomed by everyone in the livestock industry. I accept that issues about details remain, but I must make something clear about some of the words that have been used, such as ``draconian'', and about the powers of entry. There are no new powers of entry in the Bill. The powers of entry all relate to the Animal Health Act 1981. This Bill relates to the legal procedures in applying them. The powers were already there, and remain the same.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister has raised an important point. The difference now is that the powers will be able to be used when there is only the suspicion of disease. Under the 1981 Act, disease had to be diagnosed for them to be used.

Mr. Morley: That is wrong. The disease did not have to be diagnosed. We will come to that in a moment. There had to be reason to suspect that the disease was there.

The hon. Lady mentions legal challenges. There has been much legal quibbling during the Bill's progress, which has been unhelpful for speed and for dealing with issues. I have made it clear all along that nothing in the Bill dictates future Government policy.

Nothing in the Bill precludes the recommendations of the independent inquiry. Nothing in the Bill precludes the use of a range of other measures. Whatever we do, we want a range of measures. If there is to be culling either as part of a policy or as a policy in itself, it must be done quickly, speedily and effectively. We shall deal with the other considerations in due course.

Mrs. Browning: I want to ensure that I have understood the Minister. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, his view appeared to be that existing measures in the 1981 Act allow Ministers to slaughter on suspicion. That is an existing power. Will he articulate the extra powers that he wants to take on top of that?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has asked me to go into a Second Reading debate. We shall deal with that issue as we scrutinise the Bill. I shall give her the details, but it is about interpretation of veterinary opinion. These amendments make the position clearer, and they will allow for action to be taken more quickly.

Mrs. Gillan: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being good humoured. How did he arrive at the figure of six sittings for the scrutiny of the Bill in Committee? Did he consider giving the Bill more sittings, and is it right that he is desperate to get the Bill out of the House of Commons before Christmas?

Mr. Morley: This is a disease-control measure, and we still have a high risk of disease. The sooner we get this measure on to the statute book the better. We agreed six sittings with the Opposition Whips. Programming is a sensible, rational way to deal with legislation because it forces us to focus on the issue, and it cuts out erroneous time wasting. Those of us who have been Members for some years know that time wasting goes on.

Mrs. Winterton: You are doing well today.

Mr. Morley: I have done my share of time wasting. However, long before I entered Government I had concluded that it was not a productive way of doing things.

Mrs. Gillan: After what the Minister has just said, I must ask him whether he is willing to revisit the programme motion and give us more time to scrutinise the Bill. He believes that there was an agreement on six sittings, but we should like more sittings. The Minister can therefore revisit the programme motion.

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