Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. Like others, this is the first time that I have served in Committee under your chairmanship, and I look forward to the experience.

I want to discuss the Bill's use of the word ``immaterial'' and amendment No. 1, which would remove it, because the issue is central. Clause 1 encapsulates the criticisms of those in this House and outside who feel that the Bill is draconian. As has been noted, by inserting in the 1981 Act the phrase

    ``any animals the Minister thinks should be slaughtered with a view to preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth'',

the Bill will grant the Minister the power to do what he thinks should be done in terms of slaughter. Astonishingly, however, subsection (3)(1A) states that it is immaterial whether animals

    ``are affected with foot-and-mouth disease or suspected of being so affected'',

whether they

    ``are or have been in contact with animals so affected'',

whether they

    ``have been exposed to the infection of foot-and-mouth disease'',

    ``have been treated with vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease.''

According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, ``immaterial'' means

    ``having no physical substance; of no importance''.

When a Minister so exercises his powers, how can all those qualifying factors possibly be of no importance? In terms of balance and natural justice, it beggars belief that anyone could regard the provision as acceptable.

Amendment No. 1, which would replace the word ``immaterial'' with ``material'', is tiny but it is perhaps one of the most important that we are considering. As we have heard, under the Bill as drafted the Minister can think and carry out action that can affect any animal, regardless of any recognisable condition that would justify its being slaughtered.

Mr. Morley indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister shakes his head, but much of today's debate has been based on the premise that a risk assessment will be made, and that when push comes to shove and the Minister has to seek guidance, it will be based on veterinary advice. By excluding those conditions and making them ``of no importance'', the Minister has made it difficult for anybody else to measure the transparency of a given risk assessment. I hope he agrees that it is essential to the wider public, especially those who own the animals, that a risk assessment and its formulation be transparent. If those conditions are excluded as ``immaterial'', one wonders what will be left that is material on which a judgment could be made.

As with many other Bills that have passed through the House in the past four years, we are being asked to enact legislation on the basis that important decision making will be at the discretion of Ministers. We are being asked to trust them to do the right thing and show fairness and proportionality. A little earlier, the Minister prayed in aid the fact that he would not advocate unnecessary slaughter. I want to remind him, however, of his track record on mass slaughter. In March 1996, the Animal Protesters' Bulletin published an article about BSE by the Minister, who was then Opposition spokesman on agriculture and rural affairs, in which he concluded:

    ``Calves for export are not currently included in the European ban as it has not yet been proved that BSE passes from cow to calf. If this is proved, then the slaughter of the whole UK herd is inevitable.''

We now know—as we knew then, because it was identified in the trials that went on before the Government came to office—that there is indeed maternal transmission, but at such a low rate that there is clearly no need to slaughter the whole national herd. However, that was the Minister's judgment at that time.

Mr. Morley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I shall in a moment.

The Minister did not hesitate to recommend the slaughter of the whole national herd based on a presumption about a matter that was subject to scientific research and properly controlled experimentation. There was no question of confusing cows and calves with sheep and lambs in the research that was being conducted then by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. When we are asked to put into legislation and support powers whereby he and other Ministers will exercise judgment and power during a future foot and mouth crisis, we are reticent about doing so.

Mr. Morley: The Animal Protesters' Bulletin is not one of the most reliable sources of quotes. I am willing to engage with any organisation or group, and I have on occasion contacted them to point out that they are mistaken in what they have said. I do not recall having made those comments. However, if we ever found ourselves in a doomsday scenario in which BSE was rife in the UK herd and being passed on maternally so that it was constantly present, that would be a severe problem. I am glad to say that we are not in that position.

Mrs. Browning: If the Minister would like a copy of issue number 47 of the Animal Protesters' Bulletin, which carries the article in his name from which I quoted, I shall make it available to him. However, he knows only too well that a few years ago our roles were reversed: I was the Minister and he was the animal rights campaigner constantly banging on my door about animal welfare issues. What goes around comes around. My memory is long, as are my archives.

I hope that he will take my point that such an important matter should not rest merely on personal intuition on the part of a Minister. Safeguards should be built into the Bill, but that is far from being the case and clause 1 epitomises that. The Bill is not proportionate, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said. It is not even reasonable in the sense of natural justice. It is draconian, and nowhere more so than in this clause.

Mr. Breed: I am following what the hon. Lady says with great interest and look forward to any other pieces of archive material that may turn up in the course of our deliberations. Perhaps the real reason for the provision is so that the Government can defend themselves in any judicial review, but how can anyone defend himself by saying, ``Basically, I can do anything I like''?

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the first things I said in the debate on the programme resolution was that the Bill is fundamentally flawed in terms of its legal powers, and I am sure that it will be challenged legally. We have already discovered that the Government are not amenable to perfectly reasonable amendments that are intended to help them to improve the Bill. It falls foul of the European convention on human rights, and the courts will find that any powers that the Minister needs to deal with emergency situations caused by animal diseases are already enshrined in the Animal Health Act 1981, and that these provisions are disproportionate.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway.

I want to discuss the keeping of animals inside. The Minister will have read in Farmers' Weekly about the activities of a company called Cogent, which locked up its bulls in an airtight shed, along with two members of staff—[Interruption.] It was airtight—or sufficiently airtight to prevent the virus from gaining access. Perhaps hon. Members are more expert on the airtightness of sheds than on the transmission of the virus. My point is that the Bill does not give people the opportunity to help themselves. If a company can go to those lengths to ensure the survival of its livestock—the genetic information stored in those bulls was so vital that it was prepared to take the financial steps necessary to safeguard them—we must consider an amendment of this nature.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): I should have thought that the genetic material from bulls could easily be stored in their semen.

Mr. Wiggin: The company in question produces semen. I think that it was looking to keep more than just one or two straws.

We shall go on to discuss biosecurity and continue to lament the fact that it was possible for the disease to spread as it did. The amendment would give people a chance to help themselves to combat it. I hope that Labour Members will consider that carefully before voting against it.

Mr. Morley: That is precisely the situation now. If farmers can demonstrate good biosecurity, exemptions can be made. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. The company in the hon. Gentleman's example demonstrated extremely good biosecurity—naturally, as it did not want to jeopardise very valuable animals.

Mr. Bacon: When the Minister says that exemptions can be made, does he mean, ``If I, the Minister, feel that exemptions should be made, I shall do so''? I return to the example of the Norfolk farmer whose pigs did not get classical swine fever, although it was all around, and who, like others in Norfolk, was not affected by foot and mouth. Under the Bill, could the Minister, if he so chose, go to that farm and kill those pigs?

Mr. Morley: I should put it this way. A decision has to be made on the ground in relation to the appropriate measures to contain disease spread. That is what the Bill is all about. Opposition Members seem to be trying to put as many obstructions as possible in the way of our vets, saying what they can and cannot do.

It comes down to the issue of proportionality, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned. She must bear it in mind that the slaughter powers in the Bill are no different from any other measure that the Government have to put in place. They are obliged to demonstrate that any measures that they implement are proportionate. One of the tests of proportionality is satisfied if a fair balance is struck between the rights of individuals and the public interest. The means by which that is achieved is no more restrictive than necessary. Those are the kinds of tests that are applied.

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