Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Bacon: The Minister ignores the fact that natural justice requires the right to a fair hearing. He has already said that, were there a judicial review it would, from a practical point of view, have to take place after slaughter, by which time it would be rather late. I return to my question, which he did not answer: if the Bill were to go through unamended, would he have the power to go on to my farmer's farm and kill those pigs?

Mr. Morley: This is being presented as though I would spend my time lurking around the back streets of Norfolk or Suffolk looking for pigs to slaughter. The answer is that it depends on the risk assessment, the veterinary advice and the risk that that particular herd posed in relation to spreading or harbouring a disease. Those risks would be assessed on the basis of the circumstances and the professional view of the veterinary surgeons involved.

Mrs. Browning: How can such veterinarians make a transparent risk assessment, when the Bill states that they should disregard whether animals

    ``(a) are affected with foot-and-mouth disease or suspected of being so affected;

    (b) are or have been in contact with animals so affected;

    (c) have been exposed to infection of foot-and-mouth disease;

    (d) have been treated with vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease''?

If they must disregard all that, what sort of veterinary advice does the Minister think that he will get?

Mr. Morley: That suggests that veterinarians are compelled to discount those reasons. The hon. Lady should not interpret the Bill in that way. It is worded in that way because there may be circumstances in which the veterinary advice is for a firebreak cull. We had a firebreak cull in Dumfries when all sheep were taken out in a 3 km zone, and there was also a firebreak cull in Cumbria, which was supported by farmers. When the Prime Minister went to Cumbria, farmers were pressing strongly for more culls to stop the spread of disease. During the course of the disease, consideration was given, for example, to whether there should be a firebreak cull to protect the intensive pig units in east Yorkshire from the Thirsk outbreak. We also considered whether we should use vaccination.

The 3 km culls took place under the 1981 Act. Individuals who say that there were no powers to do that are now challenging those culls, even though it is clear that they were carried out under powers in that Act. Clause 1 makes the position absolutely clear. If, in future, firebreak culls were considered to be an essential part of disease control—it would have to be proportionate and there would have to be justification—there would be no argument about terminology.

The current argument is about the terminology of the 1981 Act. Some people will advance those arguments because they want to delay culling. Some people are against any kind of culling. Some people have legitimate concerns about culling, about which there is a legitimate debate, but there are also people who want to delay culling. The clause is worded in that way so that there is no argument about powers, and there is no opportunity for people to use legal proceedings to argue in a nit-picking way about the interpretation of language.

Mrs. Browning: The point is that the Bill deals not only with firebreak culls, but with any culling for any reason whatsoever. If the Government were bringing forward legislation as a result of experience gained during the recent foot and mouth outbreak, and in particular experience of where firebreak culls took place or were frustrated, one might consider it to be a little more reasonable. However, we have not had the results of the inquiries looking into the detail of how those firebreak culls worked, or did not work. All the Minister can say is, ``Court cases are still going on.'' On that basis, he is trying to put primary legislation on to the statute book to give him greater powers.

The Bill is not based on analysis of what happened, or on a proposition that an additional clause should be added specifically to cover future Ministers who want to use firebreak culls. It is in advance of scientific analysis. It is another example of how the Government are seeking to put draconian powers on to the statute book, not on the basis of veterinary or scientific analysis, but purely for political expediency, because it does not suit them to have their views and decisions challenged in a court of law. That is the people's right, which the House is here to uphold.

Mr. Morley: That is just bonkers, frankly. Why on earth would the Government want to impose these measures against the advice of vets and scientists? The Bill is based on veterinary and scientific advice, and the experience of dealing with the foot and mouth disease outbreak. There have been several changes in policy because we learn from the experience as we discover more about the nature and development of the outbreak, which I must remind the hon. Lady is not yet over; there are still risks.

The purpose of the measures is to provide a range of options in disease control. That does not necessarily mean that we would want to use firebreak culls again. I do not know about that because it would depend on the circumstances and the advice. If vaccines became more efficient it would be better to use them as a firebreak rather than culling. Those are decisions for scientists and vets, and it is their advice on which Governments act—as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton well knows.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does not propose to abolish the current right for a farmer to appeal to the district veterinary manager with regard to a proposed cull? In order for that appeal to have an effect, several matters regarding the local veterinary situation would have to be taken in account. Some of those matters would be material. Some are listed in the Bill. Would it not be helpful if he were to make available to the Committee the sorts of considerations that the district veterinary manager could take into account in making that appeal wholesome and real? Will he explain how he sees that appeal sitting comfortably with the proposals in the Bill?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sympathetic to the case he is making. When we come to the appeal procedures, he will have an opportunity to discuss those issues, which we shall talk about in greater detail.

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the right to judicial review will not be taken away, and that it is open to any individual who wants to take it. Such a review would not necessarily be after the event; it would depend on the circumstances. I should not want to mislead the Committee. I have always tried to be open and straightforward in my answers. I accept that, if a Bill is designed to speed up culling measures, more than likely, the animals will have been culled before judicial review of the procedure. However, that does not take away the right. If the judicial review were successful, it would bring about a rethink of the Government's policies. The appeal remains an important right that is not being taken away from individuals.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Will the Minister give his advice for the benefit of the Committee? In what, if any, circumstances would a judicial review be held before slaughter? Will he list the circumstances in which that would happen, because the presumption is the other way round?

Mr. Morley: It is not the presumption that is the other way round; it is the practical application. There is a range of reasons, not all of which are relevant, why people have asked for judicial reviews, which are a matter for lawyers and not a matter for me. It depends on the circumstances and the speed of legal proceedings, on which I am not an expert. All I know is that it is not right to say that in every single circumstance a judicial review could not take place before the animals were slaughtered. However, I must be honest and say that as the Bill is designed to be quick about the slaughter, more than likely, the animals would be dead. I would not want to mislead anybody about that.

Mr. Breed: The Minister is trying to say that there will be implicit reasonableness when the Bill is enacted. However, we are trying to make what he can and cannot do explicit. We will keep returning to the question of balance. If we accepted the notion that all existing and future generations will have implicit confidence in the Government whom they have elected, there would be no need for any legislation because the Government would always act favourably. On the basis that that is fairly unlikely, we need legislation that is explicit. To introduce legislation that is vastly implicit about everything that will happen in future is not helpful.

The Minister raised a point about public interest, which was interesting. From our experience of foot and mouth during the past few months, there was a change in the public perception of what the public interest is. On Second Reading, and in other debates, it has been said that, if the Government tried to proceed with a contiguous cull in the same way that they have done in the past, there would be considerable public opposition. A balance must be struck. The public interest, as perceived through issues such as the locality and the industry, is one thing, but I do not think that to introduce culls all over again, based on legislation that provides for the widest spread of sweeping powers, will command public support, and that is an important part of public interest.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is opening up the debate to wider issues, such as whether it could be regarded as in the public interest if the same scale of culling were repeated. That is a moot point, which the independent inquiries will be addressing. I return to my point that we should not take the Bill as a template for an automatic response by the Government in future. I probably agree with him that, given the overall effects and costs of culling on such a scale, people would not want to see it again. However, given the problem of the widespread nature of the disease, it is a moot point as to whether any other option could have been chosen in this outbreak. I suspect that there was no other option.

We must think ahead and have contingencies for all eventualities. I suspect that the suite of powers that covers all diseases and the range of options may be used in a more localised fashion than they have been in the recent outbreak. However, we cannot escape from the fact that if they are to be used, they must be quick and efficient. There is an inherent responsibility on the Government to act proportionately and to strike a fair balance between the rights of individuals and the public interest. I am not averse to the notion that we could have public guidelines about how to do that.

As I said this morning, I am willing to give further thought to one or two of the issues raised. There may be ways in which we can give reassurance, but not necessarily under the provisions of the Bill, because one cannot deal with every eventuality in that way. I accept that people want to know the thinking that would be applied in different scenarios and I am in favour of that being open and transparent. I am not against considering how that might be achieved during discussion on the Bill.

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Prepared 22 November 2001