Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Bacon: The Minister reiterated the need to act proportionately and to strike a fair balance between the rights of Government and the rights of individuals. He also said earlier that there is no opportunity to argue—the record will show that. If there is no opportunity to argue, how can one possibly strike a fair balance between the rights of Government and those individuals?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentlemen suggests that my sentence ended abruptly at ``argue''. I suspect that I said something after that, perhaps about arguing about the principles, or whatever. Of course, there will be opportunities to appeal and for consultation on the criteria, and the judicial review has not been removed. The Government's application of the 1981 Act has been successful in general and most challenges have been resisted, although there will always be technicalities.

Unless the wording is clear--this applies to any legislation--it is an invitation to people who want to quibble about its interpretation and meaning. There is always someone who will do that. We want to bring the disease under control in the national interest and it is not reasonable to put into such measures wording that is so complex, bureaucratic and difficult that it becomes almost impossible to react to disease control. I do not believe that there is any disagreement in the Committee that if we intend to use the measures we must do so quickly and effectively.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): With reference to amendment No. 86, will the Minister confirm that foot and mouth is an airborne disease? It certainly was in 1967. I do not know of any holding that can be made secure from wildlife--unless the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) is right and it can be made airtight--which could be a contributory factor in the spread of foot and mouth. The amendment would be difficult to enforce if it were taken to mean what it says. Such holdings would be exempt from action.

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his interpretation. The amendment would be almost impossible to operate on the basis of the wording. It would limit the slaughter provisions, significantly undermining their value in the prevention of disease spread. It is not right to say that there is no opportunity to argue against reasonable proportionate culling because there will be an opportunity to make reasonable representations. That is the position now and it will remain so under the Bill. We are not trying to take that away.

Amendment No. 2 would remove those animals that are suspected of carrying FMD from the categories of animals that are already immaterial. The amendment is unclear, because it simply subtracts from a negative without putting any positive requirements on the Minister instead.

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Amendment No. 3 would deem immaterial to any decision to use wider slaughter powers animals that have been in contact with people who have been or are suspected of having been in contact with animals affected by foot and mouth. Making such animals immaterial would have little if any effect, and I do not understand the point.

The other amendments in this group are linked to the general theme. The issue is balance, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall rightly stated. Amendment No. 37 could introduce a delay in slaughter, which would have significant implications for disease control. That would be unacceptable. I come back to the point that any decision to cull would be proportionate, based on sound veterinary judgment, and explained to the farmer by the local veterinary inspector. The farmer would have the opportunity to ask the district veterinary manager to review the decision. One vet would go to the farm to explain why it was thought necessary to cull, and if the farmer did not accept that, he could then appeal to the district veterinary manager. That appeal process will be available.

We are trying to provide options for disease control, not policies cast in stone. Speed and flexibility are necessary in the application of any culling policy, should it be decided that that has a role to play in any future outbreak. I am not against the reasoning behind the amendments, particularly if animals can be kept in a biosecure environment. That would be very difficult, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, but there could be exemptions for them, as there were exemptions during the present outbreak. We can certainly think about that for the future. However, the amendments in this group would cripple the Bill and make it impossible to operate the provisions quickly and effectively.

Mrs. Winterton: It is great pleasure, Mr. Conway, to see you in the Chair this afternoon. I wonder whether the Clerks told you that the first printing error was spotted by me and the second was spotted by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. If a third is found, the Committee has decided that you will buy the person who finds it a bottle of champagne. Was that made clear to you? Ouch.

The debate has been interesting and wide ranging, and I suspect that the Minister has been rocked back on his heels a little by the contributions from this side of the Committee. He hasbeen at pains throughout to say that the matter is one of balance, that the Government have the right balance in the Bill and that it is essential that the extra sweeping powers should be introduced just in case. I have great difficulty with that position because I believe that the Bill is too one-sided.

The Minister said that the first vet who inspects the farm and the stock can make reasonable representations about the risk assessment and that the farmer can then appeal to the district veterinary manager. However, the farmer has nowhere to go after that. The decision is made by a member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, albeit a veterinary surgeon, and no meaningful appeal is available. I do not believe that many farmers want to stop slaughter when they know that a cull would stop the disease spreading. They would not want to stand in the Ministry's way. However, there are occasions when they would, and we discussed examples of that earlier, so I shall not repeat them.

Mr. Drew: This is a point that we might slide past, but it is at the core of some of the arguments. There are people who think of foot and mouth as an unimportant disease--this has been put to me personally--and would allow it to pass through their herd or flock. What action is both fair and reasonable in such circumstances?

Mrs. Winterton: I do not question the integrity of the hon. Gentleman, but that must be a unique case. Never has a farmer expressed such a view to me. Labour Members may have had that experience; that is fair do's. However, the point is that there must be a reasonable right of appeal. It may have to be quick, but it should not be summary justice.

Mr. Morley: The courts, then.

Mrs Winterton: I do not see why a system could not be arrived at, but I am not a lawyer and I may need to be rescued by one of my hon. Friends. If the Government provided for a meaningful appeal within, say, 12 hours, why could not special courts sit or special arrangements be made so that farmers and others who have legitimate reasons to stand against a decision--

Mr. Morley: What puzzles me—I am thinking aloud—about the insistence on going to court is the idea that courts are somehow better than vets. Generally, the legal profession will listen to the veterinary argument, which influences them a great deal. There has not been much evidence of courts overturning the views of the vets working on behalf of the Department. An appeal process dealing with local issues and local circumstances, based on veterinary advice, is surely better than dragging everything through the courts, which does not guarantee that individuals will get the desired outcome.

Mrs. Winterton: No indeed, but to look at the number of cases that have gone to court, and the number of cases that the Ministers' Department has withdrawn, is to open a can of worms.

The Minister's reassurances have been cold comfort to most people. The way in which local vets react will set the tone of the policy to be implemented. Most people want the whole system to be much more transparent. The Minister said that the powers in the Bill might not need to be used. That reinforces our earlier point that it would have been better for the Government not to have rushed into legislation in a headstrong way, but to have waited for the reports and recommendations of their inquiries. We would then have known that legislation was being introduced with the facts before us.

The amendments, to which many hon. Members have spoken, list the several material reasons for resisting this part of the Bill. The wide-sweeping powers will be a hostage to fortune in the future and are at the discretion of a future Minister. We need more clarity and transparency of the Government's aims. We cannot go along with the Minister's line at this stage, and we shall press the amendments to a vote.

Mr. Breed: We have had an interesting, informative debate. We divide on what is implicit and explicit, and the protections that we feel are needed.

We have highlighted the fact that, if decisions are to be made locally, farm by farm—such local decision-making was often lacking in the past—we will rely on local independent vets and veterinary managers. I foresee some problems with the different interpretations of wide-ranging legislation that might exist in different places. Any subsequent judicial review might quote precedents from places up and down the country.

An argument against the Minister's remarks that the appeals will be fair—we shall discuss it again later—is that there is no real right of representation. Farmers will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in trying to pursue their cases without representation or support. Overall, the differences and the seriousness of the issues are such that we cannot go along with the current wording, so I am pleased that the amendments are being pressed to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 3]

Bacon, Mr. Richard
Breed, Mr. Colin
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill
Williams, Mr. Roger
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Atkins, Charlotte
Drew, Mr. David
Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick
Morley, Mr. Elliot
Organ, Diana
Owen, Albert
Reed, Mr. Andy
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry

Question accordingly negatived.

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