House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2001- 02
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates
Animal Health Bill

Animal Health Bill

Standing Committee E

Thursday 29 November 2001


[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Animal Health Bill

Clause 1

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Amendment proposed [22 November]: No. 54, in page 1, line 20, at end insert—

    `(3A) After sub-paragraph (1) insert—

    ``(1A) The Minister may not cause to be slaughtered any animal kept as a pet or in an animal sanctuary or for other non-commercial purposes—

    (a) under sub-paragraph (1)(b) above on the ground that it has been exposed to the infection of foot and mouth disease, or

    (b) under sub-paragraph (1)(c) above

    unless the Minister reasonably believes, on the basis of a veterinary risk assessment, that the animal is at significant risk of having been affected with foot and mouth disease.''.'.—[Diana Organ.]

8.55 am

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking new clause 1—Pet animals—

    ``In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 34.

    `34A Pet animals

    Where it can be shown that a pet animal has been in contact with an animal affected by foot-and-mouth, it shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known'.''.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): In the previous sitting, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) gave heart-rending examples from her constituency that illustrate why the Bill should give special consideration to pets. I totally agree with that principle, and in that regard I draw the Committee's attention to new clause 1. We cannot allow the disease to prevail just because a pet contracts foot and mouth, hard though slaughtering it may be for its owners. That said, we must bear it in mind that some people keep as pets what many would regard as farm animals. The hon. Lady gave some wonderful examples of such people in her constituency, and the same is true of my constituency.

I should like to share with the Committee the heart-rending case of two goats called Bella and Pippa, which, I am pleased to say, are alive and well and continuing to give great pleasure to their owners. [Interruption.] Members of the Committee are not taking this matter seriously enough. This is not the tale of ``Billy Goat's Bluff''; it concerns two living goats that were saved from the Ministry's intention to slaughter them without due consideration. My point is that the slaughtering of pets should not be contemplated until a blood test has been carried out, and slaughter should not proceed unless the test proves positive.

Bella and Pippa belong to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, two constituents of mine who live in an area that has experienced foot and mouth outbreaks. In May, the Ministry announced its intention to slaughter Bella and Pippa without a blood test and on the sole ground that they were in what was deemed a contiguous cull area. Our local Exeter newspaper, the Express and Echo, ran a very good campaign highlighting the fact that, as domestic pets, Bella and Pippa had not been in contact with any other beasts. They had been kept in a secure area and it was impossible to prove scientifically that they posed a risk to other animals.

Not unreasonably, I wrote to Baroness Hayman, the then Minister of State, in order to plead the case for the two goats. On 17 May, I received a pleasing but none the less astonishing reply:

    ``Thank you for your letter of 10 May, about the goats belonging to your constituents Mr and Mrs Bennett.

    I understand that this case has been carefully reviewed by the Divisional Veterinary Office and it has been decided that the most appropriate way forward in these circumstances is not to proceed with the cull. We will, however, be arranging testing for the animals to ensure that they have remained disease free.''

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Excellent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister says, ``Excellent'' from a sedentary position, and there was indeed a big sigh of relief from all who were concerned about Bella and Pippa. However, the point is that the Ministry reprieved them before conducting a blood test. Where pets live in what is deemed a contiguous cull area, blood tests should surely be automatic. They should precede consideration of slaughter and the question of whether there are clinical signs of foot and mouth disease. It is a matter of getting things in the proper order and dealing with pets on the basis that, although they are potential foot and mouth carriers, they are special to their owners.

In the case of Bella and Pippa there was a happy ending, but it does not quite square with what the Government are now proposing. In the light of the Government's experience, and given that their committees have yet to report their findings, we shall continue to argue that much of the Bill is not based on a proper analysis of foot and mouth. This is rushed legislation, and one has to use examples such as Bella and Pippa, and those given by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, to persuade the Minister that new clause 1 is sensible and fair.

New clause 1 states that a pet animal

    ``shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known''.

In the light of my experience and that of other members of the Committee, the Minister can surely accept the reality of the impact of foot and mouth on pets. The new clause is reasonable and is based on the Minister's own conclusions, as outlined in Baroness Hayman's letter. In the interests of justice and fairness for pet owners, I ask the Minister to accept the new clause.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Those of us who were involved in the foot and mouth crisis experienced many problems with pets, although some cases achieved greater fame than others. There were significant problems in dealing with the emotional subject of culling pets, particularly where young children were concerned. It is well known that children who live on farms regard some animals as pets, even though they may ultimately join the flock or herd. It has proved difficult to define a pet and, in some cases, to distinguish a genuine pet from an ordinary farm animal. As we all know, in a domestic setting it is much easier to define an animal as a pet.

On agricultural holdings, where an animal is owned by the farm but looked after by a child as a pet, matters are a little more difficult, as is the problem of defining a sanctuary. When the previous Conservative Government introduced the poll tax some years ago, a gentleman in my constituency decided to establish his own faith and convert his house from domestic premises into a church, thereby avoiding the need to pay poll tax. It was extremely difficult to decide on the matter, and there are similar problems associated with the agricultural holding that becomes a sanctuary as soon as foot and mouth, or any other disease, breaks out. We are going to find it difficult to tease out these important issues, especially within the time scale of the Committee. The Bill presents many practical problems in terms of pet animals, and the Government must clarify how they will be treated and how the definitions will be arrived at. The blood test is a good way forward, and at least provides an element of protection. We are back to the age-old problem of moving quickly. We must give proper consideration to how the Government would deal with this practical problem at the height of a crisis.

Albert Owen (Ynys Mon): I rise to support amendment No. 54 and new clause 1. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) makes a valid point about the definition of pets and other domestic animals. I have come to the conclusion that it should cover those not destined for the food chain—that is a good enough definition in itself—and not for commercial use, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said. Another useful consideration is that, as the Minister said, vaccination could be used as a firebreak. Exemptions could be made for sanctuaries.

I am not as eloquent as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean in talking about constituency issues, but I should mention the Anglesey seven, a group of hobby farmers in my area who took their case to the High Court and the National Assembly for Wales. They pulled back and did not pursue it, but it was a strong case in that they had no intention of putting their animals into the food chain. I stress that I support a cull. Those of us who support hobby farmers are not saying that we should not cull or use vaccination.

We should seriously consider the argument about animals not destined for the food chain. The farming unions have made strong representations to say that export markets were damaged as a result of foot and mouth infection, but these animals go nowhere near markets or abattoirs. Amendment No. 54 is consistent with the Bill, and I support it.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on amendment No. 54 and new clause 1, which deal with the sensitive issue of pets and animal sanctuaries.

As members of the Committee will appreciate, at the time of the foot and mouth contiguous cull there was a tremendous amount of publicity about people challenging in the courts the Government's right to insist on slaughter. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that any slaughter policy should be carried out according to a risk assessment and by a suitably qualified vet, taking into account the geography of the local area and the vicinity of any confirmed cases of infected animals. It believes that those criteria should be used with regard to pet animals or animal sanctuaries.

Throughout the crisis, the RSPCA drew attention to many anecdotal reports about Government officials suggesting that sheepdogs and other pet animals should be slaughtered as they were believed to be carriers. The Minister, who is a great supporter of the RSPCA, may wish to comment on that. If it is scaremongering it needs to be hit firmly on the head. The policy must be sufficiently clear that it can be understood by those involved in every aspect of the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned the case of Bella and Pippa—wonderful names—in her constituency, and there is the famous case of Mrs. Rosemary Upton of Somerset, who took the Government to court over efforts to cull a pet pig called Grunty and 11 prize sheep. The judge said that he had been most influenced by impressive scientific evidence that there was no risk to the pets even if the animals turned out to be infected, bearing in mind their number and their distance from neighbouring animals. That case can be held in proof that under the Animal Health Act 1981 the Government did not have the power to slaughter without the farmer's permission, and calls into question the legality of the Government's slaughter powers throughout the foot and mouth epidemic.

On 25 April, the Government announced a change in the 3 km contiguous cull policy, which meant that cattle on farms adjoining foot and mouth outbreaks should be spared if there was adequate biosecurity to prevent infection. The policy shift followed claims by farmers' leaders that killing one particular calf—the famous Phoenix—would make the Government look insensitive. We all know what happened next—Phoenix escaped slaughter and the Prime Minister himself announced the policy change just before the 10 pm news bulletin. Although 3.9 million animals had been slaughtered for disease eradication purposes, the Government gave special privileges to one calf. Conservative Members believe that slaughter policy should be based on qualified veterinary risk assessment.

That brings me to the interesting and powerful speech made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean during the previous sitting, in which she described the situation in the forest and referred to many people there—up to 20, I believe, but she may correct me if I am wrong—


House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 November 2001