Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Morley: I would like to begin the process within weeks, and we will set a reasonable closing date so that we can get on with things. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will have to seek advice on what constitutes a reasonable period for consultation, but I certainly want matters to proceed as quickly as is reasonably possible. Some pressure has been taken off us, in that the epidemic is no longer raging, but we cannot be complacent and there remains the risk of a reoccurrence. We are doing all we can to prevent such a reoccurrence, and in that regard it remains important for farmers to consider biosecurity—

Mrs. Winterton: And officials, too.

Mr. Morley: And officials. Everyone who has contact with livestock should consider biosecurity, and it is also important to maintain restrictions on licences for animal movements.

Mrs. Gillan: I am sorry to press the Minister, but this is an important point. He has just said that pressure on his Department is easing because, hopefully, the epidemic is reaching a conclusion, yet he is arguing that the Bill be rushed through the House because the situation is urgent. I accept that he needs to consult on what is a reasonable time scale, but can he say what he considers reasonable at this stage, bearing in mind a possible need to move away from that estimate? I am not trying to tie the Minister's hands; I am simply trying to get a grip on the sort of time scale that we can expect.

Mr. Morley: I can certainly give the hon. Lady some idea, and I do want people to feel that there has been no opportunity to consult on the time scale. However, I dispute the notion that we are rushing the Bill through the House—it is following the normal parliamentary procedure. I have always said that I want the consultation to begin within weeks, and by the new year at the latest. I imagine that between eight to 10 weeks would constitute a suitable consultation period, but I do not want to set that in stone.

Mrs. Browning: I think that we are all very interested in what the Minister is now telling us. When consultation takes place after a Bill has been enacted, it is normally related to matters that are dependent on secondary legislation and any orders arising. Assuming that I have understood the Minister correctly, is it not rather unusual to consult on matters of primary legislative importance after a Bill has been enacted?

Mr. Morley: I am surprised to hear the hon. Lady say that. As a very experienced Member of this House and a former Minister, she will know that many aspects of any legislation can be consulted on during its passage and after its enactment. Although some provisions in the Bill are enacted by order, not all are. There is nothing unusual about this procedure. I accept that legitimate concerns have been raised, and I am trying to respond in an open and reasonable way.

Although the appeal to the deputy veterinary manager will remain—I want to make the process better and more open, and I want it to deal with a wider range of circumstances—the option of an independent judicial review will remain available to any farmer or animal owner if they are not satisfied with the appeal process.

It is true that the idea of the Bill is to speed up the culling process, but we are dealing with procedures here. If it is shown that this or any other Government did not act in a proportionate way, they will suffer the legal consequences.

Mrs. Browning: I think that I know the answer to this. I must put it on the Committee record. Since the Committee met last Thursday, has the Minister received any new legal advice from his officials?

Mr. Morley: I have received none at all.

We want to be equally open about the possibilities created by the Bill for extending slaughter powers for other diseases. We should not focus just on foot and mouth disease. We will be able to extend those powers only under the affirmative resolution procedure: both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the measures. Our intention is to use that period to consult on how to put the powers into practice. Precisely which criteria we take into account will vary from disease to disease. As part of future planning, we will look at all those issues.

Mr. Bacon: I am listening to the Minister with great interest, but also with growing astonishment. He has mentioned that he does not want the approach to be disproportionate, inconsistent or unfair. He wants an understanding of the risks and proportionate, risk-based action. Those are all fine and laudable aims, but I do not understand why, in referring to the concerns of his hon. Friends, he has not acknowledged the fact that those concerns have also been expressed by Opposition Members. The amendments that we tabled to clause 1 are littered with phrases like, ``after consultation with the animal owner'' or ``has reasonable justification to believe after consultation''. An amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall suggesting that slaughter should occur only after disease risk assessment by a suitably qualified and independent representative. In each case, the Minister has said, ``I am sorry, I cannot take any notice of that. It will cripple the Bill.'' Can the Minister explain the sudden volte-face?

Mr. Morley: Yes, I can.

Mr. Bacon: So the Minister admits that there has been a volte-face?

Mr. Morley: No. I can explain it. The wording and detail of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends is superior to that of some of the amendments tabled by the Opposition. The eloquence of their argument touched me.

In all seriousness, I did say that perfectly reasonable points were raised by all members of the Committee. Indeed, the new clause on blood testing is perfectly reasonable, apart from the fact that it does not have to be in the Bill: the blood-testing option can be applied in certain circumstances.

I cannot accept new clause 1, first, because it is too prescriptive and, secondly, because it is technically flawed. As drafted, it would mean that no pet animal that had been in contact with an FMD-affected animal could be slaughtered until blood tests had been analysed. Even those animals that had become infected by FMD could not be immediately slaughtered if they were pets. That is the strict legal interpretation of the wording.

I know that these are probing amendments, so I do not want to make a big issue of that, but obviously I cannot accept new clause 1. My response has taken a bit of time because it relates to issues that arise later in the Bill. It might save us time to deal with those matters now. I have given a detailed response to my hon. Friends. I think that it is an issue—

Mrs. Browning: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but what he has said is of great significance not only to the new clause but to many subjects that we will debate later this morning, this afternoon and on Tuesday. Before the afternoon sitting, can the Minister's officials make available copies of the statement that he has read out? It is long and detailed, and it would be helpful to have it in front of us this afternoon.

10.15 am

The Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Mr. Morley: I have taken note of the hon. Lady's request. There are certain protocols and procedures in Committees, which I frequently trip over, but I will take advice on the matter.

Many hon. Members have raised reasonable concerns that reflect the views of people outside this Room who have animals. I have discussed those issues and the Bill with the National Farmers Union, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Sheep Association and a range of other bodies, and I will have further opportunities to talk to them. I am trying to respond to hon. Members' concerns in an honest and transparent way. I do not believe that going to court is necessarily the best option. It will be better to have a written and public protocol for our vets to follow and to make people aware of the procedures, on which we can consult. The Bill will provide better safeguards than the ones under the 1981 Act.

The Bill introduces changes to that Act—for example, to preventive and curative powers—and contains new options. It gives us an opportunity to deal with legitimate concerns about how measures were applied during the FMD epidemic. There may be different ways in which to deal with epidemics in future, but we need to deal with culling.

Mr. Drew: I find the Minister's remarks interesting, and they please Labour Members, although perhaps not Opposition Members.

There is one crucial group that we have not mentioned: farmers who wish to protect their stock through a firebreak cull and who may, under the current arrangement, have to take legal action against those who do not want their animals culled for some reason. That subject is frequently avoided, but it is of real concern. Those farmers support a cull to protect their stock, but often that is not brought out in the arguments. Does the Minister agree that that has been a problem? Perhaps transparency will allow us to make progress on that.

Mr. Morley: I agree that problems such as that arise. I have mentioned that when the Prime Minister visited Cumbria and met the NFU, farmers pressed him strongly to accelerate the culling programme. They were desperate to ensure that the disease did not spread out of the valleys, where it was raging. I am glad to say that, by and large, the disease there was contained within its main epicentres, which was no mean achievement. The independent inquiry will probably want to examine that.

I return to the letter that the hon. Member for Congleton read. There are people who simply do not believe that the contiguous cull had any bearing. I do not believe that myself, even though I advocated the vaccination policy in Cumbria. There was resistance to that and various problems, which I am sure the inquiries will deal with. The contiguous cull brought that outbreak under control. We will have the opportunity to assess in detail whether that is true through the Royal Society and the independent Anderson inquiry. They will guide us through the options.

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