Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Her constituents will note that their views will not have an opportunity to be aired in Committee or on Report.

The point made by the Cumbrian farmer's wife obviously hit home, and I am glad. I make no apology for reading out what she wrote—she felt it and wrote it. I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands has had foot and mouth cases, but perhaps she has not been to see them, experienced them for herself or met the people involved, as I have done in Cumbria, Yorkshire and, only last week, Devon. If she had done, she would understand that the reason I have given my examples in Committee is that they are directly relevant to clause 1 and the powers that the Government are taking unto themselves.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): It may interest the hon. Lady to know that I am the only Cumbrian MP present and my constituency was hit desperately hard by foot and mouth. However, I would never use such examples either. I have talked to farmers and had their wives crying down the phone with emotion, so I fully understand their anger and have sympathy for what they say. However, to use the language that the hon. Lady uses debases her argument.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is obviously purer than pure, whiter than white and will go to heaven one day. However, I make no apology for repeating what many farmers and their wives have said. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) like to intervene? He is gesticulating from a sedentary position.

Mr. Patrick Hall: I simply remind the hon. Lady of the well-known advice of a former Minister: if one is in a hole, one should stop digging.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is doing the same. If such language were not allowed, you would have called me to order, Mr. Illsley—I accept that the hon. Gentleman is new and so probably does not know about such things. My comment is fair and it stands.

The Chairman: Order. We have spent about 27 minutes on the clause stand part debate and I am delighted that everyone took my advice before we commenced. Can we return to discussing clause 1?

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to you, Mr. Illsley, for that advice and hope that you understand that, when people intervene in the spirit of the debate, one must respond even if one is sometimes led down a blind alley.

I genuinely believe, as do Conservative Members, that clause 1 is an important and vital part of the Bill to which we thoroughly object. The Minister has had a change of heart and has come forward with a softer line on proportionality—a word that was never used by Labour members of the Committee last week, but was used frequently on the Conservative Benches. That suggests that he has received positive advice, which has changed the tone of his remarks. I hasten to add that one welcomes such a change. However, that change is not apparent in the Bill and we remain sceptical about it. The Minister will therefore understand that we do not want the clause to go unamended when all our previous amendments and reasoned arguments have been rejected.

Mr. Breed: The purpose of the Bill is to address some of the lessons that were learned during the foot and mouth crisis, and clause 1 constitutes the essential part of that process. In trying to achieve their objectives, the Government, the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were frustrated by the terms of the 1981 Act. The response was clause 1, which contains the most wide-ranging, all-encompassing powers imaginable. Quite properly, Opposition members of the Committee have tried to restrict use of its draconian powers to very specific circumstances by adding qualifications that are reasonable, proportionate and fair in every sense of those words.

I turn to an issue that should be considered in the context of the ``lessons learned'' inquiry. A letter from Alan and Rosie Beat, of the Bridge Mill, Bridgerule, in Holsworthy—I lived in Holsworthy for some time and I know it well—states:

    ``Official statistics show that . . . 20 per cent. of animals slaughtered on contiguous farms have tested positive for FMD . . . so the remaining 80 per cent. were healthy and were not incubating the disease.''

Mr. Morley: It is worth reiterating that one cannot draw that conclusion from testing. Blood tests identify antibodies in the latter stages of incubation, so a negative test does not mean that the animal was not incubating.

Mr. Breed: Actually, I was just about to make that point—[Laughter.] However, I am grateful to the Minister for putting it so succinctly. Nevertheless, he will accept that a large number of healthy animals were killed, and that that exerted a powerful negative influence on disease control by diverting resources away from genuine cases of infection. In Devon, at least, carcase disposal—an important side effect—created huge problems. As a direct result of killing those additional animals, the crucial target of slaughtering all infected stock within 24 hours became impossible to achieve. That is one real lesson that we have learned from the outbreak and the use of the contiguous cull.

As ever, the Minister is the personification of fairness, reasonableness and proportionality, but the same cannot necessarily be said of the agents who work on his behalf. It is the Minister who considers and decides, but he is not the person who carries out the deeds and applies the principles of reasonableness and proportionality to individual farms and animals.

There is one other unfortunate lesson that we have learned. As Mr. Beat says,

    ``when MAFF officials enter private property to interfere in other people's lives, and perhaps to kill their livestock, they should act with courtesy, consideration and compassion. These simple but necessary qualities have at times been lacking, to be replaced by rudeness, arrogance and disregard for human or animal suffering.''

I know that officials are under pressure, and that many different people and personalities are involved, but we are talking about granting powers to the Minister, who grants them to others—

Mr. Drew: I want to put on the record the fact that those of us who lived and worked through this on an hourly basis know—I could quote many instances and certainly letters from constituents—that care and consideration were shown in the most difficult circumstances, particularly by MAFF officials but also by TVI people, who spent hours counselling and working with people. We must strike a balance.

11 am

Mr. Breed: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I lived through it and, yes, I can accept what he says. We are discussing proportionality and the issue concerns the extent of the powers that are being given, their widespread nature and to whom they will be given. I entirely accept that the overwhelming majority of people worked hard under terrible emotional pressure, but there were lapses. We must accept that.

The other aspect which was raised concerned the responsibility of the veterinary profession, which is in a difficult position. We have discussed the fact that the independence of vets will be important, particularly if farmers use their own vets, and the powers that the Minister will have to compel them to work on his behalf will put vets in an even more difficult position. I do not know whether there are any practising vets in the Committee, but I understand that their oath includes a promise to put animal welfare first. Many of the vets who worked for MAFF had to juggle their conscience on that. There were instances of vets signing form A to authorise the slaughter of what they considered to be healthy stock on many contiguous premises. It is a difficult matter and the way in which vets will be used and compelled to operate under the powers will be difficult. We must try to ensure that the qualifications and restrictions on all those involved in the exercise—we hope that it will never happen again—provide a framework within which farmers, those who work for farmers, vets, TVIs and so on can operate satisfactorily.

When we were discussing pets, the Minister indicated that he would be able to report back before Christmas with a framework. That is only a few weeks away, but it would be helpful even if he did that early next year. Bearing in mind that, as of yesterday, the outbreak seems to be over—we hope and pray that it is—we now have a modicum of additional breathing space, so it might be possible to delay Report stage until the Minister can return with the protocol or framework. It is an important part of the Bill and even two or three weeks would assist his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. She withdrew her amendment, but I am sure that she wants to ensure that the matter is dealt with adequately, instead of the Committee proceeding at a pace that is not now so necessary. We could then consider that protocol, framework, or whatever it will be called, before Report.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech—I hope that that will not blight his parliamentary career.

Mr. Breed: I do not have one.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. We hope that every day that passes with no evidence of a further outbreak will give the Government and everyone else time to think about the future and legislate appropriately in the light of experience, the results of the reports and our debates on the Bill so far.

Mr. Breed: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I entirely agree with her. The Minister should give some thought to that, in all fairness. I think that we need to wait only two or three more weeks. Were we still at the height of the crisis, that would not be an argument. The last case was on 30 September, all areas are now cleared and hopefully we shall keep the biosecurity going.

The Christmas recess is approaching. If Report stage takes place when we come back in January, that will mean only a few weeks' delay. It will give the Minister and his officials an opportunity to produce a paper explaining how they will deal with pets, which is an important issue for many people, and will enable us to look more sympathetically at the whole Bill.

At present, this clause, which I accept is the essence of the Bill, does not provide us with an opportunity to support it because it is too wide-ranging. The Minister has failed to accept some very reasonable qualifications and restrictions on these draconian powers, and as a result we do not support the clause.

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