Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: The Government's motivation in bringing forward the Bill, especially clause 1, has become clear. The explanatory memorandum states that the power in clause 1(1)3 not only

    ``adds to the categories of animals'',

    ``makes it clear that the new power may be exercised whether or not the animals concerned are affected or suspected of being affected with the disease''.

Indeed, the regulatory impact assessment produced by DEFRA on this part of the Bill goes on in similar vein, saying that

    ``there is considerable scope for debate about whether the slaughter powers apply in particular circumstances, especially relating to whether animals have in fact been `exposed' to disease.''

Today we have established pretty clearly that section 32 of the Animal Health Act 1981 already gives the Minister those powers—he admitted that. Therefore, an awful lot of what has been officially written about clause 1 is already on the statute book.

Why does the clause need to be in the Bill? It does not concern whether animals must be known to have the disease before the Minister grants the power to slaughter, because slaughtering can be done on the basis of suspicion. During an intervention last Thursday, I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton that the previous Government used section 32 of the Animal Health Act 1981 to justify legally the selective cull of animals that were clearly in a similar position. There was no proof that the animals were incubating BSE or had been in contact with contaminated feed, yet section 32 allowed sufficient power under those circumstances to slaughter the cattle concerned.

The wide-reaching powers of the Animal Health Act 1981 would certainly continue to enable the Minister to decide to slaughter on the basis of suspicion, purely on the grounds of curtailing and preventing animal disease spread. The Bill is somewhat bogus in suggesting that those are the reasons the Minister needs the power. He clearly does not need those reasons, as he already has those powers. The issue is not about the Minister's power to decide to slaughter, but about peoples' rights to challenge that decision to slaughter.

As I mentioned earlier, I want to study the rather detailed statement that the Minister presented to us. Although he used that statement in response to a particular amendment on the slaughter of pet animals, there is clearly a wider implication for the whole Bill, relating not just to pet animals within a contiguous cull area but to everything.

Whatever Labour Members say, we have a problem in that a balance needs to be struck between DEFRA's need for powers to slaughter quickly to contain the spread of animal disease and the rights of individual animal owners to challenge that decision if they feel that there is a legitimate reason to spare those animals. We must debate that in more detail. We are led to believe that the powers will be proportionate. The Minister nods his head; he will recall that we use the word ``proportionate'' because that is a legal requirement under the Human Rights Act 1998, which may be interpreted more widely than it was when the selective cull was introduced.

As a former Minister, I am not revealing anything too secret by stating that when Ministers were advised of their powers under the 1981 Act, they were told that they could slaughter animals on suspicion, but if the animals' owner presented legitimate evidence that their animals might prove not to be infected and challenged that decision, a Minister would have to consider the position in exercising section 32 of the 1981 Act. With regard to foot and mouth, the Minister is legally obliged to exercise proportionality. We have not identified how he will make that proportionate in terms of clause 1, so that owners of animals who legitimately want to challenge the decision to slaughter can appeal. It was pointed out to the Minister that whatever powers he has in London, activities on the ground determine whether an animal is presented for slaughter under those powers.

I should like to mention the findings of the Mercer inquiry in Devon because some Government Members were critical of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton when she quoted from constituency letters. The Mercer inquiry, which has already published its preliminary findings, states:

    ``It was not obvious to us from the evidence received that MAFF was working to any form of coherent contingency plan . . . We find that in the field there would best be a military command, with police, environmental and veterinary aids at its side from Day One of an outbreak. The Inquiry heard that a culture of secrecy was perceived within MAFF and this led to an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, changing advice and inconsistencies which in turn was reflected by farmers, the media and other organisations the Ministry had dealings with.''

The Minister asks us to put on the statute book legislation that would give limited powers of appeal—I do not suggest that there will be no power of appeal—particularly in respect of contiguous culls. Thus, we are being asked to believe that if such a dreadful thing were somehow to happen again, from day one DEFRA would get its ducks in a row and all the problems that the Minister has not mentioned would not occur for a second time. Not only hon. Members, but the farming community in general, are concerned that the right to challenge inequalities in the way in which decisions are made on the ground will be curtailed to the point that it is neither just nor proportionate.

11.15 am

Clause 1 is not about giving the Minister powers that he has not got; it is about restricting the right to challenge DEFRA. As I said to the Minister at the beginning of our proceedings, unless proportionality is demonstrated, the Bill will be challenged in the courts because it is disproportionate. It is incumbent upon the Minister in Committee to allay our fears that there will not be proportionality. The Minister still believes that 24 hours is okay, but 48 hours is too long, and that the science backing his theory on contiguous culls is 100 per cent. accurate. I do not challenge contiguous culls in general, but we have seen no evidence to convince us that the Bill, with its draconian powers, is based on the experience on the ground during the foot and mouth crisis, or backed by independent scientific advice.

Although I welcome the Minister's earlier statement, which, I perceived, was a modification of his original intent, further modification will be required of later clauses if the Bill is to be seen as rational and proportionate.

Mr. Bacon: I shall attempt to be brief in summing up why I oppose clause 1. To accept the sweeping powers under clause 1 would be premature, particularly given that the inquiries that should inform legislation such as this have not completed their findings. I am thinking particularly of the Royal Society inquiry, which is to look at how the disease was spread and how good the predictive models were at predicting its spread. The latter is particularly interesting, because I am not aware of an independent assessment that the Minister has made of the mathematics underlying the predictive model on which the Ministry relied. The inquiry will also address the effectiveness of the culling. Its principal purpose is to discover whether there were serious alternatives to culling. To adopt clause 1 prior to those findings would be premature.

My next point concerns the Ministry's behaviour and the trust that it failed to engender by its actions during the crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton gave many examples where the Ministry's actions undermined trust. I shall not trouble the Committee with further examples, but had the Ministry acted more reasonably and proportionately, people would be more inclined to listen to the arguments for the Bill.

Conservative Members have sought to make a number of proportionate and reasonable amendments to clause 1 to give it the balance that it lacks, but the Minister has refused to accept any of them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, plenty of powers are already available under the Animal Health Act 1981. Under section 32, the Minister has the power to slaughter animals even if he thinks that they are only suspected of being infected and, in section 87, which he can extend by order, he can slaughter any animal that he likes, more or less. Section 87(2)(a) states that

    ``any kind of mammal except man''

may be slaughtered by order, and paragraph (b) refers to

    ``any kind of four-footed beast which is not a mammal.''

I assume that that would include duck-billed platypuses, but not kangaroos. The Minister has the powers if he wants to use them reasonably. The question is whether he wants to do that, or create unreasonable powers.

I am new to the House, but I understand that the first clause of any Bill contains the heart, the meat and substance of the Bill. However, clause 1 of this Bill makes no reference to imports. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the Devon foot and mouth inquiry, the first recommendation of which concerned the need to take cognisance of the problem with imports. A food manufacturer in my constituency who imports food—legally—from different parts of the world, recently said that until the Government took the question of illegal imports seriously, there was little point in doing anything else because Government measures would be ineffective. Paragraph 1.2 of the Devon findings states:

    ``We . . . find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation.''

I oppose the clause also because it contravenes the human rights convention, article 6 of which makes plain the right to a fair trial. I emphasise the word ``fair''. No one suggests that the Bill removes all rights of judicial review, but unless there is a reasonable chance of exercising those rights, the right to a fair trial enshrined in the convention is denied.

The clause is not balanced, proportionate or reasonable. The reasonable powers are already contained in the 1981 Act. Clause 1 does not mention the most important issue: imports. It almost certainly contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998 and will be challenged in the courts. On past actions, the Ministry has not earned the trust of Opposition Members or farmers that is needed to introduce such sweeping powers. The Minister's cuddly, warm, approachable, proportionate, balanced and reasonable approach is a bit late in the day. If he really believes that that is the right approach, why was it not included in clause 1?

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Prepared 29 November 2001