Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: I wish to add one or two points to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. The 25 per cent. reduction will apply not just to the owners of animals on infected premises, but to people who will be eligible for compensation because they own the animals but their animals are on someone else's premises for good reasons. As we saw frequently during the foot and mouth outbreak, many lambs are overwintered in lowland areas. That is common practice at the time of year when the foot and mouth outbreak struck. Pigs that go to fattening units are not necessarily all owned by the same farmer. It is common practice for farmers who own animals and would be entitled to compensation to send their animals to someone else's farm in good faith. The provision is unfair to that group of farmers in particular. Farmers who send lambs to be overwintered elsewhere have the choice of where to send them, but it is unlikely that they could carry out a full biosecurity check of the farm that they choose. We all recognise good and bad practice in general terms, but it puts an onus on farmers that they have not had to consider in the past.

For those reasons, and those outlined by my hon. Friends, the Minister should consider the amendment. He is rightly concerned about biosecurity, but I agree with comments from both sides of the House on Second Reading that it is wrong to assume automatically that a breakdown in biosecurity comes only from farmers--

3.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.35 pm

On resuming--

Mrs. Browning: I support the Minister in his concern about biosecurityone cannot afford to be cavalier about itbut I must return to what has been a running theme throughout our deliberations. We have yet to be given a definitive explanation of how biosecurity was breached during the latest outbreak. It would be useful if that information were available, because even though it is not, the Minister has asserted that farmers breach biosecurity to such an extent that a penalty must be built into compensation rates in the Bill.

Opposition Members in particular have suggested to the Minister that biosecurity has been breached by all manner of people going on and off farm, including officials. I had the impression that he had not totally discounted that view, yet we have heard nothing about how those problems will be addressed and what the repercussions will be. We are, we trust, in the final weeks of this outbreak, and we hope that no new cases will occur. However, on 22 October the Western Morning News, a daily newspaper in my constituency, reported an incident--[Interruption.] I should point out that this is a shocking story. The newspaper reported that the ``Department of Agriculture'', by which it presumably means DEFRA--

Mr. Morley: News is a bit slow in reaching the west country.

Mrs. Browning: We do not need the Minister to tell us that we in the west country are slow. We could teach him and his officials a few things about agriculture in our region.

As I was saying, the Western Morning News reported that the ``Department of Agriculture'' is investigating claims that the bloodstained overall of a Ministry slaughterman was discarded in a country lane adjacent to a farm field in Pennymoor, near Tiverton. The point is that disposable overalls--it is pretty clear where they came from--covered in blood were discarded in a part of my constituency that has not been infected. That is a biosecurity issue that should be taken very seriously. In the light of DEFRA's comments, the newspaper claimed that DEFRA was investigating the matter, but in fact it has done absolutely nothing. Mr. Harris, who found the overalls, was advised to contact the local DEFRA office and that the overalls would be collected and examined, but nothing has happened since. He was told to double-wrap the overalls in plastic and put them in his deep freeze--he has duly done so--so that DEFRA could collect them. He has heard nothing. DEFRA is not in the least interested in this serious breach of biosecurity. I hope that it is not out of order to point out that, on Monday, Mr. Harris asked me to tell ``that Margaret Beckett'' to go and look in his freezer.

I cite that example in the hope that, when he leaves this Room, the Minister will immediately telephone the DEFRA office in Exeter and demand that it do what it told the Western Morning News it would do more than a month ago: send someone to Pennymoor to investigate that breach. If not, he will have to go and look in Mr. Harris's freezer himself. This is an important matter, and the Minister must recognise that incidents such as this need to be investigated and sorted out. I hope that he will do so.

Officials have breached biosecurity and that issue must be properly addressed. It is not a question of playing ping-pong with blame. The Minister knows that if farmers commit serious breaches, he has statutory powers to bring them to court, and I would be the first to support him wholeheartedly if he did so. The Bill makes a financial consideration in terms of a presumption of guilt in relation to the farming community, but gives us no reassurance about breaches of biosecurity by other people, including Ministry officials.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): The Minister said that, in a minority of cases, breaches of biosecurity have been caused by farmers and in some cases by officials. Does my hon. Friend agree that the analogous act for him to take in relation to his officials would be to dock 25 per cent. of their salary every time they do so?

Mrs. Browning: That sounds like justice, but I suspect that no civil service rules would allow him to take such action. [Interruption.] I should caution my hon. Friend, who is new to the House, that his comments--

The Chairman: Order. We are straying some way from the matter in hand. Lectures on procedure are always welcome, but not at this point.

Mrs. Browning: The measure goes too far and the Minister should consider accepting the amendment, which would be seen as reasonable and fair. He has the power to act, and should act, if biosecurity is breached. The full force of the law should fall on those who do not keep to the rules.

In my constituency, we had just eight confirmed outbreaks, but many farms were slaughtered out on suspicion in contiguous culls because they bordered an area where there were a lot of outbreaks. Many of my constituents whose livestock did not get foot and mouth and were not slaughtered stayed on farm for weeks for biosecurity reasons. They were effectively locked into their premises; they could not get out or attend family functions, and suffered from isolation and stress, but were determined not to risk their biosecurity. We owe it to such farmers, who are the majority, to ensure that nothing in the Bill assumes that farmers are reckless, because in the main they are not.

Mr. Bacon: In the light of the warning that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton did not quite issue to me, I shall be careful to confine my remarks to schedule 1, page 12, line 16 and the issue of compensation. In doing so, I want to refer to the question of trust--the trust that farmers do or do not have in the Department. Many Members on both sides of the Committee would agree that trust is at an all-time low, and the Department needs to do something about it.

I want to cite two examples of farmers' distrust, and indeed fear, of the Department. A pedigree dairy farmer in mid-Devon was told that he faced a contiguous cull because of his proximity to his neighbour's herd. He resisted, because the neighbour said that his cows did not have foot and mouth. He was then told that if he did not allow his herd to be slaughtered, he would not receive compensation in future, and that his neighbour, despite his protestations, definitely had the disease. He asked to wait for test results on his neighbour's stock, but was told that that would not do. He very reluctantly agreed to a contiguous cull, then found out a few weeks later that the neighbour's tests had come back negative.

Another Devon farmer resisted culling for several weeks and reached the point where he was almost the only farmer left in his valley who had not been culled. His cows were still healthy and were inspected by MAFF vets every day. They passed the 21-day threshold, so they fell out of the contiguous culling policy. However, the Department built a pyre for various neighbours' stock, which included stock from infected premises next to his cattle sheds. He therefore applied to the Department for an emergency licence so that he could temporarily move his healthy cattle across the road away from the fumes, heat and smoke from the pyre. The Department refused the licence and the farmer had no choice but to have his cattle slaughtered. The Department told him that he would not be compensated if his cattle got foot and mouth, and he could not face years of health problems in his herd if it were affected.

There are many more examples. I mentioned those two because they are specific cases in which farmers were effectively threatened that they would not get compensation unless they toed the line and behaved as the Department wanted them to. The Bill explicitly assumes that most farmers have done something wrong and that they are, in some sense, guilty or culpable. Perhaps civil service rules do not permit it, but my earlier analogy stands about departmental officials and what should happen to their salaries.

In light of the poor relations between the Minister's Department and farmers, and the extraordinary sweeping powers in clause 1 and the clauses on enforcement to which we shall come, there are probably few clauses in the Bill that could be amended so simply. The Minister could obtain more credibility in farmers' eyes by addressing in their favour the question of compensation. He should make it clear that the vast majority of farmers are trying to do the right thing, to be honest and to abide by the law. No one will have a problem with taking severe action against the minority of farmers who do not act in the right way, but that does not apply to the vast majority.

There is huge distrust between farmers and the Department, and it is time that the Minister and his Department recognised that. Accepting the amendment would be an excellent way to make a gesture in the right direction after years of mistrust.

3.45 pm

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