Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Browning: The Minister gave us information about ticking off a checklist. I am concerned about that. The amendments show clearly that several points in the schedule are open to interpretation, especially paragraph (4)(b), which contains the words,

    ``the extent of co-operation with inspectors and other persons''.

What does that mean? What will be deemed to be a failure to co-operate? The wording is open-ended and intimidating to people under stress, who may have to face the slaughtering of the whole of their livestock. It suggests that, however stressed they are, they should be prepared to cave in and accept what is being put to them, and that failure to do so may be interpreted as failure to co-operate, which might lead to a 25 per cent. penalty on the compensation to which they might be entitled.

The amendments would remove whole chunks of the schedule. I repeat that the Minister could have consulted before the Bill, so that we could have discussed the specifics of what the Bill intended to achieve. What is the interpretation of

    ``the extent of co-operation with inspectors and other persons''?

People must co-operate with those persons, whoever they may be. Does that mean that if people were on the phone to the local DEFRA office, complaining and arguing their case, it would be interpreted as lack of co-operation?

Mr. Morley indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister shakes his head, but that is an example of what happens in practice, when people under pressure face horrendous experiences. Under the Bill, that sort of thing will appear in a biosecurity assessment. Biosecurity assessments must be based on scientific fact, which we do not have at our disposal because the inquiries have yet to report. The paragraph of the schedule devoted to disease risk assessment should be deferred until we have much more information--not just an assumption or a checklist--about the scientific basis on which an assessment will be made, how it will be put together, who will put it together and the training and qualifications that that person will have. Too much is left out of the paragraph that is critical to farmers and to their right to get proper compensation for animals.

Mrs. Winterton: I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on being very dashing--

Mr. Drew: Gallant.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) should wait for the lovely descriptions that I have lined up for him.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is a farmer and knows what the situation was like. I listened to his words with much interest. His sweeping amendment would omit paragraph 3 of the schedule.

We have talked at length about biosecurity and the lack of it in certain instances. There is no doubt that appropriate biosecurity arrangements will vary among areas, depending on the nature of farming, the local topography and weather conditions, because the disease thrives in wet and cold conditions. I understand that a commitment later in the Bill will ensure that consultation occurs with industry representatives, and that is welcome. However, we must sort out the matters that should be covered by a disease risk assessment. Questions of judgment and interpretation of the national standards will, no doubt, be set and will have to be amended locally.

It would be appropriate for biosecurity advice to be tailor made for individual farms; in other words, it should be farm specific and should take local knowledge into account. The service could, perhaps, be best provided by private practice vets, who have better knowledge of local conditions and have a major advantage because farmers are more likely to trust them. We could, therefore, expect higher compliance with their advice.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire knows that we have tabled a number of amendments in the group. Amendment No. 14 would require a disease risk assessment to

    ``take place within 7 days of the Minister having reason to believe such an assessment is necessary and at a time decided in agreement with the occupier of the premises.''

The amendment is straightforward and simple, and establishes that disease assessments may not always be necessary for all premises and that unnecessary risk assessment wastes time and resources. However, the owner should not only be given notice of when a disease risk assessment will be made, but should have the opportunity to agree to a convenient time. I accept that that would inconvenience DEFRA officials because it would take more time, but the basic courtesy should be extended to farmers. It would also help to clarify that the farmer is not obstructing inspectors, because he will know when he must be available, which will be at a time that is convenient to him, given his responsibilities on the farm.

Amendment No. 15 is straightforward. It would ensure that considered independent assessments are carried out free from conflicts of interest that may cast doubt on the validity of findings. It would encourage farmers to have more faith in the risk assessment process. I am worried about the term ``inspector'' in the schedule. There is little clarification about the training qualifications and position that the inspector would fulfil.

Amendment No. 64 would ensure that there is full consultation with all relevant parties when a disease risk assessment document is drawn up. That should help to ensure that all considerations from any party that has a part to play are taken into account when drawing conclusions on the assessment.

I come now to amendment No. 16. Because of the stress and difficulties currently faced by farmers, it is reasonable to allow them to have 28 days rather than 14 to make representations to the Minister. Under a previous clause, the Minister made a strong case for 28 days and we accepted that. Will he consider 28 days in this case?

Amendment No. 17 might be rather a quantum leap for the Minister to accept, but who knows, it might give him something to go at. There is no harm in aiming high. If he halved the compensation to 100 per cent., that would be the amount that the farmer should receive. The amendment also makes a serious point about the response of the Minister or his personnel to the farmer. Although it may not be as important as some of the other amendments, it should be considered.

Amendment No. 30 would ensure that the report takes into account whether the owner was aware of the biosecurity rules. The Minister has said much about how the biosecurity rules will be merely a checklist that can be gone through easily by the inspector who will act in his name. It is unfair to reduce compensation if biosecurity rules were not in place at the time. They were not in place during the recent outbreak. None the less, it would better if cases where biosecurity rules were not followed were taken to court, rather than diminishing the amount of compensation to 75 per cent. We have trawled heavily over that matter and I should be interested in the Minister's views on our amendments and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire.

4.45 pm

Mr. Morley: I shall try to deal with that range of amendments. Some of them cover old ground and I have justified that at some length. I remind the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire of the Dutch system, which has the power to withhold 100 per cent. compensation. That is much more draconian than we suggest in the Bill. Again, we are trying to be balanced and proportionate in achieving our aim of dealing with the serious issue of biosecurity without inconveniencing the majority of farmers who comply. That is why we arrived at the figure of 75 per cent. Indeed, the hon. Member for Leominster suggested that perhaps more than 25 per cent. should be withheld. We considered all those combinations of figures, but ultimately we return to the issue of balance. We thought that, on balance, 75 per cent. of the money up front was a reasonable amount, but with the incentive of the full 100 per cent. in relation to biosecurity checks.

Mr. Williams: Does the Minister agree that later in the Bill there are elements on deliberate infection, and if someone were as deliberately negligent as the hon. Member for Leominster describes, he might be caught by those provisions?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman may have a point. However, there is a difference between someone who deliberately sets out to infect his animals, and someone who has sloppy management. A distinction must be drawn between the two.

We recognise the need to give biosecurity advice, and we shall deal with that. We accept that there is a role for local vets with local knowledge. Indeed, during the outbreak, we used local veterinary practices to ring around their clients to talk to them at home about biosecurity. We trialled that in the midlands, and it was so successful that we extended it to other parts of the country. We co-operate closely with local vets on the matter.

Amendment No. 91 would delete the paragraph that sets out the arrangements for the disease risk assessment. It would undermine the approach to the arrangements for compensation, so we cannot accept it.

Amendment No. 150 would insert ``may'' instead of ``must'', which would remove the obligation on the Minister to ensure that a disease risk assessment is made. That cannot be right, because it is important to have that assessment, which is an integral part of the Bill.

Amendment No. 14 would require the assessment to be carried out within seven days of slaughter. It is unnecessary, because we envisage that the on-farm section of the disease risk assessment will normally take place during the period between confirmation of the disease and slaughter--within 24 hours for infected premises, and 48 hours for contiguous premises. However, time must be allowed to obtain relevant reports as prescribed in the Bill.

Amendment No. 15, which would provide that the disease risk assessment must be carried out by a local independent veterinary inspector, is unacceptable. We could not guarantee that we could find an independent local vet, and it casts aspersions on the professionalism of our state veterinary service, which has done an excellent job throughout the process.

Amendment No. 64 would ensure that the disease risk assessment takes account of any documents drawn up following consultation with stakeholders. I have some sympathy with the amendment, but I do not believe that it is necessary. Ministers are already obliged to consult and to publish the results of that consultation. We shall therefore be bound by what we publish about the contents of the assessment and how it will work in practice.

I emphasise that the consultation exercise will be genuinely open. We want to take the farming community with us as far as possible in the process--hence the requirement to publish our decisions on the matter. I do not want to give the impression that we shall have a simple checklist. Issues such as local circumstances and geography can be taken into account in relation to an assessment that is provided, agreed on and published.

Amendment No. 151 would, in effect, require the Minister, or, in practice, state vets, to provide an individual service to farmers, advising them on what action to take to prevent the spread of FMD in their circumstances. Although we want to--and do--provide advice on such matters, obliging Ministers to retain veterinary advisers in order to issue individual advice to farmers is, again, neither practicable nor a sensible use of resources. Indeed, the availability of vets was one of the important factors of the outbreak. In particular, at the beginning of the outbreak, one of the restraints that we had was the extent of availability of vets, which had to be jacked up as the outbreak proceeded.

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Prepared 29 November 2001