Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: I do not know whether I have missed something, or whether the Minister can provide me with further information. Little has been said about the qualifications and training of inspectors. While he rejects the option of using the services of private sector vets--

Mr. Morley: No.

Mrs. Winterton: Obviously I misheard the Minister. He can return to that point. Bearing in mind that, during the outbreak, the state veterinary service had no time for anything, it would not be able to deal with such matters at the height of an epidemic. Will the Minister comment on the kind of people who will act as inspectors, and on their qualifications and training? Does he think that the farming community will respect their judgment?

Mr. Morley: I certainly hope that it will. That is one of the issues that we want to address as part of the consultation. The 1981 Act includes the following definition of an inspector:

    ``a person appointed to be an inspector for the purposes of this Act by the Minister or a local authority, and, when used in relation to an officer of the Ministry, includes a veterinary inspector''.

In reality, inspectors would come from a range of people who have the experience and the necessary training to carry out such assessments. That certainly does not rule out local vets. However, the reality is that it is unlikely that local vets would be available in all circumstances. Therefore, we have to rely on our own staff, or, possibly, local authority staff.

Mrs. Winterton: I would be grateful if the Minister could provide more detail. It is important that inspectors can garner the confidence of the people with whom they deal. Will the Minister share his thoughts on the kind of people who would work as inspectors, the training that they will have had, and their background?

Mr. Morley: There are varying circumstances. I do not dispute that the hon. Lady makes a reasonable request. If she does not mind, I shall come back to her with further details. It is fair to reassure people that whoever does those assessments has the qualifications and skills to do so.

Amendment No. 16 would give farmers who have infected premises longer--28 days instead of 14--to make representations concerning the results of the disease risk assessment carried out on the day of slaughter. The amendment would not necessarily cause a delay to initial payments but it would introduce a delay in making any further payment deemed necessary by the Minister following consideration of representations from the affected farmers. That is a down side of the amendment. If the assessment is disputed, the period would be extended from 14 to 28 days. However, as the hon. Lady pointed out, I referred earlier to 28 days as being a not unreasonable time scale. If nothing else, I try to be consistent about what I say.

Mrs. Winterton: And proportionate.

Mr. Morley: Indeed. That could be the watchword of the Committee. I am prepared to reflect further on the amendment, and consider what can be done about it.

Amendment No. 17 is designed to ensure that we deal with representations from farmers on the results of the disease risk assessment in a timely way. I agree that we should seek to minimise delay in responding to individuals with a decision on their interest in compensation. However, it is not necessary to tie down Ministers in that way, as we have every interest in completing the process quickly. There is an incentive for us to get these things dealt with quickly because it is an issue of administration, resources and so on. Such a provision is therefore not needed.

Mr. Wiggin: I am afraid that I cannot agree completely with the Minister that he has his own incentives for settling compensation payments swiftly. That is the purpose of the amendment, although it may be overly aggressive in suggesting compensation at 200 per cent. However, I hope that the Minister will agree with me, and take on board that there should be some incentive for a speedy response. Perhaps while he is thinking about amendments Nos. 16 and 17, he will consider weighting his decision in favour of a speedy response, at least to some extent.

Mr. Morley: I do not think that the Bill needs to be amended in that way. There may be circumstances in which further clarification must be sought from those affected before a decision is reached. The amendment would be quite restrictive in those circumstances. As a matter of fact, there are many other problems with the amendment.

On amendment No. 30, I understand the concern that if, for example, a foot and mouth order has been in force for less than 21 days, any requirements of that order can be assessed only during that shorter period. That is a fair point, but I assure hon. Members that the 21-day rule will be applied with flexibility at the beginning of an outbreak, because we must be reasonable about the fact that people may not be aware that an outbreak had started. That is the intention of the provision.

The items to be checked in the risk assessment will include requirements of the FMD order, but that order may, at the beginning of the outbreak, have been in force for only a few days. We understand and accept that. In such situations, the farmer is not required to comply with the provisions of the order until it is in force. I give hon. Members those assurances.

The farmer will still be required to have complied for the full 21 days with the permanent provisions in the Bill, which include requirements to notify notifiable diseases that form part of the disease risk assessment. That is why we want to retain the 21-day period and why I cannot accept the amendment.

I can give an example of what we mean by co-operation. It will be essential in dealing with a disease outbreak on any premises to consider matters such as movement records. We might encounter a situation in which a farmer does not co-operate and provide such records, which are crucial. Sadly, we have on the odd occasion had experience of that. We must have a proportionate response, because we do not want to apply the measures unreasonably, but we expect what most people would call reasonable behaviour from farmers in co-operating with the Department when dealing with a disease outbreak.

I cannot accept most of the amendments but I am prepared to give further thought to amendment No. 16.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for the crumb of comfort that he has thrown the Opposition by undertaking to look again at amendment No. 16, and the suggestion of a period of 28 days rather than 14. I welcome the spirit in which the Minister gives that undertaking, but I fear that it does not go far enough. I should like him to give a definite undertaking to the Committee that we will return to the matter on Report. That would go some way towards ensuring that we can return to the subject later.

Mr. Morley: I am prepared to consider the matter on Report.

Mr. Roger Williams: As the Minister is so reasonable as to reconsider amendment No. 16, and as I understand that I shall be in the minority if I press amendment No. 91, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 14, in page 12, line 21, at end insert--

    `(1A) A disease risk assessment must 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.'.--[Mrs. Ann Winterton.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division No. 8]

Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw
Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: In view of the Committee having sat since 2.30 pm, I propose that we suspend until 5.30 pm.

5 pm

Sitting suspended.

5.30 pm

On resuming--

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 13, line 32, after `notice', insert `within 14 days'.

The Chairman: With this we may consider amendment No. 18, in page13, line 35, leave out `14' and insert `28'.

Mrs. Winterton: Thank you, Mr. Conway, for allowing the Committee to take a break; its members are grateful for having had the opportunity to refresh themselves.

I turn to two brief amendments. I am desperately trying to sort through my myriad of papers to find my place, although everything is marked.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene--although perhaps not as grateful as she is, as she is having difficulty sorting through her papers.

The amendment's purpose is to achieve consistency. That subject has been referred to by the Minister. I strongly feel that penalties and time limits should be applicable both ways.

Perhaps my hon. Friend is ready to bat on? Will she tell me whether 14 days is enough for a time limit?

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have now collected myself, and I am sure that the Minister will understand, as he has found himself in similar situations over many long years--

Mr. Morley: Too many.

Mrs. Winterton: He is making up for that now. Hon. Members sometimes receive so many papers that they do not know where they are.

With regard to amendment No. 32, my party does not believe that there should be a delay of more than 14 days before the owner learns of the level of compensation that he will receive; it would be unfair if farmers could remain uncertain about that for longer. The Department should try to deal swiftly with that matter, although it is often difficult to do so. I hope that the Minister agrees that the principle behind the amendment is worthy of serious consideration.

Amendment No. 18 seeks to extend the time that is allowed for the owner to appeal against decisions on the level of compensation that he will receive. Bearing in mind the difficulties that farmers face, it is surely appropriate that they should be given some leeway when it comes to the period during which they can apply to appeal. It is often difficult to get matters such as paperwork in order in time. The amendment is modest in scope, and the Minister should consider its merits.

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Prepared 29 November 2001