Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: No, I want to make progress.

Amendment No. 82 would remove sub-paragraph (3), which ensures the independence of the person appointed to run the appeals, and subjects the order that sets out the appeals procedure to parliamentary scrutiny. Those are important steps in ensuring a fair process. The amendment would remove them, and wreck the appeals provision, which is a vital safeguard of the individual's right to appeal. I am surprised that Opposition Members want to pursue it.

On amendment no. 19, I am not sure that local veterinary surgeons would necessarily be the most suitable persons to run an appeals process. Although they are independent of Government, they are not financially independent of local farmers, who may be their clients. The last thing a local vet would want to do is sit in judgment on one of his clients; vets would not welcome that at all. The person who considers the appeal must be completely independent. We have a range of independent panels throughout agriculture, which have been set up with well established and understood procedures. There is no reason why we cannot do the same again.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister will recall from the Mercer preliminary findings that many retired vets offered their services but were not used. Would that not be an ideal job for a retired vet?

Mr. Morley: That may be so, and I would not say that a vet could not in any circumstances sit on appeal panels. However, it would be difficult to put local vets in that position, especially if they were still operating commercially.

I have some sympathy with the arguments that have been put, and I want to assure Members that income will be considered and the appeals fee can be waived by order. We will consult on the matter, and I will try to ensure that we can spell out details for the benefit of the Committee.

Mr. Wiggin: It would be tempting to agree with the argument that it would be difficult for a vet to make an impartial judgment had the idea of compensation been approached from a different angle. It is essential that people appeal, because if they start from a 75 per cent. payout, it will be worth their while to have a go unless the fee is prohibitive. I do not agree with the Minister's comment that that is illogical; it is the reverse. If people start with nothing, it is worth appealing because they may get a bit more. I cannot accept that the Minister is right in any way.

The idea that the legislation clearly shows that the bill for appealing can be waived is wrong. If the Government want to charge people to appeal, the fee should be set now. There is no reason why it should not be a nominal fee, and people would know where they stood. That would be part of the transparency that we heard earlier was so important to the Bill. Most importantly, it is fundamentally wrong to start people off with as little money as possible and make them pay to appeal against that decision. I hope that that will become increasingly obvious as we work through the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: I do not want to pre-empt my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, but the Minister's response to my amendment was reasonable and I am heartened by it. The insertion of a single word is not worth dying in a ditch for, but the NFU suggested it, so I hope that the Minister will take it seriously. It did not escape me that he is not accepting the word ``reasonable''. My own concerns about this part of the Bill remain.

Mr. Morley: I presume that the hon. Lady is talking about amendment No. 152, which I do not think was moved. [Hon. Members: ``It will be.''] I accept that. I can give an undertaking that the fee will be set at a reasonable level, but there is no need to build it into the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that the Minister is offering his personal undertaking, but there is no guarantee that a subsequent Minister would follow it. It is not therefore unreasonable to want to build the word ``reasonable'' into the Bill. The Minister cannot bind his successors, who may not be as kind to fluffy and furry things--or as reasonable.

I have a problem with the very concept of this fee. I appreciate that the Minister has a duty to deter vexatious litigants who use up scarce resources.

Mr. Morley: Taxpayers' money.

Mrs. Gillan: Absolutely. I have every sympathy with the Minister, but we are also talking about farmers' money in extremis in a crisis. If the fee is high enough to deter vexatious litigants, it could be high enough to deter the poor--indeed, impoverished--farmer. Goodness only knows, my uncle and my cousin are farmers and I have seen the paperwork that they have to undertake. They have been turned into administrators par excellence.

Mr. Wiggin: Monstrous.

Mrs. Gillan: It is. I agree with my hon. Friend. When a farmer is in extremis, the final paperwork for the payment could be the straw to break the camel's back. I do not want the Bill to be passed without my having put that point to the Minister. He may cast it aside--who knows? At the moment, even his assurances that the fee may be waived completely are not good enough because of the problem of binding his successors. If he can assure me that he will make an order, I will be satisfied, but an order is easier to dispose of. We are dealing with primary legislation here.

Mr. Morley: I can assure the hon. Lady that that will be put into an order--the same order that sets the level of fee. We can conduct a reasonable level of consultation and write it into an order. An order is, of course, binding on the Government.

Mrs. Gillan: I now feel that everything the Minister says sways the argument in my favour. He is moving the ball firmly into my court and amendment No. 152 is sounding more reasonable by the minute.

Mr. Bacon: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no reasonable reason to exclude the word ``reasonable''?

Mrs. Gillan: Someone had to say it. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Now that the Minister has moved so far towards Opposition Members' arguments, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will press the amendment to the vote. Perhaps the Minister will come back with his own amendment on Report, which we would be happy to accept. I would like the opportunity to vote on the amendment before us, but that depends on my hon. Friend.

6.15 pm

Mrs. Winterton: This has been an interesting debate, but if I hear the word ``reasonable'' again, I shall probably scream. Perhaps the Minister feels the same. [Hon. Members: ``Proportionate.''] Yes, ``proportionate'' would make me scream a second time.

Many of the points raised by my hon. Friends are valid, and they have been well made. The Minister expressed some understanding of our point of principle on forcing owners to pay to appeal. I understand his reasons for the measure, but I do not believe that it is justifiable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, the two examples given were not comparable because of the circumstances in which farmers would find themselves in the middle of an epidemic.

Cynical people might say that the fee structure has been proposed to act as a disincentive to farmers to appeal, because it is yet one more set of papers and procedures to go through. My hon. Friend rightly said that, with the tremendous cash flow difficulties, limited liquidity and high level of debt of the farming community at present, to ask them to put out more money to pay for an appeal is to ask for too much.

The Minister indicated to the Committee that he sought to consult on the amount of the fee, and he gave some interesting reassurances about what might happen in hardship cases. His comments were helpful but, despite his conciliatory--one might say reasonable--tone, we in the Opposition must be unreasonable.

Mr. Morley: No change there.

Mrs. Winterton: Fair do's. We wish to vote on the amendments.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 9]

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

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

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 152, in page 13, line 40, after `such', insert `reasonable'.--[Mrs. Gillan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 10]

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

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

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 14, line 10, leave out subsection (a) and insert

    `interest will be payable at base rate plus one per cent.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 84, in page 14, line 13, after `paragraph (2)', insert `within 7 days'.

Mrs. Winterton: We are moving down these groups of amendments quite well, which is a relief at the end of a long and tiring day. The two amendments--[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) like to continue? This will not take long. Labour Members are obviously feeling weary too. I apologise for this banter, Mr. Conway. We will get on with the job in hand.

The amendment seeks to ensure that owners do not lose interest on compensation to which they are entitled. It is preposterous for farmers to take a cut in their income because of the delay in their appeals being heard. This is self-evidently a move to ensure that they will be compensated in full for any delay. As was mentioned on previous amendments, at a time when cash flow is extremely tight, that money would be dead money unless it was earning some interest. One per cent. is a tiny amount of interest but it would, I hope, prove an incentive to prompt payment.

Amendment No. 84 seeks to ensure that farmers who were forced to pay for their appeal would receive their fee back as quickly as possible if it was found that they were to be compensated at a level above 75 per cent. Failure to pay back the fee promptly will amount to a loss of revenue, as the farmer will lose interest that would have accrued on the fee had he not had to pay it. If he has an overdraft his position will be even more dire. I hope that the Minister will consider these two brief amendments in his usual reasonable way. Perhaps we can get him to commit the Government to accepting them, which would certainly be a turn-up for the books.

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Prepared 29 November 2001