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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Animal Health Bill

Animal Health Bill

Column Number: 169

Standing Committee E

Tuesday 4 December 2001


[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Animal Health Bill

Schedule 1

Adjusted compensation

Question proposed [29 November], That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.

10.30 am

Question again proposed.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Too many sleepless nights—[Hon. Members: ''Oh.'']—have made me slow on my feet this morning. There is no question of ''oh'' or ''ah''; it is only work, I am afraid.

This is an extremely important part of the Bill, and some interesting points have been made in the debates on the amendments. The Minister has been patient and has made one or two small concessions, which are to be welcomed, and we look forward to seeing them written in tablets of stone on Report.

We began the debate with an amendment to ensure that farmers were not left uncertain for longer than 28 days after their stock had been slaughtered about the level of compensation that they would receive. We withdrew the amendment after the Minister's assurance that 28 days would be the maximum period, and we are grateful to him for that.

We moved on to the vexed question whether compensation should be paid fully from the word go, which would mean 100 per cent. compensation rather than 75 per cent. of full market value. Bearing in mind that the Minister and others have said that the number of farmers who did not implement good biosecurity measures was minimal, the presumption that farmers should receive only 75 per cent. compensation immediately, and then be judged by inspectors as to whether they would qualify for the further 25 per cent. to make up a full 100 per cent., was thoroughly debated. The disease risk assessment to ensure farmers' entitlement to the final 25 per cent. of compensation was also discussed. Valid points were made about ensuring that every farmer would understand what was required on that person's farm, and that that advice should be given by people, whom the Minister would appoint, other than the inspectors. However, that line of argument fell by the wayside.

It is essential that biosecurity plans are farm specific because different topographies mean that biosecurity risks can be greater in some areas than others. We argued that a disease risk assessment must take place within seven days of the Minister having reason to believe that such an assessment was necessary, and that it should occur at a convenient time when the

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occupier could be present. We also pressed for independent veterinary surgeons or practitioners to be used in the process.

The farming community has had a terrible experience with the foot and mouth epidemic, and the Minister recognises that. As a result of the epidemic getting completely out of control, the measures that had to be undertaken to try to halt the disease have resulted in a grave lack of trust among the rural and farming communities towards the Government and the centralisation of the powers of government. A great deal of work must be done to put back the confidence and trust that have been devastated by events. The schedule, and the issues that were raised during the debates on it, has not achieved what is required in the present circumstances. Opposition Members and I believe that the schedule is regrettable, and I hope that we shall return to it on Report.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): On schedule 1, we debated the key principles that underpin the Bill in relation to slaughter powers and compensation. I have undertaken to consult widely on those issues, and the Committee has seen the printed copy of my speaking notes on that matter. Those consultations will take place as soon as possible in the new year, and will provide an opportunity to address a range of issues that have been raised in Committee by Opposition and Government Members. We intend to involve people in public consultation and make the guidelines that we intend to bring forward—in particular, protocols relating to vets, slaughter policy and appeals policy—publicly available so that the process is open and transparent, and people can see exactly what is intended. The point of the Bill is to ensure that if culling forms part of future disease control measures, it must be done quickly and efficiently.

I should like to clarify a point about the 55 cases in North Yorkshire, a significant proportion of which later became infected premises, where the divisional veterinary manager upheld appeals. That was described as the Thirsk area because the Thirsk blue box area is used to describe that geographical location. To be clear on this point, there were not 55 cases in the Thirsk area; there were 55 cases in the North Yorkshire area. In the Thirsk area, 10 cases were upheld by the DVM, of which two later became infected premises. That 20 per cent. infection rate fits in with the North Yorkshire average of between 20 and 30 per cent. Although the infection rate was 20 per cent., that is still a significant figure in terms of the spread of a disease, which is another issue that we must take into account.

Motion made, and Question put, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.

Column Number: 171

Division No. 13]

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

Bacon, Mr. Richard
Breed, Mr. Colin
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Wiggin, Mr. Bill
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Question accordingly agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 4

Slaughter of vaccinated animals

Mrs. Ann Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 127, in page 2, line 34, after 'any', insert 'reasonable'.

Proposed section 16A(3) states:

    ''The power conferred by this section extends to taking any—

    (a) which is required to enable any such animal to be slaughtered, or

    (b) which is otherwise required in connection with the slaughter.''

Great concerns have been expressed by the farming community, and others, about the powers that the Minister is taking in the Bill. As for the slaughter of vaccinated animals, we would like some clarification on the powers that are conferred on the person acting on behalf of the Minister. It is only reasonable that there should be some clarification on the kind of action that can be taken. I would welcome the Minister's comments on this probing amendment.

Mr. Morley: As I have assured the Committee before, the Government are under an obligation to be reasonable in the exercise of any powers. That would also apply to those powers in relation to the slaughter of vaccinated animals.

I gave some examples earlier in the debate of where people might want to consider vaccinating animals and then slaughtering them later, primarily as a disposal option which would deal with welfare and the need for orderly disposal. I want to make it clear to the Committee that vaccinate and slaughter is not an option that I personally support, apart from in very specialised cases. If vaccination is to be used, I would much prefer a vaccinate-and-live policy, but there are circumstances in which we might want to consider vaccinate and slaughter. It is all part of the general philosophy of the Bill, which is to provide as wide-ranging powers as possible, to give the maximum flexibility to any disease control approach.

When we considered vaccination and slaughter in the East Yorkshire pig units, we called in the various stakeholders and had detailed consultations with them to explain the options and reasoning. I would envisage that that approach would always be applied when these options are used as a disease control measure.

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I assure the hon. Lady that we do not need to have ''reasonable'' in the Bill, because we are obliged to act in a reasonable way. I would want no other option to be applied.

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take new clause 2—Vaccination as alternative to slaughter—

    'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 16.

    ''16AA Vaccination as alternative to slaughter

    The owner or person for the time being in charge of any animal the slaughter of which has been authorised for the purpose of preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth disease may apply to the Minister for it to be treated with vaccine in place of being slaughtered; and any such application shall be granted.''.'

Mrs. Winterton: This is an important clause, which deals with scrapie. The new clause which we have tabled concerns vaccination, and I will start on the issue of vaccination as an alternative to slaughter.

The clause would ensure that if there were, heaven forbid, to be another foot and mouth epidemic, the option of vaccination would be considered. Frankly, it is likely that the farming community and the public as a whole would simply not put up with another contiguous cull policy, bearing in mind the shockwaves that ran through the country at the time of the epidemic, and the awful scenes that we saw on our television screens. One accepts that, without compliance from the farming community and others, there can be no meaningful disease control. I am sure that the farming community as a whole, if properly consulted about these matters, will comply and be as helpful as it possibly can.

Many people have argued that the decisions on vaccination are political rather than scientific. For example, the NFU was against compensation during the last epidemic, partly because there was no compensation for the 12-month restrictions placed on animals post-vaccination, unlike the slaughter policy. Vaccination would have affected our export markets. Indeed, those who were in the export trade told the Minister, probably in no uncertain terms, that they did not wish to go along with the vaccination policy. One can argue that, if used, vaccination must be used early, which is perhaps another reason to include the new clause.

It is true that the science of vaccination is progressing all the time. Precise dosage levels can be determined, and in tests vaccine can be distinguished from a live infection. Although there is a delay in terms of immunity, vaccination would place much less strain on resources, certainly at the time of an epidemic. As the Minister himself said, the introduction of a policy of vaccination before slaughter would allow the more orderly slaughter of animals and disposal of carcases,

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thereby avoiding the chaotic conditions that prevailed at the time of an epidemic that, we hope, will shortly be at an end.

10.45 am

The scientific community has developed many new tests and newer, smarter vaccines, in which there should be further investment and research. Over the weekend, I spoke to a bright young constituent of mine who managed dairy herds in Saudi Arabia for several years some six or seven years ago. Although his experience is therefore slightly dated, it is still worth mentioning. Even though foot and mouth is endemic in Saudi Arabia, he used to vaccinate and also to explain the vaccination policy for dairy herds. Of course, there is no problem whatsoever with milk from vaccinated dairy herd animals. We accept vaccination for all manner of other conditions, and no one seems to mind about that.

We must return to this issue in future. Many people feel that vaccination could have played a part in the foot and mouth epidemic if the decision had been taken early enough. I certainly feel that the issue is open to further debate, and we need to be fully cognisant of scientific improvements that are being made virtually as we speak. The issue would also have benefited from the full debate of an independent public inquiry. Proponents on both sides of the argument could have been cross-examined, and the public could have been better informed.

The issue of scrapie is huge, and given that other Opposition Members want to contribute to that debate, perhaps I shall return to it a little later.


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Prepared 4 December 2001