Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Breed: I shall begin by referring to the first couple of amendments.

Mr. Patrick Hall: May we have four hours' notice?

Mr. Breed: It may take more than four hours to get through them—I give notice of that now.

Amendment No. 95 and subsequent amendments relate to the reasonableness of trying to make the Bill correct. Some of them address the wording of the third condition and that of the second condition, which refers to the warrants when a justice of the peace is involved. The first condition, which states that

    ''there are reasonable grounds for a person mentioned in section 36G(1) to enter the premises for the purpose there mentioned''

and the fact that a justice of the peace should be involved, is taken as read. The second condition states that

    ''admission to the premises has been refused or a refusal is expected''.

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The subject of one amendment is the phrase ''or a refusal is expected''. That is a subjective statement. The idea that, at some unearthly hour that the JP has picked to give a warrant, one will be persuaded that a recalcitrant person would refuse entry and so ''refusal is expected'' and the warrant can go ahead is a nice catch-all. However, it means that even if one cannot demonstrate that a refusal has already taken place, one could say that one expected a refusal to take place. There seems to be no means of ensuring that there is such evidence to demonstrate that a refusal ''is expected'', but rather that the mere fact that it is expected should be part of the conditions.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is thinking of some of the examples that we saw during the foot and mouth crisis, where the decision and the intention to slaughter was so unreasonable that certain farms attracted the attention of a wide range of people who went to give support to the farmers. In those circumstances, especially if it had been in the papers or on television that, for whatever purpose, those people were collectively supporting the farmer against entry, the anticipation of refusal might almost be self-explanatory. Consequently, where there was a wholly unjustified intention to enter the premises to slaughter animals, the farmer would necessarily be denied the sort of back-up that, rightly, saved many farms during the previous crisis.

Mr. Breed: I agree entirely. The Minister has accepted that the measures are being introduced in the light of everything that occurred last time to ensure that next time every possible obstruction is dealt with, however blunt the instrument in terms of wording, and the legitimate concerns of people at the farm gates can be swept aside on the assumption that a warrant will be issued and anyone who obstructs it will be subject to an offence.

It is one thing to take action on the basis of clear evidence, expressed in writing or in some other way, that a refusal has taken place. Merely to say that a refusal ''is expected'' and to assume that the second condition has thereby been fulfilled is going a bit too far.

The third condition is that

    ''an application for admission or giving notice of intention to apply for a warrant would defeat the object of entering''.

That is an interesting phrase, which could mean many different things. According to the Bill, it means if

    ''the case is one of urgency, or . . . the premises are unoccupied or the occupier is absent.''

That aspect needs to be teased out by the Minister. How does one ensure that the premises are unoccupied?

The premises we are talking about are not a house or a barn, but a farm. I expect that many members of the Committee have visited a farm, knocked on the door, which is open, shouted inside, found that nobody seems to be in, although the fire is going, then spent the next quarter of an hour trying to find

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someone. Nowadays, regrettably, there are so few people working on huge areas of land that they could be almost anywhere. How much time and effort that will be made to find out whether the premises are indeed unoccupied or the occupier is absent? Absent from what? Absent from where one expects him to be? Absent from the farm socially? Perhaps he is on his way to the DEFRA office to try to sort something out. Whatever the situation, it will be assumed that he is absent, so it is perfectly okay to get a warrant to go zooming into his farm.

Mrs. Browning: The farmer could even be lured elsewhere—perhaps to a DEFRA office—to create the certainty that the farm would then be unoccupied.

Mr. Breed: Farmers are often lured to DEFRA in a vain attempt to get some answers to their questions and find out what the hell is going on.

The powers are such that almost anything that could be construed as being the smallest possible hurdle to the intervention of someone coming on to the farm—

Mr. Drew: The powers are extreme, and I accept that they should be used only in the most extreme circumstances. In one case, a dealer—a major dealer in this country—was known to absent himself for the best part of 24 hours so that he could drive up the compensation. I accept that that was a foot and mouth incident and we are now discussing scrapie, procedures for which are more organised, but there have been occasions when, against the wishes of the vast majority of farmers, people have decided that their personal income was more important than everyone else. We must bear such circumstances in mind.

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree that there are always such individual cases. That can happen in the context of almost any piece of legislation. We are trying to formulate measures that are in equity and reasonable. If we tried to address literally every single possible obstruction, the legislation would have to be even more draconian.

The conditions for the warrant should be clear, reasonable and able to be properly understood. The third condition is, I think, a hurdle too far. By removing the subjective nature of ''a refusal is expected'' in condition two, it is still clear that if there has been refusal to enter a premises, a warrant should be issued. I am happy to accept that that is right, but including the subjective ''a refusal is expected'' goes that little bit too far.

It is up to the Minister to demonstrate how the powers are going to be used and that they will be used properly, not in a draconian way. On occasions, yes, they should be used to sort out problems such as those that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) just mentioned, where people deliberately flout procedures. However, we must recognise that the powers are being introduced on the back of very recent, raw experiences. People who are feeling bruised, and who thought that the powers under the Animal Health Act 1981 were draconian enough, are now facing these additional measures. I think that the real impact that the measures might have is slowly

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beginning to leak out into the wider agricultural community and various people are becoming concerned about what the Bill will mean for them if it is passed.

Often, legislation can slip through and people only find out about it when it confronts them. This legislation, however, is beginning to unsettle a considerable number of people. They feel that the Government are going too far too quickly, and that there is no need for such an absolute timetable. We did not have a consultation process, and people feel that they are being bulldozed into accepting things that will substantially restrict their rights in an epidemic or time of disease spread.

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There is much in the amendments, but the aspect relating to warrants, on which we have concentrated, is important. Once the enforcement of a warrant—legal action—starts to take place, all sorts of other things can come about. When we look at the whole issue of whether a premises is unoccupied, or whether a person is away, we can see that no reasonable excuse will make any difference: whack, in the officials will come. That is unacceptable, and I hope that we can modify it.

        It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Atkins, Charlotte
Bacon, Mr.
Breed, Mr.
Browning, Mrs.
Cunningham, Tony
Drew, Mr.

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Edwards, Mr.
Gillan, Mrs.
Hall, Mr. Patrick
Morley, Mr.
Organ, Diana
Reed, Mr.
Wiggin, Mr.
Winterton, Mrs. Ann

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Prepared 4 December 2001