Animal Health Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Wiggin: The lack of trust in DEFRA grows every day. When one looks at Bills like this one, that is hardly surprising. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is ridiculous legislation. It gets worse and I cannot understand it. In my own area of Herefordshire a couple of people held up the process. We are legislating for two or three people. That is not responsible; it is for this sort of reason that courts exist.

Mrs. Winterton: In many cases, more farmers wanted to resist the Government's policy during the contiguous cull, but they did not because of peer pressure from their neighbours. They were afraid that if they made a mistake and there was the slightest chance of infection, they would be responsible. They agreed to the cull requested by the Minister because they wanted to protect their neighbours.

Mr. Wiggin: That is right. I am grateful to my honourable Friend. It is astonishing that the Minister can quote the powers bestowed on him by the Animal Health Act 1981 and yet he feels it is necessary to pursue the two or three people in Herefordshire or elsewhere who may be causing him minor difficulties. We are not talking about spreading the disease or cutting the speed at which scrapie will be eradicated from the national flock; we are talking about a bizarre, badly-drafted, ill-advised Bill that could cause farmers to lose their stock and be forced to witness the entire procedure—they would have to go through the same experience as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton when she held her pony while it was being put down, but on a massive scale that could leave them damaged beyond reasonable mental strain. The Government are proud to bring this kind of legislation before the House. I think it is appalling. I urge Members opposite to support the amendment.

Mrs. Winterton: I rise briefly to indicate that we wish to press for a vote on this group of amendments. We have argued the case forcibly. The Bill provides sweeping powers. Although the Minister has sought to give reassurance on many points, sadly, due to the wording in the Bill and because he himself admits that only a small minority of people would resist doing the right thing to contain a disease outbreak, we genuinely believe that the proposals fly in the face of natural justice. People should have a meaningful right of appeal. The great majority of the farming community should not be punished by these powers being on the statute book, irrespective of whether they are used.

Mr. Breed: I support that. We can consider only what is written in the Bill. We hope that what the Minister reasonably expects will happen—that there will not be another outbreak and that the powers will be exercised responsibly and reasonably. I understand the difficulties in codifying that wish in legislation, but part of the problem with passing this legislation is that no time has been allotted to ensure that it is drafted in such a way that would enable us to support it. This group of amendments attempts to clarify the provisions, to place restrictions in certain areas and to define matters such as notice. We must put it to a vote to record the fact that we have attempted these amendments, they have been rejected, but we wish these considerations to be included in the clause.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 17]

Bacon, Mr. Richard Breed, Mr Colin 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 Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I beg to move amendment No. 123, in page 18, line 21, at end insert—

    '(1A) Any person given notice under subsection (3)(b) below shall be entitled to present sworn information in writing to the justice of the peace who is to consider the application for a warrant.'.

The Chairman: With which it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 124, in clause 6, page 3, line 22, at end insert—

    '(3A) Any person given notice under subsection (5)(b) below shall be entitled to present sworn information in writing to the justice of the peace who is to consider the application for a warrant.'.

No. 125, in clause 7, page 4, line 27, at end insert—

    '(1A) Any person given notice under subsection (3)(b) below shall be entitled to present sworn information in writing to the justice of the peace who is to consider the application for a warrant.'.

No. 126, in clause 8, page 6, line 6, at end insert—

    '(1A) Any person given notice under subsection (3)(b) below shall be entitled to present sworn information in writing to the justice of the peace who is to consider the application for a warrant.'.

Mr. Hall: This group of amendments deals with a situation in which warrants are being sought by Ministry officials from a justice of the peace in order to gain access to premises to enforce a decision to slaughter or to carry out tests or take samples. The Bill replaces the current route available to officials in cases where farmers refuse access to their premises, which is to seek an injunction in the High Court. That process causes delay, as has been proved in the past few months. Delay leads to further problems—more infection and more slaughter—so I understand the need to reduce it and support efforts to do so.

As things stand, however, the justice of the peace will consider the case for the warrant on the basis of submissions from officials only. The farmer will not be permitted to be heard. I am well aware that the procedure for issuing warrants enabling the police to get information and to conduct searches, and other warrants made under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and the Competition Act 1998 do not allow the subject of the warrant to put forward their own point of view. It would be ridiculous and perverse if someone who might have committed a crime were given an opportunity to undermine police or other investigations. However, the Bill is not dealing with criminals. Farmers are not criminals.

In the circumstances to which the amendments apply—certainly with regard to slaughter—the farmer is simply disagreeing with a decision of the district veterinary manager or the veterinary surgeon on site and is seeking to protect his or her livestock and his or her livelihood. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The circumstances are very difficult and emotional. In that context, everything that happens must be fair, reasonable and transparent and seen and understood to be so.

I want the farmer to have improved means to be heard by, for instance, being permitted to submit a sworn affidavit to the justice of the peace alongside that submitted by Ministry officials. I do not believe that that would undermine the circumstances that rightly apply to the serving of warrants in other circumstances. I do not believe that the amendments would set an unhelpful or dangerous precedent in that regard. Last week in Committee, the Minister very helpfully and reasonably announced moves to ensure that farmers get a fair hearing. A copy of his statement was circulated. I would like the Committee to consider my proposals in the context of that statement.

I understand that under current legislation the clerk's opinion can take precedence over that of the magistrate. I believe that that relates to matters of procedure and law, but I should like my hon. Friend to assure me that, should relevant circumstances arise in matters covered by the Bill, if the clerk made a decision it would be only on matters of procedure and law.

Mr. Wiggin: I welcome the amendment. It is a small voice of reason creeping into the Bill, but a very welcome addition. I reiterate the point that the Bill is not a measure for dealing with hardened criminals. At worst, the people concerned simply love their animals and want to protect their livelihood. Considering the nature of the Bill, they have every reason to fear. Therefore, the amendment would be a constructive addition to the Bill. It would allow people to protect their livelihoods, as the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) says, and would constitute some recognition of the fact that the House is not run solely by one party, and that we can still improve the drafting of a Bill. The amendment would add a welcome element of transparency to the measure. To be allowed to present sworn information to a justice of the peace is a minor entitlement for farmers, but I hope that the amendment will find its way into the Bill quickly. That would be a positive step.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I support the amendment. It seems entirely reasonable that in such circumstances as might arise under the Bill, a farmer would be given a chance of a hearing. The right to a fair hearing is one of the rules of natural justice. The fact that it is missing from the Bill is an unfortunate omission, which the amendment would put right. I do not want to repeat the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), and will just emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Bedford, that the amendment should be considered in the context of the Bill and of relations between farmers and the Department. The amendment would be helpful, in making it clear that the farmer had the right to be heard and to present his sworn version of events. I hope that the Committee will support the amendment.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I also support the amendment, which would bring balance and proportionality to the Bill. It is an injustice for farmers to be unable to make some representations. I should have preferred an amendment enabling the farmer to appear in person or to be represented by a solicitor or friend who could put his case to the magistrates. I know that the procedures in question will be needed in only a minority of cases, but the amendment would bring the farming community some comfort; its members would know that during a foot and mouth epidemic, which is a time of strain and stress for the community and individuals, they could put their case.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 4 December 2001