Animal Health Bill

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Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has done the Committee a great service in outlining the precise circumstances in which Mr. Thomas-Everard found himself. If the Bill had been on the statute book, Mr. Thomas-Everard would have been guilty of an offence because he would have been required to give assistance and he failed to give it. Many other cases have been reported to me and other hon. Members over the months since the height of the foot and mouth epidemic. It fills me with fear and dread about what may happen to innocent people, who would have committed an offence although they had done what they did in good faith.

In amendment No. 114, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall seeks to omit the provision that a person would commit an offence if he failed to give assistance when required to do so under subsection (9). That would be the best solution to the problem, and I hope that the Minister will consider it favourably.

The fallback position is contained in amendment No. 136, which would include a point about mitigating circumstances. That would provide greater balance, and the person who was accused of committing an offence would explain the mitigating circumstances that had made him refuse to give assistance when requested to do so. That point takes us back to the ''any persons'' argument, which relates to the kind of people who may be required to give assistance, the circumstances in which they find themselves and valid reasons that they may wish to give for not providing the assistance that the Bill would require them to give.

I hope that the Minister will consider including some balance in the Bill and accept the amendments.

Mr. Morley: The point before us is balance, but I am not sure that individual cases can be dealt with in the way done by the hon. Member for South Norfolk. I do not know the other side to that story and, from what little I know about the Thomas-Everard case, I understand that our officials had great difficulty in obtaining accurate information, particularly in relation to the movements of the contractor who was linked with a disease outbreak.

I cannot comment on that particular case. However, in general terms, the amendments discuss appropriate and proportionate powers in relation to co-operation. I am not sure that the example given by the hon. Member for South Norfolk is relevant.

Mr. Bacon: My example is utterly germane. The amendments deal with the provisions, as exemplified in, for example, new section 36J in schedule 2, and in clause 6(12). Those provisions deal with circumstances in which someone has committed an offence. If the example that I have discussed is not relevant to the circumstances in which one is, or is not, committing an offence, I am at a loss to understand what would be relevant.

As to the Minister's comment that have I cited an individual case while we are talking about the general point, I must say that I was referring by way of illustration to a specific case, but there are many others. I have just been handed a note, which I imagine is from someone sitting in the Committee—

The Chairman: Briefly.

Mr. Bacon: I shall be brief. The note says:

    ''I had to deal with a similar problem to Guy Thomas-Everard's with the Ministry and we ended up resisting an attempt to obtain an injunction against us . . . We won that case and had our costs awarded. We also offered to have all our animals blood tested, and Judge Harrison in the High Court agreed that this was the right action.''

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. Morley: We cannot use individual examples; there are equal examples of people who did not co-operate. I know of at least one case in which people would not co-operate even though the animals were infected and had the virus. The issues must be dealt with on a general basis without taking individual stories into account.

It is possible that there will in future be greater facilities for blood testing, which should mean that that option could be applied. It certainly could not have been applied at the height of the outbreak, however, because there was not the capacity for blood testing. Circumstances during the outbreak were very different from the situation now, when we are using blood testing. One or two doubtful cases have come to light since 3 September, and blood testing is a way of checking what is going on. We must be proportionate about the circumstances that apply. The amendments change nothing of substance in the Bill, which requires inspectors to act reasonably in seeking any assistance that they need.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister said that he knows of one case in which a farmer had refused to co-operate when he had disease on the farm. That is an exceptional situation, but there are many other cases in which good evidence could be produced that people would have been caught by the Bill. Is it proportionate and just that one should legislate for the odd case of someone whom we would all condemn, who must be insane, mad or irresponsible, when the greater majority of people only wish to do the right thing? Under the Bill, the would have committed a criminal offence if, even for good reasons, they did not wish to give assistance to the inspector. The balance is not right and we will therefore press the amendments to a Division.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall intend to press the amendment to a vote?

Mr. Breed: Yes, very much so. It is important that we place on record our opposition to the clauses, as we are considering offences that people may commit, wittingly or unwittingly, which might have serious consequences in respect of how they could be treated.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 19]

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.

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 19, line 26, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

This simple amendment would right a wrong with respect to compensation arrangements for scrapie. Under proposed new section 36K:

    ''The Minister may make regulations providing for the payment by him of compensation in respect of loss suffered or costs incurred as a result of the exercise of a power conferred by or under this Part.''

We propose to substitute the word ''shall'' for ''may'' for obvious reasons. The scheme is statutory, not voluntary, so it is right and proper that the Ministry ''shall'' make regulations

    ''providing for the payment . . . of compensation in respect of loss suffered or costs incurred''.

I do not understand why ''may'' appears in this part of the Bill. It gives the Minister a discretion, which doubtless the Treasury will appreciate in due course, but my hon. Friends and I do not believe that it is just. If a statutory scheme is introduced, the Ministry should defray the costs incurred through the exercise of the powers. For those reasons, and others that may be proposed by members of the Committee, we ask the Minister to accept the amendment.

Mr. Wiggin: Suppose that we view the amendment in a different light and suggest that the Minister ''may not'' instead of must make regulations about payment. My understanding is that taking something from someone without paying compensation is theft—or, at best, borrowing. The amendment would ensure that under no circumstances could the Minister borrow people's stock without making compensation. That is entirely right and proper. Under the Bill of Rights of 1688, no fines or forfeitures before conviction can be binding. That is the basis of what we all believe in—property, liberty and the right to life. In suggesting that compensation should not be paid, the Government are out of order. What better way of triggering the vigilantism, lawlessness and civil disobedience that some have warned might follow from the draconian nature of the Bill than the withdrawal of compensation? It is a mild form of theft, but theft it is, so the amendment is essential.

People delivering a Liberal Democrat leaflet or passing a farm for some other reason may be put in prison for six months. That would be all right if it were for delivering a Liberal Democrat leaflet, but not for something more serious, such as a visit of a Member of Parliament. That is the nature of the Bill and the reason why we must fight every inch of the way to prevent this draconian measure becoming law.

The amendment is vital. The Minister must make regulations to provide for the payment of

    ''compensation in respect of loss suffered or costs incurred as a result of the exercise of a power''.

If not, we will be forced back to the Bill of Rights and the basic freedoms that we all enjoy in this country. I urge Government Members to consider the oath of allegiance that they took when they were elected. They must protect people on the basis of common law, which is about taking something and ensuring that it is paid for.

6.30 pm

Mr. Breed: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman wants to protect me from possible arrest should I deliver leaflets in future. Who knows what the result might have been had we been able to deliver them during the foot and mouth crisis?

The Minister was sympathetic to the fact that farmers should not be over-burdened with costs or made uncompetitive by the scrapie eradication programme. The amendment would change the important word ''may'' to ''shall''. It would not ensure that the Minister paid all the costs, but only that he would make regulations providing for their payment. It does not set out what the payment should be, how or when it should be made, but only that regulations should provide for compensation of farmers in the compulsory eradication of scrapie. The Minister would not want farmers co-operating with the Government in the eradication of scrapie to lose out. This modest amendment should be instantaneously accepted by the Minister as it would give force to his earlier view.

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