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Animal Health Act 1981 (Amendment) Regulations 2005

7.30 pm

Lord Bach rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 November be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee and 17th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I trust that these regulations will not be contentious as their purpose is straightforward and serves only to confirm existing policy without altering that policy.
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The regulations allow England and Wales to comply with one particular part of the UK's legal obligations in Council Directive 2003/85/EC on the control of foot and mouth disease (FMD). They make a minor amendment to the Animal Health Act 1981 to bring it into line with the requirements of the directive. Therefore they are made under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. Under that Act, we have the option to make such regulations by negative or affirmative resolution procedure. We have chosen to make these regulations by affirmative resolution as we feel that it is important to give Parliament the opportunity to debate these proposals.

After the 2001 outbreak, a new European directive was adopted, taking into account recent scientific and technical developments and the experience gained by the UK in eradicating FMD. It has the important benefit of ensuring a common approach to disease control across the European Union.

Articles 10(1)(a) and 16(1)(a) of the directive require all member states to slaughter FMD-susceptible animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, kept on premises confirmed as infected with FMD. The Secretary of State's existing powers to slaughter animals to prevent the spread of FMD are discretionary. They are contained in Section 31 of, and paragraph 3 of Schedule 3 to, the Animal Health Act 1981. Therefore, to comply with the directive, the regulations before your Lordships today amend Schedule 3 to the 1981 Act to insert a duty on the Secretary of State to slaughter any susceptible animal kept on premises where FMD is confirmed.

I stress that this new duty to slaughter applies only to infected premises and does not extend to any other types of premises, such as dangerous contacts or suspect or contiguous premises. In these cases, the Secretary of State retains full discretion to slaughter, vaccinate or place under observation, as justified by the scientific position and veterinary risk of disease spread. Furthermore, these regulations do not change the Government's FMD control policy, which has always been to slaughter susceptible animals on infected premises. This is due to the very high level of risk from such premises and the need to stamp out disease as rapidly as possible.

Articles 15(2) and 18(1) of the directive also set out a number of limited exemptions to this duty of slaughter for different types of premises where the animals involved merit special treatment, and these exemptions are also transposed by the regulations. In these cases, the Secretary of State would retain the discretion to slaughter and, apart from separate production units, would still do so except in exceptional veterinary circumstances where animals were completely separated from any infected, or potentially infected, animals.

Although relating specifically to one of the exemptions, new paragraph 2A(7) of the regulations provides an indication of the type of stringent biosecurity and separation that would have to exist to prevent slaughter. Infected premises where the discretion to slaughter remains include laboratories,
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zoos, wildlife parks and other similar places where animals are kept principally for the display and education of the public. It also includes premises where rare breed animals or animals for research purposes are kept, and separate production units.

As I said, these regulations deal only with a very small part of our obligations under the directive. Two other statutory instruments have been prepared implementing the rest of the directive, including the detailed general controls during an outbreak and enabling vaccination to take place. Vaccination will be considered from the very start of an outbreak as an adjunct to the basic policy of slaughter on infected premises and dangerous contacts. These statutory instruments are unrelated to the regulations at hand, except that they contain the definition of "infected premises" for the purposes of when the duty to slaughter is triggered.

Confirmation that premises are infected must be arrived at by a veterinary inquiry involving sampling unless the Chief Veterinary Officer believes that the premises are epidemiologically linked with other premises which have already been declared to be infected by sampling. Then disease can be confirmed on clinical grounds to ensure that action can be taken quickly to stop the spread of disease.

Both these SIs were published in draft for a full 12-week consultation period in June and they are still in the final stages of legal checking. They will be laid before Parliament shortly by the negative resolution procedure.

In conclusion, the new duty to slaughter contained in the regulations does not change the Government's policy in relation to slaughter or the use of other disease control options and it will not make any practical difference to the number of animals that are killed. That will be based on scientific and veterinary advice on the circumstances at the time, with the objective of stopping the spread of disease as quickly as possible.

None of us wishes to see a return of the awful scenes of 2001. Therefore, we now have in place a high degree of disease preparedness, including increased readiness to vaccinate. This is allied with tighter controls on illegal imports, the permanent movement standstill, where livestock cannot move again for six days—20 days in the case of pigs—after moving on to any premises, and the immediate nationwide movement ban at the start of an outbreak. The regulations before the House today are a tidying-up exercise to ensure that our domestic legislation is in line with the directive. I commend them to noble Lords. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 November be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee and 17th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Lord Bach.)

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this statutory instrument. I declare my interest as a livestock farmer.
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Several questions arise from the presentation of the instrument. As the Explanatory Memorandum very kindly mentions and as the noble Lord has drawn to our attention, full implementation of the directive requires that two other instruments will be brought into force at the same time as these regulations. Given that, what is the point of having this statutory instrument until we have a definition of "infected premises" on the statute book along the lines of that kindly provided by way of illustration to your Lordships' Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments? Is it not possible that this statutory instrument could make the situation worse? The Government currently have the discretion to slaughter animals in an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, as defined in a way that we currently understand the term. However, once this measure is on the statute book, they will no longer have the power of discretion that they had but will be compelled to slaughter on premises where the concept of infection has yet to be defined. There is wonderful scope there for lawyers to argue that the criteria for action have not been set and perhaps to delay any action being taken.

There is also an interesting element in the wording of this instrument in that, in spite of removing the Government's discretion to slaughter, as the Minister pointed out, it tries to define circumstances in which it might be possible to regard some animals as having been isolated. It is not stated that the Government have this power, having had the power of discretion up to this point. How many times did the Government find that premises were sufficiently isolated in the previous outbreak to allow animals not to be slaughtered under the contiguous cull rulings that were brought at the time?

The draft definition of "infected premises" outlines a considerable number of incremental steps in arriving at the conclusion that premises are infected. The Minister stated that the Government now have a detailed foot and mouth strategy in place, but those in the livestock industry, myself included, would be interested to know at which of those incremental steps the Government would have the power and even the intention to impose a general movement ban within the United Kingdom and not just an export ban, as was imposed at the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease for several days before the general ban was implemented.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the Minister, for his explanation. I accept that the regulations implement the directive, but it is very unfortunate that Defra has put the cart before the horse by publishing this instrument before the publication of those on vaccination and other aspects of the directive.

This amends primary legislation in a way that, I understand, is inoperable. The statutory instrument still does not make clear, as the noble Duke said, whether potentially infected premises will be confirmed on grounds other than clinical. During the 2001 UK epidemic there was widespread misdiagnosis of foot and mouth disease, as is apparent from Written
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Answers to Parliamentary Questions, at considerable cost to the Treasury. To depend heavily for disease control upon clinical diagnosis alone in the event of further incursions of the foot and mouth disease virus would suggest that we have not learned many lessons from the 2001 epidemic.

We knew at that time that rapid diagnostic, pen-side tests were available. What progress has been made in field-validating these tests for use in future epidemics? I am pleased that the Government are prepared to exercise discretionary powers in relation to laboratories, zoos, wildlife parks and places keeping rare breeds and other animals kept for scientific research. However, that raises other scientific points of interest. If this discretionary approach is possible, why can the Government not exercise similar powers in other areas, for example, based upon species susceptibility? In relation to alpaca and llama, it is known—and I quote directly from the research paper—that,

Similarly, if a farmer can demonstrate excellent biosecurity over a long period, is there any reason why there should not be an extension of discretionary powers to slaughter, thus enabling the Exchequer to make further savings? There really is a need for a bit more lateral thinking to target the effort, both scientifically and economically.

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