Animal Health Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 7th October 2002.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:38 pm, 7th October 2002

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

With the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on the Government's position on the Bill. On 25th July, we considered the scrapie provisions of the Bill, and I gave an undertaking that I would let noble Lords know how the Government intended to deal with the parts of the foot and mouth disease inquiry reports that relate to the Bill. I recently wrote to noble Lords who had participated in earlier debates, indicating how the Government had taken account of the reports of the FMD inquiries, with regard to the disease control parts of the Bill, and setting out my proposals for government amendments. I also indicated how I had taken account of the points made at Second Reading and during discussion of the two procedural Motions on the Bill in March and July. I shall expand on that in a moment.

First, however, I must apologise to noble Lords who received that letter. Not all the amendments to which I referred will be before the Committee today. Specifically, the amendments on the contingency plan and on import controls are not yet finalised. Due to unfortunate delays, I have been unable to table in time the amendments relating to the publication of reasons for using the new preventive slaughter power and the requirement to consult on and publish a disease control protocol and the amendment requiring that compensation for compulsorily slaughtered FMD vaccinates be set at 100 per cent of the market value of the animal at the time of slaughter. I can assure the Committee that all those amendments will be tabled for the Report stage and that they will follow the outline I gave in the letter to which I shall refer soon.

The Government, as a matter of priority and before finalising our full response to the Anderson and Royal Society reports, have been assessing the recommendations of those reports and of the National Audit Office in relation to the contents of the Bill. We have decided that we should amend the Bill in a number of ways to reflect the terms and recommendations of the inquiries and some of the points raised in this House and elsewhere. I believe that we have been able to address some of the concerns of the stakeholders, such as the NFU, with some of our proposed amendments.

I should make clear that our comprehensive response to the Lessons to be Learned and the Royal Society inquiries were intended to be published in late October or early November and I cannot pre-empt the publication of that response on other matters. However, we have given priority consideration to those aspects of the inquiries that could impact on the Bill.

The Lessons to be Learned inquiry, under Dr Anderson, mentions the issue of legislation and makes two recommendations. The first is that,

"The animal health legislative framework should be robust, unambiguous and fit for purpose. This was not the case during the 2001 epidemic. The powers available in the Animal Health Act 1981 should be re-examined, possibly in the context of a wider review of animal health legislation, to remove any ambiguity over the legal basis for future disease control strategies".

Secondly, it said that,

"Provision should be made for the possible application of pre-emptive culling policies, if justified by well-informed veterinary and scientific advice, and judged to be appropriate to the circumstances".

Those recommendations support the central part of this Bill, which deals with the new power to cull animals,

"to prevent the spread of the disease", and, implicitly, to clarify the powers of entry.

I should also make it clear that although the Government do not agree that the Animal Health Act 1981 powers are "ambiguous", as suggested in the report, we nevertheless recognise that greater clarity would be desirable and that current powers do not go far enough to underpin some aspects of disease control—notably pre-emptive culling and emergency vaccination—which the inquiries advocate.

The Government's view is that we need to obtain the additional culling powers and powers of entry for vaccination or culling as soon as possible through the present Bill and that that should not wait for a wider review of animal health legislation. However, I believe that the recommendations in the Lessons to be Learned inquiry report clearly support the need to obtain the additional powers provided in the Bill as a matter of urgency.

I also need to deal with the issue of vaccination in the light of the reports which have appeared in the media from the EU and the concern about how we might use vaccination in a future outbreak. It is important to recognise that the powers in the Bill relate not only to slaughter but also to alternative and complementary strategies for combating the virus, specifically vaccination. For vaccination to be effective, it requires just the powers of entry and the speed of execution that the Bill will provide. Vaccination, even more than culling, will fail if there are loopholes in the system.

The option of emergency vaccination now forms part of the Government's interim contingency plan for the control of foot and mouth disease. The Government's view is that the powers in the Bill, particularly those allowing clearer powers of entry to vaccinate, are critical in ensuring that any future emergency vaccination programme could be completed comprehensively.

The Government's preference, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in July, is that a vaccinate-to-live policy should be used wherever possible, in line with the Royal Society report. However, there will be scenarios where vaccinate-to-slaughter may be appropriate. The Bill will complete the powers we need effectively to implement whichever strategy is appropriate in the prevailing circumstances. Powers are also needed for serological surveillance through the administration of blood testing.

The Bill strengthens the powers in two main respects; first, the need for clear powers of preventive slaughter together with the power to slaughter vaccinated animals, and, secondly, the need for powers providing for swifter entry to farms for the purposes of vaccination, slaughter or testing. Together with existing legislation, these powers will provide for a wide range of disease control options.

The Government have tabled some amendments and, as I indicated, intend to table further amendments directly addressing concerns which noble Lords have raised about the nature of the Bill's powers. Those will introduce some significant changes to the Bill.

I shall table an amendment that requires the Secretary of State to publish the reasons for using the new preventive slaughter power. Before using the power, the Secretary of State will have to publish a justification of the need to use it in the prevailing circumstances. I shall also table an amendment introducing a requirement to consult on, and publish, a "disease control (slaughter) protocol".

I am aware that some have criticised the Bill for removing the so-called "right of appeal" against entry for vaccination, slaughter or other purposes, but that is not the case. The Bill replaces the current procedure for securing entry to premises on the authority of a High Court injunction with a far swifter procedure based on a magistrate's warrant. However, the existing procedure whereby a farmer may seek review by a senior vet of a decision to cull and make representations to him will continue to be available. However, in response to concerns regarding the warrant procedures, I have tabled amendments to strengthen the conditions in the Bill that a magistrate must be satisfied have been met before granting a warrant to obtain entry.

Concerns have also been expressed that the Government might not fully compensate farmers if vaccinated animals were compulsorily slaughtered for disease control purposes. I believe that there are strong grounds for clarifying the position. I shall therefore table an amendment requiring compensation for compulsorily slaughtered vaccinates to be set at 100 per cent of market value of the animal at the time of slaughter; that is, as if it had not been vaccinated.

I also had intended tabling an amendment providing for the Government to report annually on actions taken to prevent illegal imports of animal products, in addition to the existing requirement in the 1981 Act to report on diseased live animals imported into Great Britain. In view of the fact that we have not tabled an amendment in time for the Committee stage, I am prepared, with qualifications, to accept Amendment No. 96 in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Greaves, to the same effect. It may be necessary to tidy it up subsequently, but the principle is accepted and I am prepared to accept the amendment.

One of the overriding themes of the inquiry reports is the need for contingency planning. We have done much work on that during the past year. Nevertheless, given the weight placed on that issue by the inquiries, it is appropriate that we require on the face of the Bill that the Government prepare, publish and lay before Parliament a national contingency plan. I had hoped that I could have tabled the amendment for the Committee stage, but I can assure noble Lords that I will table it in good time for Report.

Finally, the Bill provides for an adjusted compensation scheme designed to encourage high standards of biosecurity on farms by adjusting compensation where biosecurity provisions have not been observed. I am aware that in farming circles there has been considerable opposition to that part of the Bill. The inquiries do not help us here. The Government regret that the industry and the opposition parties have not felt able to go down that line, which could improve biosecurity. However, it is also true that the National Audit Office report points out some serious concerns about the whole operation of the valuation system and the system for compensation and raises the degree to which taxpayers should meet full compensation in all circumstances. In the light of that, we now intend a full- scale review of the basis of compensation and valuation in the case of foot and mouth and other diseases. As regards those other diseases, the arrangements differ somewhat. This will need to take into account issues of risk sharing and proposals for levy or insurance-based schemes and will therefore go considerably wider than the provisions of the Bill.

We have therefore decided not to proceed with this provision of the Bill and will be accepting the amendment in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, which deletes that part of the Bill and the associated schedule.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for repeating a quotation, but the point of the Bill is summarised in the Phillips inquiry into BSE. It stated that,

"legislation should clearly empower Ministers to take precautionary measures in a situation where the existence of a hazard is uncertain".

That is precisely why we brought forward the Bill.

It is true that the Bill adds to the sets of circumstances in which an animal could be culled the criterion "to prevent the spread of disease". But that should not lead to the culling of more animals. The opposite will be our aim, as considerable scientific evidence supports the view that by culling or, indeed, vaccinating quickly in the early stages we could prevent further spread of the disease.

The proposed amendments together provide a package which will result in a Bill that provides the Government with the powers they need but at the same time meets some of the concerns expressed in the House. They will ensure that the Bill is reasonable and proportionate and that decisions will be explained in an open and transparent manner. I apologise for the length of the Statement. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Whitty.)