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 Moran Lord Moran Crossbench 3:38 pm, 7th October 2002

My Lords, as usual I declare a marginal interest—our very small herd of Welsh Black cattle in mid-Wales.

Speaking as one of the usual suspects on the Bill, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for the letters he has sent me, as promised, informing me of what the Government intended to do and giving me some of the amendments he planned to move. These letters were helpful and I have listened carefully to his Statement, although, like others, I shall wish to study it carefully.

The government amendments change some of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the Bill as it stood—for example, limiting the requirement to provide assistance to the keeper of the stock and those in charge of the animals. They also meet one or two of the other points made in earlier debates in the House. Finally they seek to meet some of the points made in the reports of the inquiries, to which the Government are only to respond at the end of this month or in early November.

But a number of the key recommendations seem to have been ignored. For example, the Royal Society's report, which struck me as particularly valuable, called for contingency plans to be brought before Parliament for debate and approval; the Government to bring before Parliament a framework for the contingency plans covering the principles involved in handling outbreaks of infectious exotic diseases; the tightening of import controls over meat, together with a much more co-ordinated approach at every level by all bodies concerned with import controls; a commitment to consider emergency vaccination as part of the control strategy from the start of any outbreak instead of as a last resort—the Royal Society says that emergency vaccination could be far more appropriate than the alternative of extensive culling—the preparation of a regulating framework and practical arrangements, including the supply of vaccines; consideration of ways to minimise animal movements; and a national strategy for animal disease research.

None of that was mentioned in the noble Lord's letters or covered by the government amendments but some of those matters were included in his statement. The noble Lord stated in his letter to me of 25th September that

"the central features of this part of the Bill remain unchanged".

I read that with despair. I said on Second Reading on 14th January that the Bill might more appropriately be entitled the "Animal Slaughter Facilitation Bill". On 26th March and 25th July, I said that Part 1 was,

"based entirely on legalising and extending the mass slaughter of animals".

I am astonished that under the huge weight of criticism in your Lordships' House and outside, the Government should still be keen on a policy of mass slaughter. Little wonder that Dr. Anderson called in the lessons to be learned report for a

"reappraisal of prevailing attitudes and behaviours" within DEFRA. The Government and the department seem determined not to listen to their critics. Help is at hand. I am not an enthusiast of the European Union—I would be much happier if we came out of it—but we belong for the present. Agriculture is one of the areas for which we have handed over responsibility to Brussels—which has, it seems, decided to take over the running of foot and mouth policy from the UK and other member states. Reports in the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times on 12th and 13th September said that the Commission was planning to take over responsibility for the handling of foot and mouth disease and to that end had prepared a draft directive that is to be published this month. Meantime, an interim report has been published by the rapporteur of the EU temporary committee on foot and mouth.

I have not seen the whole text but reports quote that committee as saying that,

"The mass slaughter policy employed to control foot-and-mouth disease last year was based on flawed scientific models and probably did not help curb the epidemic".

The policy was said to have,

"dubious legal grounds and may have led to animal welfare abuses".

The committee makes a number of recommendations, including

"vaccination as a 'first choice' control option in future".

It added that

"some farmers were intimidated and pressurised into having animals culled".

I would normally be reluctant to see responsibility moved from London—where we can at least put our views to the Government, however little attention they pay—to Brussels, where we have no influence. In this instance, I admit that in contrast to an invincibly obstinate British Government bent on making mass slaughter easier, the European Parliament's committee seems to be taking a much more enlightened view—almost identical with that of the Royal Society, laying the main emphasis on emergency vaccination-to-live.

My noble friend Lord May, president of the Royal Society, kindly sent me the text of a speech by Commissioner David Byrne to the EU temporary committee on 12th September, in which he said:

"It is no longer acceptable to the public that large numbers of animals can be slaughtered and destroyed now that new diagnostic tests have been developed and are available which differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals . . . the Commission is of the view that emergency vaccination should be moved to the forefront of the response mechanism in the event of future outbreaks . . . vaccination had been viewed as a weapon of last resort. It is now time to break with this approach".

Commissioner Byrne added that there would shortly be a Commission proposal for a European Council directive on foot and mouth disease on those lines, which he described as a "blockbuster" proposal running to more than 130 pages.

Like many of your Lordships, the Commissioner spoke also of,

"serious concerns that poor controls over imports from third countries were at the origin of last year's outbreak".

We have now heard from the boss. The draft directive is to be published this month. In the circumstances, surely it would be sensible to defer consideration of the Bill until we know exactly what the directive says, whether the Bill is compatible with it and whether we need a Bill at all now that the Commission is taking over the problem.

If we are to proceed, it would seem sensible for the Bill to have at least specific guidelines and powers for dealing with reactive vaccination, explicit requirements for contingency planning and regular consultations with experts on disease control. Those provisions need to be as clearly prescriptive as those for preventive slaughter and to provide for keeping fully up to date with scientific advances. We do not want the Bill to be out of date by the time it receives Royal Assent.

I hope that we shall hear from the Minister soon about his plans, now that he has heard his master's voice and had ample time to study the inquiry reports. I hope that the noble Lord will decide to wait until the draft directive is published.

A vote at this stage would not be appropriate, especially as the Official Opposition is holding its policy conference this week. However, if the Government remain obdurate, the House may wish to divide on the issue on Report.