Animal Health Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 7th October 2002.

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Photo of The Bishop of Hereford The Bishop of Hereford Bishop 4:15 pm, 7th October 2002

My Lords, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, we are in an unusual position in debating these matters at Committee stage. I agree with the remarks of the noble Countess and the noble Earl, Lord Peel.

It is appropriate that we should consider in general terms why we are where we are in relation to the Bill at this stage. Most of us hoped that we should not be at this stage. At Second Reading in January, most of us criticised the Bill sharply. A great deal of time has elapsed since then and there has been a great deal of change, not least in the science of vaccination. Major reports have been published and others are pending. The European Union report is to be published shortly, and there is the Government's definitive response to their own inquiry reports. It seems extraordinary that we should be pursuing detailed Committee points on parts of the Bill when we still do not know what amendments the Government propose to bring forward on some critical and important matters.

We have just had an extended debate on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill and on the extraordinary procedural difficulties that we are in as a result of having substantive amendments moved on Report when the issues involved ought to have been discussed at Second Reading or at the very least in Committee. It places the House in an extraordinary position in trying to tackle important issues.

Because so many criticisms were levelled at this Bill at Second Reading, I believe that most noble Lords expected far more radical changes to be made by the Government. I echo what has been said in gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his kindness in writing to me and in sending in advance a copy of the essence of his Statement. I want to express gratitude for some of the government amendments which have met some of the criticisms that were made in the course of the Second Reading debate and the debate in March. However, I still feel that this is a deeply defective Bill.

Were I a theologian—I hesitate to claim that title—I would say that this is a sinful Bill, giving the word "sin" its proper root meaning. Every student of elementary New Testament Greek is told that the word "sin" comes from a word in classical Greek which does not mean "doing a bad thing"—that is the wide misunderstanding of sin—but which means "missing the mark". Thucydides refers to people throwing a spear or shooting an arrow and missing the target. There is reference to someone who takes the wrong turning on a journey. That is "sin". It is making a mistake of that kind, falling short of what you should be aiming at. In Plato and Aristotle the word has come to mean "an error of judgment". By any standard, this Bill misses the mark, falls short of where it should have gone, takes many wrong turns and fails to address a great many of the issues which were extremely pressing at the end of the foot and mouth outbreak this time last year.

One can imagine what was going on in DEFRA this time last year: an attitude of despair, total bewilderment and perplexity. The outbreak had been a disaster and its handling had been a catastrophe. There were various targets which could have been addressed by new legislation, in particular illegal meat imports. We still await action on that. If we simply debate the amendments we shall not have a serious debate about how we control illegal meat imports.

I returned twice to an airport in this country during the summer Recess. I had absolutely no indication that anyone minded what I brought with me. There was no notice, no questions, no sniffer dogs—nothing. The NFU survey of 10,000 people returning to this country produced exactly the same result. Ninety-nine per cent of those people did not know about it. I looked for it. It is not in this Bill. It may be that we shall have the promise of further amendments at Report stage, but is that good enough?

Are proper information systems in place? There was such confusion over this matter during the outbreak. Have we the opportunity to debate that during the course of this Committee stage? The State Veterinary Service was dismantled by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s. That service needs to be rebuilt. There should be adequate contingency plans which are rehearsed and practised regularly.

We may have the chance to touch on some of these matters as we debate the amendments. But the fact of the matter is that, as several noble Lords have said, we need comprehensive, new legislation which goes to the root of all these issues and not simply to look at one aspect of one part of the solution to the problem, which is how we deal with an outbreak through culling or vaccination. I welcome the references to vaccination which have crept into these amendments, but I hope that there will be vaccination to live and only in exceptional cases would there be vaccination to slaughter.

We really do need new legislation. We need to go back to the drawing board and to produce a comprehensive Bill which will win the enthusiastic support of the farming and livestock industry. I am very worried that if we pursue this debate at this stage of the Committee proceedings on a limited number of amendments, we do so knowing that the farming community is deeply hostile to what is going on and still does not believe that the Government understand the position and the problems which farmers face and the despair which affects so many of them. The 407,000 people who took part in the march cannot have been wrong. Many agendas were running on that particular day. I fervently wish that we could be addressing more of those questions than simply the small number which will arise during this Committee stage.