Animal Health Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd November 2001.

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[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Motion made and Question proposed,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Animal Health Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Thursday 22nd November 2001 and Thursday 29th November 2001 at five minutes to Nine o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock and on Tuesday 4th December 2001 at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock.

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 and 5, Schedule 2, and Clauses 6 to 18, New Clauses and New Schedules;

(3) the proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. on Tuesday 4th December 2001. Mr Elliot Morley has given notice of his intention to move a motion in the terms of the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee [Sessional Order C (9) relating to Programming (28th June)].—[Mr. Morley.]

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I should like to begin by saying what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I do not think that I have served under your chairmanship before in Committee; in fact, in a previous incarnation I used to sit, as you may recall, where you are now sitting. An even longer time ago, I worked here for many years, but since then there have been many changes in the House. Because of the supposedly wonderful modernisation programme, we now sit at a rather earlier hour than I would wish. Other Committee members may share that view. I am sure that, under your chairmanship, consideration of the Bill will proceed apace, and that we shall have good, full and open debate on this very important issue. It is very difficult to teach an old dog new tricks—I am referring to myself, Mr. Illsley, not you—so I hope that you will be relatively patient if some of us stumble, because we have not held for long our current responsibilities.

I do not want to speak at length on the timetable motion, given that, as a result of one recent change—this is my first appearance in Standing Committee since then—time is very tight. We are to consider a Bill that will give officials draconian powers that, in my view, will be challenged in the courts through human rights legislation. The Bill certainly impinges on the civil rights of landowners and those who own animals. As Second Reading showed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House are extremely concerned about the implications of enacting this legislation without amending it drastically.

I have no intention of revisiting the issues that were raised on Second Reading, but I should point out that the Government are introducing a measure that puts the cart before the horse. I suppose that their primary reason for introducing it is to enable immediate action, should there be a tail end to the present foot and mouth epidemic. The last outbreak was on 30 September, and we all pray that we shall reach the new year without a further case, and that such powers will prove unnecessary. However, I have to say that the draconian powers in the Bill are unnecessary and wrong. They should be challenged throughout its legislative passage, which is what we shall do.

The Bill grants powers to officials without granting any meaningful rights to landowners or animal owners. As the present foot and mouth epidemic has shown, there are many issues that we need to flush out in Committee: including the handling of the epidemic, of the contiguous cull and of the testing of animals, and the results that were considered negative but subsequently counted as part of the contiguous cull. For those who farm and for others who own livestock, these are very serious issues.

With all those points in mind, and given that the longer we speak on the timetable motion, the less time we shall have to debate these important matters, I simply want to point out that the time allocated to us is entirely unsuitable for a Bill of this importance. I hope that the Committee will be prepared, if necessary, to sit later on some days than we might otherwise have imagined. As someone who entered the House 18 years ago, I remember only too well debating certain Bills all night. Newer Members will not have experienced that, and perhaps they might think about doing so to enable us to cover the Bill properly. I merely throw that suggestion into the pot—I note that I am getting smiles all round, along with a few grimaces—but we shall see what progress we make. The programming is so tight that the Bill's major issues will receive inadequate debate, and the inability thoroughly to scrutinise legislation in Committee does not enhance the role of opposition or of Parliament.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I, too, am pleased to serve for the first time in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley.

In keeping with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), I am very concerned about the amount of time allocated to considering the Bill, not least because it is so draconian that it will almost certainly be challenged legally in the courts, should it receive Royal Assent.

On the front page of the Bill, the Secretary of State says that, in her view,

``the provisions of the Animal Health Bill are compatible with the''

European convention on human rights--a statement that itself requires substantial debate and consideration. Many organisations and individuals are already suggesting that the measures outlined in the Bill are likely to be subject to judicial challenge if the Minister does not significantly amend them.

I should put on the record that it is my understanding that, in the context of such legislation, Ministers should never knowingly take decisions that involve legal costs, and thereby incur expenditure to the public purse. I do not ask the Minister to disclose legal advice given to him about the legality of actions that he wishes to take under the Bill, but I hope that, as we debate individual clauses—our only option, given the time constraint—he will justify in legal terms the proposals contained in it.

In considering the Bill as a whole, its time constraints and the Secretary of State's statement on the European convention on human rights, we should recall that the following principles are relevant to the Human Rights Act 1998. Wherever possible, legislation must be read in a way that is compatible with the rights guaranteed under the convention. If it is not possible to read legislation in such a way, the Court has the power to declare the legislation incompatible and thus, in practice, force the Government to rethink.

I hope that we are not to spend the next few weeks considering a Bill that the courts will overturn lock, stock and barrel, but I suspect that that is inevitable. I hope that the Government will justify the legal basis for their proposals, and that you and your colleagues, Mr. Illsley, will grant sufficient time to debate these matters as we consider the Bill's clauses. Under the 1998 Act, public bodies, including courts as well as Ministries, must not act in a way that is incompatible with the convention.

Since the 1998 Act came onto the statute book, it has become ever more clear to us, to Government Departments and to the public at large, especially lawyers, that there have been some changes in emphasis. That was demonstrated earlier this year by a decision given by the House of Lords in its judicial capacity, in which it ruled that the scope for challenging an exercise of Executive power under the convention was significantly greater than had hitherto been the case under English law.

I want to flag up that we must consider this important Bill line by line during its passage through Committee and subsequent stages. In the view of most rationally-minded people, it is disproportionate and will almost certainly be challenged successfully in the courts as soon as it has received Royal Assent.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and look forward to serving on the Committee under your chairmanship.

I confess that it is difficult to find words to express my opposition, and that of other Liberal Democrat Members, to many of the clauses in the Bill. Many of those arguments were rehearsed on Second Reading. We recognise that the Government must take action, given what they now know and following the absolute devastation of foot and mouth. However, the Bill is premature. Had measures such as import control and movement restrictions been taken beforehand, we could have looked at it with more sympathy.

The measures are draconian in their intent and extremely serious for many people, not only farmers, who live in rural areas. They are also unfair, unjust and unreasonable. The proposals on rights of appeal go much further than is necessary, and those on powers of entry bring a whole new meaning to the term ``forced labour''. The Government's intentions may be appropriate, but the methods by which they are trying to enact them are draconian. We must give the Bill very serious consideration, because it has great implications for many people. I hope that the programming resolution allows us sufficient time to do that.

Liberal Democrat Members feel that it is fundamentally wrong to mix up compensation and penalties. There are specific compensation scales, and there should be scales of penalties. To confuse the two is not helpful in terms of the possibility of being judged guilty until proved innocent. If there were evidence of large-scale abuse, there may have been some justification for the Bill, but only a small number of people are involved and even within that small group many could be defined as passive delinquents rather than bioterrorists. We need to get the proportionality of some of these measures right. I hope that we shall have sufficient time to debate the ways in which the Government want, properly, to introduce regulation in the light of the foot and mouth crisis.

Finally, we welcome the intentions behind the scrapie regulations, which form part of the aims of the new Department. However, I noticed that although scrapie was to be eradicated, BSE was only to be reduced. That is strange, given that we have lived with scrapie for a couple of hundred years and BSE was so devastating.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm for the record that his party's position is that in eradicating scrapie from the UK flock--we support that, of course--comparable measures should be clearly demonstrated in other countries that also have scrapie?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

That is an interesting point. Scrapie is viewed in different ways in different countries with large sheep flocks. In New Zealand it has been eradicated, but other countries are prepared to live with it. There is a balance to be struck between the value of taking such a disease out of the flock and the potential loss of valuable gene pools and breeds of sheep which are important to the indigenous agriculture of each state.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I want to be clear in my mind. We are part of the common agricultural policy and, to all intents and purposes, matters concerning agriculture are part of a single market. When the hon. Gentleman refers to the intention to eradicate scrapie, is he thinking only of the United Kingdom or does he consider the European Union as a single market for such purposes? Would he want parallel action to be taken by other EU member states?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

Sometimes, it is important for a country to take the lead. I hope that we may take the lead in traceability and identification in advance of obtaining agreement throughout the EU. If we always wait for everyone to agree on everything, we will never move forward. If it is scientifically proven that the balance is in favour of getting rid of scrapie, perhaps we should recommend that for the whole of Europe. If the hon. Lady is saying that we should wait for a Europe-wide agreement on scrapie, I do not agree with her.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that we shall make our own producers more uncompetitive. The problem with the CAP is that in this country we have a culture of implementing regulations and we add to those an almost gold-plated bottom. We place our producers at a competitive disadvantage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that anything that is done must be done throughout the single market?

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I remind the Committee that we are debating the programme motion? A wide-ranging debate now on the principles of the Bill would cover issues that we shall come to later.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

Thank you, Mr. Illsley.

The hon. Lady made an interesting point that we shall come to later in our proceedings. It is important that we consider all the regulations in a Europe-wide context. There may be a competitive advantage in eradicating disease.

Overall, we are not in favour of the provisions and we voted against them on Second Reading. The Minister's intentions may be correct, but the Bill contains fundamental flaws and seems to us and to many others to be premature.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Opposition Whip (Commons)

I welcome you belatedly, Mr. Illsley, to the Chair for what will be a short Committee stage and I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) who speaks for the Liberal Democrats.

Already this morning, there has been a lively debate, which is unusual for this time of the morning. My first protest is that the Committee will start at five to nine on Thursday mornings. That is unhealthy timing and little consideration has been given to Members and their other duties--[Interruption.] That is correct--I am not a morning person.

I shall not be making many contributions to the proceedings of the Committee, as is traditional in my current role. However, I must speak on the programme motion to put on the record, as has been done many times during the previous and the present Labour Government, my total opposition to the principle of programming. The Bill has four parts, covering extremely complex issues with legal connotations that require detailed exploration. It is also obvious that the Bill is of current interest throughout the country. Solely because it covers a current and painful topic, it deserves full scrutiny.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the draconian measures have been universally challenged. That in itself means that the Bill requires full scrutiny. The rural and farming communities must be sure that this place is doing its job properly for. Frankly, six sittings will not do the job properly. We have already seen that in the selection of amendments—122 amendments and seven new clauses were tabled to the Bill. That is just the start. My colleagues and I have not yet examined a considerable part of the Bill. That the Bill demands more scrutiny than six sittings is evidenced by the fact that amendments have not come solely from Opposition Members. There is general dissatisfaction.

The Government have adopted an attitude of indecent haste to get the Bill to the Lords. They obviously want to get it out of this House before Christmas, and I feel that, once again, they have overplayed their hand. Programme motions are discredited. They reduce debate, and are now applied indiscriminately across all the legislation that we examine. The other day, I sat on a Committee where there was agreement between Opposition and Government, but the Bill was still programmed. That smacks of the heavy hand of a Government with no self-confidence, who are unwilling to debate the issues.

The major issues for the countryside demand more than six sittings. The Government have used their whip hand and abused their power by inflicting such a strict timetable on a major Bill of great importance.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:15 am, 22nd November 2001

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I appreciate your presence, and you have already demonstrated its importance for those people, some of whom have been complaining about inadequate time, who stray away from the straight and narrow of dealing with the issues.

I point out to some hon. Members who have spoken that the Bill deals with serious issues of BSE. It is good for the sheep industry—and supported by it—for consumers and for competitiveness. It deals with serious issues of disease control for an epidemic not yet over. I hope that we do not see further foot and mouth outbreaks, but we cannot yet say that the epidemic is over: the risks remain high.

The Bill deals with serious issues of biosecurity. Most farmers recognise that a minority have been involved in disease spread, putting the majority at risk, and they want action on that. It deals with offences that did not exist, such as the deliberate infection of animals, yet some hon. Members object to the measures.

The measures are generally welcomed by everyone in the livestock industry. I accept that issues about details remain, but I must make something clear about some of the words that have been used, such as ``draconian'', and about the powers of entry. There are no new powers of entry in the Bill. The powers of entry all relate to the Animal Health Act 1981. This Bill relates to the legal procedures in applying them. The powers were already there, and remain the same.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The Minister has raised an important point. The difference now is that the powers will be able to be used when there is only the suspicion of disease. Under the 1981 Act, disease had to be diagnosed for them to be used.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is wrong. The disease did not have to be diagnosed. We will come to that in a moment. There had to be reason to suspect that the disease was there.

The hon. Lady mentions legal challenges. There has been much legal quibbling during the Bill's progress, which has been unhelpful for speed and for dealing with issues. I have made it clear all along that nothing in the Bill dictates future Government policy.

Nothing in the Bill precludes the recommendations of the independent inquiry. Nothing in the Bill precludes the use of a range of other measures. Whatever we do, we want a range of measures. If there is to be culling either as part of a policy or as a policy in itself, it must be done quickly, speedily and effectively. We shall deal with the other considerations in due course.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I want to ensure that I have understood the Minister. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, his view appeared to be that existing measures in the 1981 Act allow Ministers to slaughter on suspicion. That is an existing power. Will he articulate the extra powers that he wants to take on top of that?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady has asked me to go into a Second Reading debate. We shall deal with that issue as we scrutinise the Bill. I shall give her the details, but it is about interpretation of veterinary opinion. These amendments make the position clearer, and they will allow for action to be taken more quickly.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being good humoured. How did he arrive at the figure of six sittings for the scrutiny of the Bill in Committee? Did he consider giving the Bill more sittings, and is it right that he is desperate to get the Bill out of the House of Commons before Christmas?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

This is a disease-control measure, and we still have a high risk of disease. The sooner we get this measure on to the statute book the better. We agreed six sittings with the Opposition Whips. Programming is a sensible, rational way to deal with legislation because it forces us to focus on the issue, and it cuts out erroneous time wasting. Those of us who have been Members for some years know that time wasting goes on.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

You are doing well today.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have done my share of time wasting. However, long before I entered Government I had concluded that it was not a productive way of doing things.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Opposition Whip (Commons)

After what the Minister has just said, I must ask him whether he is willing to revisit the programme motion and give us more time to scrutinise the Bill. He believes that there was an agreement on six sittings, but we should like more sittings. The Minister can therefore revisit the programme motion.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There was a programming meeting on Monday, where the hon. Lady did not raise a single objection to the programming of the Bill.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I was there. It was over in one minute, which shows how many objections Opposition Members had.

I must say how much I appreciate my hon. Friends who are members of the Committee. I am glad that the Whips have chosen a brigade of guards from the parliamentary Labour party to support me; I appreciate my colleagues' expertise.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I must put on record that I was shadow Leader of the House when the Government first introduced programming. At that time, the Government stressed how important it was for Programming Committees to be properly minuted, and we have just seen a classic example of why that is the proper procedure. Not all Members have the privilege of sitting on such Committees, and there can be disputes about what was and what was not discussed. It is unusual for such an important procedure not to be properly minuted or, if a vote is taken, for that not to be recorded in Hansard. It is improper, and it is characteristic of how the Government carry out their business.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister is taking it in good humour, and I appreciate that he must hold his position. However, it is worth putting on record that the Minister was not present at the Programming Committee.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Opposition Whip (Commons)

It is remarkable that the Minister says that there is a great deal of room for negotiation on Programming Committees and Sub-Committees. I look forward to him revisiting the programme motion. The Government can say what they want and stick to their guns, which is exactly what they have done with the Bill. If the Minister is so willing to ensure that the legislation is absolutely right, he will accept—

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend will recall that I was rather involved in the way in which programme motions were introduced into the House—a way that was against my better judgment. It was clearly stated by Minister after Minister, including the then Leader of the House, at the Dispatch Box

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Before I call the first amendment, I have an announcement that relates to page 35 of the amendment paper. Hon. Members will have noted that amendment No. 38 is listed as an amendment to clause 1, when it is an amendment to clause 2. That amendment will therefore be called as the last amendment to clause 2.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I signed amendment No. 54, but the Public Bill Office has left my name off it.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

I am sure that the Clerk will take note of that and make the necessary changes, if the amendment was signed in time. Clause 1 Foot-and-mouth disease