Clause 1 - Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Animal Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 29th November 2001.

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Amendment proposed [22 November]: No. 54, in page 1, line 20, at end insert—

`(3A) After sub-paragraph (1) insert—

``(1A) The Minister may not cause to be slaughtered any animal kept as a pet or in an animal sanctuary or for other non-commercial purposes—

(a) under sub-paragraph (1)(b) above on the ground that it has been exposed to the infection of foot and mouth disease, or

(b) under sub-paragraph (1)(c) above

unless the Minister reasonably believes, on the basis of a veterinary risk assessment, that the animal is at significant risk of having been affected with foot and mouth disease.''.'.—[Diana Organ.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 8:55 am, 29th November 2001

I remind the Committee that with this we are taking new clause 1—Pet animals—

``In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 34.

`34A Pet animals

Where it can be shown that a pet animal has been in contact with an animal affected by foot-and-mouth, it shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known'.''.

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

In the previous sitting, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) gave heart-rending examples from her constituency that illustrate why the Bill should give special consideration to pets. I totally agree with that principle, and in that regard I draw the Committee's attention to new clause 1. We cannot allow the disease to prevail just because a pet contracts foot and mouth, hard though slaughtering it may be for its owners. That said, we must bear it in mind that some people keep as pets what many would regard as farm animals. The hon. Lady gave some wonderful examples of such people in her constituency, and the same is true of my constituency.

I should like to share with the Committee the heart-rending case of two goats called Bella and Pippa, which, I am pleased to say, are alive and well and continuing to give great pleasure to their owners. [Interruption.] Members of the Committee are not taking this matter seriously enough. This is not the tale of ``Billy Goat's Bluff''; it concerns two living goats that were saved from the Ministry's intention to slaughter them without due consideration. My point is that the slaughtering of pets should not be contemplated until a blood test has been carried out, and slaughter should not proceed unless the test proves positive.

Bella and Pippa belong to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, two constituents of mine who live in an area that has experienced foot and mouth outbreaks. In May, the Ministry announced its intention to slaughter Bella and Pippa without a blood test and on the sole ground that they were in what was deemed a contiguous cull area. Our local Exeter newspaper, the Express and Echo, ran a very good campaign highlighting the fact that, as domestic pets, Bella and Pippa had not been in contact with any other beasts. They had been kept in a secure area and it was impossible to prove scientifically that they posed a risk to other animals.

Not unreasonably, I wrote to Baroness Hayman, the then Minister of State, in order to plead the case for the two goats. On 17 May, I received a pleasing but none the less astonishing reply:

``Thank you for your letter of 10 May, about the goats belonging to your constituents Mr and Mrs Bennett.

I understand that this case has been carefully reviewed by the Divisional Veterinary Office and it has been decided that the most appropriate way forward in these circumstances is not to proceed with the cull. We will, however, be arranging testing for the animals to ensure that they have remained disease free.''

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

The Minister says, ``Excellent'' from a sedentary position, and there was indeed a big sigh of relief from all who were concerned about Bella and Pippa. However, the point is that the Ministry reprieved them before conducting a blood test. Where pets live in what is deemed a contiguous cull area, blood tests should surely be automatic. They should precede consideration of slaughter and the question of whether there are clinical signs of foot and mouth disease. It is a matter of getting things in the proper order and dealing with pets on the basis that, although they are potential foot and mouth carriers, they are special to their owners.

In the case of Bella and Pippa there was a happy ending, but it does not quite square with what the Government are now proposing. In the light of the Government's experience, and given that their committees have yet to report their findings, we shall continue to argue that much of the Bill is not based on a proper analysis of foot and mouth. This is rushed legislation, and one has to use examples such as Bella and Pippa, and those given by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, to persuade the Minister that new clause 1 is sensible and fair.

New clause 1 states that a pet animal

``shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known''.

In the light of my experience and that of other members of the Committee, the Minister can surely accept the reality of the impact of foot and mouth on pets. The new clause is reasonable and is based on the Minister's own conclusions, as outlined in Baroness Hayman's letter. In the interests of justice and fairness for pet owners, I ask the Minister to accept the new clause.

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

Those of us who were involved in the foot and mouth crisis experienced many problems with pets, although some cases achieved greater fame than others. There were significant problems in dealing with the emotional subject of culling pets, particularly where young children were concerned. It is well known that children who live on farms regard some animals as pets, even though they may ultimately join the flock or herd. It has proved difficult to define a pet and, in some cases, to distinguish a genuine pet from an ordinary farm animal. As we all know, in a domestic setting it is much easier to define an animal as a pet.

On agricultural holdings, where an animal is owned by the farm but looked after by a child as a pet, matters are a little more difficult, as is the problem of defining a sanctuary. When the previous Conservative Government introduced the poll tax some years ago, a gentleman in my constituency decided to establish his own faith and convert his house from domestic premises into a church, thereby avoiding the need to pay poll tax. It was extremely difficult to decide on the matter, and there are similar problems associated with the agricultural holding that becomes a sanctuary as soon as foot and mouth, or any other disease, breaks out. We are going to find it difficult to tease out these important issues, especially within the time scale of the Committee. The Bill presents many practical problems in terms of pet animals, and the Government must clarify how they will be treated and how the definitions will be arrived at. The blood test is a good way forward, and at least provides an element of protection. We are back to the age-old problem of moving quickly. We must give proper consideration to how the Government would deal with this practical problem at the height of a crisis.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I rise to support amendment No. 54 and new clause 1. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) makes a valid point about the definition of pets and other domestic animals. I have come to the conclusion that it should cover those not destined for the food chain—that is a good enough definition in itself—and not for commercial use, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said. Another useful consideration is that, as the Minister said, vaccination could be used as a firebreak. Exemptions could be made for sanctuaries.

I am not as eloquent as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean in talking about constituency issues, but I should mention the Anglesey seven, a group of hobby farmers in my area who took their case to the High Court and the National Assembly for Wales. They pulled back and did not pursue it, but it was a strong case in that they had no intention of putting their animals into the food chain. I stress that I support a cull. Those of us who support hobby farmers are not saying that we should not cull or use vaccination.

We should seriously consider the argument about animals not destined for the food chain. The farming unions have made strong representations to say that export markets were damaged as a result of foot and mouth infection, but these animals go nowhere near markets or abattoirs. Amendment No. 54 is consistent with the Bill, and I support it.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on amendment No. 54 and new clause 1, which deal with the sensitive issue of pets and animal sanctuaries.

As members of the Committee will appreciate, at the time of the foot and mouth contiguous cull there was a tremendous amount of publicity about people challenging in the courts the Government's right to insist on slaughter. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that any slaughter policy should be carried out according to a risk assessment and by a suitably qualified vet, taking into account the geography of the local area and the vicinity of any confirmed cases of infected animals. It believes that those criteria should be used with regard to pet animals or animal sanctuaries.

Throughout the crisis, the RSPCA drew attention to many anecdotal reports about Government officials suggesting that sheepdogs and other pet animals should be slaughtered as they were believed to be carriers. The Minister, who is a great supporter of the RSPCA, may wish to comment on that. If it is scaremongering it needs to be hit firmly on the head. The policy must be sufficiently clear that it can be understood by those involved in every aspect of the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned the case of Bella and Pippa—wonderful names—in her constituency, and there is the famous case of Mrs. Rosemary Upton of Somerset, who took the Government to court over efforts to cull a pet pig called Grunty and 11 prize sheep. The judge said that he had been most influenced by impressive scientific evidence that there was no risk to the pets even if the animals turned out to be infected, bearing in mind their number and their distance from neighbouring animals. That case can be held in proof that under the Animal Health Act 1981 the Government did not have the power to slaughter without the farmer's permission, and calls into question the legality of the Government's slaughter powers throughout the foot and mouth epidemic.

On 25 April, the Government announced a change in the 3 km contiguous cull policy, which meant that cattle on farms adjoining foot and mouth outbreaks should be spared if there was adequate biosecurity to prevent infection. The policy shift followed claims by farmers' leaders that killing one particular calf—the famous Phoenix—would make the Government look insensitive. We all know what happened next—Phoenix escaped slaughter and the Prime Minister himself announced the policy change just before the 10 pm news bulletin. Although 3.9 million animals had been slaughtered for disease eradication purposes, the Government gave special privileges to one calf. Conservative Members believe that slaughter policy should be based on qualified veterinary risk assessment.

That brings me to the interesting and powerful speech made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean during the previous sitting, in which she described the situation in the forest and referred to many people there—up to 20, I believe, but she may correct me if I am wrong—

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

Sixteen farms went to appeal. When I was asked how many people had farm animals as pets, I took a stab in the dark and estimated up to two dozen, merely because that is the number that has contacted me or I have heard of through the press.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I accept that it is an approximate number, but it gives an idea of the scale of the number of farm animals kept as pets that were threatened by the policy to which so many of their owners objected.

The hon. Lady talked at length about an enterprise in her constituency called Oaklands Park. I hope that she will not mind if I refer back to her comments. She may recall that I intervened on her speech for clarification on a couple of points. Since then, the people at Oaklands Park have written to say that they

``have a commercial farm and gardening enterprise which produces food not only for the 116 residents here, but also for a box scheme delivering produce to 90 families in Newnham and the surrounding area, as well as selling wholesale to Organic food distributors in Bristol.''

That demonstrates the scale of the enterprise. The letter continues:

``Much of that produce comes from our large market garden, but we also sell meat to the box scheme customers, as well as being self-sufficient in meat and milk in this community and for our sister community of 100 in Newnham. All this is achieved together with our adult residents with learning difficulties, who gain enormous pride and satisfaction from their work on the land and with animals.''

It is clearly a very particular kind of community, and one that is to be admired.

The letter goes on to say that the fact that Oaklands is

``a self-sustaining mixed biodynamic farm does not mean that we are non-commercial. It means that we have already diversified to the extent that the government is now starting to propose as a viable way forward for agriculture in this country.''

The park appears to be going in the right direction. The letter goes on to say that the hon. Lady's comment about livestock being regarded as companions

``is a correct one. Our cows are known by name, and there are several generations living side by side in the Byres.''

It states that the aim is to

``give our animals as healthy and contented a life as possible and, when the time comes for slaughter, a dignified and fearless death. (This latter point is becoming increasingly difficult due to Government policy to close down small, local abattoirs.)''

It reasserts that it is

``not an animal sanctuary but a commercial farm which, like many other farms, want to provide our animals with care and affection due to them being sentient beings.''

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean 9:15 am, 29th November 2001

On that point, the people of Oaklands Park are concerned that local abattoirs are kept alive and well. The Forest of Dean has two successful local abattoirs that have received good hygiene assessment scores—HAS.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's clarification. I was merely quoting from the information that her constituent sent to me, but if Oaklands Park can send its produce for slaughter to two small abattoirs, that is excellent and I wish that it were the case throughout the United Kingdom. We all know how often the big supermarket chains insist on slaughter taking place in a specified slaughterhouse, which is often hundreds of miles from the farm. No one feels happy about that.

The Oaklands Park people went on to comment on the Minister's assertion that the contiguous cull was a success. Their letter states:

``On the contrary the contiguous cull has been shown to be heavy-handed due to unnecessary means to control FMD in the light of international developments in vaccination and blood testing that the Government were aware of in March if not earlier.''

The letter states that the hon. Lady said:

``the Forest of Dean is considered as one premise for the purpose of the contiguous cull'' and asserts that that is an unworkable and unreasonable ruling, given the large area and the diversity of the farming practices that border it. It continues by stating that it was alleged that

``the Forest of Dean suffered 47 confirmed cases.''

This relates to the pets and animal sanctuaries issue—there is little difference because all are animals that could contract foot and mouth; they are parallel arguments. The letter asked:

``How many of these `confirmed cases' were tested, and how many were merely clinically confirmed, later to be shown negative when tests were returned from Pirbright after culling?''

It stated that the national foot and mouth group had been requesting that information from the DEFRA headquarters in Page street since 1 May and still does not have it. Will the Minister look into that?

The letter continues:

``It is possible that the actual number of positive cases in the Forest of Dean, could be minute. This is information that should be in the public domain by now, and its absence begs more questions.''

Diana Organ indicated dissent.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but if that information were in the public domain, there would be no arguments. I give way because I can see that she is brewing for another intervention.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

We had a devastating time during foot and mouth. The divisional vets operating in Elmbridge Court in Gloucestershire confirmed the 47 cases. Some were confirmed from clinical diagnoses and some from blood tests, but all cases were confirmed positive.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but her constituent is not satisfied that that was the case. I do not want to enter into an argument with the hon. Lady and her constituent because that would be wrong, but I feel that many, if not all, of the points that her constituent made are valid and relevant to the parts of the Bill that deal with animal sanctuaries and pets, and with farm animals. The same rules should apply to those animals. We have a tabled a new clause that would be helpful to pet animal owners and that has received certain support from Labour Members.

In the letter, the lady goes on at length about farming in the Forest of Dean. I shall not continue to read her letter, although its points therein are valid. The Committee will have noted that new clause 1 states:

``Where it can be shown that a pet animal has been in contact with an animal affected by foot-and-mouth, it shall not be slaughtered until the result of a blood test for the disease is known.''

Bearing in mind the amount of research underway, and that which has been neglected by successive Governments since the previous outbreak, we should expect tremendous progress on blood testing in future.

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

I want to be clear: can the hon. Lady confirm whether she is proposing to remove any discretion on the part of vets to make on-the-spot diagnoses of foot and mouth? Is she saying that such vets would be irrelevant because one could simply send off a blood test?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The problem throughout the cull was the issue of doubt. We know that veterinary surgeons saw clinical signs of the disease but that, in many cases, signs were showing that were not foot and mouth. Many younger vets did not know of some diseases that affect sheep—[Interruption.] No, they did not know of them—they are very difficult to diagnose. If doubt exists, we should be able to test farm animals and pets; there is no difference because they are all animals and can contract the disease. We will get much smarter at that in future and it will be possible to have a test that will reinforce, or deny, the veterinary surgeons' view. Veterinary surgeons cannot be right in every case—how could they be? They are human like us, and make mistakes as we do—in good faith—from time to time.

New technology and science, better testing and quicker results being returned to the veterinary officer and the owners of the animals, whether they be farmers or pet owners, will show us the way forward. That is not so far down the track. The new clause is one way forward that would prove satisfactory. As I said earlier, nobody has the slightest problem with slaughter if they know the disease is present, but they do if doubt exists, or they believe that the disease is not present.

That is particularly so in respect of pet animals. At times, people in this country like their pets rather better than members of their family. We are an animal-loving country and great emotion is tide up with pet animals. If they must be slaughtered—[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) finds so amusing; perhaps, he has no pets. However, I am sure that he agrees that the issue arouses strong feeling and emotion.

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

That is the crux of the matter, not compensation. No compensation for slaughtered farm animals is adequate. Such animals may be considered as pets by their owners and those who look after them. That is why we must take special care.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman makes a telling intervention, with which I could not agree more. I cannot further embellish what he said. I prefer the phrase ``compulsory purchase'' to ``compensation'', because that is, in effect, what happens even though the word compensation is always used. The hon. Gentleman made a valid and telling point, and I agree with it 100 per cent.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

The hon. Lady makes a comment about a trait in the British character: that we are sympathetic and loving to animals, including those in the wild. That is why the overwhelming majority of people want a ban on hunting with hounds.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Lady, as always, shows her lack of understanding. I was talking about pet animals.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Foxes are not pets; they are vermin.

I respect the hon. Lady's view, which she has held for a long time, but I do not believe for one moment that she is right. If she farmed and saw the destruction—I did because I kept chickens when I was a teenager—she would feel differently. The issue, for people whose view of field and country sports is different from mine, is how to contain the fox population without wiping it out. Over the years, hunting has ensured—

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order. We are drifting slightly wide of the mark again, so perhaps we could return to the Animal Health Bill.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Mr. Illsley, you are quite right to draw me to order. I get carried away down country lanes to the right and to the left. I shall return to the issue of animal sanctuaries and pets.

I assure the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that, like her, I have domestic cats at home—only two now, sadly, because the old one went—and I have never known such assiduous and cold-blooded killers. They bring me presents almost every morning, which they leave on the door mat. None the less, we love our pets and are upset when one disappears and goes to meet its maker. I am just as sentimental about domestic pets as any other member of the Committee.

The proposal in amendment No. 54 and new clause 1 is a sensible way forward, but in my mind there is no difference between pets and animals in sanctuaries, and farm animals. They should all be treated in the same way.

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

I apologise for my lateness, Mr. Illsley. I had an interesting travelling time after a bad night last night, but I share that with many people. When one's team loses 11-10 on penalties, it is not the happiest time.

I should like the Minister to answer two questions. First, in response to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), I should be interested to know the number of cases in which vets made a diagnosis that was different from the eventual blood test result. My understanding from what vets have told me is that the accuracy of a blood test depends on how and when it is taken. Clearly, there is always a question mark over the accuracy of a test, and that reduces vets' ability to diagnose. Contrary to what the hon. Lady said—I made this point last Thursday—there was a lack of knowledge among vets about what foot and mouth looks like. That had an impact on the handling of the disease in the early stages, but in later stages, most vets, including those from abroad on whom we relied a lot, were confident about what they were seeing. They were able to diagnose foot and mouth, but the diagnoses were not necessarily borne out by the blood tests.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support my call for a full independent public inquiry. Those are the very issues that need to be flushed out in public so that they are transparent. The problem with the Government inquiries that have been set up, part of which will be in public, is that they will not restore the confidence of the general public, including farmers and those who own pets.

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

Some of us have supported the call for a public inquiry, but not necessarily on tribunal grounds, which, as I have said, would cause delay and allow lawyers to play around with the evidence.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I wish to make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are not calling for an inquiry on tribunal grounds such as the Government introduced for BSE. There is no need for that, but there is a need for the chairman to be absolutely independent and respected for that, and for all sessions to be held in public. It should be full, so that no difficult questions can fall between the cracks of the three inquiries that the Government have set up. People should be able to listen to the evidence and witnesses should be cross-examined in public.

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

I suggest that the hon. Lady talks to the shadow Attorney-General, because he very clearly called for an inquiry along the lines of a public tribunal. There seems to be some confusion on the Opposition Benches, which I hope I shall not add to.

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

The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point that concerns us all. It does not have to be a judicial inquiry, but the Government could volunteer to make available to the inquiries, as the last Government did for the BSE inquiry, Cabinet and ministerial papers.

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

I am trying to clear up in my own mind some of the confusion that exists. I have talked to the shadow Attorney-General, who is clear about what he means by a public inquiry and, unless there is a split among the Opposition, that is what I take their position to be. I support a public inquiry, but I do not support a public tribunal.

My second point concerns the definition of a pet. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that someone who keeps a pet does not draw a sheep subsidy or suckler cow subsidy? A pet is cared for and looked after, and the state has no involvement in that. Will the Minister confirm that no one who keeps a pet draws a subsidy?

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

There are certain rules concerning subsidies, including size of holding and number of animals, but there is nothing to stop people who have animals that they describe as pets from claiming a subsidy if they meet the rules.

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

I find it somewhat disingenuous that people who keep an animal that they call a pet might rely on the state to help them to support that animal. Part of the problem is how to define livestock and pets. I support my hon. Friend the Minister, but we need to tease out that information and clarify it. There may be different rules, but if people keep pets they separate themselves from the normal procedures of headage payments for their animals. If my hon. Friend could clarify that, it would help considerably.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Can the Minister clarify how he would class four or six sheep? People who have orchard space and so on often keep sheep so that they do not have to cut the grass. If they receive no support or subsidy, are those sheep pets or farm animals? It is a difficult matter.

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

I have thought so hard about this that I have tabled written questions to try to obtain clarification from the Ministry. My point is serious. We must be clear on what grounds someone keeps an animal and how he or she is treated if the dreadful scourge of foot and mouth disease returns, although we all pray that it will not. When I dealt with mainstream farmers, they were clear about the policy. They did not like losing their animals, but they knew what was happening. People keep animals for many reasons, and pets are different from livestock. I hope that the Minister can clarify—he may not be able to do so now—the grounds on which public support is given for those animals.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Conservative, Leominster

I have an addendum to the hon. Gentleman's question, based on the number of foot and mouth cases. If only 2,030 cases were confirmed, the number of vets who had the opportunity to witness the disease is not great. When judgments were made between orf and foot and mouth, there very possibly was room for error. Will the Minister tell us roughly how many vets witnessed the 2,030 cases? Given that 5 million animals were slaughtered, the number of vets might have been small.

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

I reiterate my earlier remarks. Because of the incidence of clean and dirty vets, there might be more. Thankfully, not every vet will have experience of foot and mouth. I see no reason, however, why such information should not go on the public record. There will be difficulties, because some people played only a marginal role in attempts to control the disease, and how they and their time are defined might vary, but all such information should come out through the inquiries. It is important that we in this place do everything possible to help clarify the situation. I accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

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

This has been a useful debate, and I listened to my hon. Friends carefully. They have made a persuasive case that has touched on reasonable concerns that people have about the Bill. It is perfectly reasonable to raise issues such as blood testing and how it can be applied. I do not believe that such things have to be in the Bill, but it is reasonable to raise the various options and alternatives.

It is not in the Government's interests to have large-scale culling. It is expensive and causes huge logistical problems. We will always look for alternatives to culling where possible. However, in the range of scientific and veterinary advice, culling in some cases cannot be ruled out. That brings us back to the whole purpose of the Bill: if there is to be culling, it should be done quickly and efficiently to control disease and prevent its spread. I doubt whether anyone disagrees with that as a concept.

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

Given that the inquiries have yet to report, and that the basis of the Minister's argument for introducing the Bill now is urgency, will he put in the public domain for all to see the information about computer modelling schemes that he apparently has now collated and which he claims justifies the need for the Bill? Many people challenge the way in which data was prepared and used. Unless we can examine that information, arguments about the necessity for the Bill go by the wayside. Can he put it in the public domain so that Committee members can examine it, and take advice?

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

I have no objection to putting the details of the modelling in the public domain. Two detailed reports by the expert epidemiologists who advise the Government have now been printed and are in the public domain. I have no problem with putting all that evidence in the public domain, and people are welcome to look at it. I will deal with that point in a moment, but there are people who will not believe any evidence that they are shown because they have set their face against the whole idea of contiguous culling. In the end, action must be based on the best available independent scientific and veterinary advice. The Government, like all Governments, have followed that policy.

For the record, I want to make some points clear. First, the hon. Member for Congleton said that it was Government policy to close small abattoirs. There is no such Government policy.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I was in fact reporting what a constituent of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said in her letter to the hon. Lady and me, objecting to some of the remarks made in the previous Committee sitting.

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

I accept that explanation, and stand corrected.

On that claim, however, as all hon. Members know, it is not Government policy to close small abattoirs. All abattoirs are subject to EU hygiene rules, and no special treatment is given to large premises. Closures can result from various causes. It is like the supermarket and corner shop syndrome. The big slaughterhouses have economies of scale and have put pressure on smaller ones. If premises consistently fail to meet hygiene requirements, they should not be allowed to continue operating. I do not think that any reasonable person would think that they should, because it would put public health at risk.

The lady who wrote the letter should be aware that the Government made funds available in the rural White Paper to support small slaughterhouses. We recognise that they have an important role. The main pressures on them are market pressures, as well as regulatory ones. There are various reasons for closure, and one cannot put one's finger on any one.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The Minister raises valid points. He is correct that there are market pressures on the running of abattoirs, but he rather skipped over the fact that there is so much regulation. On hygiene, we expect abattoirs to be clean but in this country we gold-plate the directive from the EU because we enforce and police them. If one went to an abattoir here when they are slaughtering, one would find many men in white coats standing around. If one went to an abattoir in France, Germany, Spain—horror of horrors—or Portugal, one would not find that.

My point is that although regulation is there to protect the public, we over-regulate and go over the top. The costs involved have forced small abattoirs to close.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order. Before the Minister responds, may I say that I am not prepared to tolerate a debate on EU directives, gold-plating and abattoir closures? We should return to pets and the amendment.

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

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Illsley. You are absolutely right, although I would like to say that I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Lady's last point, having seen some abattoirs abroad. One can mix up xenophobia and reason.

I turn to information. We are holding an independent scientific inquiry, which is very valuable, to look at all aspects of animal disease. The Anderson inquiry will look at ``lessons learned''. I want to make it clear that we will make available to that inquiry whatever papers are asked for. Whether it publishes those papers is entirely a matter for the inquiry, and we will not seek to influence it.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Will the Minister request the chairman of the inquiry to publish all the papers?

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

It is an independent inquiry. It is not for the Government to tell it what to do. We will not interfere with Dr. Anderson.

Finally on meat hygiene regulations, we do not gold-plate. We have not implemented all the 1995 directive on that. Not all the points made about that were fair.

I turn to the crux of the serious issues in the amendment. I recognise the sensitivity about pet farm animals. I must make it clear that those are the animals that we are talking about, because I have yet again seen a Sunday newspaper that says that the Bill relates to cats, dogs and horses. As its author knows that that is not true, it seems that people have resorted to telling lies about the Bill because they do not have valid arguments against it.

Pet farm animals are susceptible to disease. No one disagrees with that. That those animals can get and spread the disease must be taken into account, but there is sensitivity to that. I was delighted to hear about Bella and Pippa and am very pleased that they did not have to be culled. I understand that people get attached to their pet animals in the same way that the hon. Member for Congleton is attached to her pet cat. I also have a pet cat. That only brings in leaves and twigs. That is the difference between a New Labour cat and a Conservative cat: the hon. Lady's cat has been causing carnage.

The sensitivity on culling goes beyond pet animals. There are difficulties in the definition of a pet animal and of sanctuaries. There are issues about rare breeds and important blood lines of herds spanning generations. There are sensitivities involved in cases such as Oaklands Park. We recognise all those.

I would like an element of flexibility in the setting of standards. The risk assessment that the RSPCA was asking for is not unreasonable. We can give guidance on appeals to the deputy veterinary manager. The fact that Bella and Pippa were spared through an appeal to the deputy veterinary manager shows that the appeal system works.

Issues of biosecurity and risk were taken into account during the last epidemic, and there is no reason why we cannot do that again.During the passage of the Bill, I seek to make the measures better and more transparent, to explain them and to involve the farming industry and the public in the consultation on how to achieve those aims.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 9:45 am, 29th November 2001

I am sure that Mr. and Mrs. Bennett will be pleased that the Minister shares our joy that their pets have been spared.

Forgive me if I am just being a cynical old politician, but I must point out one or two other factors to the Minister. We were just going into the first week of the general election campaign, and the decision by the Minister to spare those animals was preceded by two weeks of constant campaigning by newspapers, by me and by the local community. I do not know how typical that will be of situations in future, but I do not think that the decision was totally unrelated to the election campaign.

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

There were many cases where appeals to the deputy veterinary manager were upheld; that is not the only one. Sixteen premises, including Oaklands Park, made appeals to the DVM. There was a time lag in the appeals. Logically, the number of outbreaks of the disease in the Forest of Dean had to be taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean made representations to me as a Minister. Our vets decided that, given the decline in the number of outbreaks and the increased capacity of blood testing, all those farms in her constituency would be blood tested rather put into the contiguous cull. That is another example of how reasonable standards can be applied in a logical, common-sense way to exempt such premises. I am glad that those premises were exempted. That is the issue that we need to address: how can that be achieved in a reasonable way?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The Minister is pouring oil on troubled waters yet again. Oaklands Park has featured in this debate on animal sanctuaries, although it is a commercial farm. Is the Minister aware that it took legal action? It did not have a cosy chat with the deputy veterinary manager. Well, it did initially, but then it had to go to court, and so did many other farmers. It was an expensive route and took up a lot of energy. In the end, a lot of the farming community gave into the bullying by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and complied with the contiguous cull.

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

Some went to court, and some did not. There was a repeated claim that Alayne Addy assisted 200 farmers to resist the contiguous cull in Devon. We have no record of legal cases concerning 200 farmers there. We had many appeals to the deputy veterinary manager. The hon. Lady rightly said that we introduced exemptions for cattle if the case was reasonable. Those cases did not have to go to court. It is in solicitors' interest to claim that some great change was brought about by legal action. There is a vested interest there.

Incidentally, it was stated— it may be a mistake by the newspapers—that not one premise on which there was a challenge became infected. That is not the case. At least three premises dealt with by Burges Salmon were later confirmed as infected. Three cases went to the High Court. We lost only one case, and the premises concerned went on to become infected. That is incorrect because I have details of three cases that went on to be confirmed as positive. One of only three cases that went to the High Court related to Alayne Addy, whose premises went on to become infected.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The people from Oaklands Park whom I quoted earlier said:

``Only because we legally challenged that decision to cull are our animals alive today. The new law would mean that if the magistrate grants permission, we could only appeal after the animals were dead.''

That is it in a nutshell. They also said that

``all those who did contest the cull in the Forest were consequently blood-tested and shown to be negative. Indeed none of the 34 contiguous culls proved positive when blood tested, although 19 farms had already been culled.''

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

That is wrong. In 16 cases the cull was held up because individuals appealed to the divisional veterinary manager. Those premises, which included Oaklands Park, were exempted from our powers to blood test. Oaklands Park made a legal appeal, and if it had gone to court there is no guarantee that the court would have upheld it. Indeed, few such appeals were upheld, and of the cases that went to court most judgments were in the Ministry's favour.

The Bill must contain a system that ensures that such situations are dealt with quickly and efficiently, and the issues about which people are concerned are taken into account. We are putting this in place when we have no epidemic raging, and we have sufficient time to discuss the matter.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall pointed out that we should not rush the Bill through. We do not have to rush: we can consult; we can talk with the National Farmers Union; we can talk to interested parties; we can put in place a better system.

The hon. Member for Congleton made the reasonable point that science and technology move on all the time, and there may be other options that we can use in future.

The Bill is an opportunity to deal with two things: first, the national scrapie programme—the sooner we get on with that the better; and, secondly, the epidemic that is not yet over—I hope that we see no further cases. It was good news yesterday that the last infected area, Cumbria, which is where my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) has his constituency, is no longer classified as a high-risk infected area because it has been downgraded. It was the last such area in England, which means that we are making good progress in stamping out the disease.

We need the widest range of options when we obtain independent advice, and such advice may come from the independent inquiries. The Royal Society inquiry into disease control will take a view on future measures to tackle both foot and mouth and other diseases. Nothing in the Bill commits us to one course of action, and nothing in it precludes the outcome of the inquiries.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman asserts that nothing in the Bill precludes the outcome of the inquiries. However, the Government are taking increased powers that would allow them to slaughter animals to create a firebreak before the results of their inquiries are known. They are putting the cart before the horse. It is ridiculous that the Bill should be rushed through the House. The Minister says that he will consult widely; he should have consulted widely before he brought legislation to the House.

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

This is enabling legislation that allows us to get on with things. I like to get on with things because I find that the wheels of government move slowly enough, and I should like to move forward on making options available on scientific and veterinary advice. Whether we would use those options depends on the circumstances. If we were to use a combination of disease control measures, such as vaccination, in any future outbreak, culling would be unlikely to be eliminated. Vaccination could be used, but if there were an outbreak in intensive pig units there would be a downward plume—it is possible to model downward plumes of the spread of a virus. Members know that pigs can pump out an enormous volume of virus, so it might be desirable to carry out firebreak culls within that downward plume. Vaccination may be an option, but if other intensive pig units are within that downward plume, it would be very difficult. I present that as an example of why these options are in the Bill.

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

Clause 32(1)(a) of the 1981 Act already gives the Minister that power. It states:

``The Minister may, if he thinks fit, cause to be slaughtered any animal which—

(a) is affected or suspected of being affected''.

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

The hon. Lady is right. That is our legal power under which the 3 km cull in Cumbria was applied. However, that does not stop the invitation to lawyers to quibble with the language of the 1981 Act, which is why the Bill makes the matter clear.

We are entering a Second Reading debate and I do not want to be distracted. I want to deal in detail with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Albert Owen), who made an important point about his experiences in his constituency. I shall also address the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mr. Hall), for Forest of Dean and for Stroud. Much of what I shall say will deal with their concerns.

I have been thinking carefully since the Committee previously sat about how to achieve a balance between rapid culling on veterinary grounds as a disease control measure—presuming that that is the advice—and ensuring that the powers to cull are not exercised in a disproportionate, inconsistent or unfair way, so that farmers and livestock owners have confidence in the basis on which those powers are exercised and, where necessary, have the opportunity for a reasonable hearing. That is the balance that I want to strike. I want the arrangements to be better than the rough and ready appeals system in the 1981 Act. Lawyers are not necessarily better arbiters of these matters than vets.

The new measures are designed to ensure that delays in culling are minimised once the decision to cull has been taken, so it would be wrong to introduce new procedures that delay the process further. I recognise the genuine concern that a farmer or owner may not agree with a decision to slaughter animals and should therefore continue to have the opportunity to make representations where they have reasonable grounds for thinking that the powers are not being applied in accordance with the Government's stated policy of proportionate action.

There is a problem with the definition of pets. Although pets and animal sanctuaries are sensitive subjects, I do not want farmers to think that we have no regard for their animals. The measure is a general appeals system and reflects a proportionate approach. Transparency is the key, enabling people to see from the beginning how decisions are taken on whether to cull animals.

I want full consultation with the industry on the criteria that will govern the way in which the new slaughter powers are used. That consultation, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has been pressing, should achieve three results. First, a protocol will be published, explaining clearly how the new powers will be used. People will be able to consult it so that before any future outbreak, they can determine in which cases the powers will be used and what the criteria are.

Secondly, the consultation will provide revised instructions to DVMs and our vets—as hon. Members will know, many local private vets also work for us as temporary veterinary inspectors—on how to implement the powers in line with the criteria. Again, the information will be made public so that people can consult it and see the instructions that we are giving to our vets. As a result, people will understand how the instructions are being applied and in what circumstances.

Thirdly, there will be widespread publicity of decisions, so that farmers can understand how the powers will be exercised and receive assurances about the Government's commitment to proportionate action based on risk assessment. That is in line with the wishes of certain hon. Members and of the RSPCA.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 10:00 am, 29th November 2001

I am very interested in the Minister's comments, and I suspect that a lot of work has been going on at the Ministry since last Thursday. One senses that, in keeping with our earlier comments, a certain language is now being used by the Minister. Is he still contemplating the 24-hour time limit for appeals against a decision, to which he referred last Thursday, or is the limit subject to further consideration?

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

All these issues are open to consultation. As I understand it, the hon. Lady is talking about the time limit for infected premises, but here we are talking mainly about contiguous premises, for which the target was 24 to 48 hours. However, I have no objection to discussing whether those time scales are appropriate. Most people would agree that the sooner such things are done, the better, but there has to be some proportionality. As far as I am concerned, those objectives are open for discussion.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I, too, am fascinated by what the Minister has been saying. I have lost count of the number of times he has used the word ``proportion'' this evening. [Interruption.] Did I say this evening? I am sure that we will still be here this evening.

The Minister will know that the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates not only the European convention on human rights but all the jurisprudence, including the concept of proportionality, which is much broader than the concept of reasonableness as understood in English law. Has its introduction had any bearing on his thinking and his frequent use this morning of the word ``proportionate''?

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

Basically, any Government measure must be applied in a proportionate way—there is nothing new about that. I am seeking to reassure people, to take their views into account, to make public the criteria and how they would be applied, and to give people a chance to comment on and influence matters. I am therefore saying nothing different from what has been said about any Government legislation, or the way in which Government powers are used. I want to ensure that people's views are taken into account during consultation, so that farmers will be better placed to understand why, and how likely it is that, their animals will be slaughtered in given circumstances. What I want is a no-surprise approach, given some of the concerns expressed by farmers during this outbreak.

The outbreak was indeed huge. The demands placed on resources were enormous, and the need to get to grips with it was paramount. Obviously, we learn certain things in retrospect. We want to influence future policy and give people a greater understanding of the different circumstances in which particular policies will be applied.

The consultation will also cover cases such as pet farm animals, animal sanctuaries and rare breeds. We cannot give a blanket exemption to any category of susceptible animal, although I appreciate that no member of the Committee has actually asked for one during our deliberations. As I have said, we recognise the sensitivities, and we can draw attention to any particular factors that may apply. Once instructions to our vets have been finalised through consultation, we will do all we can to ensure that they are widely publicised through press releases, web sites and so on, so that people can understand how the process works. Of course, understanding that process also helps to guide appeals. If farmers and animal owners are aware of the steps that can be taken to enhance biosecurity, they can think about how to meet the criteria for exemptions, for example. I am happy to make these points public.

Although from the outset we are putting in the public domain, through consultation, the procedures that will be applied, I accept that in certain circumstances a farmer might disagree with the decision of the DEFRA vet who is following the criteria. In the first instance, such a farmer should discuss the decision with the vet on the ground, as I am sure he would. If they cannot agree, the farmer still has the right to make a representation to the DVM.

Where there are grounds for believing that the criteria are not being properly applied, the DVM will be obliged to listen to reasonable representations and to take them into account in reaching a final decision. Naturally, that process will be limited by the need to ensure swift action to control disease spread, but that is already an imperative. None the less, we will lay down that procedure and consult on the criteria, and the DVM and all our vets will be obliged to follow it.

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

I have been listening carefully to what the Minister is saying and I trust that I have not missed anything. How long will it take to complete the consultation and when will the guidelines be issued?

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

I would like to begin the process within weeks, and we will set a reasonable closing date so that we can get on with things. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will have to seek advice on what constitutes a reasonable period for consultation, but I certainly want matters to proceed as quickly as is reasonably possible. Some pressure has been taken off us, in that the epidemic is no longer raging, but we cannot be complacent and there remains the risk of a reoccurrence. We are doing all we can to prevent such a reoccurrence, and in that regard it remains important for farmers to consider biosecurity—

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

And officials. Everyone who has contact with livestock should consider biosecurity, and it is also important to maintain restrictions on licences for animal movements.

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

I am sorry to press the Minister, but this is an important point. He has just said that pressure on his Department is easing because, hopefully, the epidemic is reaching a conclusion, yet he is arguing that the Bill be rushed through the House because the situation is urgent. I accept that he needs to consult on what is a reasonable time scale, but can he say what he considers reasonable at this stage, bearing in mind a possible need to move away from that estimate? I am not trying to tie the Minister's hands; I am simply trying to get a grip on the sort of time scale that we can expect.

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

I can certainly give the hon. Lady some idea, and I do want people to feel that there has been no opportunity to consult on the time scale. However, I dispute the notion that we are rushing the Bill through the House—it is following the normal parliamentary procedure. I have always said that I want the consultation to begin within weeks, and by the new year at the latest. I imagine that between eight to 10 weeks would constitute a suitable consultation period, but I do not want to set that in stone.

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

I think that we are all very interested in what the Minister is now telling us. When consultation takes place after a Bill has been enacted, it is normally related to matters that are dependent on secondary legislation and any orders arising. Assuming that I have understood the Minister correctly, is it not rather unusual to consult on matters of primary legislative importance after a Bill has been enacted?

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

I am surprised to hear the hon. Lady say that. As a very experienced Member of this House and a former Minister, she will know that many aspects of any legislation can be consulted on during its passage and after its enactment. Although some provisions in the Bill are enacted by order, not all are. There is nothing unusual about this procedure. I accept that legitimate concerns have been raised, and I am trying to respond in an open and reasonable way.

Although the appeal to the deputy veterinary manager will remain—I want to make the process better and more open, and I want it to deal with a wider range of circumstances—the option of an independent judicial review will remain available to any farmer or animal owner if they are not satisfied with the appeal process.

It is true that the idea of the Bill is to speed up the culling process, but we are dealing with procedures here. If it is shown that this or any other Government did not act in a proportionate way, they will suffer the legal consequences.

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

I think that I know the answer to this. I must put it on the Committee record. Since the Committee met last Thursday, has the Minister received any new legal advice from his officials?

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

I have received none at all.

We want to be equally open about the possibilities created by the Bill for extending slaughter powers for other diseases. We should not focus just on foot and mouth disease. We will be able to extend those powers only under the affirmative resolution procedure: both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the measures. Our intention is to use that period to consult on how to put the powers into practice. Precisely which criteria we take into account will vary from disease to disease. As part of future planning, we will look at all those issues.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I am listening to the Minister with great interest, but also with growing astonishment. He has mentioned that he does not want the approach to be disproportionate, inconsistent or unfair. He wants an understanding of the risks and proportionate, risk-based action. Those are all fine and laudable aims, but I do not understand why, in referring to the concerns of his hon. Friends, he has not acknowledged the fact that those concerns have also been expressed by Opposition Members. The amendments that we tabled to clause 1 are littered with phrases like, ``after consultation with the animal owner'' or ``has reasonable justification to believe after consultation''. An amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall suggesting that slaughter should occur only after disease risk assessment by a suitably qualified and independent representative. In each case, the Minister has said, ``I am sorry, I cannot take any notice of that. It will cripple the Bill.'' Can the Minister explain the sudden volte-face?

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

So the Minister admits that there has been a volte-face?

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

No. I can explain it. The wording and detail of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends is superior to that of some of the amendments tabled by the Opposition. The eloquence of their argument touched me.

In all seriousness, I did say that perfectly reasonable points were raised by all members of the Committee. Indeed, the new clause on blood testing is perfectly reasonable, apart from the fact that it does not have to be in the Bill: the blood-testing option can be applied in certain circumstances.

I cannot accept new clause 1, first, because it is too prescriptive and, secondly, because it is technically flawed. As drafted, it would mean that no pet animal that had been in contact with an FMD-affected animal could be slaughtered until blood tests had been analysed. Even those animals that had become infected by FMD could not be immediately slaughtered if they were pets. That is the strict legal interpretation of the wording.

I know that these are probing amendments, so I do not want to make a big issue of that, but obviously I cannot accept new clause 1. My response has taken a bit of time because it relates to issues that arise later in the Bill. It might save us time to deal with those matters now. I have given a detailed response to my hon. Friends. I think that it is an issue—

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 10:15 am, 29th November 2001

On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but what he has said is of great significance not only to the new clause but to many subjects that we will debate later this morning, this afternoon and on Tuesday. Before the afternoon sitting, can the Minister's officials make available copies of the statement that he has read out? It is long and detailed, and it would be helpful to have it in front of us this afternoon.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

That is not a point of order.

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

I have taken note of the hon. Lady's request. There are certain protocols and procedures in Committees, which I frequently trip over, but I will take advice on the matter.

Many hon. Members have raised reasonable concerns that reflect the views of people outside this Room who have animals. I have discussed those issues and the Bill with the National Farmers Union, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Sheep Association and a range of other bodies, and I will have further opportunities to talk to them. I am trying to respond to hon. Members' concerns in an honest and transparent way. I do not believe that going to court is necessarily the best option. It will be better to have a written and public protocol for our vets to follow and to make people aware of the procedures, on which we can consult. The Bill will provide better safeguards than the ones under the 1981 Act.

The Bill introduces changes to that Act—for example, to preventive and curative powers—and contains new options. It gives us an opportunity to deal with legitimate concerns about how measures were applied during the FMD epidemic. There may be different ways in which to deal with epidemics in future, but we need to deal with culling.

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

I find the Minister's remarks interesting, and they please Labour Members, although perhaps not Opposition Members.

There is one crucial group that we have not mentioned: farmers who wish to protect their stock through a firebreak cull and who may, under the current arrangement, have to take legal action against those who do not want their animals culled for some reason. That subject is frequently avoided, but it is of real concern. Those farmers support a cull to protect their stock, but often that is not brought out in the arguments. Does the Minister agree that that has been a problem? Perhaps transparency will allow us to make progress on that.

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

I agree that problems such as that arise. I have mentioned that when the Prime Minister visited Cumbria and met the NFU, farmers pressed him strongly to accelerate the culling programme. They were desperate to ensure that the disease did not spread out of the valleys, where it was raging. I am glad to say that, by and large, the disease there was contained within its main epicentres, which was no mean achievement. The independent inquiry will probably want to examine that.

I return to the letter that the hon. Member for Congleton read. There are people who simply do not believe that the contiguous cull had any bearing. I do not believe that myself, even though I advocated the vaccination policy in Cumbria. There was resistance to that and various problems, which I am sure the inquiries will deal with. The contiguous cull brought that outbreak under control. We will have the opportunity to assess in detail whether that is true through the Royal Society and the independent Anderson inquiry. They will guide us through the options.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

That point applied in the case of the Anglesey seven. Several farmers who had complied voluntarily with the contiguous cull to prevent the spread of the disease became very concerned when a number of hobby farmers, pet owners and smallholders resisted it and, in the farmers' view, put the commercial farmers beyond in danger again from disease spread.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. Such points were made during the outbreak, and we are trying to deal with all such issues. I am suggesting a way of proceeding. The Bill covers a range of concerns and would leave us in a better position than under the 1981 Act. It is a reasonable and proportionate response to people's concerns. I have listened to the points carefully and taken them on board. I intend to start acting on such issues by the end of the year. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I thank the Minister for his detailed response to the amendment. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that it was a change from what was said on Thursday.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

Yes, it is. The Committee stage of a Bill is all about looking carefully at the Bill, laying down amendments, and changing it to make it more fair, transparent and reasonable. That is surely what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee seek to do.

What the Minister has just spoken about will be tremendous progress. One problem was that people did not know what was being done, how or why it was being done, and what decisions were being based on. That ignorance caused a problem. The Minister laid ghosts to rest when he mentioned press reports about which animals the Bill covers. Press reports and a meeting in the Forest of Dean have suggested that the Bill relates to dogs, cats and horses when patently it does not. It concerns sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Another problem is the widespread myth that the Bill will take away the option of an independent judicial review. That is clearly not the case.

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

I presume that African horse sickness is likely to affect horses. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

As my hon. Friend the Minister said from a sedentary position, that would have to be done by order.

The Minister has usefully dispelled myths. What he has proposed—a full consultation on criteria, a published protocol, widespread publicity and revised instructions to vets on applying the criteria—is a real move and will allay many concerns over how disease is to be dealt with. As a result, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Hon. Members:

No.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Division number 5 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

We are now coming to what I hope will be a brief debate on clause 1 stand part. This has been a wide-ranging debate on clause 1. I have allowed such a debate because the clause is obviously essential to the Bill. From here on in, I expect the Committee to concentrate specifically on the amendments before it, otherwise I shall be unwilling to allow further debates on clause stand part.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Illsley. Clause 1 is an important and weighty matter. Many hon. Members have questioned whether the Bill contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998 in three specific areas—the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life and correspondence, and the right to property. Members of the Committee raised those issues frequently during our debates on amendments to clause 1.

The Bill is designed to give absolute power to the Government to cause the slaughter of animals. It allows them to claim that it is immaterial whether animals are infected with foot and mouth disease, whether they have been in contact with infected animals or even whether they have been vaccinated. These powers would allow animals to be slaughtered at the whim of authorities with no definitive control, and I say that in spite of the Minister's statement this morning. His conversion on the road to Damascus is too late. Had he made that statement before he legislated and amended the Bill accordingly, he might have received the Opposition's support.

Many organisations object to the Bill, and the Minister mentioned that he has consulted with many of them and seeks to consult with more. However, the National Sheep Association described its ``discomfort''--that is a good word--at the possibility that the Government could be given further powers such as those described in clause 1, in view of their appalling reaction to this year's outbreak. It said:

``Bearing in mind the very considerable shambles associated with entry and slaughter during the recent outbreak, we are extremely concerned that even more power should be given to a group of people who in far too many cases proved that they did not understand farmers, livestock, livestock handling''— it would be fair to add modern farming methods to that list—

``and frequently had extremely poor management and organisation skills.''

That message comes back loudly and clearly from every part of the United Kingdom that has suffered from this appalling epidemic. Unnecessary slaughter was imposed in an abundant number of cases. The experiences of those who resisted culls are evidence of the weak and changeable slaughter policy adopted by the Government. Early in the debates on clause 1, I raised specific examples of that, and I have some more here.

Guy Thomas-Everard, who owned 980 healthy pedigree cattle in Somerset, was served with an A notice by MAFF, which stated that his farm had been visited 12 days before by contract workers, who were suspected to be a dangerous contact. Only two weeks earlier, MAFF had declared Somerset to be a disease-free county. After Mr. Thomas-Everard contested the cull for five days, MAFF dropped its slaughter plans, stating that the herd

``no longer posed a risk''.

Another case that has been brought my attention concerns Adam Westaway of Devon, who also contested a Government slaughter order in March. Although he had permitted the slaughter of his 160 sheep, which had been grazing in close proximity to a neighbouring outbreak, he was adamant that his 100 cattle, which were valued at £300,000, should be saved. He argued that they had had no contact with the possibility of infection, having been kept indoors since the previous November. That point that relates to the housing issue. After Mr. Westaway contacted Exeter-based lawyer Alayne Addy, whom the Minister quoted, MAFF stated that it would not carry out the cull.

The Minister stated that MAFF had won most cases that went to court. He has not told the Committee the number of court cases from which MAFF withdrew, which would be an interesting statement for him to make, and I hope that it comes out in the inquiries that the Government have set up. After his experience, Mr. Westaway also criticised the Bill:

``I would oppose any attempts to stop farmers from appealing against slaughtering their animals. The Government doesn't seem to listen to farmers and seems to make it up as it goes along.''

Opposition Members feel that the Government are going too far in taking draconian powers that fly in the face of natural justice. A proper right of appeal must always be available before slaughter.

A Scottish farmer was told that he must lose his pedigree herd and rare Cheviot sheep because infection was suspected some miles away on another farm of which he was a part owner. Although the farmer explained that he had not visited that farm, MAFF officials allegedly behaved as if he were lying. Because officials were delayed by another confirmed case nearby, there was time for tests from the allegedly infected farm to come back, and—surprise, surprise—they proved to be negative.

Throughout the crisis, the Government showed a lack of consistency and understanding regarding their powers to slaughter. The Private Eye special investigation listed three main areas in which MAFF and DEFRA are believed to have been in serious breach of the law. I am sure that the Minister has read the article, which makes some interesting comments.

It is questionable whether the Government had legal powers to kill healthy animals without proof that they had been directly exposed to infection. By the end of April, a respected west country law firm, Clarke Wilmott Clarke, was preparing a test case against MAFF contesting that the contiguous cull scheme, under which 2 million animals had already been slaughtered, was illegal in EU law. Directive 85/511 states that only infected animals can be killed, which was the understanding of many farmers whom I met in Devon when I visited recently.

A London barrister, Stephen Tromans, argued that it was ``highly dubious'' that MAFF had the power under the Animal Health Act 1981 to slaughter uninfected animals without proof that they had come into contact with the disease.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud 10:30 am, 29th November 2001

Let us be clear on this, because some of us must deal with other diseases such as bovine TB. Occasionally, a whole herd will be slaughtered because some animals clearly have the disease, and others will suffer from it if and when it spreads to them. The hon. Lady would completely rule that out because there would be no further slaughter unless an animal had a proven case of TB.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman makes a false point, because we know what must happen where there is TB in a herd. If there is infection in a herd, nobody will stand out against its slaughter. I hasten to add that many veterinary surgeons in the west country have told me that they are slaughtering far too many cattle and should be slaughtering other animals that they believe—I stress, they believe—may be spreading TB. There is no argument about the slaughter of a herd if TB is proven—it is an open-and-shut case.

Christopher Booker is another famous journalist who is always well worth reading.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Not for a laugh. I shall tell the Minister about a serious case involving the contiguous cull policy in the parish in which my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and I live. A suspected case in sheep which was later found to be only a welfare problem—a minor foot condition—led to three very valuable dairy herds being threatened with the cull. I cut out The Sunday Telegraph article by Christopher Booker that explained what was and was not legal and gave it to the three farmers in question, one of whom is my own producer-retailer, saying, ``The decision is entirely up to you; I am not trying to persuade you one way or the other because the responsibility is yours.'' They were convinced, because of biosecurity, housing and the topography of the land, that their herds were in no danger.

I am grateful to Mr. Booker for giving the advice on which the three farmers were able to stand up against the MAFF vets and officials, and their herds are alive to tell the tale. [Interruption.] No. There was a lot of argy-bargy. The Minister was not involved in what happened on farms, so he did not really know about it—how could he have done? He is a very distinguished Minister, and he was tied up in policy making and meetings here. He should hear about the experiences of people who went through it, which were exceptionally difficult. They were bullied, but they were convinced that they were right to resist. In the case of the three farmers—I do not say in every case—they were right, thanks to Mr. Booker having given them the information that they needed to stand up against the slaughterers. Incidentally, they did not even hear directly that those people were coming on the Monday; they heard it indirectly, on the grapevine. I do not know how the Minister would react to that, but I would be absolutely livid. I would feel ill treated and ill served.

Mr. Booker asserts that the Government were guilty of breaking the law through wholesale breaches of the Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 by those carrying out the slaughter. As someone who comes from a farming background and knows all about caring for stock and the practices of farmers in my constituency, I found some of the scenes that we saw on television shocking. I do not wish ever to see such scenes again, and we must take action to ensure that we do not.

None of this takes into account slaughter that is mistakenly proposed or enacted by DEFRA. I heard about a case when I went up to Cumbria, where, as the Minister may know, the land often includes so-called blind lanes with a stone wall on each side. DEFRA officials turned up to slaughter on the farm in question, drove the sheep into a nearby blind lane because it was convenient to carry out the slaughter there, and only afterwards found that that land belonged to the farm next door, so that farm also had to be slaughtered out. That is just one example of the many examples in Cumbria where things went wrong.

Clive Davies, a Gloucestershire farmer whose 255 cattle were mistakenly culled due to a ``clerical error'', stated that, under the DEFRA slaughter rules,

``you became a statistic. It becomes a rollercoaster. There is no stopping it.''

Such views are expressed by people who were affected by mistakes, and they have every right to do so in strong terms.

In another example, a vet and two soldiers were sent to a farm in Great Broughton in Cumbria, where they slaughtered 200 ewes and 300 lambs, claiming that they were inside a 3 km cull zone. They also killed a pet pig belonging to the farmer's young son—we have just debated that subject. The soldiers later discovered that they had got the wrong grid reference and should have been slaughtering 100 miles away. Where was the organisation? Was DEFRA in control? What was going on?

These draconian proposals will provide little spirit of confidence between farmers and DEFRA. In introducing stronger powers, the Minister and others must consider what happened before and how the farming community feels about the future. It would be better if they withdrew the whole Bill right now, went back to the drawing board, consulted widely and introduced any necessary extra powers in the light of the conclusions of the inquiries by the Royal Society and Lord Anderson.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Dr. Anderson. He will probably be a lord eventually—we shall have to wait and see.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Clearly, we should all learn from the mistakes that we make. Appalling mistakes were made, and we all hope that the circumstances in which they were made will not arise again. However, if the hon. Lady were at some future time to be in charge of a policy to tackle an outbreak—

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I said ``if''. She cannot seriously be saying that if she was in that position she could guarantee that there would be no mistakes. That could arise only if the Government of the day chose not to carry out a slaughter policy to tackle another outbreak. If that is what she is driving at, she should spell it out, but surely she must accept that human beings can make mistakes, unfortunate as that is.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman clearly did not hear what I said. Of course all individuals and all Governments make mistakes. I have been explaining to members of the Committee, and to others who may not know, the scale and kinds of mistakes that were made and how they affected farmers and their families. The Government have the responsibility to ensure, first and foremost, that the disease does not get into the country again and, secondly, that they have a meaningful contingency plan that would stop the disease in its tracks.

We have rehearsed the arguments several times in debating clause 1, but the hon. Gentleman has clearly not listened to a word of it. Of course people make mistakes, but I ask him, rhetorically, how he would feel if he were a victim of one of the serious and unforgivable mistakes that I described, which had a terrible impact on the lives of the farmers involved. It is all right for us: we get a salary every month; we operate in a heated building; we have a pension. What about the people farming at the margins in the uplands whose livelihoods and futures were seriously affected by the epidemic? Does he think that they want further powers to be introduced to make the situation worse?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 10:45 am, 29th November 2001

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they do not.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

We recognise the scenario that the hon. Lady described of farmers who have been through a very difficult time with many losing their livelihoods, particularly hill farmers in marginal areas. She asked a rhetorical question about the further powers in the Bill, which suggested that farmers did not want the cull at all or want action to be taken speedily to eradicate foot and mouth disease. I suggest that that was not the case and that, in fact, farmers wanted the quick and efficient eradication of the disease so that they could return to full productivity of their livestock.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I shall take no lessons from the hon. Lady. She was one of those who tabled a perfectly good amendment and then voted against it. That does not show much principle.

At no time during this debate have I said that there should be no culling. Most farmers accept absolutely—more than that, they know—that if the disease is present, there must be a cull and it must take place as quickly as possible. However, they object to some of the things that happened—we have described them many times—because they were unjust. The Government are taking further powers and farmers are worried because of their experiences.

I want to quote from a letter from a Cumbrian farmer's wife who said:

``Our community believes that the Government hates us and is determined to destroy us. They are putting forward a rural vision which is as unrealistic as Pol Pot's urban one. We are, to put it bluntly, frightened''—

[Hon. Members: ``Disgraceful.''] I am quoting. The letter states:

``We are, to put it bluntly, frightened of our own Government. We do not have a voice and there is no control over their power.''

In fact, with the new provisions, they will have no control over the power because animals will be slaughtered and there will be no right of appeal. That goes to the very heart of the Bill in clause 1.

We do not want reassurance after the event. We want it in the Bill, which is where it should be—[Interruption.]

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that the noises from the Labour Benches indicate the fundamental misunderstanding that Labour Members have of the effects of foot and mouth disease? They cannot ignore the emotional side of it and the way in which communities feel. Is it not important that the lady whom my hon. Friend is quoting, who feels that she does not have a voice, at least has her voice echoed in the Committee? Is that not a proper use of the Committee's time so that Ministers and Labour Back Benchers can understand the depth of feeling in the countryside?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I thank my hon. Friend who has stated what to me is obvious. So often, we at Westminster get sucked into talking about trying to amend legislation and so on but forget the basis on which legislation is introduced. The terrible experiences that many people out there in Cumbria, Staffordshire, Cheshire, down in the west country and so on suffered will live with them for the rest of their lives. We must also remember that organisations such as the rural stress network are doing tremendous work. The incidence of mental health problems resulting from what has happened will continue.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) rose—

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I give way to my next-door neighbour over the border in Staffordshire.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

Does the hon. Lady recognise that she debases her argument by using such exaggeration? I appreciate that it was in a letter from a constituent. I have received letters from constituents—even threatening ones—but I would not think of reading them out in Committee. I would never do that. As the hon. Lady recognised, I have a large rural area in my constituency and there has been a deep emotional response from people, whether to bovine tuberculosis, foot and mouth or scrapie. However, to compare that with Pol Pot is a gross exaggeration and debases the hon. Lady's argument.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Her constituents will note that their views will not have an opportunity to be aired in Committee or on Report.

The point made by the Cumbrian farmer's wife obviously hit home, and I am glad. I make no apology for reading out what she wrote—she felt it and wrote it. I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands has had foot and mouth cases, but perhaps she has not been to see them, experienced them for herself or met the people involved, as I have done in Cumbria, Yorkshire and, only last week, Devon. If she had done, she would understand that the reason I have given my examples in Committee is that they are directly relevant to clause 1 and the powers that the Government are taking unto themselves.

Photo of Tony Cunningham Tony Cunningham Labour, Workington

It may interest the hon. Lady to know that I am the only Cumbrian MP present and my constituency was hit desperately hard by foot and mouth. However, I would never use such examples either. I have talked to farmers and had their wives crying down the phone with emotion, so I fully understand their anger and have sympathy for what they say. However, to use the language that the hon. Lady uses debases her argument.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is obviously purer than pure, whiter than white and will go to heaven one day. However, I make no apology for repeating what many farmers and their wives have said. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) like to intervene? He is gesticulating from a sedentary position.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I simply remind the hon. Lady of the well-known advice of a former Minister: if one is in a hole, one should stop digging.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman is doing the same. If such language were not allowed, you would have called me to order, Mr. Illsley—I accept that the hon. Gentleman is new and so probably does not know about such things. My comment is fair and it stands.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order. We have spent about 27 minutes on the clause stand part debate and I am delighted that everyone took my advice before we commenced. Can we return to discussing clause 1?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to you, Mr. Illsley, for that advice and hope that you understand that, when people intervene in the spirit of the debate, one must respond even if one is sometimes led down a blind alley.

I genuinely believe, as do Conservative Members, that clause 1 is an important and vital part of the Bill to which we thoroughly object. The Minister has had a change of heart and has come forward with a softer line on proportionality—a word that was never used by Labour members of the Committee last week, but was used frequently on the Conservative Benches. That suggests that he has received positive advice, which has changed the tone of his remarks. I hasten to add that one welcomes such a change. However, that change is not apparent in the Bill and we remain sceptical about it. The Minister will therefore understand that we do not want the clause to go unamended when all our previous amendments and reasoned arguments have been rejected.

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

The purpose of the Bill is to address some of the lessons that were learned during the foot and mouth crisis, and clause 1 constitutes the essential part of that process. In trying to achieve their objectives, the Government, the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were frustrated by the terms of the 1981 Act. The response was clause 1, which contains the most wide-ranging, all-encompassing powers imaginable. Quite properly, Opposition members of the Committee have tried to restrict use of its draconian powers to very specific circumstances by adding qualifications that are reasonable, proportionate and fair in every sense of those words.

I turn to an issue that should be considered in the context of the ``lessons learned'' inquiry. A letter from Alan and Rosie Beat, of the Bridge Mill, Bridgerule, in Holsworthy—I lived in Holsworthy for some time and I know it well—states:

``Official statistics show that . . . 20 per cent. of animals slaughtered on contiguous farms have tested positive for FMD . . . so the remaining 80 per cent. were healthy and were not incubating the disease.''

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

It is worth reiterating that one cannot draw that conclusion from testing. Blood tests identify antibodies in the latter stages of incubation, so a negative test does not mean that the animal was not incubating.

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

Actually, I was just about to make that point—[Laughter.] However, I am grateful to the Minister for putting it so succinctly. Nevertheless, he will accept that a large number of healthy animals were killed, and that that exerted a powerful negative influence on disease control by diverting resources away from genuine cases of infection. In Devon, at least, carcase disposal—an important side effect—created huge problems. As a direct result of killing those additional animals, the crucial target of slaughtering all infected stock within 24 hours became impossible to achieve. That is one real lesson that we have learned from the outbreak and the use of the contiguous cull.

As ever, the Minister is the personification of fairness, reasonableness and proportionality, but the same cannot necessarily be said of the agents who work on his behalf. It is the Minister who considers and decides, but he is not the person who carries out the deeds and applies the principles of reasonableness and proportionality to individual farms and animals.

There is one other unfortunate lesson that we have learned. As Mr. Beat says,

``when MAFF officials enter private property to interfere in other people's lives, and perhaps to kill their livestock, they should act with courtesy, consideration and compassion. These simple but necessary qualities have at times been lacking, to be replaced by rudeness, arrogance and disregard for human or animal suffering.''

I know that officials are under pressure, and that many different people and personalities are involved, but we are talking about granting powers to the Minister, who grants them to others—

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud 11:00 am, 29th November 2001

I want to put on the record the fact that those of us who lived and worked through this on an hourly basis know—I could quote many instances and certainly letters from constituents—that care and consideration were shown in the most difficult circumstances, particularly by MAFF officials but also by TVI people, who spent hours counselling and working with people. We must strike a balance.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I lived through it and, yes, I can accept what he says. We are discussing proportionality and the issue concerns the extent of the powers that are being given, their widespread nature and to whom they will be given. I entirely accept that the overwhelming majority of people worked hard under terrible emotional pressure, but there were lapses. We must accept that.

The other aspect which was raised concerned the responsibility of the veterinary profession, which is in a difficult position. We have discussed the fact that the independence of vets will be important, particularly if farmers use their own vets, and the powers that the Minister will have to compel them to work on his behalf will put vets in an even more difficult position. I do not know whether there are any practising vets in the Committee, but I understand that their oath includes a promise to put animal welfare first. Many of the vets who worked for MAFF had to juggle their conscience on that. There were instances of vets signing form A to authorise the slaughter of what they considered to be healthy stock on many contiguous premises. It is a difficult matter and the way in which vets will be used and compelled to operate under the powers will be difficult. We must try to ensure that the qualifications and restrictions on all those involved in the exercise—we hope that it will never happen again—provide a framework within which farmers, those who work for farmers, vets, TVIs and so on can operate satisfactorily.

When we were discussing pets, the Minister indicated that he would be able to report back before Christmas with a framework. That is only a few weeks away, but it would be helpful even if he did that early next year. Bearing in mind that, as of yesterday, the outbreak seems to be over—we hope and pray that it is—we now have a modicum of additional breathing space, so it might be possible to delay Report stage until the Minister can return with the protocol or framework. It is an important part of the Bill and even two or three weeks would assist his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. She withdrew her amendment, but I am sure that she wants to ensure that the matter is dealt with adequately, instead of the Committee proceeding at a pace that is not now so necessary. We could then consider that protocol, framework, or whatever it will be called, before Report.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech—I hope that that will not blight his parliamentary career.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. We hope that every day that passes with no evidence of a further outbreak will give the Government and everyone else time to think about the future and legislate appropriately in the light of experience, the results of the reports and our debates on the Bill so far.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I entirely agree with her. The Minister should give some thought to that, in all fairness. I think that we need to wait only two or three more weeks. Were we still at the height of the crisis, that would not be an argument. The last case was on 30 September, all areas are now cleared and hopefully we shall keep the biosecurity going.

The Christmas recess is approaching. If Report stage takes place when we come back in January, that will mean only a few weeks' delay. It will give the Minister and his officials an opportunity to produce a paper explaining how they will deal with pets, which is an important issue for many people, and will enable us to look more sympathetically at the whole Bill.

At present, this clause, which I accept is the essence of the Bill, does not provide us with an opportunity to support it because it is too wide-ranging. The Minister has failed to accept some very reasonable qualifications and restrictions on these draconian powers, and as a result we do not support the clause.

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

The Government's motivation in bringing forward the Bill, especially clause 1, has become clear. The explanatory memorandum states that the power in clause 1(1)3 not only

``adds to the categories of animals'',

``makes it clear that the new power may be exercised whether or not the animals concerned are affected or suspected of being affected with the disease''.

Indeed, the regulatory impact assessment produced by DEFRA on this part of the Bill goes on in similar vein, saying that

``there is considerable scope for debate about whether the slaughter powers apply in particular circumstances, especially relating to whether animals have in fact been `exposed' to disease.''

Today we have established pretty clearly that section 32 of the Animal Health Act 1981 already gives the Minister those powers—he admitted that. Therefore, an awful lot of what has been officially written about clause 1 is already on the statute book.

Why does the clause need to be in the Bill? It does not concern whether animals must be known to have the disease before the Minister grants the power to slaughter, because slaughtering can be done on the basis of suspicion. During an intervention last Thursday, I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton that the previous Government used section 32 of the Animal Health Act 1981 to justify legally the selective cull of animals that were clearly in a similar position. There was no proof that the animals were incubating BSE or had been in contact with contaminated feed, yet section 32 allowed sufficient power under those circumstances to slaughter the cattle concerned.

The wide-reaching powers of the Animal Health Act 1981 would certainly continue to enable the Minister to decide to slaughter on the basis of suspicion, purely on the grounds of curtailing and preventing animal disease spread. The Bill is somewhat bogus in suggesting that those are the reasons the Minister needs the power. He clearly does not need those reasons, as he already has those powers. The issue is not about the Minister's power to decide to slaughter, but about peoples' rights to challenge that decision to slaughter.

As I mentioned earlier, I want to study the rather detailed statement that the Minister presented to us. Although he used that statement in response to a particular amendment on the slaughter of pet animals, there is clearly a wider implication for the whole Bill, relating not just to pet animals within a contiguous cull area but to everything.

Whatever Labour Members say, we have a problem in that a balance needs to be struck between DEFRA's need for powers to slaughter quickly to contain the spread of animal disease and the rights of individual animal owners to challenge that decision if they feel that there is a legitimate reason to spare those animals. We must debate that in more detail. We are led to believe that the powers will be proportionate. The Minister nods his head; he will recall that we use the word ``proportionate'' because that is a legal requirement under the Human Rights Act 1998, which may be interpreted more widely than it was when the selective cull was introduced.

As a former Minister, I am not revealing anything too secret by stating that when Ministers were advised of their powers under the 1981 Act, they were told that they could slaughter animals on suspicion, but if the animals' owner presented legitimate evidence that their animals might prove not to be infected and challenged that decision, a Minister would have to consider the position in exercising section 32 of the 1981 Act. With regard to foot and mouth, the Minister is legally obliged to exercise proportionality. We have not identified how he will make that proportionate in terms of clause 1, so that owners of animals who legitimately want to challenge the decision to slaughter can appeal. It was pointed out to the Minister that whatever powers he has in London, activities on the ground determine whether an animal is presented for slaughter under those powers.

I should like to mention the findings of the Mercer inquiry in Devon because some Government Members were critical of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton when she quoted from constituency letters. The Mercer inquiry, which has already published its preliminary findings, states:

``It was not obvious to us from the evidence received that MAFF was working to any form of coherent contingency plan . . . We find that in the field there would best be a military command, with police, environmental and veterinary aids at its side from Day One of an outbreak. The Inquiry heard that a culture of secrecy was perceived within MAFF and this led to an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, changing advice and inconsistencies which in turn was reflected by farmers, the media and other organisations the Ministry had dealings with.''

The Minister asks us to put on the statute book legislation that would give limited powers of appeal—I do not suggest that there will be no power of appeal—particularly in respect of contiguous culls. Thus, we are being asked to believe that if such a dreadful thing were somehow to happen again, from day one DEFRA would get its ducks in a row and all the problems that the Minister has not mentioned would not occur for a second time. Not only hon. Members, but the farming community in general, are concerned that the right to challenge inequalities in the way in which decisions are made on the ground will be curtailed to the point that it is neither just nor proportionate.

Clause 1 is not about giving the Minister powers that he has not got; it is about restricting the right to challenge DEFRA. As I said to the Minister at the beginning of our proceedings, unless proportionality is demonstrated, the Bill will be challenged in the courts because it is disproportionate. It is incumbent upon the Minister in Committee to allay our fears that there will not be proportionality. The Minister still believes that 24 hours is okay, but 48 hours is too long, and that the science backing his theory on contiguous culls is 100 per cent. accurate. I do not challenge contiguous culls in general, but we have seen no evidence to convince us that the Bill, with its draconian powers, is based on the experience on the ground during the foot and mouth crisis, or backed by independent scientific advice.

Although I welcome the Minister's earlier statement, which, I perceived, was a modification of his original intent, further modification will be required of later clauses if the Bill is to be seen as rational and proportionate.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk 11:15 am, 29th November 2001

I shall attempt to be brief in summing up why I oppose clause 1. To accept the sweeping powers under clause 1 would be premature, particularly given that the inquiries that should inform legislation such as this have not completed their findings. I am thinking particularly of the Royal Society inquiry, which is to look at how the disease was spread and how good the predictive models were at predicting its spread. The latter is particularly interesting, because I am not aware of an independent assessment that the Minister has made of the mathematics underlying the predictive model on which the Ministry relied. The inquiry will also address the effectiveness of the culling. Its principal purpose is to discover whether there were serious alternatives to culling. To adopt clause 1 prior to those findings would be premature.

My next point concerns the Ministry's behaviour and the trust that it failed to engender by its actions during the crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton gave many examples where the Ministry's actions undermined trust. I shall not trouble the Committee with further examples, but had the Ministry acted more reasonably and proportionately, people would be more inclined to listen to the arguments for the Bill.

Conservative Members have sought to make a number of proportionate and reasonable amendments to clause 1 to give it the balance that it lacks, but the Minister has refused to accept any of them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, plenty of powers are already available under the Animal Health Act 1981. Under section 32, the Minister has the power to slaughter animals even if he thinks that they are only suspected of being infected and, in section 87, which he can extend by order, he can slaughter any animal that he likes, more or less. Section 87(2)(a) states that

``any kind of mammal except man'' may be slaughtered by order, and paragraph (b) refers to

``any kind of four-footed beast which is not a mammal.''

I assume that that would include duck-billed platypuses, but not kangaroos. The Minister has the powers if he wants to use them reasonably. The question is whether he wants to do that, or create unreasonable powers.

I am new to the House, but I understand that the first clause of any Bill contains the heart, the meat and substance of the Bill. However, clause 1 of this Bill makes no reference to imports. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the Devon foot and mouth inquiry, the first recommendation of which concerned the need to take cognisance of the problem with imports. A food manufacturer in my constituency who imports food—legally—from different parts of the world, recently said that until the Government took the question of illegal imports seriously, there was little point in doing anything else because Government measures would be ineffective. Paragraph 1.2 of the Devon findings states:

``We . . . find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation.''

I oppose the clause also because it contravenes the human rights convention, article 6 of which makes plain the right to a fair trial. I emphasise the word ``fair''. No one suggests that the Bill removes all rights of judicial review, but unless there is a reasonable chance of exercising those rights, the right to a fair trial enshrined in the convention is denied.

The clause is not balanced, proportionate or reasonable. The reasonable powers are already contained in the 1981 Act. Clause 1 does not mention the most important issue: imports. It almost certainly contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998 and will be challenged in the courts. On past actions, the Ministry has not earned the trust of Opposition Members or farmers that is needed to introduce such sweeping powers. The Minister's cuddly, warm, approachable, proportionate, balanced and reasonable approach is a bit late in the day. If he really believes that that is the right approach, why was it not included in clause 1?

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

As I have explained, the reason is that the Government have an obligation to be proportionate. Looking at Hansard, I can see that in our first sitting, I used the word ``proportion'' at least three times. There is nothing new about it.

My hon. Friends took exception to the remarks of the hon. Member for Congleton because we can always find letters to read out. It is unfair to exploit someone who is probably genuinely emotionally upset to make a political point. I could detain the Committee by reading endless letters of thanks for the way in which MAFF and then DEFRA handled individual cases. When I went to Cumbria, a whole wall was covered in letters of thanks. People even took out adverts in the local paper to say thank you, so the hon. Lady's remarks were unreasonable.

An extreme position, based on Private Eye and Christopher Booker, now seems to be guiding Tory party policy. I can tell the hon. Lady that such people might be entertaining to read, but they are dangerous to listen to. The claim that slaughter powers are inconsistent with EU directives on disease control is simply untrue. The Bill's slaughter powers are fully compatible with EU law. Other member states have implemented much wider culling programmes than ours. Pro rata, the Dutch in their post-vaccination cull killed five animals for every one that we killed. The French used extensive culling as part of their FMD control policy. We must be careful about saying things that are not true.

I accept that there is an issue of trust, although it does not help when individuals and organisations make it their business to divide farmers and the Department. That does not help the Department's work because its priority was and is to defeat the disease. Let me give one example. Anthony Gibson from the south-west NFU wrote a column whose headline said that DEFRA had lost blood samples, delaying the lifting of the restrictions in Devon. No such case ever happened. It was completely fabricated. What does it do for trust when people make claims that are patently untrue?

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

No, if the hon. Lady will forgive me. I have only a few minutes left.

The hon. Lady was also wrong about appeals. There is an appeal review procedure in the Bill. She has just heard me make that clear in response to concerns raised. I want to strengthen that procedure and make it better and more transparent than under existing law. I believe that, if the Bill is enacted, we shall be in a better position than we are now and have a more transparent explanation for individual farmers and animal owners of how things work. We do not need to delay the Bill's progress to do that.

Mistakes made during the epidemic must be rectified, and there will be opportunities to do that. The outbreak was disastrous and hugely costly. It caused enormous stress to, and impacted on, whole rural communities—not just farmers, but those with rural businesses. I therefore make no apology for ensuring that we have a range of options to give us the most effective, speedy and best response.

We are also taking into account organisations' legitimate concerns. I can tell the hon. Member for Congleton that, when I met groups such as the NSA and the NFU, they did not ask for the Bill to be withdrawn. They wanted clarification, which is what I am giving.

Question put, That the Clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 7.

Division number 6 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.