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Schedule 2 - Scrapie

Part of Animal Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 4th December 2001.

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Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford 5:30 pm, 4th December 2001

This group of amendments deals with a situation in which warrants are being sought by Ministry officials from a justice of the peace in order to gain access to premises to enforce a decision to slaughter or to carry out tests or take samples. The Bill replaces the current route available to officials in cases where farmers refuse access to their premises, which is to seek an injunction in the High Court. That process causes delay, as has been proved in the past few months. Delay leads to further problems—more infection and more slaughter—so I understand the need to reduce it and support efforts to do so.

As things stand, however, the justice of the peace will consider the case for the warrant on the basis of submissions from officials only. The farmer will not be permitted to be heard. I am well aware that the procedure for issuing warrants enabling the police to get information and to conduct searches, and other warrants made under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and the Competition Act 1998 do not allow the subject of the warrant to put forward their own point of view. It would be ridiculous and perverse if someone who might have committed a crime were given an opportunity to undermine police or other investigations. However, the Bill is not dealing with criminals. Farmers are not criminals.

In the circumstances to which the amendments apply—certainly with regard to slaughter—the farmer is simply disagreeing with a decision of the district veterinary manager or the veterinary surgeon on site and is seeking to protect his or her livestock and his or her livelihood. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The circumstances are very difficult and emotional. In that context, everything that happens must be fair, reasonable and transparent and seen and understood to be so.

I want the farmer to have improved means to be heard by, for instance, being permitted to submit a sworn affidavit to the justice of the peace alongside that submitted by Ministry officials. I do not believe that that would undermine the circumstances that rightly apply to the serving of warrants in other circumstances. I do not believe that the amendments would set an unhelpful or dangerous precedent in that regard. Last week in Committee, the Minister very helpfully and reasonably announced moves to ensure that farmers get a fair hearing. A copy of his statement was circulated. I would like the Committee to consider my proposals in the context of that statement.

I understand that under current legislation the clerk's opinion can take precedence over that of the magistrate. I believe that that relates to matters of procedure and law, but I should like my hon. Friend to assure me that, should relevant circumstances arise in matters covered by the Bill, if the clerk made a decision it would be only on matters of procedure and law.