HC Deb 26 March 1975 vol 889 cc645-66

10.30 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Diseases of Animals Bill [Lords] ought to be read a second time". This is a short Bill but its value is not to be measured in the number of its clauses. It deals with a subject of vital concern, namely the need to prevent the introduction of animal diseases which could endanger our livestock and farming industry. I think few Members would disagree that this country has a good record on animal disease eradication, and my Ministry has been fully engaged in the fight against disease since its inception. In fact one might say that it was animal disease that caused the birth of a separate agricultural Ministry, since it was built around the veterinary department set up to deal with the great cattle plague of 1865.

One of the disadvantages, however, of being first in the field is that one's tools become antiquated with time. This is what has happened with our import disease legislation. Although the present powers are embodied in the Diseases of Animals Act 1950, much of the substance of this Act is the consolidation of previous Acts now nearly 100 years old. The purpose of the present Bill is to replace this somewhat ramshackle and out-of-date legislative framework with comprehensive enabling powers which will be flexible and effective in dealing with whatever future emergencies we may have to tackle.

The rationale behind the development of animal health legislation during the last 100 years has been that prevention is better than cure. The legislation has set out detailed control over imports and has built on the advantages of our geographical situation as an island. The sea and air provide a natural cordon sanitaire and, provided our defences are not breached by animals or products carrying disease, we can maintain our health status. We must remain alert to changing circumstances and adjust our methods of excluding disease to accord with changes in other parts of the world, in trade patterns and in means of transport. Last year we took special measures in connection with rabies because of its advance through Europe, and the need to ensure that our defences against its introduction were strengthened and appropriate measures put in readiness to deal with any outbreaks that might occur.

Rabies is, however, only one of a number of exotic diseases which flare up from time to time, and we need to be constantly aware of such dangers because of the growing volume of trade in animals, animal products and other potential disease carriers. With the development of air transport, diseases old and new can arrive from any part of the world in a matter of hours. In such circumstances, a system of control designed with sea transport in mind is no longer adequate. Moreover, veterinary knowledge is always increasing new diseases and new agents of known diseases are being identified, together with their method of spread, if our defences are to remain effective, our legislative arrangements must be flexible enough to take account of changing circumstances and of the fact that such changes will continue.

I would not suggest to hon. Members that they should read the appropriate provisions of the 1950 Act which are being replaced. They contain quantities of detail, much of it out of date and inappropriate. There is little flexibility for swift action. A sudden disease threat from abroad could, therefore, cause practical problems because of the need to amend the legislative framework and even possibly the Act itself before taking effective action, and this delay could have serious repercussions for our national animal health situation. This could affect not only home production but also the fairly substantial export trade in farm livestock.

The Bill recasts the complex and highly detailed legislation governing the importation of animals, poultry and their products in a way which will enable new problems to be met by relatively simple and speedy changes by statutory instrument or licences granted thereunder. What the Bill seeks to achieve is indicated clearly and conveniently in the schedule, which covers a wide-ranging list of powers and controls. Experience has shown that precautions against animal diseases must be comprehensive or risk being ineffective.

I should, however, like to emphasise that the proposals in the Bill are not designed in any way to restrict trade over and above what is strictly needed to provide adequate safeguards and that whenever it is consistent with our animals' health needs both animals and goods will continue to be admitted freely. The difference will be in the greater flexibility of operation through licences which can be adjusted according to circumstances abroad.

I should like to point out that this will not affect trading arrangements with our partners in the European Economic Community. We are authorised under the Treaty of Accession to retain for the time being our national controls against the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease and swine fever in imported livestock and meat. These arrangements will be reviewed in due course and should any changes in our arrangements be agreed they can be implemented under the enabling powers set out in the Bill.

The main substance of the Bill is in Clause 1 which indicates the broad range of Ministers' order-making powers and to what they may apply. The clause also deals with a number of detailed points with the general purpose of ensuring that the powers are sufficiently comprehensive; otherwise our efforts to exclude disease risk being self-defeating. The clause brings within its scope items which enter or return to Great Britain, from oil rigs for example, without being imported in the ordinary sense of the Act; the time of importation by sea or air is defined as in the Customs and Excise Act 1952.

The clause also defines "animal" and "disease" very widely. This is to enable new conditions of animals not legally specified as disease under the 1950 Act to be dealt with as animal diseases if they are found in imported livestock or goods. It will also allow control in future of imports of species such as reptiles or fish or their products if they represent an animal health risk to farm livestock. Finally, Clause 1 extends order-making powers to the specific matters detailed in Schedule 1, which I shall come to shortly.

Turning to Clause 2, we have increased powers of entry for diseases of animals inspectors, to accompany the extended powers of control in Clause 1. Existing powers are deficient, particularly where aircraft or vessels in transit are concerned, since disease can be insect-borne or spread aerially in certain cases and adequate precautions are needed if the danger exists. Inspectors are therefore empowered to enter vessels, aircraft and vehicles within ports and customs airports—and, subject to conditions, elsewhere—to ensure compliance with the conditions of orders and licences.

An additional need is for adequate enforcement of the requirements of orders and licences after importation. For this purpose the clause empowers inspectors to enter any vehicles, buildings, land and other premises where imported animals or things are reasonably believed to be, or have been kept. We do not expect that these powers will be used as a matter of routine, but there is little point in specifying certain conditions unless compliance with them can be checked.

Clause 3 provides for tougher penalties by allowing prosecution on indictment. This brings the penalties into line with those incorporated in last year's Rabies Act.

Clause 4 contains traditional provisions to enable existing Acts and orders to continue in force under the new powers, until revoked or amended as need be.

Clause 5 enables the Bill, if passed, to be brought into operation by enabling order. It also limits the application of the Bill to Great Britain. Northern Ireland has her own veterinary legislation and acts independently but in accord with Great Britain in these matters.

Schedule 1, to which I referred just now, lists specific matters which may be regulated by orders made under the new powers. Together they will allow appropriate controls to be applied, as necessary, before, during and after importation. I think they are self-explanatory and in most cases they are extensions of powers already in the 1950 Act rather than new powers. The extensions will allow these detailed controls to be applied to all imports to which the Bill refers, not just to animals. Lastly, Schedule 2 lists the enactments to be repealed, principally the existing provisions governing importation in the Diseases of Animals Act 1950 and subsequent amendments.

Since I have tried, like the Bill, to be brief, the outline I have given has tended to highlight what is new, and we hope more effective in the Bill. I should point out that the Bill essentially puts tried and tested controls on a new, more effective legal footing and that by keeping our legislative framework in good repair we can more easily deal with any real disease threat in the future. I commend the Bill to the Committee.

10.40 a.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling

We are grateful to the Minister for explaining the purpose of the Bill. It is the constitutional duty of the Opposition to oppose, but on a measure of this sort it is rather difficult for any Opposition to find reasons to oppose it in principle. We do not do that.

We on this side recognise the need to support the Government on animal health matters of these sorts. Animal health matters are one of the most non-political issues that this House should ever have to face. In his opening speech, the Minister, probably inadvertently, referred to actions which the Government might take to protect farm livestock. He would agree that the powers and the actions involved in the Bill go further than farm livestock and cover the whole realm of livestock, even off farms.

In matters like animal health, the Government are guided by technical officers and vets. This is a highly specialised field about which very few of us in the House have the remotest knowledge. Governments are guided by this type of technical advice and as an Opposition, one also must be guided by what the experts think is right. The situation would become somewhat different if the experts had let us down and if the technical advice which Ministers and Oppositions have been guided by had been shown to be faulty. We are all glad to say that the advice we have had from the experts on these matters has not been faulty. Therefore, I have no reason to doubt the advice which the Government have had and on which they are acting.

The Opposition welcome the Bill. We understand the need to update the 1950 Diseases of Animals Act. It has been said in another place that this Act was one of the last legislative Acts of Toni Williams who was the most revered Minister of Agriculture that the opposite side of the House produced. If Lord Williams were able to view the antics of the present Government, he would be turning in his grave. The present Minister learned his trade in agricultural matters, as I understand it, at the feet of—or rather from the seat behind—Tom Williams. I sometimes feel that the present Minister did not learn very much. I hope that the present Parliamentary Private Secretary who graces us with her presence on these occasions will learn her lessons on agriculture, not so much from the present Ministers, but from the lessons that Tom Williams began so many years ago.

Mr. Thomas Torney

She will not have learned from the hon. Member when he was in Government.

Mr. Jopling

I hope we will not have many remarks like that from the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) because we know that he cannot tolerate much heckling or noise; in such a case he walks out, and we cannot have that here.

I must revert to the Bill. We accept the urgent need for speedy action when there is a threat of new diseases coming in or existing diseases being re-established in the country. The Minister referred to the need for flexibility and this is something which any department must have in these cases. There is the example of swine vesicular disease which came in unexpectedly and which has caused so much trouble, as the Minister well knows, over the course of the last few years. We have the threat of fowl pest still with us, unfortunately. For a time we were free of it, but it has come back. Other new diseases could establish themselves in this country, ones we have not had before. Foot and mouth disease is the principal one. Thank goodness it is not endemic in this country, and I hope that the powers we are prepared to give the Government under the Bill will make it even less likely that foot and mouth disease will ever become endemic in this country.

The Minister talked about flexibility. I do not understand how the Bill could be made more flexible. I should have thought that it was almost impossible for a parliamentary draftsman to suggest how more flexibility could be worked in. When one looks at the matters on which orders can be made under Schedule I of the Bill it is difficult to think of other things that might be written in, although I do not rule out the possibility that we might think of something to add at Committee stage.

The Bill covers imports of animals, carcases, and what the Government are pleased to call "other things". From Section 24 of the 1950 Act as it stands, it seems that there was almost as wide a description of things that the Government could act on under that. I should like to ask the Minister what view he takes about the control of semen, because this is a possible vehicle for diseases being brought into the country. We have had cases over the years where semen has been smuggled in from abroad without authority. I wonder whether the Minister would be kind enough to say a word or two about control of that, how he sees it and the disease risk in it.

There is also another matter which I noticed was raised in the House of Lords with regard to the position of oil rigs. I understand that it is the practice on some oil rigs to keep livestock. I am not sure whether they have battery hens and fresh eggs. I understand that dogs are kept on some of them. Clearly there is a risk when an oil rig is serviced from two countries at once, which I imagine is not impossible. If there was, for instance, an oil rig in the North Sea serviced both from Norway and Scotland, it is technically possible that livestock could be brought on to the oil rig from, let us say, Norway or some other continental country and then it could be brought on to this country without proper control. I hope the Minister will say whether he is happy with this.

Would he say also to what extent the Government intend to monitor the to-ings and fro-ings of helicopters and ships from oil rigs? I notice that there was a marvellous phrase in the debate in another place, when the Minister there, in introducing the Bill, talked about the dangers of the introduction of animal disease from having met with "something foreign on the high seas". It sounds almost improper, and I do not think I should dwell any longer on meeting "something foreign on the high seas".

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Why not?

Mr. Jopling

I will leave it to my hon. Friend when he comes to make his speech to ponder what might be met on the high seas.

There is another point I wondered about, on which the Minister might like to comment. If not, perhaps we might return to it in Committee. There is a strange definition in Clause 1(4) of "animal At my university I was taught that "animals" included poultry. I am a little puzzled as to why for some strange reason "animal" now may be wider, but certainly the Bill does include poultry. That was the way I was educated when I was reading agriculture quite some time ago. It seems that this is not the intention. So it is strange that this distinction between animal and poultry seems to appear throughout the Bill.

There is another matter on Clause 1 about which I should like the Minister to say a word. I do not know whether he has had time to read subsection (5). For a glorious example of the parliamentary draftsman's mumbo-jumbo, subsection (5) must take the biscuit. I have tried to understand it and I do vaguely understand it. But it would be helpful if the Minister read out from his brief—because I cannot believe that he or anyone has it in his head—what subsection (5) is about. It is so abstruse. We should all be grateful.

I come to the order which the Minister is empowered to make under Clause 1. Can he tell us what sort of order it would be? I imagine it would be the negative resolution procedure so that, from the moment of making it, the Government were allowed to do whatever they wanted. I imagine that—particularly in view of this Government's well-known inability to get their supporters present and correct to pass their own legislation—to have the affirmative resolution procedure might mean that the disease was well established before they had mustered their quorum to get the affirmative resolution through.

Under Clause 2 we appear to be giving the Government much greater powers of control. Indeed, it almost sounds as if we are giving the Government powers of immigration control. We hear that they can visit temporary landing places and all sorts of places where sumgglers might have been at work. I realise that it is not a sort of immigration control because we are told in Clause 1(4)(a) that the powers of the Bill do not extend to the control of man. I do not know about woman. We have some of our famous lady friends here who seem very keen on the Abortion Bill. Perhaps they would ask why Clause 1(4)(a) refers to: any kind of mammal, except man". Whether that means that there could be control over women and not over men I am not sure. Perhaps the Minister could tell us.

I cannot but welcome the harsher penalties proposed in Clause 3 for those who risk spreading animal disease. It is absolutely right that the penalties should be at least as tough as those which the House agreed to under the Rabies Act.

May I ask about the position with regard to the European Economic Community? I am sure that the Committee will agree that it is essential that we do not lose our advantage as an island in animal health matters. Over the centuries, the fact that we are an island has helped us immensely in the control of animal disease. I understand that, under the Treaty of Rome, we are allowed to have restrictions of this sort. I can imagine that continental countries might be tempted to argue in the future that our animal health restrictions were transgressing Articles 46 and 92 of the Treaty, which forbid trading practices restricting trade and competition. I was glad to read in a debate in another place that the Minister said that under the provisions of Articles 30 and 31 of the Treaty we are allowed to have measures which: …are justified on grounds of the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6th February 1975; c. 1005.] I hope, therefore, that this will be all right.

I know that under the Treaty of Accession we were allowed for the time being, as the Minister said, to keep our own animal health regulations. I think I am right in saying that these will be reviewed in 1977. I hope that the Government of the day, which will very likely be different from the one we have now, will be able to renegotiate similar regulations to those we have now.

We shall not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. We shall need to discuss details in Committee, but I hope that we can give the Government this piece of legislation at an early date.

10.55 a.m.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody

I welcome the Bill, particularly its degree of flexibility. I assume that my hon. Friend, when he replies to some of the questions, will assure the Committee that paragraph (c) is so widely drawn that it will include animal protein and waste. He will be aware that, with the modern husbandry to which efficient farmers are now committed, it is essential that we should not import anything liable to spread disease, either because it has not been properly sterilised or because it will be used in close conditions which can rapidly affect animals and pose considerable risk to human beings.

If I have a regret about the Bill it is that, although it is extremely widely drawn, it concentrates very much on animal diseases. There might be a case for a certain amount of cross-fertilisation, if I may use that phrase, with the Department of Health and Social Security to see what aspects of human health are involved in the importation of possibly unsafe foodstuffs. I realise that this is not the moment to discuss that aspect.

I must reinforce, I am sorry to say, what the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has said about the European Economic Community's powers over restrictions on importation. I hope that when the Minister says that "for the time being" these veterinary regulations are in force, he is not contemplating at any point in the future taking away from us the right to regulate importation, because this would put many people at risk, consumers as well as those in the farming community. We have long prided ourselves on our high standards of veterinary procedures. We are able to maintain those only because of the draconian methods that we have used in the past. I for one would fight tooth and nail to oppose any watering down of these provisions, particularly since I cannot sec that the spreading of a disease is a way of persuading people that one is actually contributing to their well-being and their political future.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear that, although this is the position for the time being, in the future it will remain equally clear that we will not allow any alteration of our laws which could in any way endanger our population.

10.58 a.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I fully endorse what the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) has said. I believe that she has put her finger on one or two very important points relating to animal health and diseases in this country. I refer particularly to her mention of animal waste. I hope that the Minister will pay careful attention to the importation of animal waste, because it is in such waste that such diseases as foot-and-mouth have come into this country. I am sure that nobody wants an outbreak of the severity which we had a few years ago. I was then not in this place but worked with a construction company. We used many of our excavating machines to go to farms to bury the carcases of animals slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth it was an appalling sight. I do not want to see it repeated in this country.

That brings me to a point again touched on by the hon. Member for Crewe namely our animal health regulations and the European Economic Community. I feel as strongly as the hon. Lady that we should ensure that our standards are maintained and retained and that, when the matter comes up for review in 1977, we make it perfectly clear to our European colleagues that we are not prepared to budge from our standards. We do not want another outbreak of the severity of that which occurred a year or two ago. I believe that our regulations will ensure that that does not happen.

I hope that the Bill will become an Act. It is supported wholeheartedly by the National Farmers Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) said that we welcome it. I believe that one of its major and most appealing features is its flexibility.

At the risk of being slightly out of order may I raise the subject of rabies which, I know, is deal with separately under the Rabies Act. This disease is sweeping in from Eastern Europe at approximately 20 kilometres a year, and will be at the Channel Ports in about four or five years' time. There is tremendously increased travel between Europe and this country. My hon. Friend has mentioned oil rigs and the increase in fishing and sailing vessels. There is commuting between this country and the Continent. It is easy to smuggle in a dog or a cat or other small animal without notifying the appropriate authorities and without the animal undergoing the necessary quarantine.

What additional proposals have the Government in mind to deal with this developing situation? I hope that the Minister, in receiving the grateful comments of this side of the Committee, will pay attention to this very important aspect of animal health. As my hon. Friend has done, I welcome the provisions of the Bill. I hope it will have a speedy passage through the House. We certainly will not oppose it on Second Reading, but I hope that the Minister, in summing up, will deal with some of the points that have been raised.

11.2 a.m.

Mr. Thomas Torney

I was very pleased this morning by the breath of fresh air that blew across from the Opposition with the remarks of the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). They were so different from what we have heard in so many agricultural debates in the past.

Mr. Jopling

I am amused that the hon. Gentleman should say that. I am sorry that he did not feel that he could stay long enough at the great aid rally at the Central Hall to hear my oration on that occasion because I think it would have done something to educate him.

Mr. Torney

It is so easy to make a great oration when we play to the gallery and tell the audience, perhaps of many hundreds, what it wants to hear. But when we try to tell an audience the facts we find ourselves facing a great number of difficulties.

When I was interrupted, I was saying that it gives me considerable pleasure to hear hon. Members opposite apparently changing their views about agriculture and agreeing with us that the Bill is good for the agricultural industry, as it certainly is. It is so difficult for them to understand, or have they such short memories? It was unpleasant to hear the hon. Member for Westmorland make the kind of attack he did on my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture. Few Ministers of Agriculture in recent times have been beset with the kind of problems that have faced our Minister of Agriculture. Few Ministers have had to face the kind of opposition that we have had to tolerate up until this morning when at least the Opposition have said that they are prepared to accept something as necessary as this Diseases of Animals Bill which is good for the industry generally. They seem to have forgotten so much of what they did not do while they were in power, or so much of what they did which was perhaps not so good for the industry generally.

The hon. Member for Westmorland must know that many of the problems in agriculture today, are affected by membership of the EEC and it was not the present Government who took us in. This brings me to the important point. Both sides of the Committee this morning have mentioned that they are hopeful, with the care that we take to prevent disease of our animals in this country, that our regulations will prevail if we continue to be a member of the EEC. They are asking the Minister to make the appropriate pressures in the appropriate directions.

May I commend to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee the suggestion that the one way that restrictions to protect animal health in this country can be assured is by our not remaining a member of the EEC. If we can ensure that, we can ensure absolutely that Parliament will be sovereign in this matter of diseases of animals and that Parliament in future will definitely be able to take what measures it wishes, to pass laws as it sees fit at the time to ensure, as far as it is humanly possible, that diseases in animals do not spread.

I do not want to say much more than that the Bill is to the benefit of the agricultural industry in particular and the country as a whole. It is again pleasing to know that there has been some small change in the Opposition and that they will accept this and let it go through. I hope it goes through speedily.

11.7 a.m.

Mr. Paul Hawkins

I very much welcome the Bill. I have been connected with the livestock industry all my life and I am intimately concerned when there is disease because it affects one's pocket which is always close to one's heart. I have seen the most horrifying destruction of herds built up over a lifetime, of generations of work, of breeding being brought to fruition and then being destroyed overnight by foot and mouth and other diseases. I very much welcome the fact that the Bill is brought forward. One can say without the strictures of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) that all parties have always wanted control of animal diseases.

I very much welcome the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary is taking the Bill through the House. He gave two of my constituents a long meeting considering an obscure trouble which we have had in our constituency which affects not only animals, but human beings. I refer to psittacosis. A farm worker's wife in my constituency died and many other members of the family were taken ill and the Minister was kind enough to receive a deputation of the farmer concerned and the NUAW secretary of that area. He gave us a very interested and sympathetic hearing. I want to know whether the Bill will enable him to control more easily this disease which is also—as I think we proved to him—connected with fowl pest. Many of the parrots coming in on one consignment were found to be full not only of psittacocsis, but also of fowl pest. I have seen East Anglia ravaged by fowl pest, the destruction of thousands of birds—wild birds as well which also later caught the disease. I greatly welcome the Bill.

I feel that the hon. Member for Bradford. South, who opposes the Common Market so bitterly that he had to bring it into the debate, should think long and hard about the way in which we can control these animal diseases such as rabies which is getting nearer and nearer to us because of the increase in movement across the Channel. We are an island still but we are becoming much less of an island because of modern means of communication. We are there in Europe, pushing our frontiers back on this matter. We are gaining a foothold there and getting agreement on many of our regulations. This is the way in which to fight diseases of animals, rather than here with a brick wall round the country. We can never defeat disease in that way; it will defeat us.

I welcome the Minister's endeavours in the Common Market on many matters; already a great improvement in the control of disease and in other matters connected with animal welfare has been brought about. The strange way in which the hon. Member for Bradford, South supports his hon. Friend was clearly illustrated by his opposition to the reintroduction of the export of live animals, but let that pass.

I am extremely worried about rabies—

Mr. Torney

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that, after the debate on the export of live animals, there was a free vote. I was in no way obliged to support my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on that matter. Fortunately some things are left to conscience on this side of the Committee and of the House. If I happen to object conscientiously to the tortures inflicted on live animals which are being exported I am at liberty to vote according to my belief without any question of my being disloyal to my right hon. Friend—who is also my very good friend—the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Hawkins

I am sure the Minister will speak for that.

I should like to speak about rabies. I sat on the Committee which debated that matter and it is one of the most worrying things with which we are faced. All hon. Members know that in any town, and even in country districts, there are far too many dogs. There are dogs roaming in packs on the RAF stations in my constituency. I have had letters and I have written to Ministers but they have no powers. One dog smuggled in on a plane, through the US Air Force or something like that, and let loose on one of these huge camps could have serious consequences. Because of the movement of RAF personnel so rapidly across the world they must often leave their pets behind. This has created a tremendous problem and if one rabid animal were to be imported in this situation the result would he horrifying. Does the Minister believe that as a result of the Bill we shall have greater control over psittacosis and over rabies?

There is another matter which clearly does not come within the scope of the Bill, but I hope the Minister may also have some thoughts about the control of our own dogs within our own country. Many of them are unwanted and are, I believe, victims of the greatest possible cruelty to animals.

Mr. Winterton

Is my hon. Friend aware of the growing incidence of sheep worrying and of the particular incident that occurred in the North-West where over 100 sheep were worried and had to be slaughtered during last week. It is a serious situation resulting from the increased numbers of unwanted dogs which literally stray in packs.

Mr. Hawkins

Yes, I am aware of this. We have fewer sheep than my hon. Friend has in his area, but there is no doubt that this is a very important point.

I welcome the Bill. It is vital that this is brought in and the controls introduced as quickly as possible. The only doubt I have about it comes in the front page, in the explanatory memorandum in which it says:

Effect on public service manpower

The Bill will have no significant effect on public service manpower.

I never want to see an increase in public service manpower, but I know perfectly well that many aerodromes and ports are not manned as they should be. I believe that the Minister will acknowledge that the number of veterinary surgeons and staff available to the Ministry is deplorably under strength. I hope that this means only that the actual numbers will not increase above what is laid down in some order, but that the number laid down is sufficient to cope with the new regulations he is introducing.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Strang

I am glad that all hon. Members without exception welcome the proposed legislation. I noted that the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) pointed out that this was an area where we tended not to be split or in disagreement on the basis of party loyalties. I was a little sorry that he marred that statement by his somewhat gratuitous and unsubstantiated attack on my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Westmorland referred to the enomous flexibility given to the authorities by the legislation. I am sure he would accept that in matters of this importance it is fully justified. When we were discussing this earlier it was suggested that perhaps these enormous powers might be challenged by hon. Gentlemen, particularly in view of the publicity which has recently surrounded the criticism of certain tax inspectors who have gone into premises to inspect records. As I have said I am sure that hon. Gentlemen would recognise the enormous difference between checking a tax matter and following up an animal or pieces of a substance which it was thought had led to the outbreak of serious disease.

I come to some of the questions asked by hon. Gentlemen—

Mrs. Dunwoody

And ladies.

Mr. Strang

Yes, I am coming to that point. I feel that the words "hon. Gentlemen" should include female and male Members of the House, or we should have one word to encompass them.

Mrs. Dunwoody Hon. Members.

Mr. Strang

Bovine and pig semen is controlled under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1943. The Bill will control semen of all other species by order. We tend to have different legislation for bovine and pig semen. At present we are looking at some rather narrow aspects of the importation of pig and bull semen in the context of our current review of the artificial insemination legislation.

I covered the point on oil rigs in opening. The hon. Member for West-morland referred, quite rightly to the situation, which could occur, whereby an animal is brought on to a rig from Norway and subsequently brought into the United Kingdom. Potentially more serious is the situation in which an animal could be brought on to a rig from Norway and come into contact with a British animal which subsequently came back to the United Kingdom. That is fully covered by our legislation.

The definition of "animal" is laid down in the Diseases of Animals Act: that is contained in the current legislation. I can remember numerous debates on Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bills on the question of whether the word "animal" should be deemed to include birds.

I come to the hon. Gentleman's point on Clause 1(5). When the 1950 Act was passed, the Minister of Agriculture had sole responsibility for diseases of animals throughout Great Britain. But since 1955 he has shared this responsibility with the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the references to the Minister in the old Act have to be construed accordingly. With that information, he will find the subsection much more comprehensible.

I come to the point about the European Community which was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), referred to, I think, by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and certainly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), who takes a deep interest in EEC matters and has a strong point of view on this issue. He was clearly concerned about the possibility that, if we remain in the Community, the national controls which we now exercise over the importation of animals might be threatened. I assure my hon. Friends that I feel just as strongly on this as they do. It would be quite indefensible—indeed, preposterous—for any British Government to slacken in any way the controls which we exercise over animal importations and over ail importations in order to minimise the risk of animal disease.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) was on a fair point when he said that we should not altogether forget the influences which we can have over other animal health legislation in member States. It is also worth remembering that while our disease status for rabies and for foot and mouth, which have both been mentioned, is higher than in most of the other Community countries, there are other diseases, such as brucellosis, in which our status is lower. Therefore, if there were to be a movement towards harmonisation—I take it as read that harmonisation could mean only other members coming up to the highest standards of any member State—it could have a beneficial effect on some aspects of our disease measures and should not be presented solely as something liable to be disadvantageous.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Would not my hon. Friend hope that we would do something rather more urgent about brucellosis, irrespective of what the EEC does? He is aware that this is a disease which causes not only great inconvenience to human beings but great hardship to families involved.

Mr. Strang

I agree absolutely. I did not mean to suggest that we should now wait until the Community brings pressure on us to raise our standards here. We must continue to raise our standards as quickly as we can with regard to that disease and all other diseases, as we are doing now in the Bill.

Mr. Winterton

Would the Minister therefore consider raising the brucellosis payment in order to speed up brucellosis eradication?

Mr. Strang

The hon. Gentleman would not want me to deal with that specific point in this speech. Indeed I might take that opportunity to come to a point raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West, whom I would like to thank for his kind remarks about the meeting I had with him and some of his constituents regarding the unfortunate incident of psittacosis in his constituency. Manpower, after all, is the limitation in brucellosis, and the Government are very conscious of the shortage of trained veterinary manpower in the State Veterinary Service. This is a real constraint at present on our efforts to improve animal health; that is why we are pursuing this matter vigorously. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the vets got a special increase over and above other people; there has been an extensive advertising campaign and we are now interviewing a substantial number of applicants who have come forward. I can assure hon. Members that the Government are aware of the importance of redressing the current shortage of manpower in the public sector.

Mr. Hawkins

Would the Minister consider, at any rate for an emergency period which, as far as I can see, will last for five or 10 years, employing in many cases for particular work private veterinary surgeons who arc not in the State service?

Mr. Strang

We already use private vets but frankly there is no substitute for the proper State service. The Government give the highest priority to attracting more vets into the public sector.

I should like to come briefly to some of the other points raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe raised the important point of animal protein, particularly animal protein waste. This waste will be covered by the new provisions. To some extent it has been covered already, but when these new provisions come into effect they will give us greater coverage over this important area.

On rabies, the Government have recently brought forward new legislation, which is now on the Statute Book. We are now embarking on a publicity compaign to bring home to people, particularly to people who will shortly be going on holiday, the fact that they must not bring in foodstuffs liable to carry animal disease and that they must not bring in dogs. The real problem is to ensure that people are not able to break the law. The law is tight enough; the penalties are there. We must ensure that people do not break this law, sometimes through ignorance.

Dogs are a separate issue; the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)

Costain, Mr. Albert (Chairman) Taylor, Mrs. Ann
Benyon, Mr. Tomlinson, Mr.
Dunwoody, Mrs. Torney, Mr.
Hawkins, Mr. Ward, Mr.
Hicks, Mr. Wiggin, Mr.
Jopling, Mr. Winterton, Mr.
Strang, Mr.

will appreciate that this is primarily a matter for the local authorities. But a Government working party with local authority representation is looking into this important matter, which is of great concern to many sheep farmers, particularly in some of our more remote areas. It is true that this legislation will enable action to be taken, if justified, on the ground of animal or poultry disease, and this of course covers psittacosis.

On my hon. Friend's point that we must pay more attention to the human health risk, in so far as any of these animal diseases is a danger to humans, this legislation and all we are doing is of enormous importance in that context. But the Department of Health and Social Security must inevitably, as my hon. Friend recognises, take the lead on specifically human disease.

I think I have covered the points raised by hon. Members. I am grateful for the interest they have taken in the Bill. I am sure it is an important step forward, and I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committe recommend that the Diseases of Animals Bill [Lords] ought to be read a second time".

The Committee rose at half-past Eleven o'clock.