HL Deb 14 January 2001 vol 630 cc835-54

3.7 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill has two main purposes. It will strengthen our ability to respond effectively to future outbreaks of potentially devastating animal diseases, most notably foot and mouth disease. It also makes provision to accelerate the eradication of scrapie from the national sheep flock by introducing new powers which would allow us at some future date to place controls on the breeding of animals that are particularly susceptible to this disease and, by extension, similar diseases.

In view of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, I need to say something about the timing of the introduction of the Bill. Today, after months of devastation from the biggest epidemic of foot and mouth in any country since records began, I can make a good news announcement: that the last county in England and the UK, Northumberland, will be declared foot and mouth free at midnight tonight. That is, free in the sense that there has been no outbreak for over three months and the serological tests on sheep flocks in the county have yielded negative results. That is a major step forward but it is not the end of the story or the end of the risk of the disease. It will be some time, probably months, before our international partners restore our trading status in the EU and beyond as a fully foot and mouth free state as defined by the 0IE.

We also have to be eternally vigilant at home. Not only do we have the possibility of recrudescence of the disease as restocking and lambing take place—in 1967 the last few cases were at that stage of the disease—but also there is clearly in today's globalised world an increased risk of foot and mouth re-entering the country and, indeed, increased risk of other exotic animal diseases reaching our shores.

The first part of the Bill gives government as rapidly as possible powers which they currently lack—and the lack of which at crucial points in the epidemic threatened to accelerate its spread—to tackle any recrudescence, or new occurrence, of foot and mouth and other diseases over the next few months.

This is probably the only piece of legislation that I shall introduce in this House that is to a large extent down to my own experience and judgment. Noble Lords will know that over the past few years I have, from various departments, introduced many Bills in this House, and I have always tried to bring both logic and passion to my advocacy of such Bills. That is easier with some Bills than with others!

The Bill reflects what I found in dealing with the foot and mouth disease over the past few months. Noble Lords will know that since the June election, I have chaired the Government's COBRA committee and successor committees, which are co-ordinating interdepartmental and interagency efforts to control and eradicate the disease. By the time that I took over, and thanks to a large extent to the heroic efforts of my predecessor Ministers—not least my noble friend Lady Hayman—the peak of the disease had passed. However, we were still faced with what in historic terms was a series of very dangerous individual outbreaks, the spread of which would have been catastrophic.

Until July, it had been the judgment of MAFF Ministers and the incoming DEFRA team that we did not need additional legislative powers to overcome the disease. It was the outbreak of the disease in the Thirsk area, in North Yorkshire, that convinced me and my colleagues that those powers were inadequate. I should like to give noble Lords a flavour of the situation at that point.

Noble Lords may recall that the Thirsk outbreak was a new outbreak in cattle and sheep. To contain it, we adopted a new form of regime—the blue-box regime—with heavier controls on movement and biosecurity in the area. Even so, the disease was spreading rapidly and moving in a south-easterly direction. It was within 15 miles of large concentrations of pig farms, from where it could have spread into the key areas of large pig units in the East Riding and beyond into Lincolnshire and the East Midlands.

Noble Lords may know that one of the few pieces of good fortune that we have had during this epidemic is that the mass populations of pigs have largely escaped the disease. However, the airborne production of the virus among pigs is several thousand times greater than the rate in cattle and sheep. If the virus had got into those pig populations it would have meant

complete devastation. We had at that point to contemplate contingency plans for destroying—or rather for vaccinating to kill—virtually the whole of the pig populations in East Riding and Lincolnshire. If the disease had moved from the Thirsk area another 10 miles south-east. I should have had to take that decision. That was a particularly acute stage in the history of the disease.

But why was the disease spreading so rapidly in the Thirsk district? When I went to the Northallerton Control Centre, the vets there made it clear to me that the main reason for its rapid spread was the delay in the contiguous cull. By that stage, local veterinary experience on the ground and epidemiological analysis by scientists made it clear that the closer we got to meeting our targets for slaughter within 24 or 48 hours, the more rapidly we contained the disease.

As noble Lords will know, there were many reasons for failing to meet that target at various points: poor organisation, complex logistics, difficult topography and bad weather. However, few of those reasons applied to the new blue-box area in North Yorkshire in July. The main reason why there were delays was resistance to the contiguous cull. At one point, as many as one in three farmers was opposing the cull in one way or another and many were threatening to take legal action. There were teams of lawyers in the district trying, very irresponsibly, to provoke them to do so. Many of those who were delaying that action were eventually affected by the disease, as, of course, were their neighbours, who were perfectly prepared to go along with the strategy.

We were therefore a hair's breadth from disaster. Luckily, the disease did not spread any further south east, although in other directions the spread did not stop. That was due to luck, although good organisation and the support of the bulk of the farming community also played a major role. In the end, given the delay in the contiguous cull, it was probably luck that stopped the disease from spreading further.

Powers to enforce the contiguous cull are provided for in the Bill. If, during the summer months, the disease recurred in this country, or if a new strain or a different disease broke out, we could face a similar situation. That time, however, we may not be so lucky.

That is one of the lessons from the epidemic that is already clear. Some people say, "Let us not act until we have learnt all the lessons and until we have completed all the inquiries". It is often those who advocate delay who also want longer and more legalistic inquiries. If the Government already knew of a major defect in the powers that are available to them and did not introduce legislation to correct that, we should be acting extremely irresponsibly.

To those who say that the Bill will involve the slaughter of yet more animals, I say that recent experience shows me that we need such powers to avoid the slaughter of potentially millions more animals. If throughout this epidemic we could have accomplished a quicker cull of fewer animals, many hundreds of thousands of animals would have been saved. To delay bringing in those powers would therefore be doubly irresponsible.

There are many other lessons to be learnt from the epidemic. Noble Lords will discuss some of them and we have already learnt some of them, including control of movement as quickly as possible and control of imports. However, those approaches do not require primary legislation to be put into effect. Some lessons require deeper analysis and probably more radical redirection. That is why the Government have instigated two independent expert inquiries into the handling and the science of the foot and mouth epidemic. We look forward to learning the longer-term lessons that those investigations will yield. I wish therefore to refute any suggestion that, by bringing forward the Bill at this time, we are taking the perverse step of pre-judging the findings of those inquiries. However, in relation to those lessons about which we are already aware, we should take steps to rectify the situation now. That is what the Bill is about.

The House is of course right to scrutinise in detail the Bill and the Government's motivation for it. However, if, at the end of the day, noble Lords conclude that the powers are necessary it would be irresponsible of the House to delay their implementation until the completion of those inquiries. I will listen carefully to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, but on the face of it that is the implication of her amendment.

Noble Lords will know that the Phillips inquiry into BSE taught us that. legislation should clearly empower Ministers to take precautionary measures in a situation where the existence of a hazard is uncertain". In the case of foot and mouth, that risk remains. We remain of an open mind as to what our longer-term strategy for controlling foot and mouth and other animal diseases should be, and we will be guided by the independent inquiries. However, it would be foolhardy to ignore what experience has already taught us.

The powers in the Bill do not relate only to slaughter; they also relate to alternative and complementary strategies for combating the virus. For vaccination to be effective—many noble Lords are concerned about this—it requires just the powers of entry and the speed of execution that the Bill will provide. Vaccination, even more than culling, will fail if there are loopholes in the system. Powers are also needed for surveillance through the administration of blood testing. There were examples of resistance to blood testing, which threatened to delay the lifting of restrictions on several neighbouring farms. Other powers in the Bill relate to the improvement of biosecurity.

The Bill seeks to sharpen those options in the light of our experience in the field. It places at our disposal a more effective combination of recognised options, in case they should be required in the coming months. We have learnt in particular that where slaughter is required it must take place as quickly as possible in order to prevent further virus production. Delays in slaughter can lead to the presence of more infective material in the environment, with a consequent increase in the risk of a spread in the disease.

In addition to the North Yorkshire example, to which I have already referred, the situation in the Brecon Beacons, where there was a dangerous and rapid spread in the hills, is also instructive. There, the additional policy of contiguous heft culling proved to be essential to stop further spread of the disease. The concerns expressed in that area were most vocal and needed to be resolved because the initial strategy required serological testing to be carried out before we engaged in contiguous culling. It was only with that approach, rather than the one based on serological testing of exposure, with its associated delays, that the outbreak in Brecon was resolved.

In no sense does that mean that we blame the farmers of Brecon, North Yorkshire or anywhere else for the delays or for exercising their legitimate right. Indeed, the Bill goes on to strengthen the right of farmers to challenge action which they consider unreasonable. However, I want to underline the devastation that would have resulted had we not taken the contiguous cull steps in that area. I also want to underline what was put at risk by the inadequacy of the existing powers.

The Bill also provides for the powers to be extendable to other animal diseases. We are seeing increasing signs of the risks presented by dangerous pathogens which, in the past, were often endemic to far-flung regions of the world. Some of those diseases can also affect humans. The precautions provided for by the Bill embrace the most serious animal diseases, including some of which we have little knowledge.

A number of commentators have suggested that some provisions in the Bill represent an infringement of the basic rights of farmers and others. I anticipate that a number of your Lordships will wish to engage in debate about those issues, and I should welcome that. However, perhaps it would be helpful if I were to spell out the main reasons why we believe that the measures in the Bill strike an appropriate balance in protecting the overall public interest.

We are determined to ensure that farmers and livestock owners can have confidence in the basis on which the powers are exercised. I am aware that some have criticised the Bill for removing a so-called "right of appeal" against entry for vaccination, slaughter or other purposes. That is not the case. It appears to be based on the fact that the Bill replaces the current procedure for securing entry to premises on the authority of a High Court injunction with the far swifter procedure based on a magistrate's warrant. In fact, under the Animal Health Act 1981 there is no legal right of appeal against the existing entry powers. This Bill does not change that situation. Moreover, the existing procedure whereby a farmer may seek review by a senior vet of a decision to cull and to make representations to him will continue to be available.

Indeed, in future we propose to make that a more formal process, and we are now consulting publicly on how that will be done.

The provision for entry by a magistrate's warrant is not exactly an unknown procedure in legislation. Indeed, I have set out in a letter to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe—a copy of which I shall place in the Library—a number of the related enforcement precedents which have existed in many Acts of Parliament over the years. To meet the requirements of the human rights legislation, we must of course show that the use of those powers is both in the public interest and proportionate. Their use must rest upon inspectors presenting sworn evidence that satisfies the test of reasonableness, together with other conditions prescribed in the Bill. I believe that those safeguards are proportionate and they also reflect our need for speedy action.

An epidemiological analysis in Nature last October emphasised that, continued vigilance is … essential, both in rapid clinical diagnosis and enhanced serological surveillance". A separate study in Science found that, disease control requires good disease surveillance, rapid diagnosis … and quick intervention". With the new powers in the Bill, we can address those needs more effectively.

I am also aware that some unease has been expressed about the allegedly open-ended slaughter powers in the Bill. I understand some of those concerns but I believe them to be misplaced. The Bill alters the circumstance in which an animal can be culled from one in which exposure is the issue to one in which prevention is the key. That will by no means lead automatically to the culling of more animals; in fact, the opposite will be the case. Considerable scientific evidence supports the view that, by culling quickly, we might prevent the further spread of disease.

Moreover, we are required to exercise our legal powers in a proportionate and reasonable manner. and we shall do so. As I have explained, the slaughter powers are geared to prevention. Therefore, they must be sufficiently flexible to enable us to respond to all relevant situations. Ultimately, it is a veterinary judgment, and the factors that will help to determine where slaughter is justified must be considered in relation to local circumstances. As we learnt in North Yorkshire during the epidemic, such a risk arose when we faced the prospect of FMD spreading to the pig-rearing areas of east Yorkshire.

In order to clarify how the wider slaughter powers would be exercised in practice, and to reassure the public that they will be exercised reasonably, last week we launched a public consultation on the key criteria that will govern their use. The consultation document is available to your Lordships. It includes undertakings to consult in advance on our assessment of the risks and to publish in good time our decisions and the reasons for them. It also sets out the technical factors that will need to be taken into account in deciding whether preventive slaughter is justified. In each case, we shall seek to consult relevant interest groups at local and regional levels as well as national organisations.

I have spoken at some length about the slaughter provisions. Your Lordships will also be aware of the new approach to compensation in respect of infected premises, which is related to the enforcement of biosecurity measures. Poor biosecurity has proved to be a major factor in the spread of foot and mouth disease. Our information on biosecurity breaches in North Yorkshire and Cumbria as a result of the enhanced blue-box restricted zone regime shows that more than 1,000 investigations were carried out into suspected biosecurity offences. Most of those exposed some degree of biosecurity problem and were dealt with locally. However, there were serious breaches in over 70 cases, where formal or informal cautions were issued and court action taken.

I do not dispute that the vast majority of farmers ensure that their animals have the proper high standard of care. But those figures indicate the number of lapses and problems which arose. We are determined to create new incentives to encourage the minority, whose practices can place others' livestock at risk, to raise their standards. I must emphasise that the provisions apply only to infected premises. As in the past, the majority of farmers will continue to qualify for 100 per cent compensation. To encourage the remainder to match that, 25 per cent of that amount will serve as a positive inducement over and above the rate of 75 per cent compensation for which infected premises will automatically qualify.

I do not accept the argument that I have heard that such an approach treats farmers as "guilty until proved innocent". Indeed, the level of compensation varies according to the many different regimes and different animal diseases. In the case of classical swine fever last year, we paid only 50 per cent of the value for affected animals and 100 per cent for healthy animals in an affected herd. What we propose in this Bill is driven by a similar principle. It is also the case that in the Netherlands a figure of approximately 50 per cent was paid automatically with the other 50 per cent being dependent on biosecurity performance. This issue will also be helped by the so-called "disease risk assessment", which will help to determine levels of compensation awarded on infected premises. That is also covered by the consultation document to which I have referred.

I do not apologise for dealing mainly with the first part of the Bill. However, in many ways the second part is just as important and deals with the eradication of scrapie from our national flock. In recent times the sheep sector has suffered particularly badly. It must be desirable to seek to eradicate from our sheep flock the risk of the entire family of such diseases, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies—TSEs. I shall use the term "TSEs" from now on. It includes both scrapie and BSE.

Last July we announced the establishment of the national scrapie plan, which is designed to enable us, through a long-term programme, to breed TSE resistance into the national flock. The plan has received much support from the sheep sector. but it is a voluntary scheme. At the present rate, it could take far too long to have the desired effect. The Food Standards Agency has recently called on the Government specifically to seek to speed up scrapie eradication in this country. Scrapie eradication will, of course, also deal with the potential, but as yet theoretical, possibility of BSE being present in the sheep flock.

Therefore, the Bill will enable us, if necessary, to accelerate the process of eradication by compulsory means. Ministers could specify the types of sheep which, by virtue of their genetic susceptibility, stand the risk of developing scrapie. The Bill would then allow not only for the identification of those animals but for their exclusion or the exclusion of their semen, eggs and embryos from breeding programmes.

To ensure that we have the means to carry out that work effectively, the Bill contains limited new powers of entry and enforcement consistent with similar provisions relating to the control of foot and mouth. I must emphasise that none of those powers is intended to raise the prospect of mass slaughter. They are designed to facilitate the redevelopment of the national flock in a managed way. Indeed, Ministers will be required to consider whether there are exceptional circumstances, for example on specialised breeds, that justify the continued use of some susceptible sheep for breeding purposes. Farmers whose animals are subject to breeding restrictions will have the right of appeal to an independent adjudicator.

Throughout the development of the scrapie plan we have been in close consultation with the sheep industry. However, we believe that these powers are necessary further down the line to ensure that the outcome is a scrapie, BSE and other TSE-free flock in this country. That will give us a great advantage, not only in terms of the health of our animals but also in terms of international trade.

Therefore, the Bill reflects the lessons already learnt from foot and mouth disease; the need for us in the coming months to have a full armoury of weapons, should the disease recur or a new disease enter the country, pending the time when we can take into account the full outcome of the inquiries which we have set up to look into the disease and the lessons learnt on a longer-term, more strategic basis. At that point I have no doubt that the Government will need to come forward with both legislative and operational proposals in more comprehensive detail.

Finally, I emphasise that the Bill will deal with what has been one of the great gaps in our armoury over the past months and will ensure that that will not arise again should we be faced with another catastrophe in the coming months. More positively, it will also put the national sheep flock in a position where the diseases which have afflicted it for many years, and those which might potentially be there. will be eliminated. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Whitty.)

3.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I believe that I should now rise to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Baroness has taken this action. She knows that there has been a misunderstanding. The three Chief Whips heard about it just before half-past two. Once again, she has not consulted the Whips or the usual channels. I understand that there was some agreement between the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller, regarding the timing of the amendment. However, none of the three Chief Whips was informed and we are in some difficulty. We were then asked to produce a revised speakers' list, which I have done.

I hope that the noble Baroness does not want to press the point. I am sure that we all understand that she will want to refer to the amendment when she makes her speech in her place on the list. She will then be able to move the amendment, and debate will take place on it. My noble friend Lord Whitty will respond to it at the end, and to other speakers, and will take it into account. There has been a misunderstanding. I do not think that the usual channels are at fault. I hope that we can stick to the revised speakers' list.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, perhaps I may say to the Government Chief Whip that the Public Bill Office sent me a procedural brief today, which stated that I was to speak after the Minister. However, I do not wish to press the point if the Government have made a mistake. I look forward to hearing the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. However, she cannot speak to my amendment as I have not yet moved it. I shall revert to the order on the speakers' list, as I believe that that is in the best interests of the House.

3.33 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, we are here today to give a Second Reading to the Animal Health Bill. It is a comparatively small Bill but one which gives huge powers to the Minister to enter an individual's premises for the purpose of inspecting and slaughtering animals. In my view, the Bill should not be entitled the Animal Health Bill but instead the "Animal Death Bill". At this stage I remind your Lordships of our family farming interests.

I have grave concerns about the Bill. I had originally considered voting against it at Second Reading. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has tabled an amendment—I look forward to hearing about it shortly—which regrets that the Government are pushing ahead with the Bill before the various foot and mouth inquiries have reported. Why this sudden haste to rush the Bill through? Why not wait until the Government's own inquiries have been completed? The Government say that they will respond to the recommendations from those inquiries but that alterations will no doubt have to be made to the Bill. I repeat: why is there undue haste when alterations may be inevitable?

The Minister, Mr Elliot Morley, recently called for a complete review of all legislation relating to animal welfare; some 11 Acts. I support such a step. Consultation on this matter will end by the end of April. That is another reason to wait. Conservatives are willing to support the introduction of sensible, practical, proportionate measures to deal with future outbreaks of foot and mouth and other diseases, but those assumptions and legislative requirements must be based on good science and not brought forward as a knee-jerk response to last year's outbreak. My honourable friend Ann Winterton referred to the lack of support for the Bill from all sides of the House and to the considerable reservations expressed at Second Reading.

When the Bill was considered in another place, Members from all sides of the House expressed their concerns, particularly about the draconian powers being sought. Mr Morley indicated that he would give consideration to those concerns, yet the Bill was passed without a single amendment being accepted. The Government have failed to understand the depth of feeling, and, indeed, the amount of mail that many of us have received. Consequently, we have all been overwhelmed by representations from organisations and members of the public.

It is against that background that we begin our debate today. The Minister should not underestimate the effects of last year's foot and mouth disaster on the farming community and on the thousands of rural businesses and tourism enterprises, which were financially crippled too. The Government's handling of the epidemic has come in for much criticism. We raised our concerns in this House and called for a full public inquiry so that lessons could be learnt to ensure that such an outbreak would be prevented in future. The Minister, and other Ministers, acknowledged that mistakes were made, but refused to consider a public inquiry.

Recently, Professor Mark Woolhouse told the Select Committee on agriculture that if the Government had imposed a ban on livestock movement 72 hours before they did, it would have halved the spread of the disease and saved some three million animals from slaughter and £1 billion from being paid out. The same Government now ask this House to give them sweeping powers to enter premises and kill animals on suspicion that the disease might be present.

The Bill does nothing to stop diseases being brought into the UK in the first place. The Minister will recall the number of times that we on these Benches have raised the issue of illegally imported meats. We have called for a tightening up of import controls. Clive Lawrence, director of Ciel Logistics, which is responsible for animal product shipments, warned Nick Brown that meat from Africa was being smuggled through Heathrow and that it carried an extremely high risk of foot and mouth.

The Bill is strong on measures for suppressing farmers but lacks any reference to the Government's role or duty in controlling or preventing the disease in the first place. The Bill is considered by many as one which takes all rights of appeal away from the farmer. The Government will be able to seek authorisation from a magistrate to enter premises and kill animals on suspicion. At that stage, the farmer will have no access to the magistrate and therefore will be unable to appeal against such authorisation. The Government maintain that the Bill does not contravene human rights. However, we have been informed differently. In Committee, that aspect of the Bill will he debated rigorously.

Further, although the Government maintain that the Bill does not contravene human rights, we suggest that it arguably offends against the European Convention on Human Rights. It denies the right to "a fair hearing". Therefore, the Secretary of State's certificate under Section 19(1)(a) must be clarified. Again, in Committee, an answer will be sought.

If the Government are serious about animal welfare and animal health, they should extend the legislation to all those who import, process and retail food and food products in the UK. They should bring in a Bill making it illegal for anyone to buy, sell or consume pork from countries without a tether ban, chicken from countries which employ battery cages smaller than the EU standard, and beef from countries in which foot and mouth or any diseases on list "A" are present. The Minister referred to the likelihood of more diseases coming into this country. Perhaps it is time for him to take action on that observation.

The Bill raises problems for the president of the Royal Society of Veterinary Surgeons. He has warned that the legislation could become unworkable for vets and create epidemics much more widespread and damaging than the foot and mouth crisis. He describes the Bill as containing,

many unsupported scientific judgements", and raising,

an ethical issue which is critical to the regulatory role of the RCVS".

The recent January edition of the Veterinary Record refers to that matter.

The Minister will be aware of some of the court cases that have been heard. He will know of the case brought by MAFF against Mrs Upton which was heard by Mr Justice Harrison. He will recall that Mr Justice Harrison found in favour of Mrs Upton. In his summing-up, the judge said:

So far as the pig is concerned, Mr Smith submits that there is no evidence that there has been any physical contact between pig and anyone or anything that has been carrying the virus and that, therefore, if the pig were to be infected, it could only have been through air-borne transmission and that, on the scientific evidence, it is simply not feasible for that to have happened, as such a large amount of the virus has to be transmitted in order to infect the pig". Mrs Upton's animals were saved from destruction. But under this Bill they would have been destroyed. Where are her human rights under the Bill, and those of many others who challenged MAFF's decisions?

Under the Bill the appeal system would not save animals from death. The farmer would be able to make the appeal only after the killing had taken place. In addition, he would have to pay a fee for the honour of so doing. We are concerned about the complexity and the timescale of the proposed appeals system. In our view, it is totally inadequate.

To add insult to injury, the Government propose that compensation—the Minister referred to this—should be limited to 75 per cent of the value of the animal, with the additional 25 per cent being made available should the Government decide that biosecurity measures in place are adequate. This proposal contravenes the normal British stance that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. Any compensation deduction or penalty must he made on the basis that farmers and everyone have been given clear advice on what is meant by biosecurity measures and what measures they are supposed to be carrying out.

The Bill before us has two main purposes; first, to provide additional powers to tackle foot and mouth disease and for those powers to extend to other animal diseases by order, and, secondly, to provide additional powers to deal with TSE in sheep. I have questioned the Government on the draconian powers in respect of foot and mouth; I have equal concerns about the assumptions they make on TSE. The department's research into whether BSE is in the sheep population has been, at best, a disaster. Noble Lords will remember the whole episode of cows' and riot sheep's brains being tested which resulted in September in the announcement by Elliot Morley that it was possible that the whole of the sheep flock might have to he killed.

I cannot state firmly enough that this not only set panic among farmers but among members of the public. It is monstrously unfair to farmers and to consumers for the Government to scaremonger, threatening millions of people with the possibility of contracting CJD from eating lamb. Thankfully, the Food Standards Agency stepped into the breach and affirmed on 10th January that lamb posed no risk to human health. But the fears had already been set running. I am not against the eradication of scrapie from our flock but the voluntary route was working, albeit slowly. If changes are needed to speed up such eradication, they must be based on good science.

The Minister referred to the lobby by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. At a meeting for foot and mouth stakeholders held on 9th November 2001. it reported that a representative of the Chief Scientist's office admitted that it was still not known how many varieties of scrapie there are. If one does not know what one is looking for, how can one legislate for its eradication? I urge caution on the Government in this area before proceeding with a compulsory slaughter policy.

As noble Lords will by now have gathered, I have grave reservations about the Bill. For example, it gives Ministers the power to slaughter both vaccinated and unvaccinated animals. Will that be acceptable to our European colleagues? At the international meeting held in Brussels on 12th and 13th December 2001, Mr Alun Michael was reported as stating that he welcomed the consensus about eradication of FMD and noted that vaccination could be a tool. He was sympathetic to the points made about the mass slaughter of animals. But the implementation of those recommendations needed better testing, purer vaccines and better trade rules.

Are we not rushing ahead with a Bill when there are still so many questions? This morning, Farmers' Weekly presented a petition to Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street. It called for an independent public inquiry. Some 146,000 people had signed that petition. Perhaps their voice and those of the many others expressed over the past months will be recognised. The Government at last announced on Friday— so close to today's Second Reading—that they will be holding consultations with stakeholders. The Minister referred to that. The consultation is due to end by 15th March. Surely, if there are all these consultations, it behoves the Government to wait rather than to push ahead with the Bill. After Second Reading, the Bill should not be considered further until those consultations and inquiries are completed.

The Bill is a modification of an existing Act of Parliament. It is itself likely to be modified. This is a Bill which affects only England and Wales. It does not include Scotland and Northern Ireland. Especially in Scotland, it could pose problems for future regulations. The Bill is the panic reaction of a government who know that they acted late, ill-advisedly and almost illegally in controlling the foot and mouth outbreaks last year. They know that some of their proposals have no scientific foundation; that they lack the support of the veterinary profession; and that they deprive an important sector of our community of any effective rights of appeal. In short, it is a bad Bill.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, at end insert "but this House regrets that the Government have brought forward legislation to deal with the control of future outbreaks of animal diseases without waiting for the recommendations of the Royal Society inquiry which they commissioned to report by the summer".

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like noble Lords to be certain that we Liberal Democrats accept that there is a need to amend and supplement the Animal Health Act 1981. We need to ensure that our animals—our livestock—are healthy. We believe that ensuring the health of our nation's livestock is essential for a number of reasons: because, in choosing to keep animals, we become responsible for their welfare; because an outbreak such as that of foot and mouth disease last year costs the nation billions of pounds; because some diseases can threaten public health; and crucially, because in parts of Britain, the whole future of farming, rural communities and the landscape is dependent on a vibrant, healthy national livestock herd.

We need to restore national and international confidence in the health of British livestock, and we agree that there is a need to work towards a scrapie-free national sheep flock. We accept those needs, but I am moving the amendment because we are unhappy that a Bill addressing those needs came through the other place and comes to your Lordships' House in advance of the report of the scientific review, in particular, and of the other inquiry reports that should have shaped it. Indeed, it passed through the other place with no amendment whatsoever. That was not because the Standing Committee was happy with it, but because the Government used their majority.

The main change from the 1981 Act, which the Bill will amend, is that it gives the Minister powers to slaughter for the purpose of controlling foot and mouth disease and, by order, other diseases not because animals are, or are suspected of being, infected, but because they are—and I quote from the Bill

any animals the Minister thinks should be slaughtered". That means animals that have not been exposed to disease—not been in contact with any infected animals—could still be slaughtered. That empowers the Minister to deal with animals that need to be culled as a "firebreak" or perhaps as a total species eradication, in the case of other diseases.

That is a major change from the 1981 Act, and any judgement of its necessity must be based on sound scientific consensus and proper consultation, neither of which we have at present. It is a major change for veterinarians to order slaughter based solely on ministerial wish, with no evidence of infection or contact with infection. The Bill presumes that no test will become available to do quick, pen-side tests for infectivity.

Nor does the Bill contain any definition of the geographical area over which the ministerial power might apply. Might it be two miles from an outbreak? Might it be 50 miles downwind of an outbreak? If the Government are after the right to exercise a contiguous cull, they should certainly define what "contiguous" means.

The Bill also changes the right to compensation for slaughtered stock. Animals will be slaughtered and the farmer will be entitled to receive only 75 per cent compensation. The other 25 per cent will be payable if he has been helpful in the slaughter of his animals and if his bio-security arrangements have been adequate.

The public inquiry that ought to have been held may well have concluded that a contiguous culling power was essential. But it would have done so in the context of hearing how to build a firm consensus between officials and farmers and would have spelt out in full the duties and responsibilities of each. However, the Government chose to commission three separate inquiries into the future of food and farming. the lessons learnt from the 2001 outbreak and a third—to which my amendment refers—from the Royal Society into the transmission, control and prevention of animal diseases. The report of that inquiry, at least, ought to have been the basis of the Bill.

We should have had the latest science behind conclusions as to how to prevent the spread of such diseases. After all, science has moved on considerably since 1981 and any amendment of the 1981 Act should take that into account.

The extent of last year's outbreak of foot and mouth disease represented a number of failures: in knowledge. understanding and certainly in contingency planning. Successive governments failed to ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food learnt the lessons set out in the Northumberland report.

There has also been a long-term failure to invest in the State Veterinary Service and in research into disease prevention and eradication. Contingency planning was clearly low on MAFF's list of priorities. Yet only the year before the outbreak, the Government had been warned of the threat of animal disease by the UN organisation responsible for that area. The Minister responded in Answer to my Written Question about whether the Government then believed the State Veterinary Service was adequate to deal with disease prevention. I do not believe that I received an adequate answer to my Question.

This is a bad Bill, and it will not put those matters right. A more comprehensive overhaul is needed. The Bill starts from the premise that farmers do not want to control and eradicate foot and mouth disease. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. Affected members of the farming community co-operated with the Government to a huge extent in incredibly difficult and distressing circumstances. While there may have been a few examples of obstructive behaviour, they were certainly not the norm. Officials, too, were usually conscientious, over-stretched and trying to do their best in a stressful situation.

The Bill will not help those people's relationship. It will damage it, because it is only about what to do about "bad" farmers, careless farmers, or obstructive farmers. It says nothing about bad officials, careless officials or—crucially—about Ministers' responsibilities and duties. It aims to give officials the right to deal with animals as they think fit and to criminalise the farmer if they interpret behaviour as obstructive or even simply impeding. Would putting up one's arm to slow down a discussion, for example, be considered an impediment by an official in a hurry? The Bill provides all that with no right of appeal by the farmer.

The Bill then goes on to give the Minister or his officials the right to withhold 25 per cent of the compensation due to the farmer for his slaughtered stock if the person appointed by that same Minister thinks that the extent of co-operation with inspectors or other persons was inadequate. So a farmer who is stressed, distressed, exhausted or angry—not in a state to help but not actually obstructive—who fails to help as much as the inspector thinks fit could have his compensation reduced by 25 per cent.

Compensation can also be withheld if the inspector believes that the farmer or persons under his control acted in such a way as to create a significant risk of the spread of foot and mouth. On the face of it, that is entirely reasonable. Yet the way in which the disease is transmitted is still unclear. Until the Royal Society reports, we know no more than during the outbreak. At that time, no one—officials, farmers or Ministers—really knew how much of a risk were vehicle movements or people movements, whether the pyres spread the disease or how many "dirty" officials—by which I mean officials who had visited infected premises—were working on other uninfected premises too soon. We need the Royal Society report to answer those questions. If the Government intend the Bill to enable them to withhold compensation due for creation of a significant risk, they should be able to issue precise guidelines as to how that risk is to be avoided.

The Bill allows the Minister's official to he judge, prosecutor, defence and jury. First, he will decide whether the premises contain animals that pose a risk—on no evidence of disease, just his suspicion. Then he will decide if the farmer has maintained adequate bio-security for the past 21 days—no doubt sometimes debating that heatedly. His version of these events alone will then be presented to a magistrate. The officials would use a procedure analogous to that seeking an arrest or search warrant, but this is not about a temporary loss of liberty or the searching of premises. It is about the irreversible destruction of often valuable and much loved livestock against the owner's wishes.

If the magistrate agrees with that version, having heard no other, the Bill allows an inspector to require any person—not just the farmer or the stockman, but any aged aunt, visiting vicar or district nurse—to give such assistance as the inspector believes that he needs to slaughter the stock.

We should contrast all of that with the Act that the Bill would amend. The Animal Health Act 1981 makes it an offence to impede or obstruct an inspection and recognises that it might be a first or only offence. The Act simply requires the owner and person in charge of any sheep to, comply with all reasonable requirements of the inspector as to the collection and penning of the sheep and afford all other reasonable facilities for the examination of the sheep by the inspector". That is reasonable, and it is a far step from being required to assist with the slaughter of stock. The Bill imposes a requirement to do anything that the inspector wants. There should be no such requirement.

The 1981 Act lays duties on the Minister, too. For example, if the Minister is to destroy wildlife to contain a disease, he shall,

ensure that destruction is carried out on any such land in as safe a manner as is possible". This Bill lays no onus on the Minister to justify decisions to slaughter. Are the powers in the Bill proportionate? Are they the right powers to control foot and mouth disease? As far as the 2001 outbreak is concerned, we simply do not know.

Mr Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in another place on 31st October, in response to Question 23, that he did not know what proportion of the original suspect cases in which culling took place proved to be negative. He said: We do not know because the problem we had at the height of the outbreak was that we were removing contiguous premises and not sampling them. We did not have the resources to do that". That may be understandable, but we do not know yet whether contiguous culling, vaccination and slaughter, vaccination alone or the stopping of all traffic movement would have been among the most effective long-term solutions. Under this Bill, when an official goes to a magistrate for a warrant to enter and slaughter, the farmer—or his representative—has no right to put his side of the case. Is that reasonable? It is not.

The Government have not produced hard scientific evidence that it was the lack of legal powers that caused the infection to spread so far. I heard what the Minister said, but I think that many people would contest that point. There is hard evidence, however, that well founded appeals saved the nation a good deal of money.

There is nothing in the first part of the Bill about promoting animal health. The Bill is silent on the relationship between the long-distance transportation of live animals throughout the country and the stress and subsequent vulnerability to disease that it causes. Section 37 of the 1981 Act addresses the issue as it was then, relating mainly to food and water. One of the main lessons that we learnt from 2001 was that the transportation of sheep had become a long-distance web of almost continuous travel. It was among livestock dealers, not farmers, that the disease was spread so fast. Seventeen of the first 20 cases in last year's outbreak were among dealers. Urgent action is needed to secure a market for farmers that obviates the need for the middle man and strengthens farmers' ability to market their livestock themselves.

The Government are also silent on the original cause of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It was, almost certainly, illegally imported meat or improperly checked meat from a country from which we import meat, despite the Government's assurances that it had not come from a region affected by foot and mouth disease. Although there are now warnings at airports, it is still the case that individuals are entitled to bring animal products into this country. If the Government are to deal with cases of urgency, it should have used the Bill to close that loophole.

We need legislation and action that truly address the question of animal health, including imports, adequate geographical spread of abattoirs and regulations and incentives to encourage those who try to follow the highest animal welfare standards. We must be sure that those who put animal health at risk are identified and dealt with. The part of the Bill that deals with the eradication of scrapie should have regard to the fact that the science behind it is still evolving rapidly. It is far too extreme to criminalise people. More exact science and legislation should follow, and that, too, should proceed from the report of the scientific community.

On Friday, the Minister issued a protocol on the slaughtering procedure, much too late to be considered by the other place, when it discussed the Bill. In his winding-up speech, the Minister may claim that it has a more reasonable tone than the Bill, but the powers of the Minister are enshrined in the Bill, not the protocol. In any case, I hope that the consultation on the protocol will be completed so that the House can have the benefit of it before it has to discuss our conclusions in any more detail.

Many noble Lords have grave concerns about the Bill. I look forward to benefiting from the depth of knowledge and experience of those who are about to speak in the debate. I commend my amendment to the House.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, at end insert "but this House regrets that the Government have brought forward legislation to deal with the control of future outbreaks of animal diseases without waiting for the recommendations of the Royal Society inquiry which they commissioned to report by the summer".— (Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer.)

4.07 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I wish that it were possible to give even a qualified welcome to the Bill. Undoubtedly, it is well intentioned, in so far as it would equip the department to deal more effectively with any future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. However, as has already been made plain, it has been greeted with great dismay in the farming community, the livestock industry and the veterinary profession. We must take those expressions of dismay seriously.

The Bill is harsh, unjust and untimely. It is harsh and unjust because it is so one-sided, giving sweeping powers to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with practically no right of appeal and no need for explanation or justification and no opportunity for the farmer to be represented when an application is made for a slaughter order. The Bill shows no confidence in the farming community and assumes fault in biosecurity and compensation. Above all, the Bill is untimely. We still await the reports of the inquiries into the science of foot and mouth disease and the lessons to be learnt from last year, and the stakeholder consultations are about to take place. That makes the Animal Health Bill appear absurd in its timing, unhelpful in many of its provisions and unpleasant in its tone.

The Bill attempts to achieve a desirable end by undesirable and unacceptable means, and it leaves undone those things which it ought to have done, above all the provision of tougher and more effective import controls at docks and airports, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer said. Why, after all that we have been through, are we so slack and undisciplined about the matter, compared with, for example, the United States, Australia or New Zealand? It is unbelievable that we still do not have such import controls in place. An amendment along those lines is urgently needed, and I understand that the Minister in another place, Mr Elliot Morley, indicated that the Government might welcome such an addition to the Bill. I hope so.

Meanwhile, I wish to support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, which picks up on the untimely character of the Bill. The House has reason to be grateful to the noble Baroness. I hope that there will be careful consideration of and support for the amendment.

I intended to express sympathy with the Minister for having to introduce the Bill. I thought that he had, once again, found himself introducing government business in which his heart was not truly present. However, he passionately defended the Bill and said that that came from the heart. I know him to be a reasonable and fair-minded man, and I hope that he will listen to the debate and be as flexible and responsive in the Government's answer as he was, for example, over the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. This House did an excellent job in improving the Bill during its passage through Parliament.

The farming community is still reeling from the effects of last year's traumatic experiences. 1 t is battered, in almost every case impoverished further, with a few rare exceptions demoralised and very unsure about the future. The track record of the Government during the foot and mouth outbreak was not good. There were many confusions and delays as the crucial targets of 24 hours to slaughter and 48 hours to the disposal of carcasses of infected animals were often riot met. There were grievous mistakes, with sometimes wildly inaccurate epidemiological modelling and misapplication of resources. The Minister acknowledged that there were faults. However, it is not reasonable to ask the farming community, in its present mood and in the light of that unhappy record of last year, to accept these even more draconian proposals.

We need clearer policies but we should first put in place import controls; then await the outcome of the two reports; and then bring forward a Bill which grants powers of entry and slaughter only after a public hearing in which both sides can take part. That need not involve any delay. We accept the rightness of an appeal to a magistrate, but ask for the simple courtesy of consultation and the justice of an equal right to make a case to the magistrate. There must be a commitment to introducing an immediate ban on all animal movements as soon as the disease is discovered. The delays in doing so last year were very serious.

There should be similar legislation to cover Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is deeply unsatisfactory and potentially dangerous if different provisions are made there from those in force in England and Wales, as the cross-border Cumbria/Dumfries example in the foot and mouth disease outbreak made clear, where similar policies were essential on both sides of the Border.

The compensation provisions in the Bill are the wrong way round, as has already been said. The assumptions should be the full 100 per cent compensation, with a proportion being withheld only if lax bio-security can be proved. The Minister admitted that only 7 per cent of those cases which were investigated were serious cases of lax biosecurity. Most farmers are very responsible and the burden of proof should be reversed.

The Bill needs to be more clearly drafted. The various usages in it—"veterinary surgeons", "veterinary inspectors" or just plain "inspectors"—do not encourage confidence and they leave room for uncertainty. While it is true that the current state of scientific knowledge, in particular the doubtful reliability of the test to distinguish between antibodies following vaccination and the presence of the virus itself, means that vaccination cannot yet be wholeheartedly recommended in place of slaughter, it would have been good if the Bill had provided for a different policy to be introduced as our scientific knowledge grows, as I hope it rapidly will.

I hesitate to touch on the highly technical sections of the Bill which deal with the elimination of scrapie. All responsible people must share the objective of eradicating this disease and all transmissible spongeform encephalopathies—a ha rd "c" of course because it comes from the Greek. The Minister in another place spoke of a protocol to ensure that the powers conferred in the Bill will not be used in a disproportionate, inconsistent or unfair way. It is fine for it to be in the protocol but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, it needs to be on the face of the Bill, together with a formal commitment to local veterinary consultation.

I hope that this will be a helpful debate. I suspect that by the time it is finished the same points will have been made many times over. I am grateful for the privilege of having made one or two of them for the first time and having echoed the points made so admirably by the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller, particularly the long list of desirable things which could well have been added to the Bill. I look forward to hearing what other noble Lords have to say, but only after that journey into the golden future of our railways on which we are about to embark.

Back to