HL Deb 18 July 2002 vol 637 cc1418-27

4.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper. It relates to the order in which the House will take the Animal Health Bill in Committee. I have a few words of explanation.

This Motion is moved in order to proceed to the Committee stage of the Animal Health Bill, which was delayed by an amendment to the Motion carried by your Lordships on 26th March. The conditions of that amendment have now all been fulfilled. That amendment stipulated that debate could not proceed further until three steps had been taken by the Government. Those related to the consideration and publication of the findings of two of the independent inquiries into last year's foot and mouth outbreak and to the publication of our response to consultation on the implementation of powers contained in the Bill.

Your Lordships will wish to note that I have arranged for a copy of the government response to consultation to be placed in the Library of the House and, following the publication of the reports of the two inquiries, that completes the remaining steps specified in the amendment.

We are of course mindful of the needs on the part of the interested parties to have sufficient time to absorb the findings and lessons of the inquiries, not only of those that have been published, as referred to in the amendment—the Royal Society and the National Audit Office—but also Dr Anderson's report, which is expected to be published this coming Monday.

For that reason we propose effectively to reverse the order in which the Bill is debated in Committee, starting with the provisions that deal with scrapie, which are Clause 5 and Schedule 2. They are not part of the subject matter of the reports or the consultation process. Under that arrangement we would not proceed to the areas that deal with foot and mouth disease and related matters until after the Summer Recess, by which time Members of the House will have had a chance to absorb the recommendations of the reports. I hope your Lordships will agree that that will be an acceptable order in which to debate the Bill during the course of the Committee stage. I beg to move.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Animal Health Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

  • Clause 5,
  • Schedule 2,
  • Clause 14,
  • Clauses 1 to 3,
  • Schedule 1,
  • Clause 4,
  • Clauses 6 to 13,
  • Clauses 15 to 18.—(Lord Whitty.)

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare my interest in farming, although I deny the interest in "specialist goat disease making" as published in the Register of Lords' Interests. Perhaps that was a Freudian slip on the part of the registrar. I am in fact a goats' cheese maker.

When this Bill was last before the House on 26th March, my noble friend Lord Moran moved the amendment mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. In the absence of my noble friend, he has asked me to convey to the House the following message. I would be grateful for noble Lords' indulgence. The message reads: I am very surprised that the Government has decided to resume the Committee stage of the Animal Health Bill. The amendment I introduced on March 26 was passed by 130 votes to 124. By this vote the House declined to consider the Bill any further until the various reports on the Foot and Mouth Disease had been received, considered and published by Her Majesty's Government. The National Audit Office's Report was published on June 21 but the Government has not yet responded to it". I gather that the Minister has now said that the response is in the Printed Paper Office. The Royal Society's report was published on July 16. Neither the Government nor the House will have time to consider it and respond adequately before July 25. We are still awaiting the conclusions of the Lessons Learned enquiry, not due till next week, a couple of days before the scheduled Committee stage. I am astonished that the Government has not considered it necessary to communicate with me prior to putting the Bill back on the Order Paper. The House authorities told me that they expected the Government to speak or write to me. They have not done so. I have heard suggestions that the Government may have it in mind to propose that only Part II of the Bill, on scrapie, may be dealt with on the two days on the grounds that it is 'non-controversial'. If they think so, they are wrong. The proposals on scrapie are highly controversial. As I pointed out in January at Second Reading, the President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said that in this part of the Bill 'many unsupported scientific judgements are made'. In any case, it is hard to see how the Government intends to proceed with a Bill that legalizes further mass slaughter when the Royal Society's report recommends that only 'diseased animals, and all those that are known, or very likely, to have been infected by them' be slaughtered. It does not recommend contiguous culling. On the contrary, its view is that 'emergency vaccination should be seen as a major tool of first resort, along with culling of infected premises and known dangerous contacts, for controlling FMD outbreaks'. It seems likely from early reports that the Lessons Learned enquiry will come to a similar conclusion. The Government will be faced with the alternative of ignoring the conclusions of the most eminent scientific body in the country or of abandoning or entirely rewriting the existing animal health Bill. Why, then, press ahead with a Committee stage now? The Government has so far ignored all the criticisms made of the Bill in both Houses and by many organisations in the country. Their attitude is not unlike that of Edward Lear's Jumblies who sang: 'We don't care a button, we don't care a fig In our sieve we will sail to sea'. Clearly, it would be much more sensible for the government to hold over further consideration of these problems until after the summer recess, when they and we will have been able to study and reflect on all three of the relevant enquiry reports (all commissioned by the Government itself) and decide on the best way forward".

That is the end of the remarks of my noble friend Lord Moran. In my opinion, my noble friend makes an eminently sensible proposal. The Minister's Motion asks us to deal first with the scrapie measures. What is the point of us dealing with what amounts to about a third of the Bill before the Summer Recess when it seems likely that the remaining two-thirds will have to be substantially rewritten in the light of various reports?

I would go further than my noble friend. I suggest to the Minister that he dumps this Bill and drafts a completely new one during the Summer Recess—one that takes into account the many recommendations contained in the reports commissioned by Her Majesty's Government following the recent epidemic of foot and mouth disease, and also takes into account the many valid objections to Schedule 2 to the Bill.

I am confident that both the Minister and all noble Lords must see the sense in our having placed before us a Bill that has been carefully drafted and which, with a little luck, will need little amendment, rather than struggle on trying to put some sense into this current defective Bill. The Minister already has more powers than he needs to deal with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in our livestock. There is therefore no urgency for Schedule 2 to be enacted. I fully recognise the need for strong measures to control animal diseases. However, I want to see good, sound law that is both reasonable and enforceable.

Finally, I am very disturbed by the Minister's apparent discourtesy to my noble friend Lord Moran and to the House. Why did he not consider it necessary to communicate to my noble friend before this Motion was put on the Order Paper? In the light of their importance, why has he not allowed us more time to consider the contents of the relevant reports? As noble Lords will have gathered, I wish to oppose this Motion.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, we are examining the successful amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in relation to the Animal Health Bill. Factually, the Government have considered the responses, at least theoretically, to the consultation on the implementation of powers in the Bill. Their response has arrived in the past 24 hours so I now understand why the noble Lord, Lord Moran, did not get that information. It has been placed in the Library of the House so technically it is in the public domain. Even though I do not like some of its conclusions or the way in which this has been handled at such short notice, the Minister has made a statement and provided assurances. I should be grateful if he would repeat in his summing up that we are going to consider only Part 2 of the Bill which addresses the issue of scrapie.

There are, as has been said, a number of important scientific issues in relation to the control of scrapie. I believe that it is possible to proceed with Part 2 of the Bill next week. However, I give warning that my party will examine Part 2 of the Bill together with amendments that we have put down. If we believe that scientifically the Bill is not sound, then we shall not hesitate to try and defeat it on Report. However, that is no reason why Part 2 of the Bill should not proceed.

Part 1 of the Bill, concerning foot and mouth and infectious diseases, will not be taken until October. Therefore there is time to consider the results of the Royal Society, the NAO report and other reports such as the Anderson Report into foot and mouth. Therefore, on balance, we cannot see a reason to delay the Animal Health Bill further, as long as only Part 2 is taken next week.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, while I accept the Minister's assurance that Schedule 2, which is the operative part of the Bill to be discussed next week and the week after, has nothing to do with the reports referred to in the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, passed some months ago, it occurs to me that there are parts of Schedule 2 which have a conformity with other parts of the Bill and other parts of the animal health legislation that will remain on the statute book. That being so, if the Government themselves seek to amend, for example, the enforcement provisions of this clearly controversial schedule, may we have an assurance that there will be reciprocal amendments to other parts of the Bill and animal health legislation more widely? If not, I have no doubt that all this time which has been found will be wasted and there will be quite serious cause for Schedule 2 to be recommitted after we come back from the Summer Recess.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I should like to comment on the letter referred to by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Before doing so, I should like to remind the House of our family's farming interest.

Like other noble Lords, I am slightly disturbed by the way the Government wish to push ahead with this Bill. The scrapie section is not a deeply infectious or deeply worrying part. It is actually the least worrying part of the Bill. The need for urgency is, therefore, slightly beyond me. I have a briefing sent to me by the RSPCA this morning, appertaining to the whole Bill but particularly the scrapie section. The RSPCA, are concerned that there is no time indication in the Bill. Any disease eradication programme for scrapie should be phased in over a number of years, for example 10 plus years". I know that the industry has already raised this issue with the Minister. The briefing continues: The RSPCA would like to see the testing programme phased in over a period of time. Testing of all breeding ram, and the year's lambs one year ahead and then focus on other groups or herds over the next years". There is a concern even within that organisation. It is not a breeding organisation, but an animal welfare one. But it fears that, too rapid a cull could devastate the gene pool leading to other health problems". We believe that pushing ahead with this section is unwise. Other noble Lords have already referred to the fact that we have had the outcomes from the National Audit Office and the Royal Society.

It is to the latter that I should like to draw the Minister's attention. The Government maintain that there is nothing in those two reports that affect the scrapie section. Perhaps I may turn the Minister's attention to page 141, Annex A: Terms of Reference: This inquiry was commissioned by the Royal Society, jointly by the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Permanent Secretary of DEFRA on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. The commission stressed that the inquiry should be clearly independent. This meant that the terms of reference were agreed mutually between the Society, the Office of Scientific Technology and DEFRA". The report goes on to say that the terms of reference agreed were: To review the scientific questions relating to the transmission, prevention and control of epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease in livestock in the UK". At the bottom it says that transmissible diseases have the potential for very serious and rapid spread, irrespective of national boundaries. They can have serious social and economic or public health consequences and are a matter of major importance in the international trade of animals or animal products. From my reading of that—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—the report particularly refers to the scrapie provisions in the Bill. So I return to the position we are in at the moment and ask: is it wise that we should press ahead with the Bill at this time?

One or two other points particularly concern me. The first is that this Bill has already technically been through the other House and arrived before your Lordships today. If the Government find that they have to introduce many new amendments, our democratically-elected colleagues in the other place will not have a chance to debate the substance of a Bill which will be democratically altered to an unknown degree.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness mean "undemocratically" altered?

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the noble Countess, as ever, is quite correct. I must choose my words more carefully. But what I am saying is that if we make huge changes to the Bill, because of the way that Parliament works—as noble Lords know well we discuss only the amendments tabled in this House—the other place will not have a chance to discuss those changes. As we know and accept, the guillotine Motion is used in the other House and we could see huge swathes of this Bill going through undebated. I am concerned therefore about the procedure for Bills going through this House. I hope that the Minister will take that into consideration because it is enormously important.

As the Minister is aware, I wrote to him twice—once on 29th May and again on 2nd July—warning that we would not consider the scrapie provisions without taking into consideration the powers of enforcement and other aspects of the TSE regulations which we debated at great length. It was only this morning that I finally received a reply to my letter. It was a very full reply and I do not know whether other Members of this House have had a chance to see it—I do not intend to read four pages of it now. It underlines my concern about the speed at which we are progressing.

The department's letter acknowledges that major concerns were raised when we took the TSE regulations through. It says it now intends to consult again with the industry on some of the provisions. How sensibly can we pursue the enactment of provisions relating to scrapie in a Bill containing powers for the control of animal disease while the Government are still consulting? I hardly think it wise to push ahead at this time.

I return to two earlier points. The first is that we are told that we will have two days in Committee—the first on Tuesday of next week and the other on the Monday of the following week—to deal with the scrapie provisions, which the Government consider to be uncontroversial. But as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, indicated when reading the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, many of us believe that there are controversial aspects to consider. We are given two days for those provisions, which cover only one-third of the Bill. We have been given only two further days to consider the other two-thirds.

How does the Minister think we can handle the whole of the Bill in four days if he recognises, quite rightly, that we need two days to consider the scrapie provisions? Would it not be wiser to withdraw the Bill at the moment and wait until we have heard the various recommendations, particularly from the Anderson inquiry which reports this Monday, before we push ahead? The noble Lord may accuse me of trying to delay and putting the Bill off. But I would be more protective of our parliamentary time. I fear at the end of the day we shall take longer going back over work than we would if the Bill was withdrawn today.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I see two arguments for proceeding with the Bill in the way suggested by the Government. The first is an agricultural one and the second constitutional.

I should say at the outset that, as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, quoted the noble Lord, Lord Moran, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, who unfortunately could not stay because his wife is unwell, made it clear that he supports the Government in their proposal to take the Bill forward in this way. The President of the National Sheep Association says that its members are anxious to get to grips with the scrapie situation. The NFU also supports the Bill. It has some concerns about compensation but that will be dealt with in the autumn when we come to the later part of the Bill.

So there are strong agricultural arguments for progressing the scrapie provisions. Of course the NAO report, to which reference has been made, relates entirely to foot and mouth disease and not to scrapie; it concerns the FMD outbreak.

Earlier this year 77 amendments were tabled on Schedule 2. I have not read the whole of the Royal Society report, but I find it hard to believe that there will be an enormous amount of extra amendments to the schedule required as a result of that report, which is a major scientific investigation which will need a long time and a great deal of consultation before any legislation finally appears—perhaps an all-embracing Animal Health Act much later. I believe I am correct in saying—I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that the Royal Society report excludes TSEs. It contains four paragraphs on the sheep industry generally and scrapie is mentioned in passing in one paragraph.

That is the agricultural argument for getting on with this part of the Bill dealing with scrapie. Even if a large number of amendments are tabled on Schedule 2, in my experience two days will be sufficient to deal with that part of the Bill.

The constitutional argument is that there is a powerful convention in this House which we tamper with at our peril. The elected Government are entitled to have their business considered. What we did in March had not been done since the 19th century. I regarded it as highly irresponsible. If there had been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease—thank God there has not been—or if one were to occur in the recess and the Government found that they did not have all the powers they needed to deal with it, those who supported the noble Lord, Lord Moran, would bear a heavy responsibility.

I cannot find any example, certainly in my 15 years in the House, where an order of consideration has been voted against. So yet another precedent would be created. The Government met the requirements of the Moran Motion, which only specified the NAO report and the Royal Society report. It was an oversight on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, to omit Anderson, but all that was required was publication and response to those reports. In fact, in the terms of the Motion the Government would have been entitled to proceed with the Bill in the order in which it is printed. But they are waiting for the Anderson report. So the House will have the chance to consider the NAO report and the Anderson report—the two main reports dealing with FM D in this Bill—and the Royal Society report, which deals with vaccination and so forth. That will affect the Bill but not in terms of major amendment.

The House will have the whole summer to consider the three reports. That is a sensible way of dealing with the Bill. We explored this procedure much earlier—I am not revealing any secrets of the usual channels—after the vote on the Moran Motion. It was then thought that this might be a way forward. But the Government waited to meet the terms of the Moran Motion. They have done so. Two reports have been published, though only one has any effect on scrapie, and that only in passing. So there are agricultural and constitutional grounds for proceeding. To oppose the order of consideration of this Bill and the way that the Government wish to proceed would, in my view, be extremely dangerous.

5 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I gather from my noble friend on the Front Bench that this order has not been agreed by the usual channels. She said so much against it that it seemed to me that the usual channels could not have been involved in deciding the way in which things should be done.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, in fairness, I must put the noble Lord right. I was indeed approached by the usual channels to consider taking the Bill in the order suggested. We have not got as far as that at the moment. I have the minute of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in front of me and I refer it to the noble Lord, Lord Carter. It states that, Her Majesty's Government have received, considered". I do not believe that they have considered. When I saw that I read it through very carefully. As regards the correction as to clarity, yes, I was asked that we take these matters in the sequence that we have. The report of the Royal Society had not appeared and I was not expecting it to have any reference at all to scrapie and TSE, but it has. That is why we are having this short debate.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, that answers one of my questions. But it appears that this is another occasion when the usual channels appear to have forgotten that Back-Benchers exist. We are not asked whether we should have Statements taken in this House. There was a little debate about that earlier today. I find it particularly extraordinary when what is a truly Back-Bench amendment succeeds without whipping or support, as far as I am aware, from any of the Opposition Benches in this House and the originator of the amendment is not told, consulted or informed in any way of the Government's plans for responding to it as the reports appear.

We are looking at how this House should operate in the future and, as Back-Benchers, we need to have care for our rights and abilities to make a difference in this House. We need to make sure that the usual channels, which are useful on many occasions, pay attention to us. Perhaps the mechanisms are not there for doing so at the moment because we seem to be forgotten more often than should be the case. To that extent I unreservedly support the noble Countess. Lady Mar. I do not have any particular comment to make on the substance of the Motion. I shall listen to what the Minister has to say.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, despite the wide-ranging nature of this discussion, all we have before us today is the order in which we should consider the Bill. The order is to facilitate discussion in the sequence I have described and to which the noble Baroness Lady Byford, referred.

I apologise if there was any discourtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Moran. However, we used the normal procedure in order to discuss both the tinting and the order. It may well be that the wider points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, can be taken up in a separate context. We certainly intended no departure from the normal procedure.

As regards justification for suggesting the order in this way, the words which the noble Countess, Lady Mar, read from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, related to dealing with scrapie because it was non-controversial. That was not the motivation although it was less controversial than other parts of the Bill. The reason was that the issues were not covered by the reports or the reports on the consultation.

Although the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, indicated that the terms of reference of the Royal Society report could have included TSE, it did not in fact include any substantive discussion of it principally because the focus was on List A diseases, as defined, which do not include TSEs. The only references to those in the report relate to information and not how to deal with them. Therefore, there is no implication for Part 2 of the Bill in the report of the Royal Society and none whatsoever as regards the National Audit Office report, which is being dealt with in the normal way in another place through the Public Accounts Committee. Some noble Lords will be aware that the Permanent Secretary of my department had a fairly lengthy and interesting session with the Select Committee on the report a few weeks ago.

As regards other issues, the noble Countess rather let the cat out of the bag by saying that the main motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, was to dump the Bill. That may or may not be the case.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I do not believe that that was the view of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, but mine.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is even clearer and I therefore apologise once again to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in his absence. If the noble Countess wishes to make it clear, it is also necessary to make it clear to the House that that was not the purpose or content of the Motion passed by this House in March. That was to delay the Bill until we had received and considered the reports and the response to the consultation relating to parts of the Bill.

The Government have already considered them and the House has the opportunity to do so in the summer before we reach the relevant points. The scrapie provisions are not affected or any of the stipulations in the resolution passed in March which, as my noble friend Lord Carter said, was an extraordinary Motion in the first place. It would be even more extraordinary if we rejected a scheduling Motion today.

Others have queried why we should proceed so rapidly on the scrapie part of the Bill. It is a part of the Bill which is widely supported by the industry, which needs reassurance on some aspects of it. We are discussing the logistical aspects. The eradication of scrapie from the national herd will take several years, but virtually everybody in the sheep industry wishes to begin the process as rapidly as possible and therefore to get onto the statute book as rapidly as possible the legal powers to do that. That is why it is equally urgent that we proceed with the scrapie part of the Bill as the Government consider the provisions are needed as regards the foot and mouth disease. No doubt others will take a different view.

I shall be making a Statement in the House on the report of the Royal Society and on the Anderson report, due on Monday, after we have received it. Some of these matters can then be discussed more widely. But before the House today is a Motion which enables us to adopt a sensible timetable, but it is only about the order in which we take the Bill. I therefore hope that the House will accept the Motion and not take the unprecedented step of voting against it. Some of the substantive points which have been raised can be dealt with in the normal way in Committee in this House. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.