Lord Moran in "Country Illustrated"From the May edition of "Country Illustrated" page 10
The noble lords were not content.
In its own silken language, the House of Lords gave a soldier's farewell to intended but malodorous Government legislation on animal health (i.e. animal slaughter)
by Lord Moran
The writer is a former ambassador to Hungary and high commissioner to Canada. An elected hereditary peer in the reformed House of Lords, he sits as a cross-bencher. He is 77.
On Tuesday, March 26, an extraordinary and unprecedented event took place in the House of Lords. To everybody's astonishment (including mine) the Government was defeated by 130 votes to 124 on my motion that the house should refuse to hold the Committee Stage of the Animal Health Bill - designed as it was to give the government more powers to deal with any further outbreak of foot-and-mouth - until the results of the Government's consultation and the inquiries they had set up were available.
What was even more surprising was that this victory was won despite the Government's three-line whip, whereas the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives had no whips on. They sympathised with my amendment but did not support it as they preferred to make any challenge at a later stage. There is no previous instance of a motion to delay the Committee Stage of a Government Bill being successful.
How did this come about? Almost everyone agrees that the Animal Health Bill, which might more appropriately be called the Animal Slaughter (Facilitation) Bill, was a thoroughly bad Bill. The bishop of Hereford described it as "harsh,unjust and untimely". Late last year it was rushed in without consultation, and was passed by the House of Commons without amendment.
It had aroused widespread concern among vets and farmers. It was designed to legalise and extend powers for mass slaughter, under which so many thousands of healthy animals were killed last year. It contained provisions of a positively Stalinist nature, such a making it a criminal offence, punishable by up to six months in prison, for anyone refusing to assist an inspector in killing an animal.
A section on scrapie was based on disputed science and might have resulted in the elimination of old-fashioned sheep breeds such as Herdwicks and Hill Radnors. It extended slaughter powers to cover all animals, including horses.....
It was an unusual step but the public Bill Office found me some precedents including one of 1887 which argued that 'it is inexpedient for the House to proceed further with a Bill of so crude and delusive a character in so hasty a manner....." I felt much the same about this Bill which had received a severe mauling at Second Reading. twenty two peers had been critical, many strongly so, while no fewer that 14 speakers had made the point that it was wrong for the Bill to go forward without knowing what the inquiries advised.
....The government had stressed the need for urgency - yet they had allowed two-and -a -half months to elapse between Second Reading and Committee Stage, and in a whole year had done nothing effective about the import of meat from countries where foot and mouth disease was prevalent, or to put an end to illegal imports either in commercial consignments or in personal baggage.......The Liberal Democrats and Conservative Parties preferred to put off any challenge until a later stage , which I said left it to a Dad's Army of myself and like-minded colleagues to make a case for delay based on obvious common sense.
The debate which went on for more than two hours was an impressive one. Speaker after speaker attacked the Bill and DEFRA's muddled handling of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Many of those who spoke were distinguished and very knowledgeable - among them Lord Plumb, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, Lord Ferrers, Lord Livsey, Lady Mar, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, Lord Jopling, the Bishop of Hereford, Lord Willoughby de Broke. They each made different but cogent points.....Lord Whitty, responding for the government, could not convincingly defend the indefensible.
From all round the House, peers agreed on the need to wait for the results of the inquiries. But it was impossible not to sense the changing atmosphere - a steady growth of determination to force the government to see sense. Before the debate I had thought it likely that, in the absence of whipped support from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives I might well obtain only 20 or so votes and so face a humiliating defeat by the whipped government supporters. This might make it more difficult to mount a challenge later, and start off opposition to the Bill on the wrong foot. I knew that there would be some support, but I expected that strong doubts would also be voiced. I told those I spoke to that I had not made up my mind, but on the whole doubted whether it would be sensible to force a vote.
During the debate I began to wonder if it would perhaps be appropriate to divide. As we had gone into the chamber I had agreed with the Bishop of Hereford that it would be a mistake to divide. He now sent me a note saying, "It looks as though we should divide." I scribbled down on a piece of paper the pros and cons of dividing and asked my neighbour, Ivan Monson, what he thought.
He agreed that it was difficult but thought it might be worth dividing if I could get 40-50 votes. I thought that as the views expressed in the debate had been so overwhelmingly against going forward with the Bill we ought to get 50 votes. Then I was handed a note saying, "John, your wife says, Please divide!" I was already persuaded that we should risk it.
When the moment came, I said that it seemed to me dotty that I should try on my own to challenge the government but, having heard what had been said all round the House I thought that, however slender our chances, those who took the same view as I did should have the chance to express their opinion. So I asked for a division.
I chose to be one of the tellers and was astonished to find, on going through to one of the lobbies, that there was a great concourse of peers waiting to vote with me. when they began to stream through and I ticked them off on my clicker there were clearly more than 50 - Conservatives, Cross Benchers, two Bishops, Ulster Unionists and the lone Green Party representative. The Conservative Front bench had, in the light of the strong views expressed by their supporters, decided to vote for me.
My fellow teller, Lord Mackintosh, a Labour whip who knew all about divisions, told me that four Liberal democrats had voted for me and added, "If enough Liberal Democrats abstain, I think you could win." This stunned me. We made our way back to the Chamber and soon after, in a dazed state, I was handed a bit of paper and told to take it up to the Lord Chancellor. This meant, I knew, that we had won. I handed the paper to Lord Irvine. He read out the numbers and announced that the Not Contents had won. I stared at him, and he corrected himself and said that the Contents had won.
Next day we learned that Lord Whitty had said on the BBC Farming Today programme that the result had been due to a wish to avenge the Government's decision on hunting, aided by hereditary peers who had been bussed in for the purpose. This was clearly rubbish, and I am glad that Lord Willoughby de Broke was given the opportunity of refuting it on the radio next day. Hunting had nothing to do with it. The 130 voted for what appeared to them obviously right and sensible.
But I still found it hard to believe that we could win this vote. Nobody expected it. The government, knowing that the two Opposition parties were not disposed to mount a challenge did not, I think, take my effort seriously, though thy e did put on a three-line whip. They clearly thought it inconceivable that one elderly Cross Bencher could, without whipped support, defeat them.
I thought it encouraging that a vote had been won without the help of Opposition whips. The result had, I believe, been largely due to what had been said in the Chamber, to widespread anger about the Government's handling of foot-and-mouth and meat imports, and to the clear and obviously sensible terms of the amendment.