A slightly shortened version of this article appeared in the journal "British Dairying" August 2002
The Animal Health Bill
“The Department needs to put its own house in order before it begins to legislate about the behaviour of the others with whom it has to work.” (Malcom Bruce MP for Gordon, Hansard Nov 11 2001, speaking about DEFRA)
“This Bill is a knee jerk reaction.” A dairy farmer from Tewkesbury, writing to Lord Moran, meant that government was grabbing a vindictive means of saving face after the debacle of their handling of foot and mouth. Lord Moran had, by means of a maverick cross bench amendment last March, staved off the bill for a while. Now it is back with a vengeance.
The Bill’s main features are these;
The DEFRA Minister is given the power to decide on the method of disease control in any “susceptible” (ie any) animal in order to control FMD, scrapie - or other diseases he chooses to add later.
A JP may issue a warrant authorising an inspector or a constable to enter premises, “if necessary using reasonable force”; and various new “offences” are created to prevent anyone from doing anything to impede DEFRA’s officials.
Compensation for compulsorily slaughtered animals on “Infected Premises” is being reduced from 100% of value to 75% - with optional additions if DEFRA thinks the farmer’s “bio-security” is good enough..
Farmers and animal owners will not be permitted to object to any measures the “inspectors” choose to carry out; they will be legally bound to help with slaughter or any other method of control should the Minister’s local official require it.
Also in the shadowy background of this bill is the Food Standards Agency, strangely impatient for government to coerce sheep farmers into the “voluntary” but deeply unpopular National Scrapie Plan. The Bill, therefore, provides additional powers to deal with “TSEs” in sheep. This has the laudable aim of getting rid of scrapie – but actually to eradicate breeds with genotypes that are not resistant to scrapie, ignoring the useful or hardy characteristics they do have, is short sighted and is without scientific basis or authority. Scrapie is not transferable to other species, no sheep has ever been naturally infected with BSE, eating lamb infected with scrapie has never been found to be harmful to humans - nor is there, even now, any proven link between BSE and vCJD.
Indeed, the new Bill does not attempt to give any scientific or veterinary justification at all for its assumption of omniscience in dealing with disease. The proviso that slaughter will occur:
“only when the scientific and veterinary advice is that that is necessary”,
as Margaret Beckett so unhappily phrased it, cuts little ice with other scientists and vets. The inflexibility and ignorance of senior DEFRA vets and their disproportionate power over farming is deplored by veterinary experts in animal disease. At a sheep fair at the end of July, Lord Whitty was cornered by farmers, and given their opinion too, (in no uncertain terms), of the “scientific and veterinary advice” to which the government was listening.
The loudest DEFRA argument in support of this bill– for which Margaret Beckett had later to apologise - was that farmers opposing contiguous culls slowed the control of disease and caused foot and mouth to spread and that this must be stopped in future. Mr. Peter Ainsworth, former Shadow DEFRA Minister at the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Commons (12th November 2001)said,
“The notion that farmers were to blame for the disaster of foot and mouth disease is at the heart of the Bill. Whenever anything goes wrong, it is the Government's natural and cowardly instinct to look around for someone else to blame.” : (Hansard 12/11/01) “….culling was due to take place on 34 farms in the Forest of
Dean, but it took place on only 18. A successful legal challenge by farmers
resulted in the Minister using his discretion to arrange for blood tests to
be carried out on the animals on the remaining 16 farms. Those animals were
saved from the cull, and it eventually turned out that none of the farms had
any infection at all.”
This was also the case with the 200 farms saved from the cull in Devon. None of them ever succumbed to disease. It’s hard to believe the government really believes its own spin about farmers being to blame. So what is really driving this Bill?
A more likely motive can be found on Page 93 of Dr Anderson’s Lessons Learned Report, in the throwaway line:
“The Chief Veterinary Officer feared that a national 3km pre-emptive cull was neither practical nor likely to be legal”
DEFRA are perhaps not best known for their proportionate responses to matters of disease control but they are known for not liking to have their authority questioned. Mr Justice Harrison, ruling in the case of MAFF v. Mrs R.J.L. Upton, found "that there is much to be said for the alternative of monitoring and blood testing which Mrs Upton offered in the first place... .."that is the proportionate response to the situation in which we now find ourselves" Costs were awarded against the Ministry, a great deal of Ministerial face was lost, and they dared not take to court any other farmer with the temerity to stand up to them.
So what lessons learned from the 2001 foot and mouth devastation are reflected in this new bill? Sadly, none. It was drafted not long after the Maff v. Upton ruling, long before the Inquiries were properly underway. Although the Royal Society Report says,
“we believe that this should be studied further in the light of the data from the 2001 epidemic to determine under what circumstances this would be appropriate” (paragraph 9.39)
present contingency plans still include the 24/48 hour pre-emptive slaughter policy. Since Prof. David King confided recently that the UK government
“sees no reason yet to switch from the established slaughter policy”
new powers in the AHB would rigidly enforce this. Elliot Morley, however, has called the Bill “ a proportionate response to the very real threat of a future outbreak of serious animal disease…”
Nevertheless, its passing into law will remove the protection in the Courts. Farmers will not be able to contest disproportionate DEFRA policies having no scientific or veterinary basis beyond the whim of the civil service vets.
Far from encouraging a new era of mutual respect between Ministry and farmer - this Bill lays down rigid regulations to ensure that DEFRA has an even stronger whip hand.
In July this year, Lord Greaves was moved to say
“One has only to think what would happen if these kinds of powers, for these kinds of purposes, were applied to other businesses. There would be a huge outcry. It is only because farmers and other people who live in the countryside have still not fully recovered from the swingeing blows that they received during the foot and mouth outbreak that the outcry against them is not much greater.” (Lords Hansard July 25 2002)
A dairy farming couple in Herefordshire, who successfully fought off Defra’s attempts to kill their healthy stock, are certainly prepared to make an outcry. They have written to Mrs Beckett., concluding:
the Government used its existing powers of slaughter very irresponsibly. Under such circumstances it is inconceivable that any additional powers of slaughter are justified. I sincerely hope you will respond to this letter with some urgency, in view of the fact that the Animal Health Bill will again be debated in the Lords after the recess. It is vital that those who oppose this draconian piece of legislation are given access to the truth.
It is to be hoped that the Minister receives many such letters. If the public indifference to it continues, this Bill will go through on the nod when it gets back to the House of Commons after Summer Recess.(It did.)