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Animal Health Bill

 

Second Reading in the House of Lords

 

Monday January 14

 

 

 

(      This Bill has two purposes, both intended to give the Minister (and officials in DEFRA) wider powers: to tackle FMD and other diseases if necessary; and to extirpate TSEs, particularly scrapie in sheep. For both the only weapons envisaged seem to be mass slaughter or the complete elimination of certain genotypes.

 

(      Serious reservations have been expressed about the Bill by a number of organizations, including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Rare Breeds Trust. By and large, farming organizations have opposed it. The NFU was, in the first place, cautiously welcoming, but has now decided that the Bill is premature. The reservations can be divided into political/legal and scientific/veterinary ones.

 

(      Political/legal: HMG has refused to have a full enquiry into FMD but set up a number of smaller ones to deal with different aspects of the problem. There seems no point in putting forward a Bill before all these enquiries have reported, as until then we can have no indication whether the course of action proposed in the Bill is the right one. The independent Devon enquiry has made it clear that MAFF/DEFRA's handling of the epidemic has been very poor and has probably contributed to the length and severity of the crisis. The Bill, on the other hand, is giving more power to the very officials who were criticized in the Devon enquiry. It also takes away any rights of appeal against their actions or any possibility of challenging unfair or, as happened on numerous occasions, incompetent decisions.

 

(      Although the usual disclaimer about the Bill being "compatible with the [Human Rights] Convention rights is present on p. 1, doubts have been cast by a number of lawyers. [In particular, there is a text of a letter by Stephen Smith QC in which he analyzes the Bill in relation to the Human Rights Act of 1998.] The Bill, in Mr Smith's view contradicts three articles of the Act: Article 6(1) ("Right to a fair trial"), Article 8 ("Right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence") and Article 1 of the First Protocol ("Right to property"). HMG seems to be relying on the fact that few farmers will have the financial wherewithal to challenge them in court.

 

(      The Bill legitimizes the contiguous cull retrospectively. MAFF/DEFRA's right to carry it out was challenged on around 100 occasions and usually the officials backed off. It is now said that those challenges prevented the Ministry from dealing with the epidemic as efficiently as they would have wanted to. In fact, of the 103 cases where slaughter was successfully staved off, only 8 were shown to have the virus later on. This is not a high enough rate to justify the accusations HMG has levelled at "obstructionist farmers". The alternative suggestions of what might have been takes us into the realms of speculation, which is not a good basis for legislation.

 

(      The Bill gives the Minister the right to decide on the slaughter of any animal, farm or domestic, in order, supposedly, to control FMD or other diseases from a long list to which new ones can be added. However, there will be no need to show that the animals are infected or, indeed, could have been at any time. It is not clear how this will control any disease  animals that are not anywhere near it will be liable to slaughter. This will include vaccinated animals, which is scientifically absurd.

 

(      Farmers and animal owners will have no right to protect their animals; they will be legally bound to help with the slaughter should the inspector require it.

 

(      Compensation for compulsorily slaughtered animals is being reduced from 100% of value to 75% with optional additions.

 

(      The ease with which right of entry and slaughter will be acquired on the basis of little more than the inspector's opinion, with no possibility of appeal by the farmer and with no due judicial process goes against established legal structures and natural justice.

 

(      A farmer or animal owner can be prosecuted for three years after the alleged offence. Normally, prosecution has to be started within six months.

 

(      Scientific/veterinary: The Bill does not require any scientific or veterinary justification for the designated slaughter. It gives no scientific or veterinary justification for slaughter on the proposed scale being the right way of dealing with all or, indeed, any diseases. The provision for the slaughter of vaccinated animals, who, generally speaking, are not considered to be carriers by most scientists and vets, shows a reluctance to look at any other method of dealing with animal diseases. This is, surely, a very odd attitude at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

 

(      The Schedule on TSEs (scrapie) suffers particularly from inadequate science. DEFRA has given some scientific justification for their proposal to isolate and exterminate certain genotypes in sheep, but these have been criticized severely by the Rare Breeds Trust [I have copies of both documents.]

 

(      Understanding of scrapie is considerably less well developed than DEFRA says it is. There is no definite knowledge of how many strains of scrapie there are and which genotypes are susceptible to which. Nor is it clear that those genotypes that appear not to be susceptible to one strain are not, in fact, masking susceptibility. Sheep that are susceptible to the particular strain of scrapie DEFRA seems to have concentrated on, may be not susceptible to other diseases. In these uncertain circumstances it seems foolhardy to decide to extirpate one or more genotypes. It is hardly the way to deal with a disease in any case. More research should be done on vaccination, cure, prevention, or natural breeding programmes.

 

(      The UK Government is signatory to the 1992 Biodiversity Convention. This Bill is in direct contravention of that document.

 

(      The Rare Breeds Trust has pointed out that a large proportion of the UK rare breeds have already been lost to disease and even more so to the way FMD has been handled. This Bill will be catastrophic to rare breeds farming. The vague references to exceptional circumstances do not give sufficient guarantee that rare and special breeds will be saved from deliberately engineered extinction.

 

(      One can't help feeling that this part of the Bill was written in the certain expectation that BSE will be found in sheep  an odd way to carry out scientific experimentation. The subsequent debacle has undermined the argument and has cast serious doubts on government scientists' work in general. The hysteria about TSE seems incomprehensible in any case. Scrapie is not transferable to other species and even BSE has not been proved to cause human disease.

 

(      Representatives of the International Rare Breeds and of the Royal College of Veterinarian Surgeons (including its President, Roger Green) have made their criticism of the Bill public in the Letters columns of the Daily Telegraph. Many veterinarians have made it clear that they will not co-operate with the government and officials if the Bill is passed.

 

 

 

Helen Szamuely

8.01.02

020 8740 7194

szamuely@aol.com