April 18

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The following letter was received by Hilary Peters on Aril 18th in answer to hers of January 9th in which she made many points about the Animal Health Bill. The hyperlinks show the relevant parts of Hilary's response to this letter.

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Dear Ms Peters.
ANIMAL  HEALTH  BILL
 
Thank you for your letter of 9 Jan 2002 to Lord Whitty on the Animal Health Amendment Bill, which has been passed to me.  Please accept my apologies for the long delay in responding.  Defra faced difficulties last year in processing correspondence, following the Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, and the creation of a new department.  Steady progress is being made towards eliminating the backlog of cases, and performance on incoming letters has considerably improved.  I can asure you that all efforts will continue to be devoted to this area until the problems have been fully resolved.
 
You may be aware that on 26 March the House of Lords passed the amendment to postpone committee consideration of the Bill until the Government had published its response to the recent consultation on implementation of the powers in the Bill; and published the findings of the Royal Society inquiry into foot and mouthdisease and the NAO value for money evaluation.  These processes will not be complete until after the end of the current parliamentary session.  This means that the House of Lords has effectively suspended debate on the Bill for the time being.
 
I will nevertheless address point by point  the concerns you raise in your letter.
 
1.     The Bill does not attempt to blame the responsible farmer for the spread of disease such as the recent FMD outbreak. The majority of farmers behave responsibly and take proper precautions to prevent the spread of disease. There is however a link between poor bio-security and the spread of the disease. The small minority of farmers and others whose bio-security standards are not up to scratch are putting at risk the responsible majority and the wider rural community.
 
Farmers are responsible for safeguarding their stock against FMD and no resposnsible farmer who was complying with existing legislation would lose compensation under the measures of the Bill. In fact responsible farmers would benefit from the higher standards and lower risk of disease that the arrangements would encourage amongst less responsible neighbours.  We would fully expect to pay 100% compensation to the vast majority of farmers.
 
2.     There is specfic legislation (the Welfare of animals (Slaughter and Killing) Regulations 1995) which governs the killing of animals for disease control purposes.  We expect those who become involved in disease control killing operations to ensure they comply with it. Amongst other things, this legislation lays down the way animals must be treated and the permitted killing methods. If carried correctly, these methods will result in the humane death of the animal.
 
Any decision to slaughter would continue to be made on the basis of sound veterinary advice when animals are thought to be at high risk of infection. The new powers do give additional powers to slaughter unexposed animals but only when there is epidemiological evidence that it would limit the spread of the disease. eg a firebreak cull.
 
Veterinary advice leading to a decision to slaughter would continue to take account of all relevant circumstances, including the housing and husbandry of the animals and the circumstances of their contact with other animals. There would continue to be discretion for the local DEFRA officials to exempt animals that are susceptible to foot and mouth disease whenever possible consistent with preventing the spread of the disease.  Any relevant matters would continue to be taken into account
 
3.     Your third concern relates to the Bill's provisions which would enable entry to premises to be gained to carry out a decision to slaughter animals to prevent the spread of disease. Currently, if a farmer refuses access to their farm DEFRA has to obtain an injunction from the courts.  The Bill would allow DEFRA to apply for a warrant from a magistrate, which would save time and speed the culling process when it is necessary.
 
The recent consultation on, and transparency of, the criteria on which any decision would be based to slaughter an animal to prevent the spread of disease was intended to insure this power of entry is only required in a minority of cases, if at all.  But where the veterinary advice is that slaughter of an animal is necessary  to prevent the spread of disease the right of entry is needed to ensure this is carried out quickly to prevent the disease spreading to other animals and therefore to minimise the number of any further animals which have to be slaughtered. The Justice of the Peace could only grant a warrant for entry where the conditions in the Bill are met. This procedure is similar to a number of other existing circumstances reflected in other legislation where there is a need to ensure a fair balance between the rights of the individual concerned and the public interest.
 
In order to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights slaughter of animals must meet the following criteria:
be justified in the public interest
be proportionate - ie have a reasonable relationship between the aim sought to be realised and the means employed.  There must be a balance between the interest of the general community and the requirements of the protection of the individual's trights.
be legal
We believe this Bill achieves this.
 
In addition, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published its tenth report on 28 January, concluding that the provisions of the Bill were capable of being put into practice in ways which are compatible with the Convention rights. DEFRA official , when exercising their statutary powers, of course must ensutre thet they do so in ways which are compatible with Convention rights. As I mentioned above, we are fully committed to doing this.
 
4&5        I would like to reassure you that that the slaughter powers would apply only to animals susceptible to FMD, that is cattle, sheep, pigs and other ruminants, and only when scientific and veterinary advice is that slaughter is necessary to prevent the spread of disease.
 
We do recognise there are concerns about how the powers would be used in relation to particular groups of animals.  The Governmevt cannot give a blanket exemption to any category of susceptible animal, as there may be occasions where these animals need to be culled to control the spread of disease.  However we also recognise that there are particular factors which may apply tp some groups pf animals, such as how they are kept, which can reduce the level of risk that they pose to the spread of disease.
 
Our instructions to local veterinary managers  include discretion to exempt - depending on a full veterinary assessment - certain types of FMD-susceptible animals from culling.  These may include pets, rare breeds and aniamls in sanctuaries.  This would not change under the new Bill. I repeat there is no question of killing species that are not susceptible to FMD such as horses cats and dogs.
 
6.    My answer to your point 2 explains how any decsion to dsalughter must be based on veternary, scientific and epidemiological advice.  In adition ministers are required to act proportionately and reasonably at all times.
 
7    We accept that there are lessons to be learned from how the FMD outbreak was handled last year and the independent inquiries that the Governmant has set up will provide a valuable contribution to tackling any further outbreak. However we have already learned some lessons from last year's outbreak and believe it would be irresponsible of the Government not to try and take additional powers now in order that we may be prepared in the event of an outbreak of disease in the near future.
 
A fundamental lesson of the BSE Inquiry is that governments should be prepared to act in the face of uncertain threats.  With growing evidence of global warming and increasing international trade in animals and their products there is a very real risk that some new and little understood disease may reach the UK.  Some of these may cause human fatalaties. The Bill would expand the armoury for dealing with them.
 
To conclude, we believe that the measures contained in the Bill are a proportionate response to the very real threat of a future outbreak of serious animal disease.  They are not simply measure on culling, but also measures to assist with applying options like vaccination and blood testing.  The powers would enable us to contain disease outbreaks more effectively and to eradicate them more quickly thereby benefitting both farmers and the wider community.  It may prove dangerous to wait for many months, or possibly years, before new parliamentary time becomes available.
 
The halting of the Bill has meant that the Scrapie provisions as well as the disease control provisions of the legislation have been lost.  These would have enabled the voluntary National Scrapie Plan to become compulsory at some stage, and have commended a large measure of support.
 
Yours sincerely,
Elizabeth Knapp
DEFRA Animal Health Bill Team