Standing Committee E

Thursday 29 November 2001

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Animal Health Bill

2.30 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. Further to my request to the Minister, could the very long, detailed and interesting speech that he made in the Committee this morning be made available to the Committee in note form this afternoon?

The Chairman: I understand that copies are now available in the Room. Does the Minister wish to add anything?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Further to that point of order, if copies are not available in the Room, they will be very shortly, because I have arranged--[Interruption.] I understand that they are available in the room. I am glad that the hon. Lady found what I had to say interesting. I like to think that whenever I speak, it is interesting.

Clause 2

Extension of power to slaughter

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 12, line 4, after `of', insert `contagious'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in page 2, line 4, after `of', insert `infectious'.

No. 87, in page 2, line 5, after `disease', insert--

`except where those animals have been kept indoors constantly since the day before the first announcement by any Government Department of an outbreak'.

No. 118, in page 2, line 5, after `disease', insert--

`following a full disease risk assessment'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 7, at end insert--

`(1A) An order under subsection (1)(a) above may in particular refer to the following diseases:

Foot-and-mouth disease

Swine vesicular disease

Peste des petits ruminants

Lumpy skin disease

Bluetongue

African horse sickness

Classical swine fever

Newcastle disease

Vesicular stomatitis

Rinderpest

Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia

Rift Valley fever

Sheep pox and goat pox

African swine fever

Highly pathogenic avian influenza.'.

Mr. Wiggin: This morning we heard the Minister explain how other amendments had not been eloquent enough to be worthy of his approval. How much more eloquent can they be than ``insert the word `contagious'''? I am pleased to speak on a very important improvement. Some may think that some amendments are not as helpful to the passage of the Bill as others. How much more helpful can we be than adding just one word?

It is important to point out at this stage that this part of the Bill refers to diseases other than foot and mouth. It is extraordinary for the Minister to find it necessary to slaughter animals that have a disease that is not contagious or infectious. Why would he want them slaughtered? Having thought a great deal about that, I wondered whether the cat-loving Minister, in the kindness of his heart, wished to put suffering animals out of their misery. Realistically, however, I do not believe that that is what is going on in this part of the Bill.

I also wondered whether he thought that there was a genetic reason for slaughtering animals, which is why he omitted the words `infectious' or `contagious' when he drafted the Bill. I know that we shall deal with transmissible spongiform encephalopathy later and discuss the different types of diseases that are transmissible. I also realise that that could not be the Minister's reason for omitting those words. It may be to do with the spread of genetically modified diseases. This morning, Radio 4 announced that evidence had been found that the spread of genetically modified maize pollen was considerably more extensive than first estimated. That is of great concern to my constituents, as there are several GM crop test sites near my constituency.

Then I thought that bovine TB might be the reason that we needed the amendment. Bovine TB can also be spread by badgers, so perhaps the words `infectious' and `contagious' have been missed out of the clause because the Minister plans to slaughter badgers. [Hon. Members: ``Oh, come on.''] It might not be such a bad idea. More legislation is written on badgers than on any other animal, including pandas and blue whales.

I have written to the Minister about the fact that, in my constituency, bovine tuberculosis appears in herds of cattle that could not have been in contact with other cattle because they are surrounded by crops. The only change has been the appearance of badgers. I shall not go on about badgers, because those who remember my father know that they were his obsession and that the Agriculture Select Committee had to consider badgers more than perhaps they should have done.

If it is not badgers, perhaps it is worms. I refer the Minister to the letter that I sent him some time ago about a poor constituent whose sheep were slaughtered in the cull. The run-off went into his worm pit and now he cannot sell his worms in case they have eaten the soil containing the virus and have become infected with foot and mouth. With this gentle nudge, I hope that the Minister will remember to reply to that letter. Why on earth would such vital words as ``contagious'' and ``infectious'' be missed out?

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): My hon. Friend may not forgive me for dragging him back to the subject of badgers, but does he agree that it would be useful to hear in the Minister's response about the effect of the foot and mouth crisis on the badger cull? We read in Farmers Weekly that 90 out of the 3,000 herds involved in the Krebs badger culling trial have now been slaughtered. I believe that the trials, and the slaughter policy on badgers, are still on course, so it would be useful to know how that affects having results by 2004{**nrl**}05. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be useful?

 

Mr. Wiggin: Yes, that would be extremely useful and I am sure that the Minister has much to say about badgers, and we looking forward to hearing it.

Amendment No. 87 deals with animals that have been kept indoors constantly since the day before the first announcement, and it would be a useful addition to the Bill because it offers farmers and animal owners the carrot approach--the incentive to take action to protect their own stock. The carrot and stick approach would be useful in the Bill, but is missing.

 

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will the hon. Gentleman define ``indoors''?

 

Mr. Wiggin: The key point that the hon. Gentleman seems to be getting at concerns intensive pig units.

Mr. Drew: No.

Mr. Wiggin: Perhaps not yet. We are looking for an opportunity for people to take positive action to protect their animals. The important thing is not whether they are indoors or outdoors, but that they have been protected and action has been taken before the disease was announced. That would be a useful addition to the Bill.

 

Mr. Drew: Should not the words be, ``secure from any other wildlife''? Being indoors is completely irrelevant to any farm unit that is secure from wildlife.

 

Mr. Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is leading me down the garden path to say that it will make no difference where animals are kept. During the debate, we might find out whether one can make a building disease-proof. I certainly hope that the offices in Pirbright, where the tests are done, are disease-proof.

 

Not only farm animals are at risk; section 32(4)(a) of the Animal Health Act 1981 includes horses. The Minister was at pains to point out that only farm animals were in danger of being culled. Horses are not farm animals and I am sure that he recognises that, when dealing with a problem as thorny as the spread of disease other than foot and mouth, he would have needed a wider remit. That is why I am surprised that poultry were not covered. Foot and mouth does not affect poultry, but other diseases do, and that might have been a useful addendum. The Bill is beginning to widen and badgers, horses and other animals are beginning to appear on the Minister's menu for culling.

 

No one is perfect, and we are doing our best to improve the Bill. Labour Members may snigger, perhaps at the thought of their own imperfections or at the thought of mine, but the amendment, which would insert just one word--either ``contagious'' or ``infectious''--into the Bill, would considerably restrain the much wider powers that the clause gives the Minister. What is the point of culling animals that are not infectious or cannot pass on a disease unless it is genetic? I hope that the Minister will tell us why animals that are not infectious need to be culled. I have given the matter a great deal of thought and I can find no evidence of the Ministry proving conclusively that it knows precisely when animals are contagious or infectious. Indeed, this does not help them in that search.

 

This part of the Bill is wide and draconian, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have made about spreading the net wider. If we were considering the spread of disease other than foot and mouth, we would be considering diseases of which the Committee does not have a great deal of veterinary experience. Inclusion of the word ``contagious'' or ``infectious'' would be a positive step.

If that is not acceptable, including the phrase

``following a full disease risk assessment''

would ensure that we knew what we were talking about before culling. Given that the Minister may be doing something else in the future and although his intentions are undoubtedly positive, it might be useful to improve the clarity of the Bill for his successors. The Minister wanted transparency in the Bill and I hope that we shall get that transparency and clarity to show us which animals can and cannot be culled to prevent the spread of diseases other than foot and mouth.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what diseases would be covered by the provision, why they are not specified, why the words ``infectious'' or ``contagious'' would be such a disaster in the Bill and why he would want to cull animals that were not contagious.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I should like to speak to the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). I thank the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) for his encouraging words about it. The amendment would require a disease risk assessment to consider whether a disease was infectious or contagious, where the animals were kept, how secure they were from wild animals and how near or far they were from other animals that might be susceptible to the infection. The words in amendment No. 118 cover all the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Leominster and I commend it to the Committee.

 

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I, too, shall be brief and supportive of the two contributions that have already been heard on this group of amendments. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the clarification that has been sought, because we need to know on what grounds he would take those powers to himself. Two vital issues are at stake. First, slaughter should be made less of a blunt instrument to allow for exceptions where it is warranted, for example in respect of animals that have been neither in contact with, nor exposed to, the disease and are therefore unable to spread it.

2.45 pm

Secondly, a full risk assessment should take place to help the Minister to decide whether a policy of slaughter is the best course of action. That raises questions about who should undertake the assessment and the right to appeal in cases where the policy is followed.

 

Mr. Morley: I accept that the amendments are well meaning, but they are unnecessary, partly because they can be dealt with under the guidelines on acting on these measures and partly for technical reasons. The technical reasons relate to the comments of the hon. Member for Leominster. Amendment No. 12 would insert the word ``contagious''--that is, spread only via direct contact. We cannot accept that, because some animal diseases are not spread by direct contact--that is, they are not contagious. Two examples of that are African horse sickness and blue tongue, where the vector is biting insects. The amendment would restrict the number of diseases that can be dealt with under the Bill.

 

Mr. Wiggin: The Minister's wording appears to be rather different from mine. The amendment does not say, ``due to contact'', but merely ``contagious''.

 

Mr. Morley: Yes, but the definition of ``contagious'' is ``due to contact'', or certainly ``due to local spread'', and some disease vectors are not spread in that way. Incidentally, I do not want to give the impression that African horse sickness and blue tongue necessitate the culling option. The amendment is unacceptable because it would remove the opportunity for limited slaughter to remove reservoirs of infection if it was decided that that was an option. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this part of the Bill covers only foot and mouth disease. If its powers were to be extended to other diseases, it would have to be by the affirmative resolution procedure. That is a safeguard in that it gives Parliament an opportunity to scrutinise and debate any decisions before they are enforced.

 

Mrs. Winterton: As the Minister knows, TB in cattle is a very serious problem, and it is spreading like wildfire up the west coast. Will he comment on how it could be contained--[Interruption.] It is a serious matter, and the amendments could have an impact on its control. Can the Minister give us the benefit of his wisdom?

 

Mr. Morley: Bovine TB is indeed a very serious disease, and we treat it as such. For example, we are implementing the Krebs trial. I shall say no more, Mr. Conway, because you would call me to order if I was diverted from concentrating on the Bill. Amendment No. 87 would exempt animals from wider slaughter powers relating to diseases other than foot and mouth if they have been kept indoors since before the start of the outbreak. I understand the principle behind that, but the problem is that ``indoors'' could be very difficult to define. The consultation, and the guidelines and protocols that we will issue to our vets, will take into account the way in which animals are kept and the balance of risk. As has been said, risk assessment is perfectly reasonable, but we have not included such a provision in the Bill because there would be all sorts of wrangles about what is meant by ``indoors''. We were somewhat surprised by the spread of disease to cattle that were still in sheds during the winter months. We thought that cattle in sheds would be secure from the disease, although it may have been spread by the movement of people. We need to examine such issues. Under amendment No. 118, any decision to use the powers to prevent the spread of disease would need to be based on sound veterinary judgment. I agree entirely, but that principle is taken as read. We shall consult on the criteria so that farmers can understand why those decisions are taken. If the Bill were to include provisions such as a full disease risk assessment, it would be enormous. None the less, I understand and accept the principles behind the amendment. Amendment No. 4 would limit the diseases to which powers could be extended. That would be very constraining and in many respects illogical, as the list does not include TSE or BSE. A key lesson from the Phillips inquiry was that contingency legislation should not be constrained by current circumstance. That we must try to think ahead is one principle behind the Bill. Indeed, the Department is following post-Phillips guidelines by preparing for all eventualities. The Bill does not specify diseases that would not be controlled through a slaughter policy, such as African horse sickness. I appreciate the intention behind the amendment and I assure the Committee that we will take into account the principles that underpin it. Nevertheless, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for the useful information on bluetongue--it is perhaps an improvement on silver tongue, which I was rather hoping I might catch one day. [Laughter.] I recognise that Committee members are working far more closely together in an effort to make constructive progress, but I still have grave reservations about this wide-ranging provision. I am grateful to the Minister for explaining his reservations, and for his answers to some of my questions. I am disappointed that he avoided badgers. None the less, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 5, page 2, line 6, after `compensation', insert `at full market value'.

 

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 25, in page 2, line 7, at end insert `pursuant to section 36(3) of this Act.'. No. 38, in page 2, line 14, at end insert-- `(2A) The Minister shall for animals slaughtered under this section pay compensation, which shall be the value of the animal immediately before it was slaughtered.'. No. 39, in clause 4, page 2, line 39, leave out from `compensation' to end and insert-- `which shall be the value of the animal immediately before it was slaughtered.'. No. 132, in schedule 2, page 19, line 27, leave out from `compensation' to end of line 28 and insert-- `to the full value of the animal immediately before slaughter'. Mrs. Winterton: The amendments relate to the important issue of compensation. Amendment No. 25 refers to the 1981 Act, section 36(3) of which states: ``The compensation payable under subsection (1) or subsection (2) above for anything seized shall be its value at the time of seizure.'' Amendments Nos. 5 and 38 reinforce that point. Amendment No. 5 would require that compensation was paid at full market value. Self-evidently, it would ensure that farmers' rights were protected and that orders could not limit compensation. Amendment No. 38 would reinforce that point by inserting: ``The Minister shall for animals slaughtered under this section pay compensation, which shall be the value of the animal immediately before it was slaughtered.'' The important point is that full compensation should be paid. I would like reassurance from the Minister on those points.

 

Mrs. Browning: I shall briefly add to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). EU Governments usually agree the matter of compensation. What discussions has the Minister had with the Commission and other EU partners about compensation levels? Will he outline why he felt it necessary to introduce compensation into the Bill in this way? He clearly has the right to pay compensation when animals are slaughtered. That is not being questioned, but the Bill defines how compensation may be paid in certain circumstances. What discussions has he had within the EU about compensation when there is an outbreak of foot and mouth? How does our compensation for foot and mouth compare with that of our EU partners, if I may use that phrase?

 

Mr. Morley: I shall take the last point first while it is still in my mind. Compensation arrangements vary among member states, and they vary in this country depending on the disease. I shall explain why in a moment. Although I do not know the details of every EU country, I know the Dutch details because I had a long discussion with the Dutch chief veterinary officer about Holland's experiences of foot and mouth disease control. The Dutch told us about their laws on compensation and how it relates to biosecurity. Their laws go much further than the measures in the Bill. In Holland, much of the compensation for foot and mouth comes from a levy on farmers, which means that the state does not pay 100 per cent. As the hon. Member for Congleton rightly stated, the Bill will give us powers to pay compensation for any disease, and we can pay up to 100 per cent. of market value, which is appropriate in many cases. We discussed that issue with farmers' representatives such as the NFU, which does a good job of negotiating on behalf of its members. The reason why 100 per cent. compensation is not specified in the Bill is that it acts as an incentive in the case of diseases such as classical swine fever. The current arrangement is that, where animals are affected, compensation is paid at 50 per cent.; where they are unaffected, it is paid at 100 per cent. It is important for people to report such a disease as quickly as possible to prevent its spread. The mechanism is designed to encourage early reporting, and there is a major incentive for farmers to report the disease before it spreads to their herd. Pigs that are not affected attract 100 per cent. compensation. That is just one example. The Bill contains powers for 100 per cent. compensation, but there should be some flexibility to adjust compensation rates when that is felt appropriate, and to recognise the present regime. The amendments do not recognise that there are differences now. 3 pm There is nothing sinister here. In many cases, market value is not an unreasonable aspiration for farmers, but any responsible Government would want some flexibility to design a compensation scheme with an element of incentive.

Mrs. Browning: I understand the Minister's argument about incentives, and I would generally support it. I am a little concerned that the Government's regulatory impact assessment associated with the Bill--I am afraid I cannot quote it because I gave the document to Hansard this morning--gives the impression that this measure is to save money. It cannot be for both reasons. The Minister has made a sensible case for the incentivisation of compensation, but let us bear in mind that document. It is not made available to Committee members. I do not know how many of them have a copy, but such documents never form part of our general discussion in Committee. I always read them, because I find them fascinating. Perhaps I am a bit odd in that way. Will the Minister look at the wording of that document? It does give the impression that the motive is to save taxpayers' money.

 

Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Lady that saving taxpayers' money is not the primary purpose. That, however, has to be a consideration; the money must be used in a reasonable, proportionate and justifiable way. There is nothing sinister about the fact that the Bill does not specify 100 per cent. compensation. That does not necessarily mean that 100 per cent. compensation will not be paid. There may, however, be cases where we want some flexibility over the structure of a compensation scheme. I do not want the Committee to close that door.

 

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister has been extremely helpful in responding to the valid points that were raised. He has gone out of his way to state, on more than one occasion, that 100 per cent. compensation or full market value could be paid, and that although under certain circumstances that may not happen, he hoped--if he did not quite say that, I, at least, hope--that those who had to lose their stock would be compensated in an appropriate manner. I would have liked him to go a little further, but he has been generous. He has said, ``Trust me; all will be well'', and on this occasion I think that we will give him the benefit of the doubt. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

 

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill. Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill. Schedule 1Adjusted compensation

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 12, line 6, leave out from `slaughtered' to end of line 8. This is a small amendment, and I seek clarification on it. It would omit paragraph 2(1)(b) so that that part of the Bill concentrate on the time when the animal is slaughtered. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could give the reasons why paragraph (b) should be included in the Bill. Perhaps I have a mental block, but I would be grateful for his comments.

 

Mr. Morley: The problem with the amendment is that it would limit the scope of the adjusted compensation scheme. When animals that are dangerous contacts are slaughtered, including those on contiguous premises, we cannot be sure whether they are infected: they may be slaughtered on clinical grounds, or on suspicion. Samples are taken and analysed in the laboratory, after which it is confirmed whether the premises is to be declared as an ``infected place.'' If blood results come back negative, the premises is clear, but if they do not, it will be recorded as an ``IP''. The blood sampling process requires a period of four to five days after slaughter--that is sufficient. However, at the height of an outbreak laboratories can be under severe pressure, so we allow a maximum of 28 days to cover all eventualities. At the height of the recent outbreak, enormous pressure was put on blood-testing capabilities. The main reason was that we expanded the availability of blood testing in this country from a capacity of 400 to 200,000 tests per week. That is no mean achievement. The restraint is that we need category 3 laboratories, but they are not easy to find, so we had to convert and build laboratories to make testing available. That is why the 28-day period exists. Having spent a lot of money on increasing our laboratory capacity, we should be able to deal with tests more quickly, but that time gives us flexibility. It is essential that we have the ability to apply assessments to premises that are subsequently declared as IPs. Otherwise, a category of farmers could escape from the application of the scheme--we are trying to be fair about how it is applied. It is intended that an assessment of the premises will be carried out at the time of slaughter. That is the explanation for the way in which the Bill is written.

 

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister has clarified that point. Although 28 days is a long time

Mr. Morley: It is the maximum.

Mrs. Winterton: Indeed, it is the maximum, but I should have thought that with better and more efficient blood testing, and after the experience of the foot and mouth epidemic, the process could be undertaken more quickly and the time taken to turn a premises into an infected premises could be foreshortened--the Minister has almost said as much. That would be helpful to the farmer and to everybody. In the light of the Minister's reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 12, line 16, leave out `B' and insert `A'. This is a more meaty amendment. Under the terms of the adjusted compensation scheme, and in the case of infected premises, the Bill provides for only 75 per cent. of the value of animals to be paid in compensation to farmers in the first instance. Disease risk assessments are to be made in every IP case. Despite that, Ministers have said on many occasions that they believe only a small minority of farmers failed to meet appropriate biosecurity standards and risked spreading the disease by their action--or, indeed, their inaction. At best, the Bill would significantly slow down the delivery of full compensation for the majority of farmers. The Minister talked earlier about the balance in the Bill, but I he will appreciate that the balance is quite wrong in this regard. The amendment would address that balance. It would also introduce a resource-intensive regime, whereby state vets would spend substantial amounts of their time, which is a scarce professional resource in the middle of an epidemic, producing disease risk assessments. It is reasonable to suppose that, in most cases, those would merely confirm that the farmer had done everything that he could have reasonably have done, and was therefore entitled to 100 per cent. compensation. In paragraph 46 of the explanatory notes, it is conceded that additional costs to the Government will result from these arrangements. However, it also says that ``it is not possible to predict these costs with any certainty''.

 

Mr. Wiggin: This small amendment will go some way to reassuring farmers that the Bill is not designed to penalise them. If 25 per cent. of the perceived value of a farmer's property is immediately withdrawn under this Bill, what sort of co-operation can we possibly expect between farmers and the Ministry? If animals are due to be slaughtered, it is fundamental that full compensation be delivered. Does my hon. Friend have any further views on how much more compensation should be paid to farmers who lose their livestock? They have to wait 28 days to find out whether their premises are infected, so they are already down on the deal. The amendment is an important step that the Committee should take to reassure farmers that they are not a persecuted group of people and that we are not legislating to take away at least 25 per cent. of the value of their stock.

 

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend has raised some valid points. The farming community feels that it stands accused of spreading the disease. Indeed, that type of statement has been coming from Ministers. Perhaps the balance in the level of accusation against the farming community has been wrong, which is regrettable. On Second Reading, the Minister used the word, ``minority''; it is a minority that is involved, and all Committee members agree that the balance seems to have been struck in a wrong and unjust way. Farmers will be given, as a matter of right, only 75 per cent. of the value of their stock and, as my hon. Friend said, they will have to wait for their initial payment for a maximum of 28 days before it is determined whether their premises are infected. They will probably have to wait considerably longer for their money because, sadly, DEFRA repayments take a long time at the moment. I suspect that the delay is due to the current dispute among staff and the creation of the brand new Department. Conservative Members want the Bill to provide a more equitable way of treating our farming community. The purpose of the amendment is to reverse the approach in the adjusted compensation schedule so that it is presumed that farmers are complying with biosecurity standards unless the Minister, advised by state vets, has reason to believe that the required standards may not have been maintained, in which case and only in such cases, a disease risk assessment would be made. Under the amendment, 100 per cent. compensation would be payable, except when the Minister decided it would be appropriate for a disease risk assessment to be made. The number of assessments would be confined to those cases in which it was thought there could be a biosecurity problem. That would also have the benefit that valuable veterinary time would not be diverted from the prime task of controlling the disease into a bureaucratic jungle of producing reports and even more paperwork for someone to examine and on which to make a decision. It would also respond to representations from the farmers concerned, which, in most cases, would prove to be unnecessary. 3.15 pmThere should be a clear policy on biosecurity, with clear and unequivocal advice not only to the farming community, but to DEFRA and other bodies that might visit the farm. Such a policy was not available during the last foot and mouth epidemic. It must be farm sensitive--but perhaps that is an issue for later. The argument for the amendment is forceful and sensible. In one fell swoop, the Minister could prove to the farming community that he believes that the great majority are decent, law-abiding folk who do not want to risk passing on disease because of inadequate biosecurity arrangements. I hope that the Minister will respond to the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled.

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Browning: I wish to add one or two points to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. The 25 per cent. reduction will apply not just to the owners of animals on infected premises, but to people who will be eligible for compensation because they own the animals but their animals are on someone else's premises for good reasons. As we saw frequently during the foot and mouth outbreak, many lambs are overwintered in lowland areas. That is common practice at the time of year when the foot and mouth outbreak struck. Pigs that go to fattening units are not necessarily all owned by the same farmer. It is common practice for farmers who own animals and would be entitled to compensation to send their animals to someone else's farm in good faith. The provision is unfair to that group of farmers in particular. Farmers who send lambs to be overwintered elsewhere have the choice of where to send them, but it is unlikely that they could carry out a full biosecurity check of the farm that they choose. We all recognise good and bad practice in general terms, but it puts an onus on farmers that they have not had to consider in the past. For those reasons, and those outlined by my hon. Friends, the Minister should consider the amendment. He is rightly concerned about biosecurity, but I agree with comments from both sides of the House on Second Reading that it is wrong to assume automatically that a breakdown in biosecurity comes only from farmers

 

3.19 pmSitting suspended for a Division in the House. 3.35 pmOn resuming

 

Mrs. Browning: I support the Minister in his concern about biosecurityone cannot afford to be cavalier about it but I must return to what has been a running theme throughout our deliberations. We have yet to be given a definitive explanation of how biosecurity was breached during the latest outbreak. It would be useful if that information were available, because even though it is not, the Minister has asserted that farmers breach biosecurity to such an extent that a penalty must be built into compensation rates in the Bill. Opposition Members in particular have suggested to the Minister that biosecurity has been breached by all manner of people going on and off farm, including officials. I had the impression that he had not totally discounted that view, yet we have heard nothing about how those problems will be addressed and what the repercussions will be. We are, we trust, in the final weeks of this outbreak, and we hope that no new cases will occur. However, on 22 October the Western Morning News, a daily newspaper in my constituency, reported an incident

 

[Interruption.] I should point out that this is a shocking story. The newspaper reported that the ``Department of Agriculture'', by which it presumably means DEFRA

 

Mr. Morley: News is a bit slow in reaching the west country.

 

Mrs. Browning: We do not need the Minister to tell us that we in the west country are slow. We could teach him and his officials a few things about agriculture in our region. As I was saying, the Western Morning News reported that the ``Department of Agriculture'' is investigating claims that the bloodstained overall of a Ministry slaughterman was discarded in a country lane adjacent to a farm field in Pennymoor, near Tiverton. The point is that disposable overalls--it is pretty clear where they came from--covered in blood were discarded in a part of my constituency that has not been infected. That is a biosecurity issue that should be taken very seriously. In the light of DEFRA's comments, the newspaper claimed that DEFRA was investigating the matter, but in fact it has done absolutely nothing. Mr. Harris, who found the overalls, was advised to contact the local DEFRA office and that the overalls would be collected and examined, but nothing has happened since. He was told to double-wrap the overalls in plastic and put them in his deep freeze--he has duly done so--so that DEFRA could collect them. He has heard nothing. DEFRA is not in the least interested in this serious breach of biosecurity. I hope that it is not out of order to point out that, on Monday, Mr. Harris asked me to tell ``that Margaret Beckett'' to go and look in his freezer. I cite that example in the hope that, when he leaves this Room, the Minister will immediately telephone the DEFRA office in Exeter and demand that it do what it told the Western Morning News it would do more than a month ago: send someone to Pennymoor to investigate that breach. If not, he will have to go and look in Mr. Harris's freezer himself. This is an important matter, and the Minister must recognise that incidents such as this need to be investigated and sorted out. I hope that he will do so. Officials have breached biosecurity and that issue must be properly addressed. It is not a question of playing ping-pong with blame. The Minister knows that if farmers commit serious breaches, he has statutory powers to bring them to court, and I would be the first to support him wholeheartedly if he did so. The Bill makes a financial consideration in terms of a presumption of guilt in relation to the farming community, but gives us no reassurance about breaches of biosecurity by other people, including Ministry officials.

 

 

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): The Minister said that, in a minority of cases, breaches of biosecurity have been caused by farmers and in some cases by officials. Does my hon. Friend agree that the analogous act for him to take in relation to his officials would be to dock 25 per cent. of their salary every time they do so?

 

Mrs. Browning: That sounds like justice, but I suspect that no civil service rules would allow him to take such action. [Interruption.] I should caution my hon. Friend, who is new to the House, that his comments

 

The Chairman: Order. We are straying some way from the matter in hand. Lectures on procedure are always welcome, but not at this point.

 

Mrs. Browning: The measure goes too far and the Minister should consider accepting the amendment, which would be seen as reasonable and fair. He has the power to act, and should act, if biosecurity is breached. The full force of the law should fall on those who do not keep to the rules. In my constituency, we had just eight confirmed outbreaks, but many farms were slaughtered out on suspicion in contiguous culls because they bordered an area where there were a lot of outbreaks. Many of my constituents whose livestock did not get foot and mouth and were not slaughtered stayed on farm for weeks for biosecurity reasons. They were effectively locked into their premises; they could not get out or attend family functions, and suffered from isolation and stress, but were determined not to risk their biosecurity. We owe it to such farmers, who are the majority, to ensure that nothing in the Bill assumes that farmers are reckless, because in the main they are not.

 

Mr. Bacon: In the light of the warning that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton did not quite issue to me, I shall be careful to confine my remarks to schedule 1, page 12, line 16 and the issue of compensation. In doing so, I want to refer to the question of trust--the trust that farmers do or do not have in the Department. Many Members on both sides of the Committee would agree that trust is at an all-time low, and the Department needs to do something about it. I want to cite two examples of farmers' distrust, and indeed fear, of the Department. A pedigree dairy farmer in mid-Devon was told that he faced a contiguous cull because of his proximity to his neighbour's herd. He resisted, because the neighbour said that his cows did not have foot and mouth. He was then told that if he did not allow his herd to be slaughtered, he would not receive compensation in future, and that his neighbour, despite his protestations, definitely had the disease. He asked to wait for test results on his neighbour's stock, but was told that that would not do. He very reluctantly agreed to a contiguous cull, then found out a few weeks later that the neighbour's tests had come back negative. Another Devon farmer resisted culling for several weeks and reached the point where he was almost the only farmer left in his valley who had not been culled. His cows were still healthy and were inspected by MAFF vets every day. They passed the 21-day threshold, so they fell out of the contiguous culling policy. However, the Department built a pyre for various neighbours' stock, which included stock from infected premises next to his cattle sheds. He therefore applied to the Department for an emergency licence so that he could temporarily move his healthy cattle across the road away from the fumes, heat and smoke from the pyre. The Department refused the licence and the farmer had no choice but to have his cattle slaughtered. The Department told him that he would not be compensated if his cattle got foot and mouth, and he could not face years of health problems in his herd if it were affected. There are many more examples. I mentioned those two because they are specific cases in which farmers were effectively threatened that they would not get compensation unless they toed the line and behaved as the Department wanted them to. The Bill explicitly assumes that most farmers have done something wrong and that they are, in some sense, guilty or culpable. Perhaps civil service rules do not permit it, but my earlier analogy stands about departmental officials and what should happen to their salaries. In light of the poor relations between the Minister's Department and farmers, and the extraordinary sweeping powers in clause 1 and the clauses on enforcement to which we shall come, there are probably few clauses in the Bill that could be amended so simply. The Minister could obtain more credibility in farmers' eyes by addressing in their favour the question of compensation. He should make it clear that the vast majority of farmers are trying to do the right thing, to be honest and to abide by the law. No one will have a problem with taking severe action against the minority of farmers who do not act in the right way, but that does not apply to the vast majority. There is huge distrust between farmers and the Department, and it is time that the Minister and his Department recognised that. Accepting the amendment would be an excellent way to make a gesture in the right direction after years of mistrust. 3.45 pm

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Mr. Morley: The way in which this measure is applied is clearly important. I have made it clear on several occasions that I am not blaming the majority of farmers, who were sensible and responsible in their approach to biosecurity. However, a minority were not sensible, and it does not take many such farmers to spread the disease. That is recognised within the farming community, and I pay tribute to organisations, such as the NFU and Ben Gill, that joined the Department on public platforms to emphasise the need for good biosecurity. We spent a great deal of money sending out to all farmers videos that explained biosecurity measures. The videos were also useful to those who reported the disease, because it helped them identify symptoms. It is a fact that 80 per cent. of the disease's spread was a function of local spread, which was caused by contact between animals and movement of personnel, vehicles and machinery. Much of that would have been inadvertent, but some of it was the result of irresponsibility, which we know from the blue box restricted zones. I do not want to point at poor North Yorkshire and Cumbria, but we had the blue boxes in place and we have figures on the number of people who were stopped, the number who were cautioned and the number who were prosecuted for poor biosecurity. Although it was a minority, as I keep emphasising, those figures were depressingly high given all the warnings that we gave and the united front that the Department formed with farming organisations to get the message across. We must therefore consider the majority of farmers who are at risk from the minority, and we take that seriously. I experienced the outbreak from the beginning because I served in MAFF and DEFRA. However, I did not take responsibility for animal health before the general election, although I played a role in the Department. Our officials were in despair. They were working seven days a week on the various committees, including the Disease Emergency Control Centre, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room and the Joint Consultative Committee, with reports coming in on how and why the disease was being spread by a minority of people. That will all come out in the inquiries, because no one has yet heard the views of our officials. That opportunity will come and some of the examples that Members are asking for will be made public. The number of people who are being prosecuted is already public. The figures are available now and I have put them on record in our discussions. I am not blaming farmers uniquely for the spread of the disease. Other factors were involved, such as vehicles, including milk tankers, although I pay attribute to the dairies. I went to Thirsk where the main co-operative had invested in very sophisticated equipment for cleaning its milk tankers. We worked with the co-operative and put money into an on-board disinfectant system so that each time a tanker went to a farm it could be sprayed with an on-board electric machine. That co-operative took its responsibilities very seriously and I want to put on record my appreciation and recognition of the many people and organisations who worked in partnership with us to deal with the problem.

 

Mrs. Winterton: On milk tankers, there was a lot of confusion concerning the Page street policy and whether it was implemented throughout the United Kingdom. One of my constituents was involved with a milk processing company and said that in one area each tanker was required to have a spare man to follow biosecurity measures, but in other places that requirement was not made. My constituent felt that it added a huge cost, albeit for good reasons, for some dairies but not others elsewhere. There seemed to be no conformity in the advice and instructions that were given to those companies.

 

Mr. Morley: There was a standardised policy on the guidance given on milk tankers, feed tankers and other lorries that went on to farms. People sometimes accompanied tankers within the blue box restricted areas, but that was because those areas were very high risk . The measures were taken just within those areas. I do not want to hold those areas out, because the measures were put in place later during the epidemic. That was all part of the experience and information gained from the outbreak. I want to make that clear. I accept that our staff had a responsibility when going on to farms; I do not shirk that for a moment. Reference was made to the steps that we would take on enforcement and I was asked whether there would be penalties, restrictions and so on. I want to make it clear that whenever we received complaints about DEFRA staff or contractors working for DEFRA, they were followed up. Many myths have been associated with the outbreak. For example, stories of DEFRA contractors walking around dripping in blood were legion, but when they were investigated the contractors could not be traced and probably did not exist. Such stories spread from person to person. I assure the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that I shall investigate the story behind the overalls and ensure that there is some follow-up. One of the depressing features of the outbreak was the way in which the myths not only spread--that was inevitable--but were promoted by some people and organisations who should have been more responsible. The Western Morning News was one. The former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), talked about a mass cull on 8 June: as soon as the election was over, everything would be culled. The political opponents of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) made great issue of that too. I hope that he has apologised for his ridiculous mythologising and scaremongering. Biosecurity is a key issue and has been during the disease spread, and throughout the outbreak. That information will come out and will be quantified. There is no argument among those in DEFRA, or in the farming organisations, over the fact that biosecurity is a serious issue, and that we should take steps to ensure that the minority do not jeopardise the majority. The question is how to achieve that. The Bill proposes that all farmers on infected premises--we are talking only about infected premises, not those that are contiguous or on suspicion--will get 75 per cent. of the market value in compensation straight away. Subject to them passing their biosecurity assessment, a maximum of 25 per cent. can be given in addition. We would have the powers to vary that figure so that, say, 10 per cent. may be withheld. That should be seen as an incentive measure. I want to make it clear to the Committee that the Government are under no legal obligation to pay 100 per cent. compensation for infected premises. We are therefore paying 75 per cent. right away, and the additional 25 per cent. is the incentive for all farmers to ensure that they take biosecurity into account and to ensure that the minority do not jeopardise the majority. We have already talked to stakeholders about how to apply that, and I propose to consult on a checklist for biosecurity assessments that farmers would have to follow. It would be useful for them to know the criteria--in a checklist fashion--that they must follow. We can design it to be as simple as possible for when our staff go on to premises that are suspected of being infected. The farmer will have that checklist and know what we are looking for, and our staff will be able to carry out the assessment as quickly as possible. Given that there must be an evaluation and given the time taken to pay compensation, I imagine that the Bill will not inconvenience the vast majority of responsible farmers. Their assessment will be done quickly and, if they pass, that will be communicated to headquarters staff. The processing of claims and payments should not interfere with the 100 per cent. payment.

 

Mrs. Browning: If compensation is contingent on the biosecurity assessment, will the Minister spell something out to us? Given that breaches of biosecurity could have happened weeks before, and an assessment will not take place until the animals are slaughtered, what comes within the remit of the biosecurity assessment? If a breach has occurred, it will be almost impossible, in some cases, to prove that X happened a couple of weeks ago.

 

Mr. Morley: That is a fair point and we have thought about it. If poor biosecurity took place, it may have been outside the remit. However, under the Bill, a time period can be applied retrospectively, so that we can take evidence into account on whether a breach of biosecurity took place in that period.

 

Mrs. Browning: Are we focusing only on illegal movements of animals, as opposed to other biosecurity measures?

 

Mr. Morley: No, but that is an issue in itself. We are focusing on basic steps that a farmer may not have taken, such as using disinfectant baths and mats at the entrance and exit, keeping vehicles clean, how animals and feed have been kept and machinery moved. We shall consult on this issue, which will be transparent, open and made public. There will be a checklist and, in the event of further outbreaks, we shall ensure that farmers have a copy of it and shall publicise it so they can see the measures that we want them to follow. The majority of farmers will not consider that unreasonable. 4 pmThe argument surrounding the amendment is how we apply it, and we have given some thought to that. I do not dismiss the reasoning behind the amendment, because we want to apply the measures in the Bill in a proportionate way. This brings us back to the issue of balance--we do not want unduly to inconvenience responsible farmers with the measures that are designed to protect them. However, the problem with the amendment is that it involves paying the 100 per cent. upfront, and then clawing back 25 per cent. As a general principle, it is always harder to get money back from people once it has been given to them. A procedure that requires checking that farmers have complied with the assessment before money is paid to them would be easier.

 

Mr Wiggin: The Minister's approach is pessimistic, given the Government's record on claiming their own agrimonetary compensation. He knocked the previous Conservative party leader for the potential cull in the Brecon Beacons, which, sadly, did take place, although it was delayed.

There is now no obligation for farmers to come forward with foot and mouth cases if they are putting at risk at least 25 per cent. of the compensation. By failing to pay out 100 per cent. initially, albeit delayed by the machinations of DEFRA, there is no reason why anyone should ever report foot and mouth cases--especially sheep owners, because sheep suffer only from the equivalent of a minor cold.

 

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman can put a point to the Minister, but must not make a speech now. He will have an opportunity to speak once the Minister sits down.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Conway. I simply wanted to ask the Minister what incentive he hopes to achieve by denying 100 per cent. compensation in the first instance. I hope that he has a better answer than what we have heard so far.

 

Mr. Morley: The incentive is that people take biosecurity seriously. I repeat that the Dutch have had this system in place for many years. Theirs is a much more complex system than the one that we propose, which is easy to apply and easy to understand.

I do not believe that there is no incentive to report the disease. Foot and mouth cannot go unnoticed, because it will spread in a big way, as we have just witnessed in the recent outbreak. It is wrong to say that there is no incentive to report it. The incentive is to make sure that the measures are acquired, and that is the idea of the measure. I do not believe that responsible farmers will suffer under these measures. Indeed, they will gain if the standards of the worst are raised to the standards of the best. We shall consult fully on the detailed assessment and publicise the decision, as I have said.

The idea that foot and mouth is just like a mild dose of the flu is another myth. It is a serious welfare issue for sheep. It leads to a very high percentage of abortions and it damages their immune system, which makes them vulnerable to a range of other diseases and illnesses. People should not think that it is just a mild dose of cold, because it is not. It can be much worse in other species.

 

Mr. Bacon: The Minister said that no responsible farmers would suffer. Does he not appreciate that all farmers, including the vast majority who are responsible, are suffering hugely now? They are bleeding. Is he aware that the average income of a farmer in this country is #5,200, and that for a cereal farmer it is #4,400? In the light of that and given the history of relations between farmers and his Department, does he not think that making a gesture to pay 100 per cent. upfront and prima facie assuming that the farmer has done the right thing would be a terrific gesture in the right direction?

 

Mr. Morley: I understand what the hon. Member is saying about gestures. The average income is not #5,000 per farmer, but that is the way that it is recorded. New figures will come out shortly on total farm income, and they will give a more accurate impression.

 

Mr. Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

 

Mr. Morley: I shall give way in a moment.

Average income is not #5,000 per farmer, but that is how it is recorded. New figures will come out shortly on total farm income, and they will give a more accurate impression. I do not dispute for a moment that many farmers have suffered hardship and great stress; I am trying to ensure that disease is brought under control as quickly as possible and that the irresponsible minority do not jeopardise the responsible majority. The vast majority of farmers would not contest that argument because they know that there have been problems with biosecurity. It is not good enough to say that they have been caused by DEFRA staff as well. We have dismissed contractors who have breached biosecurity. We expect it to apply to everybody, and we are not singling anybody out for criticism.

 

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will local authorities have a responsibility to report breaches to DEFRA so that action can be taken in terms of payments? What is the role of local authority trading standards officers?

 

Mr. Morley: We work closely with local authority trading standards departments, and their officers played a key role in relation to blue box areas. I pay tribute to them for that. The nature of their role will form part of the consultation. We are not putting burdens on local authorities; DEFRA staff will carry out the assessments. We want to make that process as efficient as possible.

I understand the arguments about whether compensation should be 100 per cent. or 75 per cent., but what we want is an incentive for good standards of biosecurity. I repeat that we are not obliged to pay 100 per cent. That is not the case in Holland, where there is a farmer contribution. We are not going as far as that, but we are saying that if certain farmers cannot comply with perfectly reasonable biosecurity measures, it is reasonable, as an incentive, to say that the maximum that they can get is 75 per cent. I do not believe that it will apply to many farmers. Sadly, however, it does not take many people to ignore biosecurity rules for the disease to continue to spread.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I have a massive problem with the explanation that I have just had to sit through, despite my attempts to intervene. I am still very unhappy. If farmers are guilty of wilfully neglecting their biosecurity, thereby putting at risk their county, colleagues, friends and neighbours, why stop at 75 per cent.?

The Bill is hopelessly inadequate in terms of guaranteeing biosecurity. Instead of starting with the premise that the man is innocent until proven guilty, it starts with the premise that he might be a little bit guilty, so compensation will start at 75 per cent. That is wholly unfair. It means that it is extremely unlikely that a person who has breached biosecurity will own up, because he is already at a disadvantage. A farmer who thought that he had broken the rules might feel that he would be better off if he sold his flock or his pigs, despite the effect on his neighbours, because he was already presumed to be guilty.

That is why we must begin by assuming that all farmers care about their livestock, and why the amendment is a fundamental step in the right direction to correcting the draconian and repulsive nature of the Bill. I have heard nothing from the Minister to change my mind, and I am heartily disappointed about that. The Bill does not even begin to encourage people to follow the right sort of biosecurity, nor does it properly penalise those who do not. I hope that the Minister will reconsider.

 

Mrs. Winterton: No one in the Committee or outside it would fail to condemn people who had spread the disease through lack of proper biosecurity. However, the problem is wider than the Minister suggested. I start from the premise that I would rather give the farming community the benefit of the doubt because the majority are straightforward and upfront. I would rather say to them, ``We trust you and you should have 100 per cent. compensation for your stock.''

I have great problems with the way in which any lack of biosecurity will be decided by inspectors. The state veterinary service will decide on the evidence from the inspectors, but who will the inspectors be? Will they be suitably qualified? Will they work closely with trading standards? Will they be people who have been picked from the unemployment register and given a little training? Who will act as judge and jury on cases where there may have been a biosecurity lapse? In every case, there will have to be onerous biosecurity inquiries because the Minister will not trust the majority of farmers.

When there is a biosecurity lapse, or it is alleged that there is, will it always be the farmer's fault? How can anyone prove or disprove whether an individual or organisation has brought infection on to a farm?

 

Mr. Morley: It is possible that somebody could bring infection on to a farm, but it is the farmer's responsibility to ensure that it does not happen.

 

Mrs. Winterton: If it is farmers' responsibility to ensure that it does not happen, they must provide footbaths and mats--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Forest of Dean says ``yes'', but if she waits for a moment she may say ``no'' to one or two of my remarks. It is easy to check whether such measures are in place, but one cannot necessarily check that every single person uses them because sometimes people come on to a farm without the farmer knowing, so there could be cases in which other people introduce infection. Although farmers can put up signs at the gate, they must milk and perform other tasks; they cannot stand there with a shotgun saying, ``Do not come on to my farm.''

 

Mr. Morley: Theoretically, that is possible. However, an agreed checklist is in place and the farmer complies with it, even if someone sneaks in or refuses to use the facilities it is not that farmer's fault, and he would not be penalised. That the disease is on a farmer's premises does not mean that he will not get 100 per cent. compensation. What it means is that he must comply with the various checklists in relation to biosecurity, which is reasonable.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister. Therefore, as long as the measures on the checklist, which has not been available during the recent epidemic, are in place, no questions will be asked because the farmer will have implemented biosecurity arrangements, and that will be the case irrespective of whether someone has been come on to the farm without using the facilities. That is a little dodgy.

The Minister has said that instructions were given to DEFRA staff and contractors that biosecurity arrangements should be followed. I mentioned that I was in Devon last week. I did not ask to visit the DEFRA headquarters because the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food forbade my predecessor to visit DEFRA in Exeter, and I thought that it might be a sensitive issue if I asked to go. However, I was taken to the DEFRA headquarters by people involved in one of the farming organisations. They showed me the biosecurity arrangements, which they said--I have no reason to disbelieve them--were in place at the height of the epidemic.

4.15 pm

As the Minister probably knows--my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton certainly knows--the DEFRA headquarters at Exeter is up a long and winding drive. Part way down it are two strips of matting or carpet that are not very wide, and it is difficult to imagine that a wheel that just touches them would be completely disinfected. Unlike in parts of Cumbria, there was no bath in which properly to disinfect a vehicle's wheels. I recently visited a dairy show at the Royal Bath and West showground, and the biosecurity arrangements there were very good. The same cannot be said of DEFRA's. Apparently, a back-drive into the headquarters was frequently used by slaughterers, contractors, veterinary surgeons et al.

I do not mind the Minister's preaching at the farming community, and I agree with him in condemning those who fly in the face of common sense by failing to fulfil biosecurity arrangements. However, I ask him to look at the biosecurity arrangements at DEFRA's headquarters in general and at its Exeter headquarters in particular. Prominent members of the farming community who belong to a farming organisation told me categorically that those arrangements have not been altered since the height of the epidemic.

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Mr. Morley: Such is the stuff of myth. The cleaning arrangements at the headquarters depend on what type of vehicles and staff are visiting. The wheel-cleaning facilities are useful, but limited. We should remember that normal DEFRA staff do not have contact with livestock, and staff who visit farms are given guidelines. For example, they are told to leave their vehicles outside farms, and as the hon. Lady said, they use disposable clothes. The standards that the staff apply are very sophisticated. To point to the use of a wheel bath at the DEFRA headquarters and conclude that there is poor biosecurity shows a gross lack of knowledge of how biosecurity is actually applied.

 

Mrs. Winterton: If any of the facts that I have described became public and were proved not to be myths, one or two of the Minister's statements would not stand up to the light of day. I have repeated what I was told by three people in a genuine fashion. Given that off-farm visits were indeed made to DEFRA's Exeter headquarters, it should have offered the best-case scenario for good biosecurity. However, it did not. Rather than defending what happened, the Minister should be concerned that orders were given but not carried out.

 

Mr. Morley: I shall check. Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, because this is a very important point. Is my hon. Friend poised to make his contribution?

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am indeed. We are not talking about biosecurity for people alone. I do not know how effective, in percentage terms, wheel dips and mats are. We take what precautions we can to prevent the spread of disease, but in practice it is extremely difficult to ensure that every rat, badger or hedgehog crossing a farm boundary has dipped its feet. Indeed, we cannot even control county councils' efforts at biosecurity, or their management of footpaths for that matter. It is extremely unfair to place the onus solely on the farmer. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton agrees that the reason why there was, apparently, only one outbreak in Holland is because it was in Dutch farmers' interests not to tell their Government about the others. She will certainly agree that the emphasis on biosecurity, while laudable in principle, is impossible to put into practice if one starts from the premise that the farmer is 75 per cent. guilty.

 

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend makes his points forcefully. I have made them before myself, and I shall no doubt do so again. As the Minister knows, the biosecurity video that was sent to farmers

 

Mr. Wiggin: Dirty video.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I am not sure whether it was a dirty video, because I have not seen it. I wonder whether the Minister has.

 

Mr. Morley: Yes, I have.

 

Mrs. Winterton: Well done. The video arrived far too late--after the horse had bolted from the stable. If the Government win the day on this part of the Bill and we do not persuade them to change it by accepting the amendment, I hope that the Minister will give the Committee an undertaking that, in future, farm-specific biosecurity advice will be provided early by DEFRA, his officials and so-called inspectors so that it is available and understood if the disease recurs. It should include back-up measures should another outbreak occur. I turn to the point that my young, dashing hon. Friend the Member for Leominster made a few minutes ago. It is completely wrong in principle--I know that the Government do not agree--that farmers should be assumed to be guilty at the outset. They should receive compulsory purchase money or compensation for 100 per cent. of the value their stocks at the outset. I would support the Government if the Minister would take the minority to court and introduce increased fines for those who were found guilty. That is the right way forward. If the fines were sufficiently large and draconianperhaps as draconian as some of the powers in the Billthat would cover the point that the Minister made in his speech. It is not a question of inconveniencing farmers; the measures will certainly increase the Department's costs. As they are justified in only a tiny minority of cases, they are unnecessary and we intend to press the amendment to a vote.

 

Question put, That the amendment be made: The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10. Division No. 7] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

 

NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived.

 

Mr. Roger Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 12, leave out from beginning of line 20 to end of line 2 on page 13. The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 150, in page 12, line 20, leave out `must' and insert-- `may, where in his opinion it is appropriate to do so,'. No. 14, in page 12, line 21, at end insert-- `(1A) A disease risk assessment must take place within 7 days of the Minister having reason to believe such an assessment is necessary and at a time decided in agreement with the occupier of the premises.'. No. 15, in page 12, line 22, leave out `person' and insert `local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner'. No. 64, in page 12, line 31, at end insert-- `(aa) any document drawn up pursuant to the consultation exercise required under section 7 of this Schedule;'. No. 151, in page 12, line 31, at end insert-- `(aa) the extent of compliance with any biosecurity advice given to the occupier of the premises by a veterinary adviser retained by the Minister to advise on appropriate action to prevent a significant risk of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease taking into account local conditions;'. No. 16, in page 12, line 38, leave out `14' and insert `28'. No. 17, in page 12, line 40, at end insert-- `(6A) If the Minister fails to respond to any written representation made under sub-paragraph (6) within a period of 14 days, compensation shall be payable for the animal at the level of 200 per cent. of amount A.'. No. 30, page 13, line 2, at end insert `or since the owner was notified of the requirement to comply with biosecurity rules, whichever is the shorter period'. Mr. Williams: The amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall. Let me say at the outset that this is a poor schedule in a poor clause in a poor Bill. If the Minister is intent in obtaining the co-operation of farmers--I am sure that he is--he is setting about it in the wrong way. The provision tars all farmers with the same brush and gives them a bad name. That is how it is seen in the farming community. The assumption should be that farmers have co-operated and done all they can to control the disease, which is the case in almost every instance. They should be paid the full amount of compensation for animals that have been slaughtered under foot and mouth regulations. The Minister spoke about an incentive. This measure is no incentive at all. If it were, it would encourage farmers to report any possible cases of foot and mouth at the earliest opportunity so that the disease could be controlled. Farmers fear that if they report worrying symptoms among their stock and the presence of the disease on their farm is confirmed, full compensation could be withheld at a later stage. It might be discovered later, through tests, that the premises were not infected, and that the farmers had been penalised unreasonably. We oppose the schedule, especially the parts referred to in the amendment. I shall go through the schedule and explain our reservations. Paragraph 3(1) of new schedule 3A that the Bill inserts in the Animal Health Act 1981 states: ``the Minister must cause a disease risk assessment to be made.'' The point has been made that that would divert resources that could be used to fight the disease. Those resources would be better used to deal with the disease where it still exists, rather than where it has been diagnosed and dealt with. We are also concerned about the person appointed to be an inspector for the purposes of the Act. That should be examined again, because any inspector must have the confidence of the farming community, especially the farmer whose premises the inspector visits. We have tabled a new clause that contains provisions for setting up an ombudsman and an appeal process. England is far behind Scotland and Wales, where such an office exists already and where the ombudsman process is welcomed by farmers as an independent way of settling disputes. Paragraph 3(3) deals with persons under the farmer's control. The issue has been discussed already. Does it refer just to his family and to the people who work on his farm, or does it also apply to people visiting the farm? How much control does the farmer have over those people? He may put in place every facility to ensure biosecurity, but whether people on the farm use those facilities is not under his direct control. Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman's point is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Congleton. The farmer is obliged to ensure that people coming on to his farm comply with biosecurity. In cases where someone does something that is completely outside the farmer's control, regardless of the farmer's compliance with the biosecurity requirements, we would not hold the farmer responsible. However, it is the farmer's responsibility to ensure that people coming on and off the farm--vehicles, visitors--comply with biosecurity. We would expect that to be part of the assessment. Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for that clarification, but the fact remains that farmers and farmers' organisations remain concerned about the implications of the provision and the work that farmers may have to do in order to comply. Paragraph 3(4)(c) contains the phrase ``any relevant report''. The Minister said that the Government would publish a list of the requirements that would satisfy any inspector in the case of an outbreak on a farm. Putting in a catch-all phrase such as ``any relevant report'' strikes fear into the heart of the farming community. Farmers fear that a report could be plucked out of thin air and they could lose their compensation on the basis that they had not complied with it. Biosecurity is a responsibility not only for farmers, but for the Department. Rumours continue to go around that much of the disease was spread not by the people working for DEFRA--apparently, there were only four people working directly for DEFRA in Wales--but by those employed by DEFRA to carry out the action, including slaughter men, hauliers, cleansing operators and temporary veterinary inspectors. 4.30 pmA constituent of mine was unhappy about the cleansing operation that had taken place on her farm. She told me that the inspector was a successful local publican. I am familiar with many pubs in the area, and his is a very successful pub, but the extent of his skill and expertise in inspecting and carrying out the cleansing operation on behalf of DEFRA is another matter. The Department must have employed many people, and we have heard of those who came on to farms intent on cleansing but failing to follow strictly the security measures. That could easily have led to the transfer of infection from the farms that were being cleansed. Inspectors may have travelled through farmyards after leaving an infected farm to return to their homes, and may have transmitted infection in that way. This is a poor schedule that does nothing to encourage farmers to be responsible or co-operate, and dislocates their relations with the Ministry.

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Mrs. Browning: The Minister gave us information about ticking off a checklist. I am concerned about that. The amendments show clearly that several points in the schedule are open to interpretation, especially paragraph (4)(b), which contains the words, ``the extent of co-operation with inspectors and other persons''. What does that mean? What will be deemed to be a failure to co-operate? The wording is open-ended and intimidating to people under stress, who may have to face the slaughtering of the whole of their livestock. It suggests that, however stressed they are, they should be prepared to cave in and accept what is being put to them, and that failure to do so may be interpreted as failure to co-operate, which might lead to a 25 per cent. penalty on the compensation to which they might be entitled. The amendments would remove whole chunks of the schedule. I repeat that the Minister could have consulted before the Bill, so that we could have discussed the specifics of what the Bill intended to achieve. What is the interpretation of ``the extent of co-operation with inspectors and other persons''? People must co-operate with those persons, whoever they may be. Does that mean that if people were on the phone to the local DEFRA office, complaining and arguing their case, it would be interpreted as lack of co-operation? Mr. Morley indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: The Minister shakes his head, but that is an example of what happens in practice, when people under pressure face horrendous experiences. Under the Bill, that sort of thing will appear in a biosecurity assessment. Biosecurity assessments must be based on scientific fact, which we do not have at our disposal because the inquiries have yet to report. The paragraph of the schedule devoted to disease risk assessment should be deferred until we have much more information--not just an assumption or a checklist--about the scientific basis on which an assessment will be made, how it will be put together, who will put it together and the training and qualifications that that person will have. Too much is left out of the paragraph that is critical to farmers and to their right to get proper compensation for animals.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on being very dashing

Mr. Drew: Gallant.

Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) should wait for the lovely descriptions that I have lined up for him. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is a farmer and knows what the situation was like. I listened to his words with much interest. His sweeping amendment would omit paragraph 3 of the schedule. We have talked at length about biosecurity and the lack of it in certain instances. There is no doubt that appropriate biosecurity arrangements will vary among areas, depending on the nature of farming, the local topography and weather conditions, because the disease thrives in wet and cold conditions. I understand that a commitment later in the Bill will ensure that consultation occurs with industry representatives, and that is welcome. However, we must sort out the matters that should be covered by a disease risk assessment. Questions of judgment and interpretation of the national standards will, no doubt, be set and will have to be amended locally. It would be appropriate for biosecurity advice to be tailor made for individual farms; in other words, it should be farm specific and should take local knowledge into account. The service could, perhaps, be best provided by private practice vets, who have better knowledge of local conditions and have a major advantage because farmers are more likely to trust them. We could, therefore, expect higher compliance with their advice. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire knows that we have tabled a number of amendments in the group. Amendment No. 14 would require a disease risk assessment to ``take place within 7 days of the Minister having reason to believe such an assessment is necessary and at a time decided in agreement with the occupier of the premises.'' The amendment is straightforward and simple, and establishes that disease assessments may not always be necessary for all premises and that unnecessary risk assessment wastes time and resources. However, the owner should not only be given notice of when a disease risk assessment will be made, but should have the opportunity to agree to a convenient time. I accept that that would inconvenience DEFRA officials because it would take more time, but the basic courtesy should be extended to farmers. It would also help to clarify that the farmer is not obstructing inspectors, because he will know when he must be available, which will be at a time that is convenient to him, given his responsibilities on the farm. Amendment No. 15 is straightforward. It would ensure that considered independent assessments are carried out free from conflicts of interest that may cast doubt on the validity of findings. It would encourage farmers to have more faith in the risk assessment process. I am worried about the term ``inspector'' in the schedule. There is little clarification about the training qualifications and position that the inspector would fulfil. Amendment No. 64 would ensure that there is full consultation with all relevant parties when a disease risk assessment document is drawn up. That should help to ensure that all considerations from any party that has a part to play are taken into account when drawing conclusions on the assessment. I come now to amendment No. 16. Because of the stress and difficulties currently faced by farmers, it is reasonable to allow them to have 28 days rather than 14 to make representations to the Minister. Under a previous clause, the Minister made a strong case for 28 days and we accepted that. Will he consider 28 days in this case? Amendment No. 17 might be rather a quantum leap for the Minister to accept, but who knows, it might give him something to go at. There is no harm in aiming high. If he halved the compensation to 100 per cent., that would be the amount that the farmer should receive. The amendment also makes a serious point about the response of the Minister or his personnel to the farmer. Although it may not be as important as some of the other amendments, it should be considered. Amendment No. 30 would ensure that the report takes into account whether the owner was aware of the biosecurity rules. The Minister has said much about how the biosecurity rules will be merely a checklist that can be gone through easily by the inspector who will act in his name. It is unfair to reduce compensation if biosecurity rules were not in place at the time. They were not in place during the recent outbreak. None the less, it would better if cases where biosecurity rules were not followed were taken to court, rather than diminishing the amount of compensation to 75 per cent. We have trawled heavily over that matter and I should be interested in the Minister's views on our amendments and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. 4.45 pmMr. Morley: I shall try to deal with that range of amendments. Some of them cover old ground and I have justified that at some length. I remind the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire of the Dutch system, which has the power to withhold 100 per cent. compensation. That is much more draconian than we suggest in the Bill. Again, we are trying to be balanced and proportionate in achieving our aim of dealing with the serious issue of biosecurity without inconveniencing the majority of farmers who comply. That is why we arrived at the figure of 75 per cent. Indeed, the hon. Member for Leominster suggested that perhaps more than 25 per cent. should be withheld. We considered all those combinations of figures, but ultimately we return to the issue of balance. We thought that, on balance, 75 per cent. of the money up front was a reasonable amount, but with the incentive of the full 100 per cent. in relation to biosecurity checks. Mr. Williams: Does the Minister agree that later in the Bill there are elements on deliberate infection, and if someone were as deliberately negligent as the hon. Member for Leominster describes, he might be caught by those provisions? Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman may have a point. However, there is a difference between someone who deliberately sets out to infect his animals, and someone who has sloppy management. A distinction must be drawn between the two. We recognise the need to give biosecurity advice, and we shall deal with that. We accept that there is a role for local vets with local knowledge. Indeed, during the outbreak, we used local veterinary practices to ring around their clients to talk to them at home about biosecurity. We trialled that in the midlands, and it was so successful that we extended it to other parts of the country. We co-operate closely with local vets on the matter. Amendment No. 91 would delete the paragraph that sets out the arrangements for the disease risk assessment. It would undermine the approach to the arrangements for compensation, so we cannot accept it. Amendment No. 150 would insert ``may'' instead of ``must'', which would remove the obligation on the Minister to ensure that a disease risk assessment is made. That cannot be right, because it is important to have that assessment, which is an integral part of the Bill. Amendment No. 14 would require the assessment to be carried out within seven days of slaughter. It is unnecessary, because we envisage that the on-farm section of the disease risk assessment will normally take place during the period between confirmation of the disease and slaughter--within 24 hours for infected premises, and 48 hours for contiguous premises. However, time must be allowed to obtain relevant reports as prescribed in the Bill. Amendment No. 15, which would provide that the disease risk assessment must be carried out by a local independent veterinary inspector, is unacceptable. We could not guarantee that we could find an independent local vet, and it casts aspersions on the professionalism of our state veterinary service, which has done an excellent job throughout the process. Amendment No. 64 would ensure that the disease risk assessment takes account of any documents drawn up following consultation with stakeholders. I have some sympathy with the amendment, but I do not believe that it is necessary. Ministers are already obliged to consult and to publish the results of that consultation. We shall therefore be bound by what we publish about the contents of the assessment and how it will work in practice. I emphasise that the consultation exercise will be genuinely open. We want to take the farming community with us as far as possible in the process--hence the requirement to publish our decisions on the matter. I do not want to give the impression that we shall have a simple checklist. Issues such as local circumstances and geography can be taken into account in relation to an assessment that is provided, agreed on and published. Amendment No. 151 would, in effect, require the Minister, or, in practice, state vets, to provide an individual service to farmers, advising them on what action to take to prevent the spread of FMD in their circumstances. Although we want to--and do--provide advice on such matters, obliging Ministers to retain veterinary advisers in order to issue individual advice to farmers is, again, neither practicable nor a sensible use of resources. Indeed, the availability of vets was one of the important factors of the outbreak. In particular, at the beginning of the outbreak, one of the restraints that we had was the extent of availability of vets, which had to be jacked up as the outbreak proceeded.

 

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Mrs. Winterton: I do not know whether I have missed something, or whether the Minister can provide me with further information. Little has been said about the qualifications and training of inspectors. While he rejects the option of using the services of private sector vets

 

Mr. Morley: No.

 

Mrs. Winterton: Obviously I misheard the Minister. He can return to that point. Bearing in mind that, during the outbreak, the state veterinary service had no time for anything, it would not be able to deal with such matters at the height of an epidemic. Will the Minister comment on the kind of people who will act as inspectors, and on their qualifications and training? Does he think that the farming community will respect their judgment?

 

Mr. Morley: I certainly hope that it will. That is one of the issues that we want to address as part of the consultation. The 1981 Act includes the following definition of an inspector: ``a person appointed to be an inspector for the purposes of this Act by the Minister or a local authority, and, when used in relation to an officer of the Ministry, includes a veterinary inspector''. In reality, inspectors would come from a range of people who have the experience and the necessary training to carry out such assessments. That certainly does not rule out local vets. However, the reality is that it is unlikely that local vets would be available in all circumstances. Therefore, we have to rely on our own staff, or, possibly, local authority staff.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I would be grateful if the Minister could provide more detail. It is important that inspectors can garner the confidence of the people with whom they deal. Will the Minister share his thoughts on the kind of people who would work as inspectors, the training that they will have had, and their background?

 

Mr. Morley: There are varying circumstances. I do not dispute that the hon. Lady makes a reasonable request. If she does not mind, I shall come back to her with further details. It is fair to reassure people that whoever does those assessments has the qualifications and skills to do so.

 

Amendment No. 16 would give farmers who have infected premises longer--28 days instead of 14--to make representations concerning the results of the disease risk assessment carried out on the day of slaughter. The amendment would not necessarily cause a delay to initial payments but it would introduce a delay in making any further payment deemed necessary by the Minister following consideration of representations from the affected farmers. That is a down side of the amendment. If the assessment is disputed, the period would be extended from 14 to 28 days. However, as the hon. Lady pointed out, I referred earlier to 28 days as being a not unreasonable time scale. If nothing else, I try to be consistent about what I say.

 

Mrs. Winterton: And proportionate.

 

Mr. Morley: Indeed. That could be the watchword of the Committee. I am prepared to reflect further on the amendment, and consider what can be done about it. Amendment No. 17 is designed to ensure that we deal with representations from farmers on the results of the disease risk assessment in a timely way. I agree that we should seek to minimise delay in responding to individuals with a decision on their interest in compensation. However, it is not necessary to tie down Ministers in that way, as we have every interest in completing the process quickly. There is an incentive for us to get these things dealt with quickly because it is an issue of administration, resources and so on. Such a provision is therefore not needed.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am afraid that I cannot agree completely with the Minister that he has his own incentives for settling compensation payments swiftly. That is the purpose of the amendment, although it may be overly aggressive in suggesting compensation at 200 per cent. However, I hope that the Minister will agree with me, and take on board that there should be some incentive for a speedy response. Perhaps while he is thinking about amendments Nos. 16 and 17, he will consider weighting his decision in favour of a speedy response, at least to some extent.

 

Mr. Morley: I do not think that the Bill needs to be amended in that way. There may be circumstances in which further clarification must be sought from those affected before a decision is reached. The amendment would be quite restrictive in those circumstances. As a matter of fact, there are many other problems with the amendment. On amendment No. 30, I understand the concern that if, for example, a foot and mouth order has been in force for less than 21 days, any requirements of that order can be assessed only during that shorter period. That is a fair point, but I assure hon. Members that the 21-day rule will be applied with flexibility at the beginning of an outbreak, because we must be reasonable about the fact that people may not be aware that an outbreak had started. That is the intention of the provision. The items to be checked in the risk assessment will include requirements of the FMD order, but that order may, at the beginning of the outbreak, have been in force for only a few days. We understand and accept that. In such situations, the farmer is not required to comply with the provisions of the order until it is in force. I give hon. Members those assurances. The farmer will still be required to have complied for the full 21 days with the permanent provisions in the Bill, which include requirements to notify notifiable diseases that form part of the disease risk assessment. That is why we want to retain the 21-day period and why I cannot accept the amendment. I can give an example of what we mean by co-operation. It will be essential in dealing with a disease outbreak on any premises to consider matters such as movement records. We might encounter a situation in which a farmer does not co-operate and provide such records, which are crucial. Sadly, we have on the odd occasion had experience of that. We must have a proportionate response, because we do not want to apply the measures unreasonably, but we expect what most people would call reasonable behaviour from farmers in co-operating with the Department when dealing with a disease outbreak. I cannot accept most of the amendments but I am prepared to give further thought to amendment No. 16.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for the crumb of comfort that he has thrown the Opposition by undertaking to look again at amendment No. 16, and the suggestion of a period of 28 days rather than 14. I welcome the spirit in which the Minister gives that undertaking, but I fear that it does not go far enough. I should like him to give a definite undertaking to the Committee that we will return to the matter on Report. That would go some way towards ensuring that we can return to the subject later.

 

Mr. Morley: I am prepared to consider the matter on Report.

 

Mr. Roger Williams: As the Minister is so reasonable as to reconsider amendment No. 16, and as I understand that I shall be in the minority if I press amendment No. 91, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

 

Amendment proposed: No. 14, in page 12, line 21, at end insert-- `(1A) A disease risk assessment must take place within 7 days of the Minister having reason to believe such an assessment is necessary and at a time decided in agreement with the occupier of the premises.'.--[Mrs. Ann Winterton.] Question put, That the amendment be made:-- The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 10. Division No. 8] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy

Question accordingly negatived. The Chairman: In view of the Committee having sat since 2.30 pm, I propose that we suspend until 5.30 pm. 5 pmSitting suspended.

 

5.30 pmOn resuming

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 13, line 32, after `notice', insert `within 14 days'.

The Chairman: With this we may consider amendment No. 18, in page13, line 35, leave out `14' and insert `28'.

 

Mrs. Winterton: Thank you, Mr. Conway, for allowing the Committee to take a break; its members are grateful for having had the opportunity to refresh themselves. I turn to two brief amendments. I am desperately trying to sort through my myriad of papers to find my place, although everything is marked.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene--although perhaps not as grateful as she is, as she is having difficulty sorting through her papers. The amendment's purpose is to achieve consistency. That subject has been referred to by the Minister. I strongly feel that penalties and time limits should be applicable both ways. Perhaps my hon. Friend is ready to bat on? Will she tell me whether 14 days is enough for a time limit?

 

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have now collected myself, and I am sure that the Minister will understand, as he has found himself in similar situations over many long years

 

Mr. Morley: Too many.

 

Mrs. Winterton: He is making up for that now. Hon. Members sometimes receive so many papers that they do not know where they are. With regard to amendment No. 32, my party does not believe that there should be a delay of more than 14 days before the owner learns of the level of compensation that he will receive; it would be unfair if farmers could remain uncertain about that for longer. The Department should try to deal swiftly with that matter, although it is often difficult to do so. I hope that the Minister agrees that the principle behind the amendment is worthy of serious consideration. Amendment No. 18 seeks to extend the time that is allowed for the owner to appeal against decisions on the level of compensation that he will receive. Bearing in mind the difficulties that farmers face, it is surely appropriate that they should be given some leeway when it comes to the period during which they can apply to appeal. It is often difficult to get matters such as paperwork in order in time. The amendment is modest in scope, and the Minister should consider its merits.

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Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has made a reasonable case. Both the amendments deal with a 14-day time limit, but they cover different issues. With regard to amendment No. 32, the Department will always aim to inform farmers as soon as possible of the Minister's decision on the amount of compensation that they will receive. The reasons for that are readily understandable. We hope that in most cases, we would fall within the 14-day time limit. Although that is our objective, it would not be sensible to put it in the Bill because there might be circumstances in which it might be difficult, and it would occasionally need to take longer, particularly if information has to be checked with the original farmer. It is difficult to accept amendment No. 32. Amendment No. 18 brings us back to consistency. I am not against the principle of this. If farmers are given longer to appeal, the downside is that they have to wait for their payment. Farmers might prefer to have the 28-day period to appeal on any dispute about the withholding of the 25 per cent. in relation to the biosecurity. In that respect, I am prepared to give serious consideration to amendment No. 18. I should like to discuss that with stakeholders to get their views, too.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the positive vibe that the Minister gave out on amendment No. 18. Most farmers choose to farm because they do not want to sit in an office all day. They never stop telling me how unhappy they are with the volume of red tape and bureaucracy that they are forced to put up with. They are clearly people who do not want more paperwork. It is therefore only right for us to allow them that extra time limit. It is incumbent on us when legislating in this way not simply to take the Minister's word for it that they will attempt to pay out within 14 days. That is why I urge the Minister to think again about a clause that would bind his Department. That may be difficult, but it may be difficult to do a lot of things proposed by the Bill. We cannot allow the Bill to go through without ensuring that the difficult circumstances are not a one-way street. They should cut both ways. Having made so many impositions on the farmers, I hope that we can accept that certain impositions should be made on the Dept. I am prepared to reconsider the idea that the 14 days should be 28 days if the Minister thinks that that would be favourable. However, unless he does we must have some sort of parachute for farmers so that they know how long the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take to deal with them. Most of the complaints I have received from farmers in my surgeries are about being ignored. This would go at least some way to resolving that.

 

Mr. Morley: I am happy to repeat the assurance that I gave that it would be the Department's intention to pay within the 14 days. The problem of going to 28 days is that it would extend a time limit for the Department to operate under, when we will be striving to operate within the 14 day window. There is a danger of inadvertently making the situation worse. There can be unforeseen and difficult circumstances in relation to the payment window, but we intend to pay within the 14 days.

 

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's intervention. While I recognise that the 28 days could be a problem for farmers, under the circumstances that is a risk worth taking, and they would be better off with their parachute--that is, knowing that they will be dealt with within a certain length of time rather than being left without. It would be worthwhile to include that, so I hope that we will support both the amendments.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I was somewhat heartened by what the Minister had to say about amendment No. 18, and the spirit of consistency--and whatever else are our buzz words in this Committee. Although he is right that it might delay payment to the farmer, at least the pressure is taken off the farmer to prepare the paperwork and do everything that is necessary, so I think it is not a bad little amendment. The Minister was quite generous and said that he would reconsider, but I wonder if he can give me a cast-iron guarantee that we will return to the subject on Report.

 

Mr. Morley: I think I am being very generous with Conservative Members, but I would be willing to consider this on Report, after discussion.

 

Mrs. Winterton: The Committee has heard that undertaking, and I must admit that that is the second small crumb that has been passed over to the Opposition. We are grateful for it, and we will look forward to debating this matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 81, in page 13, line 39, leave out subparagraph (2).

 

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 152, in page 13, line 40, after `such', insert `reasonable'. No. 82, in page 13, line 43, leave out subsection (3). No. 19, in page 14, line 1, leave out `an independent person' and insert `a local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner'.

 

Mrs. Winterton: This is very good exercise for skiing: the up and down motion is very good indeed. [Interruption.] Oh no, let me withdraw those remarks, I think that that is the second clanger I have dropped today. I think it was this morning that the Committee were having rather a good laugh at my expense, but never mind. I withdraw those remarks,

 

Mr. Conway. There are three amendments in the group, which is the sixth group on the schedule. I do not intend to speak to amendment No. 152, because on consideration I think that amendment No. 81 deals more appropriately with the views that Opposition Members would like to express. It would leave out sub-paragraph (2), and its purpose is to ensure that owners are not forced to pay to appeal, and the Minister is not allowed to decide an arbitrary amount as the fee. I do not know of any other case in which owners who wish to appeal would have to pay for the privilege. In his few words winding up the debate, the Minister could say whether there are other examples in which that is enforced, because off the top of my head I cannot think of any.

Mr. Morley: There are other examples.

Mrs. Winterton: Fair enough; the Committee will be better informed because the question has been asked. It is not appropriate that the Minister himself should decide that the fee should be an arbitrary amount. There should be more clarity. If a fee must be charged--I would very much regret that, as I think that the principle is wrong--people should know how the Minister has arrived at the relevant amount, the justification for it, the range into which it falls, and any other details that he can provide. 5.45 pmAmendment No. 19 would leave out the phrase ``an independent person'' and insert ``a local independent veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner''. It is similar to an amendment that we debated earlier. Self-evidently, this amendment would ensure that an appeal was considered not by an arbitrarily chosen person, but by someone who was suitably qualified, such as a local veterinary surgeon. He would better understand the situation and would certainly be in a stronger position to exercise professional judgment and discretion. The conclusion at which he arrived might be treated with more respect, because of his professional qualifications and his position in the local community. It is important to ensure that decisions are respected by the farming community and based on good grounds. Again, we return to the fact that we are not sure whom the Minister will appoint to undertake the responsibilities. We had a debate early on in Committee--last week, I think--after I had tabled an amendment about an independent person. I think that the hon. Member for Stroud questioned what an independent person was. That phrase is used in the Bill, so the boot is on the other foot now, and I shall ask the Minister to describe what an independent person is. I was unable to satisfy the hon. Member for Stroud on that, so I hope that the expert explanation he receives from the Minister will satisfy him.

 

Mrs. Gillan: I do not intend to detain the Committee long, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said from the Front Bench, she was speaking only to amendments Nos. 81, 82 and 19 in this group, which you in your wisdom selected, 

 

Mr. Conway. Therefore, I shall simply put the case for amendment No. 152, because I have a sneaking suspicion that the Minister will not accede to the simple request that we have made with amendment No. 81 and delete sub-paragraph (2). Just in case Conservative Members' powers of oratory failed to persuade the Minister, I felt it only fair that I should speak to amendment No. 152, not least because the National Farmers Union suggested it. I know that the Minister listens to what it has to say, and it is worth while considering what it has said on the subject. After all, if we could not speak on the NFU's behalf, it would not have a voice in Committee. The amendment relates to paragraph 6 of proposed new schedule 3A. If a farmer appeals against the Minister's decision on compensation following consideration of a disease-risk assessment, the appellant is obliged to pay a sum of such amount as the Minister may prescribe. I understand that it is recoverable if the appellant wins. The Minister has said that the sum will not be prohibitive, as the intention is not to deter appellants, but presumably the obligation to charge appellants is in the Bill at least to deter everyone from trying it on, regardless of how good a case they have. That raises the question of what would be a fair charge. As I understand it, the amendment would ensure that whatever charge was prescribed was reasonable. That would provide a basis for challenging the charges if they were considered excessively high. I must admit that I would prefer it if the Government withdrew the whole idea of charges for appeals--an idea that is repugnant in principle, because I cannot think of another instance of an appellant in law having to make a payment up front to have the appeal heard. However, that is just an aside. The amendment is reasonable, and I want the Minister to consider it in the light of what I have said. If he cannot accept amendments Nos. 81, 82 and 19, will he consider seriously amendment No. 152? Although he generously said that he would bring back the substance of amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18 on Report, amendment No. 152 is so simple and clear that he could have the grace to accept it right now. Will the Minister accept it in isolation?

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Mr. Bacon: I join my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) in expressing surprise, not to say astonishment, that there is a proposal to make farmers pay when they wish to appeal a decision. I have twice raised the issue of the European convention on human rights, and the proposal appears to breach article 6, which provides for the right to a fair trial. Will the Minister provide examples of other charges that are made in that way? It seems wholly contrary to the principle that people should have access to justice, because the proposal is explicitly designed to deter. Even if the Minister says that it is not, I return to my earlier point about farm incomes. I will be interested to hear the Government's new figures for total farming income. The latest figures that I have seen suggest that total income from farming was approximately #1.8 billion, having fallen from approximately #5 billion between 1996 and now. That is a huge fall. We are not talking about people who have much money. When I talk to farmers in my constituency, one of their biggest bugbears is that they must pay charges left, right and centre--for the vet, for the abattoir, and so on. They are paying out all the time from a very small pot, and here is yet another charge. I do not understand why the Minister wants to penalise farmers who have so little money in the first place, or why, as a point of principle, there is even a question of charging for access to justice. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham that there can be no possible objection to the word ``reasonable'' in paragraph 6(2) of proposed new schedule 3A, even if the Minister is unwilling to accept the deletion of the sub-paragraph.

 

Mrs. Browning: I want to focus on amendment No. 81, which would delete sub-paragraph (2), for the reasons given by my hon. Friends. I shall put the proposal in context. The up-front payment would be required for an appeal in circumstances such as the foot-and-mouth crisis, when farmers were having their animals slaughtered, and cash flow was at its worst. There are examples in my constituency of farmers who could not afford more feed during the crisis, and animal welfare charities had to supply essentials to farms. On some farms in my constituency, the farmers were so strapped for cash that they had to have food parcels for their own consumption, let alone animal feed for their animals. Against that backdrop, the Minister is proposing that the farmers come up with some money, however modest an amount, to appeal against the removal of 25 per cent. of their compensation. There could not be worse circumstances in which to find money. Many banks hung on in there and did not pull the rug when the farmers could not service their debts--but equally, they did not find any additional cash to help their cash flow problems. The proposal shows the most appalling disregard for what farmers have just been through. It is appalling that new measures are being put on the statute book that require farmers to find such cash, however modest, in those circumstances. I therefore press the Minister to accept amendment No. 81, which would delete this appalling legislation. It is cruel and callous, and shows a total disregard for what farmers have just been through and the reality of what happened on farms. The Minister does not look as if he will do that--he is a hard man. I was about to say that when he was in opposition he was a gentle pussy cat, and used to make the case for furry and feathered creatures. However, I am not talking about furry or feathered creatures; I am talking about human beings. I want the Minister to show as much compassion to human beings as he shows to furry and feathered things and delete sub-paragraph (2). If he does not, I hope that he will consider the fall-back position in the amendments that my hon. Friends have tabled. The likelihood of people being able to comply with the measures in the middle of a foot and mouth crisis is minimal, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

 

Mr. Morley: We should all calm down a bit. I am not averse to the thrust of the argument about not penalising or deterring people from making an appeal. However, various factors need to be pointed out. First, there is an administrative charge for anyone who appeals to a court. Secondly

 

Mr. Bacon: I take it that the Minister means that the court makes a charge. However, the schedule states that the person concerned ``must at the same time pay to the Minister'' --I emphasise the fact that the payment is made to the Minister-- ``a sum of such amount as the Minister prescribes by order''. The Minister agrees that that is completely different from a charge by a court. Will he give an example of other charges that people are required to pay to a Minister?

 

Mr. Morley: The principle is exactly the same. The court has an administrative fee to deter people from making frivolous appeals. We seek to deter people from making frivolous appeals, not genuine appeals.

 

Mr. Bacon: The Minister said that the principle is exactly the same--but there is a big distinction between a Minister and a judge. We are talking about completely different branches of government. It is one thing for a court to assume a charge; it is completely another for legislation to require a Minister to be paid a charge.

 

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is taking the wording a bit literally. I assure him that people will not seek me out personally to give me payments. It is a procedure. The schedule talks about the appeals procedure involving an independent person. As such, the mechanism for appealing to an independent person is exactly the same as the mechanism for appealing to the Court of Appeal. The principle behind it is the same. Members of the Committee requested some examples, and I can give them assurances. Two spring to mind. First, there are the meat hygiene appeals against the revocation of slaughterhouse licences under the hygiene assessment scores; if one fails the hygiene assessment scores and a licence is removed, there is a charge to appeal against that decision. Secondly, the plant varieties tribunal, which deals with appeals against refusals under the plant varieties legislation, also makes a charge for appeal. Those are just two examples of an identical principle.

 

Mrs. Browning: The principle may be the same, but the conditions under which the charge is sought are very different. We will be dealing with a crisis, where cash flow and ability to pay will be stretched as far as possible.

 

Mr. Morley: Take it steady; I am getting there. The order setting out the fees, on which we will consult, will also set out an issue on which we will consult, and the circumstances in which the fee can be waived. The fee will be waived if there is financial hardship, as in the hon. Lady's example. If people have cash flow problems or are coping with disease, we will not deny a genuine appeal. The details of the order will clarify that the fee will be waived in the requisite circumstances. 6 pm

 

Mrs. Gillan: The Bill does not explain who has competence to waive the fee. Moreover, we must discuss the period of time for appeal. Paragraph 6 of proposed new schedule 3A allows a person only ``14 days starting with the day on which a notice is served . . . under paragraph 5(5)'' to make an appeal in writing. The Minister must consider how, in such a short period, people will be able to prove to the satisfaction of an unknown person that they are in dire financial straits. Who has the competence to decide on appeals--the Minister? If so, will they reach him on time? As he has added another administrative burden and hurdle to the system, is 14 days enough?

 

Mr. Morley: I said earlier that it would be possible to consider a limit of 28 days, and I would be happy to do so. The procedure for waiving fees is commonly applied in magistrates courts. The provisions are designed simply to deter frivolous appeals; I do not want to deter genuine ones. We do not intend to recover the full cost of conducting appeals, and the charge detailed in the orders will be reasonable. The fee will be refunded if the applicant's appeal is successful.

 

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister has obviously thought about this. To aid our deliberations, will he write to Committee members to clarify the procedures? Inevitably, the Minister will be dealing with people on low incomes. He is proposing to charge them a fee, which will be returned if the appeal succeeds. Presumably it will be refunded without interest, so it is dead money. We would be most appreciative if the Minister wrote to us with details of the amount.

 

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has made a typically persuasive case. I will give Committee members as much information as possible. We will consult on the arrangements and put them in the public domain. I will discuss the time scale with officials, because I want to answer Members' queries. The amount will be detailed in the order and will include the possibility of waiving the fee in cases of hardship.

 

Mr. Wiggin: When the Minister was sitting like Blofeld, gazing into his crystal ball and stroking his cat, he did not foresee that the amendment would cause trouble. Does he agree that the provisions return us to the dilemma of people in debtors' prisons? People who have no money cannot pay fees. If he had granted 100 per cent. instead of 75 per cent. compensation, it would not have been necessary to worry about the number of people making frivolous applications. If people are already behind when they start, that automatically makes it worth while for them to appeal. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister.

 

Mr. Morley: That was not much of a point. It does not matter if we give 75 per cent. or 100 per cent. basic compensation; people will appeal either to get the extra 25 per cent. or to stop us getting 25 per cent. from them. The difference is that if we give them 100 per cent. payments, we may then have to try to get back money that is no longer around. That is a practical issue. We have dealt with the point, but I repeat that there will be a facility in the order for waiving the charge completely in cases of hardship, because we do not want to deny people the right of appeal if they are in financial hardship. That is a serious point, and I accept the case that the hon. Lady has made.

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Mr. Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

 

Mr. Morley: No, I want to make progress. Amendment No. 82 would remove sub-paragraph (3), which ensures the independence of the person appointed to run the appeals, and subjects the order that sets out the appeals procedure to parliamentary scrutiny. Those are important steps in ensuring a fair process. The amendment would remove them, and wreck the appeals provision, which is a vital safeguard of the individual's right to appeal. I am surprised that Opposition Members want to pursue it. On amendment no. 19, I am not sure that local veterinary surgeons would necessarily be the most suitable persons to run an appeals process. Although they are independent of Government, they are not financially independent of local farmers, who may be their clients. The last thing a local vet would want to do is sit in judgment on one of his clients; vets would not welcome that at all. The person who considers the appeal must be completely independent. We have a range of independent panels throughout agriculture, which have been set up with well established and understood procedures. There is no reason why we cannot do the same again.

 

Mrs. Browning: The Minister will recall from the Mercer preliminary findings that many retired vets offered their services but were not used. Would that not be an ideal job for a retired vet?

 

Mr. Morley: That may be so, and I would not say that a vet could not in any circumstances sit on appeal panels. However, it would be difficult to put local vets in that position, especially if they were still operating commercially. I have some sympathy with the arguments that have been put, and I want to assure Members that income will be considered and the appeals fee can be waived by order. We will consult on the matter, and I will try to ensure that we can spell out details for the benefit of the Committee.

 

Mr. Wiggin: It would be tempting to agree with the argument that it would be difficult for a vet to make an impartial judgment had the idea of compensation been approached from a different angle. It is essential that people appeal, because if they start from a 75 per cent. payout, it will be worth their while to have a go unless the fee is prohibitive. I do not agree with the Minister's comment that that is illogical; it is the reverse. If people start with nothing, it is worth appealing because they may get a bit more. I cannot accept that the Minister is right in any way. The idea that the legislation clearly shows that the bill for appealing can be waived is wrong. If the Government want to charge people to appeal, the fee should be set now. There is no reason why it should not be a nominal fee, and people would know where they stood. That would be part of the transparency that we heard earlier was so important to the Bill. Most importantly, it is fundamentally wrong to start people off with as little money as possible and make them pay to appeal against that decision. I hope that that will become increasingly obvious as we work through the Bill.

 

Mrs. Gillan: I do not want to pre-empt my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, but the Minister's response to my amendment was reasonable and I am heartened by it. The insertion of a single word is not worth dying in a ditch for, but the NFU suggested it, so I hope that the Minister will take it seriously. It did not escape me that he is not accepting the word ``reasonable''. My own concerns about this part of the Bill remain.

 

Mr. Morley: I presume that the hon. Lady is talking about amendment No. 152, which I do not think was moved. [Hon. Members: ``It will be.''] I accept that. I can give an undertaking that the fee will be set at a reasonable level, but there is no need to build it into the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that the Minister is offering his personal undertaking, but there is no guarantee that a subsequent Minister would follow it. It is not therefore unreasonable to want to build the word ``reasonable'' into the Bill. The Minister cannot bind his successors, who may not be as kind to fluffy and furry things--or as reasonable. I have a problem with the very concept of this fee. I appreciate that the Minister has a duty to deter vexatious litigants who use up scarce resources.

 

Mr. Morley: Taxpayers' money.

 

Mrs. Gillan: Absolutely. I have every sympathy with the Minister, but we are also talking about farmers' money in extremis in a crisis. If the fee is high enough to deter vexatious litigants, it could be high enough to deter the poor--indeed, impoverished--farmer. Goodness only knows, my uncle and my cousin are farmers and I have seen the paperwork that they have to undertake. They have been turned into administrators par excellence.

Mr. Wiggin: Monstrous.

Mrs. Gillan: It is. I agree with my hon. Friend. When a farmer is in extremis, the final paperwork for the payment could be the straw to break the camel's back. I do not want the Bill to be passed without my having put that point to the Minister. He may cast it aside--who knows? At the moment, even his assurances that the fee may be waived completely are not good enough because of the problem of binding his successors. If he can assure me that he will make an order, I will be satisfied, but an order is easier to dispose of. We are dealing with primary legislation here.

 

Mr. Morley: I can assure the hon. Lady that that will be put into an order--the same order that sets the level of fee. We can conduct a reasonable level of consultation and write it into an order. An order is, of course, binding on the Government.

 

Mrs. Gillan: I now feel that everything the Minister says sways the argument in my favour. He is moving the ball firmly into my court and amendment No. 152 is sounding more reasonable by the minute.

 

Mr. Bacon: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no reasonable reason to exclude the word ``reasonable''?

 

Mrs. Gillan: Someone had to say it. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Now that the Minister has moved so far towards Opposition Members' arguments, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will press the amendment to the vote. Perhaps the Minister will come back with his own amendment on Report, which we would be happy to accept. I would like the opportunity to vote on the amendment before us, but that depends on my hon. Friend. 6.15 pm

 

Mrs. Winterton: This has been an interesting debate, but if I hear the word ``reasonable'' again, I shall probably scream. Perhaps the Minister feels the same. [Hon. Members: ``Proportionate.''] Yes, ``proportionate'' would make me scream a second time. Many of the points raised by my hon. Friends are valid, and they have been well made. The Minister expressed some understanding of our point of principle on forcing owners to pay to appeal. I understand his reasons for the measure, but I do not believe that it is justifiable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, the two examples given were not comparable because of the circumstances in which farmers would find themselves in the middle of an epidemic. Cynical people might say that the fee structure has been proposed to act as a disincentive to farmers to appeal, because it is yet one more set of papers and procedures to go through. My hon. Friend rightly said that, with the tremendous cash flow difficulties, limited liquidity and high level of debt of the farming community at present, to ask them to put out more money to pay for an appeal is to ask for too much. The Minister indicated to the Committee that he sought to consult on the amount of the fee, and he gave some interesting reassurances about what might happen in hardship cases. His comments were helpful but, despite his conciliatory--one might say reasonable--tone, we in the Opposition must be unreasonable.

 

Mr. Morley: No change there.

 

Mrs. Winterton: Fair do's. We wish to vote on the amendments. Question put, That the amendment be made:-- The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9. Division No. 9] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann

NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy

 

 

Question accordingly negatived. Amendment proposed: No. 152, in page 13, line 40, after `such', insert `reasonable'.--[Mrs. Gillan.] Question put, That the amendment be made:-- The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9. Division No. 10] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy Question accordingly negatived.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 14, line 10, leave out subsection (a) and insert `interest will be payable at base rate plus one per cent.' The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 84, in page 14, line 13, after `paragraph (2)', insert `within 7 days'.

 

Mrs. Winterton: We are moving down these groups of amendments quite well, which is a relief at the end of a long and tiring day. The two amendments--[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) like to continue? This will not take long. Labour Members are obviously feeling weary too. I apologise for this banter, Mr. Conway. We will get on with the job in hand. The amendment seeks to ensure that owners do not lose interest on compensation to which they are entitled. It is preposterous for farmers to take a cut in their income because of the delay in their appeals being heard. This is self-evidently a move to ensure that they will be compensated in full for any delay. As was mentioned on previous amendments, at a time when cash flow is extremely tight, that money would be dead money unless it was earning some interest. One per cent. is a tiny amount of interest but it would, I hope, prove an incentive to prompt payment. Amendment No. 84 seeks to ensure that farmers who were forced to pay for their appeal would receive their fee back as quickly as possible if it was found that they were to be compensated at a level above 75 per cent. Failure to pay back the fee promptly will amount to a loss of revenue, as the farmer will lose interest that would have accrued on the fee had he not had to pay it. If he has an overdraft his position will be even more dire. I hope that the Minister will consider these two brief amendments in his usual reasonable way. Perhaps we can get him to commit the Government to accepting them, which would certainly be a turn-up for the books.

 

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Mr. Morley: Again, I want to assure the Committee that it is the Government's intention to do our best to pay promptly in all cases, particularly once a decision has been made by the independent person. If that goes against the Government's decision to take a proportion of money from the 25 per cent., we will do our best to pay that as quickly as possible. The same applies to any compensation agreed. Amendment No. 83 deals with compensation for animals culled from infected premises. I come back to the point that there is no obligation for the Government to pay 100 per cent. compensation. Given that we are talking about compensation that the Government are not legally obliged to pay, it would be a bit hard to have to pay interest on top of it, too. The hon. Member for Congleton is smiling. I think that even she recognises that that is pushing the point. The same applies to amendment No. 84. It would not be sensible to set a time limit in the Bill, because there is always the occasional circumstance in which it takes a little longer to make a payment. There may be legal or technical wrangles.

 

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have not spoken to this group of amendments. What is his Department's record on making payments and what is the average time it takes to make payments? Does it comply completely with the standing instructions for the payment of debts and the length of time for such payments? Does the Department comply with the legislation on late payment of debt?

 

Mr. Morley: We certainly aim to do that, and also to meet citizens charter targets on payments. I must be honest: at the height of the epidemic, the Department was severely disrupted. We were drafting people from non front-line Departments to cover for people whom we had put into the front line to fight the disease. In those circumstances, we did not meet our targets, but people would not necessarily condemn us for that. As time went on and the number of outbreaks went down, we managed to get back on track and make payments much faster. That is our genuine intention, but I would not deny that there are occasional circumstances in which we cannot meet the targets. However, it would not be helpful to accept the amendments. Let me reassure people that we will always endeavour to make any such payments as promptly as we can.

 

Mrs. Gillan: Having heard what the Minister has said, I know that he is trying hard to be reasonable--I cannot think of another word--and that he appreciates the spirit behind amendment No. 84 in particular, and the reasons for tabling it. He has been honest in saying that his Department was in crisis, people were being drafted away from their regular jobs and put into the front line, and a form of chaos ensued. If the Minister faced such a situation in future--God forbid that he ever should, but that is what the legislation is about--surely our proposal would offer him the protection that he would require in the governmental situation. The amendment would require other Departments, not least--dare I say it?--the Treasury, to provide help and assistance to the Minister and his Department in a crisis. I view amendment No. 84 in particular as offering a form of protection for the Minister as well as the victims.

 

Mr. Morley: The amendment would not offer protection. The level of the crisis and the pressures and strains on the Department meant that we were drafting in staff from other Departments to help us anyway. I must confess that Members will have been aware of that because of the disruption of correspondence, which I deeply regret. That indicates the level of the crisis and the fact that our priority was to fight the disease and to involve everyone in that. The amendment would not help in those circumstances, because there would be no one else that we could involve in the top priority of preventing the spread of disease. 

 

Mrs. Gillan: I hear what the Minister says, but again the principle applies that we are not talking about this Minister, this time, this outbreak and this epidemic. We are legislating for a future Minister, a future time and, God forbid, a future outbreak. Therefore, we need to be reassured that we are giving protection to whoever fulfils the Minister's role so that he and his colleagues have one more club in the bag. I am sure that other Departments were exceedingly generous. In fact, I do not think that they had much choice, because this country was in a severe crisis. In spite of all the disputes over how the matter was handled, the country was in crisis and it was all hands to the pump for officials in several Departments. If the appropriate provision were included in the Bill, there would be an additional reason for extra resources to be provided, because when dealing with other Departments, the Minister would be able to pray in aid a time limit stated in primary legislation. 6.30 pmAgain, I hear the Minister's genuine intention. We are trying to add to the Bill something that will help not only him but our constituents, farmers and the farming community in general in the event of another crisis. I hope that he will think long and hard about including a timetable in the Bill, so that we can ensure that his good intentions are reflected in the legislation.

 

Mr. Wiggin: Paying interest and paying bills promptly is a moral obligation. Amendment No. 83 gives the Government an incentive to pay promptly. Having heard time and again from the Chancellor of the Exchequer how low interest rates are, the Minister should be assured that he has nothing to fear. There is an obligation to pay interest on sums that have been withheld. If the Government have failed to prevent the importation and spread of foot and mouth disease, and if they have failed to reach their targets, there should be an incentive for them to pay compensation with interest. It is immoral to prevent that by voting against the amendment. It is not wrong to pay compensation and it is immoral to withhold funds and then refuse to pay interest on those funds. A Government who are pretending to protect the farmers should not withhold payment and expect farmers to pay the interest on the money that they do not have. That is why it is so important that amendment No. 83 should be included in the Bill. The level of interest may be negotiable, but interest payment is essential and moral.

 

Mrs. Winterton: Some intriguing arguments have been put forward in support of the amendment. I do not want to delay the Committee because we are all getting weary, but bearing in mind the enthusiasm of my hon. Friends, I have overcome my natural reservations and decided that we should press the amendment to a vote. Question put, That the amendment be made:-- The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9. Division No. 11] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Browning: I beg to move amendment No. 85, in page 14, line 27, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

 

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 34, in page 14, line 27, leave out `immaterial' and insert `material'. No. 35, in page 14, line 28, leave out `this paragraph' and insert `deciding the matters to be covered by a disease risk assessment.'.

 

Mrs. Browning: The three amendments relate to the end of the schedule. It is extraordinary that under the heading ``Consultation and publication'', we find that frequently used word ``immaterial''. In the context, it is a puzzling word. The schedule refers to ``disease risk assessment'' and the need to ``consult representative persons'', and the Minister has spent a lot of time in Committee reassuring us that people will be consulted and that the Government want to get the risk assessment right. However, in sub-paragraph (3), we find the words: ``It is immaterial that any consultation carried out for the purposes of this paragraph occurs before the commencement of this paragraph.'' We deserve an explanation of that. The Government say that they will consult interested parties--or stakeholders, as the Minister called them earlier--but then they enter a caveat that suggests that they can simply go ahead as they like, and that the preconditions set out in sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) are immaterial. I thought that the Government were keen on focus groups.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

 

Mrs. Browning: The Minister is nodding his head, which implies that they are still keen, even now. However, the addition of that sub-paragraph reflects the theme throughout the Bill. Although the Minister aims to be reasonable, the Bill is very unreasonable because it seeks to take powers even before some of the basics are considered, such as the consultation on disease risk assessment that has been the subject of so much debate. I do not understand why sub-paragraph (3) is in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will make a good case for it. Amendment No. 34 would exchange ``material'' for ``immaterial''. We have debated the meaning of those words under other clauses. It seems extremely material that ``any consultation carried out for the purposes of this paragraph occurs before the commencement of this paragraph.'' Amendment No. 35 proposes a much more reasonable wording of sub-paragraph (3)--if it needs to be in the schedule at all, which I query. [Interruption.] I do not know what is occupying the hon. Member for Loughborough, but he is missing one of the most riveting parts of the debate. Again, we are dancing on the head of the pin. The Bill is concerned simply with what the Minister deems to be immaterial, regardless of what the rest of us would consider fair and just for the consultees, given that they are being consulted on a most important part of the legislation. The Minister spent much time persuading us of his good intent over the risk assessment, what it will involve and how it will be expedited, yet here we find the get-out clause: the Minister can do and say what he likes and put anything he likes on the statute book, regardless of the focus groups. I am disappointed in him, and disappointed that at the end of the debate we find yet another get-out clause that allows Ministers to ride roughshod over farmers and the farming community.

wording of sub-paragraph (3)--if it needs to be in the schedule at all, which I query. [Interruption.] I do not know what is occupying the hon. Member for Loughborough, but he is missing one of the most riveting parts of the debate.

Again, we are dancing on the head of the pin. The Bill is concerned simply with what the Minister deems to be immaterial, regardless of what the rest of us would consider fair and just for the consultees, given that they are being consulted on a most important part of the legislation. The Minister spent much time persuading us of his good intent over the risk assessment, what it will involve and how it will be expedited, yet here we find the get-out clause: the Minister can do and say what he likes and put anything he likes on the statute book, regardless of the focus groups. I am disappointed in him, and disappointed that at the end of the debate we find yet another get-out clause that allows Ministers to ride roughshod over farmers and the farming community

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Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend not agree that we Conservatives will need some cast-iron reassurances from the Minister who, in response to many of our reasonable amendments, has said that he will consult on the amount of money for appeal and on the time, and that he will look at everything very carefully? Sub-paragraph (3) negates everything that he has said in the course of our debate, so we shall be looking for very firm reassurances, perhaps even hoping that he will accede to our request to remove the provision.

 

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is right. It is extremely disappointing, after one or two more positive responses from the Minister this afternoon, again to encounter a draconian measure. It is indicative of the whole Bill. I hope that he will not tell me that the sub-paragraph is a technical drafting point, because that would be cop-out No. 2--I am sorry, that was probably unparliamentary language, but I am sure that the Committee got the gist. We cannot keep considering matters that are explicit in the Bill, clearly draconian and give this or any future Minister the opportunity to wriggle out of Committee's intention in determining the Bill, only to find that he has included a provision that he will not fulfil other requirements. He has declined to include many issues that would have clarified and given substance to the Bill, yet here is this one in black and white. I want to hear from the Minister--[Hon. Members: ``Sit down.''].

 

Members should not tempt me. I really want to hear from the Minister why he needs sub-paragraph (3).

 

Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady has worked herself up a bit on the basis of a misunderstanding. The whole point of the wording of sub-paragraph (3) is to allow consultation before the Bill becomes law. I have already given a number of commitments to the Committee that we shall start consultation as soon as possible--by the beginning of the new year at the latest. The schedule allows us to do that. If we did not have the sub-paragraph, we could not do so. The hon. Lady is arguing against herself. If she removed the provision, we could not consult.

 

Mrs. Browning: Why has the Minister included at this point in the Bill something that gives him permission to consult before the Bill becomes law? I have scrutinised many Bills on which consultation has started on aspects of them, to lead to orders and secondary legislation, without the need for such a provision. The argument does not apply to other types of consultation that the Minister has mentioned. Why does he need specific permission in the Bill for consultation to do with disease risk assessment? Other aspects of consultation are not treated in the same way.

 

Mr. Morley: Other Bills probably have similar wording on the way in which consultation operates. We are dealing with legal language. If the provision were not stated, we might be challenged on starting consultation before the Bill becomes law. The point is that this is enabling legislation. I recognise that people have expressed concerns and want reassurances. The whole idea is that we can start the consultation, and that is what this sub-paragraph gives us the power to do.

 

Mrs. Gillan: Perhaps the Minister would like to share with the Committee what advice he has received on who might object to the consultation starting before the Bill has been enacted. It seems rather strange that anyone would advise the Minister that there would be a challenge; if so, I would like him to lay out that advice, and to tell us what organisations may challenge and on what grounds.

 

Mr. Morley: Of course I have no idea which organisations might want to challenge, but unless things are clearly stated, someone somewhere will be inclined to make a challenge. That is my experience. I would rather that these things were clear. I reassure hon. Members that there is nothing sinister in the provision. It simply allows us to get on with the consultation before the Bill is enacted.

 

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister seems to want to have his cake and eat it. However, after what he has just said, I know that he will accept the word ``reasonable''. It will give exactly the reassurance that we need while he hides behind that provision.

 

Mr. Morley: I always try to be reasonable. The wording is in place so that there is no legal doubt about the legitimacy of the prior consultation. If nothing in the Bill allows consultation but we consult as the Bill is making its way through Parliament, and if that consultation results in orders being made, someone who did not like the outcome could say that it was completely invalid because the consultation was not allowed. The Bill makes it clear that we can consult and start work on the orders and all the other aspects that we have discussed. It is nothing sinister. It is for everyone's benefit. It meets the Opposition's requirement.

 

Mrs. Browning: Why does the consultation appertaining to the disease risk assessment have to be in the Bill, but the consultation in respect of pet animals mentioned by the Minister does not?

 

Mr. Morley: The reason is that any legislation will have aspects that require a commitment for consultation. It is not unusual, but that does not stop us from consulting on aspects of the Bill's operation. The undertakings that I have given the Committee are not in the Bill. I shall go out to consultation on the guidelines, the protocol in relation to appeals and the veterinary assessments. It is quite reasonable to consult on the legitimate points that have been raised with me by various organisations and by the Committee. I return to the fact that there is nothing to panic about; it simply makes consultation legitimate.

 

Mrs. Browning: The Bill was drafted at the back end of the summer. It was introduced on the ground that it was so urgent that no prior consultation could take place. The Minister now tells us that, for some aspects, consultation must be written into the Bill, but that others require consultation--that was flushed out during the early part of our deliberations in Committee--that does not need to be written into the Bill. On one hand, we are asked to take with good will the Minister's word on certain aspects of consultation, but on the other hand we are told that if we do not write consultation into the Bill, the Minister will somehow fall foul of the many people who might otherwise object to the consultation. During the Government's term of office, I have known much legislation--I cite the School Standards and Framework Act 1998--on which Ministers have commenced consultation while the Committee was still deliberating. I find the Minister's argument for including consultation in the Bill rather strange. He has been unable to identify the sort of focus group or stakeholder who might object to such consultation. The man on the moon might object, but that is no reason to include it in the Bill. The Minister has not thought it through. The Government rushed the Bill through and were determined not to consult at the beginning because they were providing emergency powers. The present provision has been included as a sop. I am not convinced by the Minister's explanation. He seems unable to give examples of who might object to such consultation.

 

Mrs. Winterton: I intend to sum up quickly, but my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has revealed the sting in the tail of our proceedings. I certainly agree with many of her points. I find it confusing that although we have found extraordinary things in the Bill, when we try to include things in it, we are patted on the head and told that it really does not matter and that things will be sorted out later by order or indication in consultation. The amendments are very important, and I can do no better than rely on my hon. Friends and tell you, Mr. Conway, that we wish to divide the Committee. Question put, That the amendment be made:-- The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9. Division No. 12] AYES Bacon, Mr. Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Wiggin, Mr. Bill Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann NOES Ainger, Mr. Nick Atkins, Charlotte Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Hall, Patrick Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed, Mr. Andy Question accordingly negatived. Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.

 

Mr. Roger Williams: Hon. Members will see from the amendment paper that we tabled an amendment to delete the whole schedule--and we would like to persist with the idea that it be deleted. The Minister could not have proposed a piece of legislation more likely to turn the farming community away from working with him on eliminating foot and mouth. The measure is fundamentally bad, because it introduces penalties in relation to compensation for the first time ever. If the work of eliminating foot and mouth is to be successful, co-operation and collaboration are essential

 

Mr. Morley: Let me make this clear: the measure does not introduce a penalty. I reiterate the fact that the Government are not obliged to pay 100 per cent. Therefore, we are setting the level at a guaranteed 75 per cent. with a 25 per cent. top-up for those with biosecurity. That is not a penalty, but an incentive.

 

Mr. Williams: I have listened to the Minister, but this is the first time that such a procedure has been introduced in this country. I cannot think of another instance in farming and agriculture in which a Government, wishing to encourage farmers to work with them for a particular purpose, introduced such a practice. There is absolutely no incentive

 

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman may recall that the compensation arrangements for classical swine fever were very similar. In that case, infected animals attracted only 50 per cent. compensation, and the uninfected animals 100 per cent. The concept is the same--it is an incentive. In that case, there was an incentive to report animals showing signs of the disease as soon as possible. In this case there is an incentive for biosecurity. There is nothing different about the scheme when it is compared with that which has applied to the pig industry for a long time.

[back to previous text]

 

 

Mr. Williams: There is certainly no incentive in the legislation for farmers to report foot and mouth cases as soon as possible. Throughout the outbreak there were many instances in which farmers were responsible and reported foot and mouth at a very early stage, including cases involving sheep, in which it is difficult to diagnose the disease. I am sure that in those instances the diagnoses were sometimes incorrect. Farmers suffered badly, as did their neighbours. Under the practice introduced in the Bill, I can imagine farmers hanging on and on. The real fear would be that their farms might be declared infected, the animals would have foot and mouth, the culls would take place, and then some sort of penalty would be imposed.

 

Mr. Drew: I am confused about what farmers will do if they hang on in the belief that the arrangement will not be beneficial. They will have to dispose of the animals, and that is an offence. What reason is there not to go for compensation?

 

Mr. Williams: I shall refer to another instance in my constituency. A farmer in the Builth area asked her local vet to see some sheep that she believed were not well. The vet refused, because he did not want to become ``dirty'' and unable to serve the rest of his farming community. A Government vet went to the farm but was uncertain whether the sheep had foot and mouth. He returned the next day and the day after that--he was young, inexperienced and had never seen foot and mouth--and then rang the office of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or perhaps the relevant Assembly office, to ask what to do. He asked for a second opinion, but that was refused. The diagnosis was then made. All the tests afterwards showed that there was no foot and mouth on the farm. That farmer had impressive biosecurity measures in place, so would never have attracted a penalty, but some farmers may be unsure whether their biosecurity measures are adequate. Having heard of such misdiagnoses, they might not report symptoms immediately because they felt that they might attract a penalty. Therefore, there is no incentive to report cases quickly. The Minister talked about rumours and conspiracy theories that spread. I have to take issue with the hon. Member for Leominster, who referred to a mass cull in the Brecon area. That was a rumour. There was no mass cull, only bad politics.

 

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): The hon. Gentleman is right. In certain areas where foot and mouth struck hard, such as the Forest of Dean and possibly Leominster and his own area, Conservative candidates and others created a myth that the problem would explode after 9 June. They said that funeral pyres would be built and that people were covering up. That did not happen, and we never heard any apology for that myth.

 

Mr. Williams: I agree. When the problem did not explode on 9 June, it was said that that would happen on 16 June, and so on. Then people said that only a partial cull had been intended, and that so many animals had gone on the welfare scheme that a full cull was unnecessary. Those rumours were seen through by the farming community, which was put under a lot of pressure at a time when it was already in fear of foot and mouth. The consequences were bad for the people who put those rumours around.

 

Mr. Wiggin: It is a sign of enormous weakness that the Liberal Democrats are trying to make the cull that took place on the Brecon Beacons into a political point. It was clear that culling would take place, and it has done. The Government intended to cull the entire UK sheep flock before the brain scandal was broken. [Hon. Members: ``No.''] Yes, they did. If they had found that scrapie existed in sheep brains, as they should or could have done had they not been looking at cows' brains, the entire UK sheep flock could have been culled.

 

The Chairman: Order. I know that the sitting has been long, but we are drifting a little far from the schedule.

 

Mr. Williams: Far be it from me to support Conservative Members. It was the hon. Member for Leominster who raised the issue in the first place. None the less, schedule 1 is a bad schedule. It says that the Minister must cause a disease risk assessment to be made, and we have discussed all the issues about diverting essential resources away from dealing with the disease and into administrative processes. There are difficulties about who would be appointed as inspector because that is not defined as clearly as we would like. We have discussed the fact that the farmer will have responsibility for persons under his control. [Interruption.]

 

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire) rose-- The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot rise to move the motion to adjourn until the hon. Member on his feet has finished his speech. Mr. Williams: I did not realise that--[Interruption.] The Chairman: Order. The rules of procedure state that the Adjournment cannot be moved while a Member is in the middle of a speech, so as the Division Bell is ringing, the Committee will have to suspend until 7.15, or until 7.30 if there are two Divisions in the House. When we resume, and when the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has concluded his speech, I shall be delighted to allow the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) to move the motion for the Adjournment. 7 pmSitting suspended for a Division in the House.

 

 

7.16 pmOn resuming-- Mr. Williams: I should like to thank everyone for taking me so gently through these initiation rites. I promise to serve you better in the future, and not to drag you back. I must re-emphasise the disappointment that we all feel about having this schedule in the Bill. The NFU and other farming organisations are not desperately opposed to there being a penalty for farmers who let the side and the country down by not observing proper biosecurity measures. At the same time, we believe that it should be done the other way. With foot and mouth disease, the assumption should be that farmers should have 100 per cent. compensation, as has been the practice--although I take the Minister's point about classical swine fever. I should like to put on record the country's success over a long period in keeping foot and mouth disease out of the country. We now need to address the issue of meat imports. I was pleased to see the new clause that required the Government to do an annual audit on the success of the measures to control meat exports--but I cannot think of any part of the Bill, or of any legislation, that would so discourage farmers from working closely with the Government. If the Bill goes through, there will be a fracture in the relationship, and I cannot see the country having the success that it has had in the past in keeping foot and mouth disease out, because of problems with import control. This is a retrograde step and I should not like to see it becoming part of the Bill.

 

 

Debate adjourned.--[Mr. Ainger.] Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 4 December at half-past Ten o'clock. {**vert_rule**} The following Members attended the Committee: Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman) Ainger, Mr. Atkins, Charlotte Bacon, Mr. Browning, Mrs. Cunningham, Tony Drew, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Gillan, Mrs. Hall, Mr. Patrick Morley, Mr. Organ, Diana Owen, Albert Reed Mr. Wiggin, Mr. Williams, Mr. Roger Winterton, Mrs. Ann