From Country Illustrated Anniversary edition 2003

ANIMAL HEALTH ACT - Lest we forget

Forced through Parliament, against wisdom and advice, the so-called 'Animal Death Bill' (now law) will have a brief life after all. The European Union will see to that.

by Lord Moran

The miscalled Animal Health Bill passed into law last November. Many farmers had hoped it would be killed, and were disappointed. But I do not think that they need be too worried. Firstly the Bill - which the House of Commons originally passed without a single amendment - was considerably improved during its year-long passage through the House of Lords. The worst parts of it (such as criminalising anybody who refused to help with the slaughter of farm animals) were taken out and some more important bits added. From being a dreadful Bill, it became merely another rather bad Bill. Secondly, the Act, as it now is, is unlikely to be with us for long. It will soon be superseded by a European Union Directive, which has already been drafted and will be on more sensible lines.

The Bill had started as a slaughter bill, designed to legalise retrospectively the doubtful legal 'contiguous cull' and to extend and faclititate powers for future mass slaughter. It was a rushed piece of legislation, and sought to introduce almost Stalinist powers.

In the Lords it was given a rough ride at Second Reading on January 14 last year. Twenty-two peers spoke against it. It was significant that it was from the Labour benches that Baroness Mallalieu QC said, "The last outbreak brought..many farming families to a position in which they were on the verge of open defiance of the law. I do not believe that they or the wider public will stand for a similar policy in the future."

Tacked on to the Bill was a section on scrapie, designed to prohibit the breeding of sheep judged to be susceptible to the disease. This, according to many authorities, was based on uncertain science and seemed likely to result in the elimination of old-established sheep breeds including the Herdwicks.

The Government, despite their earlier claims that the Bill was urgently needed, then waited 10 weeks before arranging a Committee Stage at the end of March. As a result of an amendment which I moved, the Committee stage was held up for four months until we learned what the Government's own Inquiries had recommended. Although this was described by Ministers as irresponsible, the House's decision was amply vindicated.

Last Spring it seemed that vaccination of animals could be used only as a preliminary to slaughter. This seemed pointless and to ask too much of farmers. But science moves fast. It is now practicable to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals. Consequently the Royal Society has recommended that emergency vaccination be considered from the start of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease - "By this we mean vaccination to live"

The Government has now accepted this recommendation. Everybody agrees that in any future outbreak infected animals and known dangerous contacts should be rapidly culled. But emergency vaccination of other animals would avoid the slaughter of millions of healthy animals, which was such a deplorable characteristic of the 2001 epidemic.

All this has been appreciated faster in Strasbourg and Brussels than in London. The Commissioner responsible, David Byrne, made it clear last September that the Commission fully agreed with the Royal Society views. That left no doubt about what the basis of the EU Directive would be. And since we long ago handed over to Brussels responsibility for our agriculture, Mr Byrne speaks with authority.

His hand was strengthened by a hard-hitting report from a European Parliament committee, which has been in close touch with the Royal Society. Its vice-president, Caroline Lucas, said, "It is quite clear from the evidence received and the communities we visited that much of the blame for the devastation which followed the outbreak lies at the door of the British Government. The contiguous cull neither worked, nor was it legal, nor was it effective." The European Parliament adopted their report by a massive majority on December 17 - despite efforts by Labour MEPs to have it rejected. The Parliament condemned our Government for traumatising British farmers, wrecking the environment and breaching animal welfare rules. But DEFRA clung for as long as possible to the mass slaughter policy. As late as September 25 I was horrified to read in a letter sent me by Lord Whitty that "the central features of this part of the Bill remain unchanged." Now, even DEFRA must realise that mass slaughter is no longer an option, though they are loathe to admit it.

The Government did finally make some concessions on the Bill, accepting most of what the Inquiries had proposed. And on scrapie they moved an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to consider, when imposing breeding characteristics on susceptible sheep, whether this would be likely to affect the survival of the breed concerned. But the Bill remained, as Lord Peyton of Yeovil said, "a brutal piece of legislation of which Government ought to be heartily ashamed. He added, "Government are clearly saying, "We were right last time: we are always right. But last time we did not have quite enough protection against people who invoked the law against us. This time, we shall make no such mistake."

The Lords debates were thorough and impressive. One of the most effective speakers was the Bishop of Hereford, who described the Bill as "harsh, unjust and untimely". He was also the master of the telling phrase. Only he could have described us as "looking into a black hole of ministerial subjectivity" And in October we all sat up when he said, "Were I a theologian - I hesitate to claim the title - I would say that this is a sinful Bill."

Looking back, what can we conclude about this Bill? If Ministers had been presented with the draft by officials they should unquestionably have rejected it. Moreover, it was unnecessary. Government claimed that they needed more powers. But as the Liberal Democrat, Lord Greaves said, "As we all know, most of the failures to act quickly had nothing to do with legal powers - they were all due to operational incompetence."

Not only did this Bill do further damage to DEFRAs frail reputation, the Department was rightly blamed for the Government's unpardonable failure to do anything in a whole year afterwards to stop illegal imports of meat, the obvious cause of the 2001 epidemic, and to impose the strict controls that the United States and Australia have always had. Lady Masham told us that the Government had just two sniffer dogs at Heathrow.

Ministers repeatedly quoted the recommendations of the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry in support of their policy. They chose to say nothing about Dr Anderson's remarks about DEFRA. "It seems to me that a reappraisal of prevailing attitudes and behaviours within the Department would be beneficial." - or his discovery that nobody could tell him when or by whom key decisions, such as to begin a contiguous cull or to close footpaths were made. We must hope that such a reappraisal, or a more drastic reorganisation of DEFRA is undertaken very soon.

Meanwhile it is sad that Government's attempts to use legislation to prevent a repetition of the 2001 catastrophe have been so inept. "The general consensus in the house of Lords was that Government seemed to have learned nothing from what took place last year, and too often displayed what Shakespeare called "the insolence of office"

The writer is an elected hereditary peer