Editorial: Country Life

This week, as so often in the recent past, it will be up to the House of Lords to prevent a piece of misconceived legislation, which could deprive people of their human rights, entering the statute book. The Commons debate on the Animal Health Bill, whose second reading takes place in the House of Lords on January 14, was not impressive. How could it be when so few MPs have any specialist knowledge of the matters of animal husbandry and science with which it deals? Few MPs were concerned either by its injustice or its bad science. Now the House of Lords must position itself, once again, as the bastion of British Liberty under the law.

The bill addresses two issues: the implementation of a slaughter policy for farm animals like the one employed last year against foot and mouth disease, and the attempt to eliminate a scrapie gene in sheep. As we have already observed, it may seem strange that the Government should be hurrying to legislate on compulsory slaughter in connection with foot and mouth before any of the three inquiries into the outbreak has reported. That it is doing so at all raises the alarming suspicion that last year's cull of between 6 million and 8m animals was unlawful. The law as it is stands provides for the slaughter of animals which are known to be infected, have been in contact with infection, or are believed to have been exposed to infection by some other means. This does not include animals which are within a 3 kilometre radius of an outbreaks, or were doggedness for the purpose of creating a "firebreak".

We cannot know how many of the animals sacrificed to this end were actually infected: officials gave up testing. What we do know is that few if any of the animals owned by farmers who objected to their stock being taken, and subsequently won their case either in court or with the threat of legal action, proved to have the disease. Yet the new bill seeks to give state vets even more draconian powers against farmers. Under its provisions, the men from the ministry would only need to convince a magistrate of a possible threat of foot-and-mouth, for them to have the right to enter a farm, examine its animals and kill them. The farmer himself would not be rep[resented at this hearing; he would probably not even be aware of it. There would be no appeal.

As the eminent QC Stephen Smith has explained in a letter to Mary Critchley, founder of the farmers' website, Warmwell.com, the bill is likely to fall foul of the Human Rights Act. Not only would it deny individuals the right to a fair public hearing before their property was confiscated, but it would give ministers arbitrary powers that were out of proportion with the objective of containing disease. Apart from anything, the Bill appears to ignore the likelihood that, if foot-and-mouth returns it is almost certain that vaccination will be widely used.

The provisions on scrap[ie are scarcely more sound. Scrapie, as spongiform encephalopathy similar to BSE, is a fairly uncommon disease which has been present in European sheep flocks for centuries. It comes under the spotlight, as well as the microscope, now because of the fears associated with humans eating BSE-infected beef. What if Scrapie could cross the species barrier? What if it is masking the existence of a TSE (Transferable spongiform encephalopathy) in sheep? There is a gene in sheep that has been linked to one kind of scrapie; lets get rid of it. If only it were that simple. The possibility of any sheep having caught TSE from infected rations is only theoretical. The supposed infective agents have long been removed from the feed. There could only be TSE still in existence if it were being transmitted from mother to offspring. In addition, because sheep have shorter lives than dairy cows, they are likely to have been killed before TSE, with its long incubation period, took hold. Besides, sheep are not fed large quantities of protein-enriched cake. Scientists say that sheep that are not susceptible to one form of scrapie may actually be more susceptible to TSE. Furthermore, there are several kinds of scrapie, not all of which would be eliminated along with the gene.

The gene is unfortunately present in rare breeds, including the Herdwick, whose preservation was so important during the foot-and-mouth crisis. They would be presumably be allowed to die out. It may be that the government calculates that members of the newly formed Northern Short Tailed Sheep Group are few, and that most voters would not know one end of a Herdwick from another. If so, it confirms the impression that the Animal Health Bill bears the worst hallmarks of New Labour: apparently modern and scientific, actually authoritarian and ill thought through.