Mr. Bacon: I particularly agreed with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) about one of the first points he made - the suggestion that nothing should be done because doing something would create a precedent. Of course it is true that everything is unprecedented until it is done for the first time. That seemed a curious argument to come from a new Labour Minister. The hon. Gentleman speculated that I did not want to effect such a fundamental change, but I have news for him: I came into the House precisely to effect fundamental change, and one day Conservative Members will have the opportunity to do precisely that. I shall remind him that I said that; I am very assiduous in keeping quotes, as he knows.
To understand this business about warrants and entry, it is important to go back to the fundamental basis of the Bill. I was rudely interrupted by the rules of the House on this point when I was the last hon. Member to speak on Third Reading and had to confine my remarks to the remaining one minute and 45 seconds. We have to reflect on the fact that the Government introduced the Bill because, during the foot and mouth crisis, they killed millions of healthy animals that they had no legal right to kill and no scientific basis for killing.
Paragraph 3(1) of schedule 3 to the Animal Health Act 1981 - the relevant provision that refers to the Minister's powers to kill animals - states:
"The Minister may, if he thinks fits, in any case cause to be slaughtered . . . any animals affected with foot-and-mouth disease, or suspected of being so affected; and . . . any animals which are or have been in the same field, shed, or other place, or in the same herd or flock, or other in contact with animals affected with foot-and-mouth disease, or which appear to the Minister to have been in any way exposed to the infection of foot-and-mouth disease."
In other words, the Minister had to have some grounds for thinking that the animals were infected before he could kill them. He had no basis in statute law for exercising the slaughter. We have to ask, therefore, whether any basis had developed in case law to undertake the cull. The answer is that, no, there was not.
I commend to the House an excellent speech made by Lord
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The question that the hon. Gentleman should ask himself is about the warrant conditions. His remarks so far indicate that he is going wider than the ambit of Lords Amendment No. 14.
Mr. Bacon: I respect what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if you will bear with me very briefly, I hope to show that these matters are intimately related because they go back to the non-existent trust between farmers and the Government. That lack of trust causes the power of entry that the Minister seeks to cause so much suspicion among farmers.
The fact is that there was no statutory basis for the cull; neither was there a basis in case law. Lord Willoughby de Broke referred to three relevant cases. The Government won the first two - that of Westerhall Farms v. Scottish Ministers and MAFF v. Winslade - but, crucially, not all the required scientific information was available to the courts. However, the Government lost the first case based on correct science - MAFF v. Upton - in which all the scientific information available to the Department was available to the court.
In his speech, Lord Willoughby de Broke said that, if the Minister was looking for a bedrock case for or against the continuous cull, he could find it in the Upton case. In that case, Dr. Donaldson's scientific evidence was produced by the defending solicitors and won the day for the defendants.
Mr. Hayes: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Bacon: Of course.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I imagine that he is making the case - and he is doing it very well that there is an intimate relationship between the lack of trust that farmers feel for the action taken by the Government in culling healthy animals and the Government's proposals for warrants and entry conditions. My hon. Friend suggests that farmers will mistrust the warrants in the form that the Government propose. The Lords tried to amend the warrants, but the Government clearly do not want to accept those amendments.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has provided an escape route, and I hope that the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) will take it. He has to be concise when he puts his argument, or he will be ignoring the ruling that I gave earlier.
Mr. Bacon: I am utterly serious when I say that I am not looking for an escape route, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has precisely enunciated the argument that I wanted to make. The Government forfeited farmers' trust because MAFF officials went to farms and slaughtered healthy animals even though their actions had no basis in statute, case law or science.
Various hon. Members have noted the importance of farmers being represented in a warrant hearing, and one might be able to give the Minister's case more credence were it not for the experience of what happened. Farmers generally have no trust in the Minister's proposals because of the way in the which the Government acted during the crisis. That was precisely the point that I was in the process of making. In his speech, Lord Willoughby de Broke asked why the Ministry never fought a case for an injunction to enable a contiguous cull to proceed after the decision in the Upton case was given. The reason was that the Ministry knew that it had been proceeding on a wholly inadequate basis.
That is the context for our consideration of the proposal that there should be no right in advance of slaughter for a farmer to go before a justice of the peace and contest a warrant.
Mr. Wiggin: Earlier, the Minister commented on the number of cases that the DVM upheld. That gave me cause for concern, as farmers are worried about whether warrants will arrive before or after animals are culled. I hope that the Minister, when he closes the debate, will say whether the cases to which he did not draw attention were also relevant. Does my hon. Friend think that farmers' human rights may be infringed by the proposal? Farmers who go to court must have a reason for doing so, and it is not fair to proceed without them.
Mr. Bacon: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have had the grace to admit that they cannot abolish judicial review for administrative action, but their proposals seem to mean that big-ticket farmers with deep wallets and access to big lawyers can go straight to the High Court to secure an injunction. The Minister will be able to do nothing about that, as people have a legal right to obtain injunctions. Hundreds of people got satisfaction from the DVM, but that does not alter the fact that MAFF, as the Department then was, exceeded its powers and acted in excess of what a court would have considered reasonable. They may have been a minority, but many people were involved in such cases, which have been the subject of much comment and which have caused a great deal of mistrust.
Our courts are too full already, and we do not want them to become any more clogged up, but farmers should not have to have deep wallets so that they can take out a High Court injunction. Farmers should be able, in a simple and short procedure, to go before the magistrate when the warrant is being applied for and make their case. As I said to the Minister earlier, one could believe this to be a heinous alteration to the way in which warrants were issued if one were talking about big criminals. We would not want to give drugs dealers the right to contest a warrant - [Interruption] - well, the law could be changed. We do not want to give big drugs dealers the right to contest the warrant before a judge. If they knew that there was about to be a drugs bust, they would be long gone. As the Minister said, we are not talking about big criminals.
Mr. Wiggin: One of the problems throughout the debate is that it seems as though the Government are always blaming the farmers for the entire foot and mouth crisis. My hon. Friend's point emphasises once again that it is difficult, when discussing this, to distinguish between proper criminals who deal in drugs and people who are desperately trying to eke out a living farming livestock without having their stock slaughtered.
Mr. Bacon: Whether they meant it or not - and I am willing to accept that that at the highest levels of MAFF they did not mean it - the Government's actions made many law-abiding people feel criminal, when they were struggling to keep themselves afloat and seeing their farm income dropping through the floor.
In conclusion, the Government's basis for the slaughter was illegal and scientifically flawed. The basis of the Bill is to repair that deficit but in the context of the lack of trust created by the Government through their own actions, it is entirely reasonable to expect a farmer to be able to contest a warrant.