HC Deb 01 August 1975 vol 896 cc2460-74

12.21 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Roland Moyle)

I beg to move, That the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved. The object of this order is to give added protection to Northern Ireland's favourable animal health position, upon which the agricultural export trade of the Province is highly dependent. It is because it has this objective that it has received such widespread acceptance during consultation.

The order seeks to improve controls on the importation of animals and animal products and to extend those controls to cover the importation of anything which is capable of bringing disease of animals in its train. Provisions are also included which will enable controls to be applied to the distribution and use within Northern Ireland of certain materials, both animate and inanimate, and certain ancillary matters.

Article 3 extends the provisions of the Diseases of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1958 to allow importation controls to be applied to inanimate objects such as dirty agricultural machinery, which has been found to be as capable of transmitting disease as matters relating to animals themselves. Also, the article is applied to an extended range of animate objects, such as livestock ova, the movement of which is becoming important. They can in adverse circumstances be disease-carrying organisms.

Provision is also made in that article for the detention on board a vessel or aircraft or other craft and the subsequent re-export of unlicensed cargoes arriving in Northern Ireland. Cargoes of particular concern would include consignments of meat, animal products, hay and so on, any of which could from the moment of landing constitute a threat to Northern Ireland's disease-free and therefore highly susceptible livestock and poultry population. At the moment, the Department of Agriculture, which is the originating Department of this legislation, has powers to deal only with unlawful imports which have actually been landed. It would be an advantage to prevent landing of these disease-bearing products.

Article 3 also provides extended powers for inspectors to enter vessels and aircraft so that they may check that the regulations have been complied with. At present, inspectors may enter vessels only if they have a lively suspicion or reasonable grounds for supposing that the regulations under the existing legislation are being breached. The idea is that they will have a right to enter and inspect vessels to see that regulations are being complied with.

The possession by any person of anything which has been imported in contravention of the diseases of animals legislation becomes an offence under Article 3(4), but it is provided that where the defendant can satisfy a court that he acquired the thing concerned in good faith the charge against him will be dismissed.

The enforcing authorities must first prove that the person was in possession of anything imported in contravention of the order. If they can do that, it is then up to the person in possession to prove that he acquired it in good faith.

The only offence provided for under existing legislation is that of bringing an illegal import into Northern Ireland, but such an import may be discovered some time after the date of importation. For example, illegally-imported meat could be found in a cold store and by that time it might be impossible to prove that a particular person was responsible for the act of importation. By holding the person in possession responsible, however, it will, to the extent that those in possession can demonstrate their lack of complicity, be possible to isolate the guilty party.

Finally, under Article 3 the Department of Agriculture will, as an alternative to the existing power of slaughter, have a power to order the re-export of animals in quarantine which are suspected of being diseased. Sometimes animals which are tested do not give a positive or a negative reaction and it cannot be decided whether they are diseased. In those cases the Department will be able to re-export rather than slaughter.

Article 4 provides power to regulate the distribution and use within Northern Ireland of anything capable of spreading animal disease. The main purpose of this provision is to permit the exercise of controls over the disease-causing organism. Under this article the Department will have power to control the operations of establishments like knackeries and poultry waste processors to ensure the maintenance of satisfactory health and hygiene standards.

Power is provided under Article 5 for the Department to require persons engaged in the livestock, poultry and meat trades to keep documents, invoices, bills and all the rest and to produce them for inspection when requested. In certain exceptional and well-defined circumstances the Department will have powers to seize such documents if voluntary co-operation is not forthcoming. There is a number of ancillary provisions in the order.

Article 6 removes the Department's liability to the payment of compensation to the owners of animals who are slaughtered in quarantine because they are suspected of being diseased. The situation is totally different from the slaughter of animals already in the country. After all, importing is a positive act by the importer. He knows that he is running a risk of importing disease and he can insure against it. In those circumstances, the Department and the Government do not feel that compensation should rest on the shoulders of the taxpayer.

Article 7 repeals an outdated provision of the Administrative Provisions Act (Northern Ireland) 1926 whereby the Department of Agriculture is obliged to pay half the expenses incurred by local authorities in the discharge of duties imposed upon them by the diseases of animals legislation. As a result of successive legislation, local authorities in Northern Ireland no longer have any heavy, specific obligations under the Diseases of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1958. Article 7 removes the Government's liability to pay half those expenses. It is merely a tidying-up provision.

The order has been generally welcomed by the interested parties consulted before it was laid.

12.29 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Among the first words heard or read by visitors landing in Northern Ireland from ship or aircraft are the warning by the Ministry of Agriculture—I do not know whether the use in the notices of "Ministry" instead of "Department" is nostalgic or prophetic—to those who may have been in recent contact with livestock or poultry. That always brings home to me the commendable vigilance of the Northern Ireland authorities.

The administration and the public in the Province—particularly those who earn their living from agricultural production and its export to the mainland of the United Kingdom—recognise how vital is this vigilance and the kind of measures which the Minister has outlined, and he was right to stress the importance of the export trade. I shall sit down in a moment because Members of Parliament representing constituencies in Northern Ireland may wish to speak. But may I ask the Minister to utter words of cheer to the poultry farmers in Northern Ireland, who are losing money? Eighty per cent. of all the eggs produced there are transported to the mainland, although recently there has been a decrease in egg production. I understand from the Ulster Farmers' Union that between 4,000 and 6,000 jobs in poultry farming, hatcheries and ancillary activities are now in danger. If the Minister can give some information and encouragement, many people in the Province will be grateful.

12.31 p.m.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

I welcome the order, which stems from the Diseases of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1958. A similar order stemming from the Act was the draft Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1975. The only difference is that the word "(Amendment)" does not appear in the previous order. The order was considered in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments in February.

The equivalent British measure to the Diseases of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1958 is the Diseases of Animals Act 1950, from which stemmed the Rabies Act 1974. There is no equivalent Rabies Act in Northern Ireland.

The previous legislation, which this order amends, stemmed from two orders. I refer to the Rabies (Control) Order 1974 and the Rabies (Importation of Dogs, Cats and Other Mammals) Order 1974. That is a United Kingdom measure.

Will this order deal with the importation of dogs and cats into Northern Ireland? The document mentions animals but does not specify them. If the order concerns rabies, I should have thought that it would be helpful to make that clear in the order. Perhaps it should mention some of the worst diseases, one of which is rabies. Those who saw the film which dealt with rabies two nights ago in the Palace of Westminster cinema will know of the horrific nature of this disease and that there is no authenticated case of a man recovering from it.

The explanatory note to the order says that it extends the powers of import control. However, the import of animals into Northern Ireland, either by sea or by air, is different from the importation of animals from the Republic. A chaotic situation exists on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire. Many customs posts are unmanned, especially at night. There are other difficulties.

Has consideration been given to implementing the order under the conditions existing today in the border area? Will a similar order be enacted in the Republic? I asked a similar question when the previous order was discussed in Committee. The Government said that they were in close consultation with the Republic. However, it was not made clear whether similar provisions were being enacted in Eire at the same time. If rabies is not controlled, there will be a major gap and loophole.

12.35 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I welcome any measure to help control animal diseases in Northern Ireland. This order deals with the importation of meat originating in a country where disease is rife.

This is the second piece of legislation dealing with animal diseases in Northern Ireland which we have considered this year. Why is it necessary for there to be piecemeal legislation? Cannot the legislation be combined and passed at the same time? In that way we could go into the details of the legislation much more thoroughly. Could this legislation be tied closer to that existing for the rest of the United Kingdom? In some respects the law is much more stringent in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom or Eire. There should be parallel legislation wherever possible.

Article 5 of the order states that a justice of the peace must be satisfied by complaint on oath. Is it reasonable that a justice of the peace should give authority to persons to enter premises and seize documents? It is a serious matter. Would it not be wiser for this power to be given to a resident magistrate in court rather than to a justice of the peace?

Article 6 of the order deals with the payment of compensation and the slaughter of animals as a result of disease originating from a source unconnected with the animals in a quarantine station. Control is strict in quarantine stations, although we can never ignore the possibility of diseases being transmitted in the station. It would be difficult to prove that the disease had been transmitted in the station. In those circumstances is it right for the Department of Agriculture to have the deciding voice? There should be an independent tribunal or investigation so that all persons concerned are satisfied with the fairness of the procedures for determining whether compensation should be payable by the Department of Agriculture.

Article 7 of the order deals with payments to district councils. The Minister said that not much money was involved. The ratepayers of Northern Ireland will object to unnecessary payments, especially at a time when rates are soaring. Can this provision be reasonably accepted? We have no idea what may happen in future. The law might be changed again and a great burden laid upon district councils.

The report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments refers to the fact that the controls in Northern Ireland are more stringent than those in Great Britain. Will Northern Ireland be allowed to retain its high standards in the light of our membership of the Common Market? That is a cause of deep concern to the farming community, especially to the breeders of high-quality animals for export. We should like an assurance from the Minister that livestock disease in Northern Ireland will be controlled and that we shall not have to lower our standards to comply with the rules of other countries which have lower standards in controlling the diseases of animals.

On page 8 of the report of the evidence to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments there is a reference to— importation from any other place". I understand "any other place" to include the rest of the United Kingdom but not necessarily Eire. Northern Ireland and Eire form a single area for the control of animal diseases, but the legislation in the two countries is not precisely the same. The import requirements into Northern Ireland and into Eire are different, especially for female stock. Some people I have spoken to in the farming community are concerned that female stock is brought into Eire and subsequently re-exported from Eire into Northern Ireland. Should that situation be allowed to continue? In view of the grave situation which exists in border control between Northern Ireland and Eire, is the Minister satisfied that stock carrying brucellosis infection is not crossing the border into Northern Ireland from Eire?

There have been a large number of unexplained and inexplicable outbreaks of brucellosis in Northern Ireland, although it was thought at one time to be practically free of the disease. There seems to be no reason for these outbreaks unless they are caused by diseased stock brought in from somewhere else. The only country from which that diseased stock could come is Eire. I know that the Eire authorities would not wish such exports to take place, but we have recently been made aware in the House of the large amount of smuggling that occurs between North and South. Is there any reason to suppose that unscrupulous persons are not engaging in this illegal traffic resulting in brucellosis being brought into Northern Ireland? Will the Minister undertake to try to close this possible gap in our defences?

12.42 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim South)

The hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) properly raised the subject of rabies, which is mentioned in the order, and asked for clarification. Rabies is not such a minor matter as one might imagine. I remember some years ago being approached by a close friend who was in considerable difficulty because his wife had taken her dog to Great Britain, and when she attempted to return the dog was put in quarantine at the port of embarkation. The man's wife would not depart from Great Britain without her dog, and the dog could not be released. I was asked what action I would recommend. In exasperation I put to him the question "If it came to a choice, which of the two would you want most?" I am not sure that he acted on my advice and I am not even sure that the advice was sound. Perhaps what the Minister says in clarification may help my friend if he finds himself again in that position.

I shall briefly reiterate the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) of the worrying question of illegal importation. The Minister of State will remember that the Public Accounts Committee expressed grave concern at the scale of expenditure of public funds in the operation of the brucellosis scheme. At one period we all hoped that Northern Ireland was completely free of this scourge, but then we had a series of outbreaks for no obvious reason.

The Public Accounts Committee suggested that the outbreak tended to occur in an area adjacent to the border with the Irish Republic and that the incidence of the disease decreased as one moved inland from the border. In these days of fast transport and mobile smugglers, outbreaks are beginning to occur in what we have hitherto regarded as fairly safe areas.

The Minister of State and his noble Friend who is responsible for agricultural matters in Northern Ireland know the tragedy which an outbreak means for a farmer who has worked for years to build up a valuable herd—perhaps a pedigree herd—which is wiped away in the space of a few days because of negligence on the part of someone who wants to make a fast pound out of a smuggling operation. There is far too much of that going on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry said he did not think that the Eire Government would condone such operations, and I am sure that is true. Although the Eire regulations are not perhaps as strict as the Northern Ireland regulations, enforcement of the Eire regulations would go a long way towards resolving these problems. The trouble is that they are not enforced even within the territory of the Irish Republic. It has been said to me that although the Eire agriculturists have an excellent rule book, it is of little use because they do not read it.

It is a great pity that this tragedy should occur as a result of slack enforcement. In Northern Ireland we make a determined attempt to control the disease and we are proud of our record in animal health. Should the enormous trouble and expense of that effort be set at naught because of the carelessness of our neighbours south of the border?

Will the Minister ask his noble Friend whether he is satisfied that the officials of the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture are pursuing as vigorously as they might the enforcement of the regulations and whether they are being sufficiently determined in their efforts to crack down on the offenders?

When one attends a branch meeting of the National Farmers' Union and hears verbal accusations and names mentioned one wonders whether these facts are known to officers of the Department—particularly to enforcement officers—and, if the facts are known, why there is not a more obvious attempt to take action to prosecute and, if necessary, deal harshly with the offenders.

All Northern Irish Members who represent agricultural constituencies or who are involved in agriculture are proud of their record and would wish us to give our support to the order.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I give my support to the order and I hope that it will proceed through the House speedily. It is in the interests of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that they should remain one effective unit for animal health purposes. It is essential that the quality and standard of the controls for animal health purposes in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should remain as effective as they have been in the past.

The veterinary department of the Department of Agriculture in the South of Ireland is highly effective and highly efficient. In my practical experience, in some respects it is more efficient than our Ministry of Agriculture in animal disease and animal health matters. It has some highly-qualified officials who provide an effective service very conscientiously.

I recognise that it is mysterious how these outbreaks of animal diseases occur in the North of Ireland from time to time, but brucellosis can be spread other than by the contact of an infected animal with non-infected animals. There are many ways in which it can be spread. One way to which possibly insufficient attention is being paid is the passage of a lorry which has carried infected animals, say, south of the border, proceeding to the North of Ireland and not being properly disinfected on passage, and thereby passing on the brucella germs to clean cattle in the north of Ireland.

It is important that we continue to try to strengthen the external barrier of what I call the animal health unit of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is vital to many thousands of farmers in Great Britain, particularly in the Midlands and the North, that the traditional trade of Irish store cattle, nearly all from the Republic, amounting to 300,000–500,000 every year, should continue to come over in the numbers required and untramelled by veterinary inspections, other than the normal 24-hour check that they now undergo at the port of entry at Birkenhead.

This animal trade, this flow of store cattle, upon which the prosperity of many farmers in Britain depends, should continue completely unfettered. It can continue only if the health regulations in the three areas of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic march along together hand in hand. Many farms in Great Britain depend upon receiving the exports of Irish store lambs, for instance, without which they would be in difficulties. They need them to finish them at the end of the year. There is a great two-way passage of animal traffic between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic, which flows unhampered by restrictions other than brief examination at the port of entry. That can continue only if the three areas march in parallel with regard to animal health regulations.

That is why I share the concern of the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross), who said how important it was to keep our animal health regulations intact, especially now that we are full members of the EEC, bearing in mind that membership could at a not-too-distant date require us greatly to relax our animal health regulations. It is in the interests of the successful and working health unit of the three areas that we should resist any attempt to lower the very effective standards of hygiene, animal care and animal examination which we have at our points of entry from abroad.

We have already heard that it is desirable that parallel legislation should be going through the Dublin Dail, because it will make nonsense of our animal health unit if it is not. The House would like the Minister's confirmation that it is going through.

I can see no reference in the order to an increase in penalties. As far as I can see, there is no mention of penalties. With the prevalence of disease in all its forms, and with new diseases continually threatening, it is no use leaving penalties based on an Act of 10 or 15 years ago. Low penalties are no deterrent. To keep a dog in quarantine for the six-month period costs nearly£200 today. When we are dealing with animal disease, and with the cost of animals which are imported and exported being what it is today, it is essential that realistic penalties be provided for offenders.

With those few comments, I welcome the order.

12.56 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

I wish briefly to draw attention to a problem that I came across during the past few weeks. It would allow a horse and cart to be driven through the legislation that the Minister is introducing. It has to do with the overall security situation in Northern Ireland.

The security forces have obviously felt for a long time that explosives, firearms and so on might well be going to various parts of the Province on cattle lorries and so on. Over the past 15 months they have built a garage at Long Kesh to which they take the lorries, unload the beasts, search the lorries, reload the cattle, and send them to their eventual destination.

In our system of brucellosis control, certification has always been required to move cows or heifers from one part of Northern Ireland to another. Apparently, the Army was not aware of this, and it was bringing the cattle to Long Kesh, unloading them into a pen, taking them away, and then bringing in another lorry and repeating the process. The system of recording, control and disinfecting had broken down.

I have brought the matter to the attention of the Defence Department, and I believe that it may at last be taking action on it. It would be a great help if the Minister and his hon. Friend would assist me in the matter.

12.59 p.m.

Mr. Moyle

We have had a brief debate which has illuminated certain aspects of the order and drawn attention to one or two problems.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) drew attention to the parlous condition of the poultry industry. The Department of Agriculture is aware of it. The situation is primarily caused by the high price of poultry feed. The problem is under active consideration by the Department of Agriculture with a view to finding a solution.

The hon. Members for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) and Esher (Mr. Mather) referred to the problem of rabies in Northern Ireland. As the Minister responsible for piloting the most recent Rabies Act affecting Great Britain through the House, I am well aware of the seriousness of the problem. We intend to introduce in the very near future Northern Ireland legislation equivalent to the Rabies Act. We have plans afoot to do that.

A number of references have been made to the question of the importation of animals from the Republic and how we control it. The hon. Member for liar-borough (Mr. Farr) summed up the attitude in an interesting speech which will be taken on board. We have informed the Republic that we are putting the order through the House and the appropriate authorities in the Republic will consider what legislative action they should take. I cannot go further than that. Her Majesty's Government are not responsible for any action taken by the Government of the Republic.

Nevertheless, the problem of the border is particularly important and a number of hon. Members have referred to it. Complete control of the movement of livestock across the border in Ireland is virtually impossible, although the departmental officials as well as the security forces and, as far as possible, customs officials, do their utmost to keep it under control not only because of the disease of animals implication but because of all sorts of other implications. But the border is over 300 miles long and runs through much uninhabited country. Hon. Members know the problem as well as I do because we have discussed it many times in the House.

It is disappointing to the Department of Agriculture that it has not been possible to eradicate more quickly the remaining brucellosis infection in Northern Ireland, but there are hopeful signs that the percentage of infected herds is beginning to fall and that the situation is not out of control. Insofar as there is movement, it is in the direction of decline. Nevertheless, the battle will continually have to be fought and it will not be made easier by anybody who is so ill-advised as to smuggle without making proper provision for ensuring that the herds are disease free. We are continually fighting smuggling along the border, because there are other incentives which have affected the situation.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) raised the question of female stock. The importation into Northern Ireland of female stock is not permitted, in the interests of preventing the introduction into the Province of Johne's disease. This is another control which we apply. We consider that justices of the peace are the appropriate people to issue the warrant.

Mr. Wm. Ross

The Minister is no doubt aware that, although the importation of female stock is prohibited from the rest of Great Britain, it is in certain circumstances allowed from Eire.

Mr. Moyle

I shall have to look into that point and write to the hon. Gentleman, but I am advised that the importation into Northern Ireland of female stock is not permitted. If there is doubt about that, I shall see what can be done to clear it up.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is there any reason why resident magistrates should not be able to issue warrants apart from justices of the peace? Would not that be helpful?

Mr. Moyle

It might well be, but the services of justices of the peace are regularly available to the inspectors, who can apply to them and obtain the documents that they need. There is no reason why resident magistrates should not be approached, but we have decided upon justices of the peace for the purposes of this legislation.

The hon. Member for Londonderry also raised the question of compensation and pointed out that compensation will not be paid to importers whose animals contract any disease while in quarantine. He said that disease could be introduced into the quarantine station. Nevertheless, the movement of cattle is a risk, and people are well aware of it when they undertake the movement of cattle. They can therefore insure against it, which is the appropriate way to deal with the problem.

Great Britain has the cordon of the sea round it and it has given it a fairly favourable position regarding animal disease. Therefore, Ireland, which is an island beyond an island, is in an even more favourable position. The Government will fight hard to ensure that our defences against the importation of animal disease are not lowered as a result of membership of the Common Market. I understand that the Common Market is to review these matters in 1977. We have a derogation from the regulations applying in the Common Market. We shall fight to maintain it and we have every confidence in our success. Just as there is a cordon sanitaire formed by the sea between Great Britain and the Continent, so there is one between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, of which we have made use and of which we shall continue to make use.

On the question of allowing local authorities to recoup their expenditure under the Diseases of Animals Act, I should point out that in the last few years expenditure by local authorities under this heading has amounted to£3.25. Therefore, we do not feel that we should go ahead with retaining this redundant piece of legislation.

I am happy to inform the hon. Member for Harborough that under the previous Diseases of Animals Order the penalty was raised from£200 to£500. We are now strengthening the system for the application of the regulations and for the prevention of disease by giving the inspectorate greater powers. The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of disinfecting lorries. Powers in the order will enable conveying vehicles to be disinfected and for us to ensure that they are disinfected to a greater degree than has been possible hitherto.

I promise the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) that I shall look into the problem which he raised to see whether it can be solved.

No one has opposed the order and, therefore, I have much pleasure in asking the House to approve it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved.