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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 19:47 GMT
New slaughter plans under fire
Slaughtered cows are moved last year
Four million animals were slaughtered
Controversial plans to make slaughtering animals easier in the name of disease control have been branded "harsh and untimely" in the House of Lords.

The Animal Health Bill gives the government greater powers to slaughter animals in the wake of last year's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

These plans are too wide, they are very draconian powers

Veterinary college spokesman

The bill is being debated by peers in the House of Lords as Northumberland becomes the last county in the UK to be declared free of foot-and-mouth disease.

Defending the plans, Farming Minister Lord Whitty said it was only luck that prevented a catastrophic spread of the disease in North Yorkshire last summer.

'Lessons learnt'

The crisis had exposed the weakness of existing powers in securing the quick action essential to stop foot-and-mouth spreading, said the minister.

"We need these powers to avoid the slaughter of potentially millions of animals," Lord Whitty told peers.

"If throughout the epidemic we could have carried out a quicker cull then many hundreds of thousands of animals would have been saved."

Lord Whitty
Whitty says animals deaths can be prevented
Lord Whitty said farmers did have a right to appeal against decisions and the right balance in favour of public protection had been secured.

Conservative agriculture spokesman Baroness Byford said the bill would have been better named the "animal death bill".

The Tory peer said ministers would get "huge powers" to be able to slaughter animals while no action was taken to prevent disease entering the UK.

Lady Byford also accused ministers of a "knee jerk reaction" to last year's outbreak because they had introduced legislation before the inquiries into the crisis had reported back.

'Sweeping powers'

There was fierce criticism too from the Rt Rev John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford, who branded the bill "harsh, unjust and untimely".

He said the bill gave ministers "sweeping powers" and appeared to express no confidence in the farming community.

Currently, the government can only have animals slaughtered to control foot-and-mouth if the livestock is suspected of either contracting the disease or coming into contact with an infected animal.

Restrictions could be imposed on some sheep breeds
The government believes this restriction contributed to the spread of the disease.

Instead, the proposed new laws would mean any animals could be culled in the name of disease control.

That would mean healthy animals near an infected farm could be slaughtered as a firebreak to prevent further spread of disease.

Four million animals were slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, with the government paying about 2bn in compensation to farmers.

The bill would also change the compensation arrangements so only 75% of an animal's pre-infection value would be guaranteed, instead of the full price currently paid.

Ministers could refuse to pay the final quarter of the money if it was decided the farmer had created a significant risk of spreading the disease during the previous three weeks.

Rare breed fears

The plan also includes measures to allow ministers to stop the breeding of types of sheep thought to be particularly susceptible to scrapie - the equivalent of BSE in cows.

That was one of the measures criticised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), which says it could mean some rare breeds are wiped out in the UK on the basis of often inexact science.

An RCVS spokesman told BBC News Online clarification of the powers was needed in the light of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

'More scrutiny needed'

"These plans are too wide, they are very draconian powers."

Barney Holbeche, from the National Farmers' Union, told BBC News Online his organisation did not object to the principle of the slaughter plans.

But it wants Lord Whitty to spell out more details so farmers can be confident the government did not intend to "steamroller" their rights in the way the measures were enforced.

The Liberal Democrats have berated ministers for failing to consult on the plans and they also oppose the idea of denying farmers compensation unless they can prove they have complied with government decisions.

See also:

07 Sep 00 | Festival of science
Screening plan could eradicate scrapie
14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
UK is 'foot-and-mouth free'
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