THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
4 November 2001
Christopher Booker's Notebook
THE most startling aspect of the Animal Health Bill, which no one seems to have noticed, is that it confirms that the Government acted illegally during the foot and mouth crisis in ordering millions of healthy animals to be destroyed.
The Bill, which the Government hopes to rush into law by early next year, tacitly recognises that there was no legal power to order the destruction of these animals under the "contiguous cull".
The Bill contains two astonishing features. The first is that it grants powers more arbitrary and draconian than state officials have ever been given in Britain before. In the name of eliminating foot and mouth or any other disease, they are given right of entry to any premises, to kill any animal they wish, including cats and dogs.
Animal owners are deprived of any legal right to question or challenge such decisions. Indeed, they can be ordered by officials, on pain of prosecution, to provide assistance in any way that the officials want; so that, on paper, even refusing to make tea for an official could be deemed a criminal offence.
The Bill's other remarkable feature is that it confirms that when, in March, the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) launched its contiguous cull scheme, under which more than three million animals were killed simply because they were on farms within "three kilometres" of an infected premises, it did not have the legal power to do so.
The Animal Health Act 1981 clearly states that officials can kill animals only where there is proof that they are either diseased or have been exposed to infection. EU law, under directive 85/511, is even stricter, ruling that animals can be culled only when already infected.
It was these laws which MAFF deliberately ignored in ordering its contiguous cull, supported by Professor Roy Anderson's Imperial College computer model.
Indeed, whenever animal owners challenged the legality of the contiguous cull, MAFF found some way to back down.
An Exeter solicitor, Alayne Addie, confirmed last week that, when she challenged MAFF on more than 200 occasions, it was clear that the last thing the ministry wanted was to have its policy tested in court. When the case of Grunty, the film-star pig, did come before the High Court in June, Mr Justice Harrison ruled that the ministry had no power to order a blanket slaughter policy. Each case must be assessed individually.
It is precisely this wholesale breaching of the law that the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now seeking to circumvent, by granting its officials the powers which until now the law has not given them.
This was justified last week by the Defra minister Elliott Morley, who outraged lawyers, farmers and vets by claiming as "a fact" that attempts to challenge the legality of the cull had helped prolong the epidemic.
Miss Addie points out that in only one of the 200 cases she fought did the animals subsequently develop the disease. Mr Morley has been challenged to produce a single piece of evidence to support his claim.
Not the least controversial aspect of Mr Morley's new law is that it proposes to give police-state powers to the very officials who have so conspicuously abused the powers that they already have over the past seven months. Miss Addie argues that, by denying animal owners any right of appeal, the Bill is in clear breach of the Human Rights Act.
Despite the storm of protest it is arousing, Mr Morley will have little problem getting it nodded through by MPs. But since it was not announced in either the Labour manifesto or the Queen's Speech, the Lords are entitled to throw it out. Opponents now look to an all-party alliance of peers to do so.
Copies of my Not the Foot and Mouth Report are available from newsagents, or from Private Eye on 020 7228 6457.