The government unveiled new powers yesterday designed to prevent legal challenges from slowing down a policy to cull animals during any future disease outbreaks.

The new law will be implemented early next year, and is aimed ostensibly at speeding up the slaughter of animals as the foot and mouth crisis rumbles on. There have actually been no new cases of the highly contagious virus since 30 September, but the government has remained adamant that strict measures should be taken to deal with any potential outbreaks.

Animal health minister, Elliot Morley, is cited in the Financial Times as commenting: "We cannot be sure how the disease will develop, especially with large numbers of autumn movements taking place.

"This disease has involved huge expense, disruption and distress. We must not be prevented from taking action to stamp out the disease because we lack a key power."

Specifically, that power involves ministers being able to penalise "irresponsible" farmers who stand in the way of a cull and who fail to take proper bio-security precautions to prevent the disease spreading. Any farmers judged to be acting in this way will see their compensation for slaughtered livestock reduced to 75% of the animal's value.

Court cases to counter the government's right to order a cull will also be a thing of the past as the laws prevent such challenges.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has backed the proposals, but the body warned that the government would have to give farmers clear advice as to what the laws mean. Ministers would have to improve communication with farmers, it maintained.

The bill will also strengthen moves to combat scrapie in sheep flocks. All breeding rams must now be tested to ensure they are genetically resistant to the disease. Morley argued that this requirement should mean that scrapie is eradicated within five or six years.