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2.7 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on introducing the Bill and on her detailed and careful presentation of it, which has been helpful to the House. I am glad that we have had an opportunity for a longer debate. I appreciate the comments of all those who have spoken and the constructive assistance that they have given. Some reasonable points have been made about details and I shall try to reassure hon. Members. We shall have an opportunity to consider some of them seriously in Committee.

I welcome the constructive contribution of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I assure him that anyone wanting to prosecute under the Bill must have written agreement--from MAFF in England or from the National Assembly in Wales. It is not possible for just anybody to take action. There are controls to ensure that the action is proper and proportionate and is taken by proper organisations for proper reasons.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Can he give us an idea of the sort of people the Ministry has in mind? There must be some requirement, qualification or limitation.

Mr. Morley: I can give the right hon. Gentleman an idea of those whom we regard as appropriate persons and organisations. They include the veterinary investigation service, local authority officials and bodies such as the RSPCA. They are all respectable bodies with experience that know how the system operates.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) talked about apportioning the costs involved in looking after animals. The interests of the owner are taken into account in the Bill. I was asked what would happen if a person were acquitted. The care of the animals primarily involves feeding them. In some cases they may need veterinary attention. Those costs would have been incurred anyway. There are powers to sell the animals, but generally speaking there would be no need to do that and they would simply be fed on site. However, in some commercial operations, agricultural animals such as pigs need to be sold when they reach a certain optimum weight otherwise their value starts to decrease. The Bill includes an obligation to get the best value for the owner, so if for some reason the owner is unable to sell the animals or run the farm it might be better for them to be sold at the appropriate time in order to maximise the return. Any surplus after costs have been met will be returned to the owner.

Mr. Grieve: I follow that. I accept that the cost of foodstuffs, to which the Minister referred, is likely to be pretty much identical, whether they are provided by the

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farmer or someone else. However, I also referred to transport costs. Is the Minister in a position to cover that now?

Mr. Morley: I shall come to that. I wrote down all the points in the order in which they were made and I am working through them in a linear way.

In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), the 1911 Act is very broad and that is helpful in relation to its application. Many of the speeches today referred to farm animals, which are indeed covered by the 1911 Act. However, the legislation covers all commercial animals. Therefore, it applies to pet shops and other commercial enterprises where there have been problems, such as puppy farms and commercial dog breeding, in respect of which there is a loophole in the law.

Hon. Members were right to say that the Bill addresses a small minority of cases. There are only a few cases each year, but they involve unacceptable suffering by the animals concerned so we are trying to close the loophole.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was right about the identification of animals. In some cases it is necessary to determine which animals are subject to the order as they might be in mixed flocks or mixed ownership. In some cases the owner might not be complying with the law and the Bill includes powers to enforce compliance in relation to marking.

My response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), is that the legislation covering pets is generally regarded as adequate although there may be a case for reviewing the 1911 Act. The Bill extends the 1911 Act to commercial animals. However, the Bill also covers fish in commercial operations when there is an appropriate requirement to take action.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may be reassured to know that the powers in the Bill cannot be applied without the recommendation of a veterinary surgeon. That is another safeguard.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) asked about the definition of "commercial". In the Bill, the term applies to animals that are being reared solely for profit as part of a commercial operation. That is an interesting point that we shall consider to ensure that the provisions have adequate grounds--although he may be right that it will be a matter for the courts to determine; he makes a fair point.

In response to the right hon. Gentleman's point about horses, there are regulations relating to the welfare of horses in addition to the 1911 Act. Of course, he is right that responsibility for horses is spread across a number of Government Departments--the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, he may be pleased to know that when the Prime Minister's action plan was discussed with representatives from the farming sector, one of the points that was made--although it was not one of the headline points--was that MAFF was to take a stronger role in relation to co-ordinating issues relating to horses. This applies not only to welfare but to the promotion of the rural economy, and the valuable and expanding role of equine businesses in it. However, welfare issues will also be included. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, and will consider it further.

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The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the unauthorised release of non-native species, such as American bullfrogs. That is already covered by legislation. It is against the law, but enforcement is difficult. There are only a few such cases. Most of those who keep, breed and sell animals commercially, whether for agricultural purposes or the pet trade, are perfectly respectable and proper people, who look after their animals. We may only be talking about a minority, but there is a problem. It might help if I give examples not related to agriculture that show how the Bill would work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) spoke about costs. She went into some detail about how the Protection of Animals Act 1911 worked, and its weaknesses. She made a good case. Some of her points went beyond the Bill, which closes a loophole and is fairly limited in its scope. However, she made a good argument for considering how the 1911 Act works and how it could be strengthened. I repeat that it is a very broad Act, which is helpful when it comes to bringing prosecutions. However, I do not say that it could not be improved. The Bill is part of improving it.

Generally speaking, the ownership of the 1911 Act is with the Home Office, and my colleagues there might like to consider it. I know that my hon. Friend is not without influence in the Home Office, and she may like to raise the matter herself.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield spoke about protecting the owner's interests. Clause 2(3) makes it clear that the owner's interest must be taken into account. He noted that there may be additional costs that have not been included, such as those of transporting animals. I would have thought that that is more the exception than the rule. It is easy for all concerned, if the animals are in good condition, to feed them on site, make sure that they are properly fed and watered and have adequate care. In some cases, however, it may be desirable to move them to another site where they can have proper care. We must bear it in mind that the provisions do not apply only to agriculture; they could apply to a horse sanctuary that has gone bankrupt, which is not unknown. If that happens and there is no one to care for the horses, it would be best to transport them to other sanctuaries to ensure that they have adequate care. Any action must be proportionate; we must take into account the needs of the owners, but there must be the flexibility to deal with a range of circumstances that might arise.

By way of conclusion, the example that I shall give concerns the commercial breeding of dogs. If some dogs were in very poor condition and it was necessary to ensure that they were cared for properly, the answer would be to disperse or even sell them, because the value of puppies bred commercially falls dramatically after three months. There is a need for such powers, not only in relation to the welfare of the animals, which is implicit in the Bill, but to make sure that the owners of the animals are not unreasonably denied their legal entitlement, bearing it in mind that they may ultimately be acquitted. In those circumstances, the action must be proportionate, and the Bill has been drafted so as to ensure that that is the case.

Because this is a continuation of the debate that took place earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby will not have the opportunity of replying. I know that she would want to thank all the people who have spoken in the debate for their constructive and thoughtful remarks. Of course, the Government will consider those remarks

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carefully in relation to our responsibility and influence in such measures. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates the comments that have been made--as I, on behalf of the Government, appreciate her work in introducing the measure. It is important for animal welfare, and plugs a loophole that has existed for far too long and led to cases of unacceptable suffering for animals. Thanks to her, such cases will be brought to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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