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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Sheep

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 12 July 2000

[Mr. Andrew Welsh in the Chair]

Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Sheep

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move

    That the Committee has considered the Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Sheep.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000.

Mr. Morley: May I say how pleased I am that you are in the Chair, Mr. Welsh? I hope that our proceedings will be straightforward. There are some complex issues in the orders, but I hope that the Committee will welcome the main thrust of what the Government are trying to do.

The Committee will be aware of the Government's long-standing commitment to animal welfare. One area in which we have sought to fulfil that commitment

is in driving forward not just our own standards, but those throughout the European Community, both through the Council of Europe and the European Union.

When we held the presidency of the Council in 1998, we used it to introduce some important measures, one of which was directive 98/58/EC covering the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, which is known as the general farm animal welfare directive. Adoption of that measure was rightly acknowledged to be an important step forward because, for the first time, it made all farm animals in the EU subject to minimum standards of care. That was important not only for the welfare of farm animals, but for countries such ours, which has traditionally had a high standard of farm animal welfare and must compete commercially with other countries, many of which do not have welfare standards to match ours. The standards apply, for the first time, throughout the European Union. That is a welcome step forward.

The directive covers aspects such as inspection, lighting, watering and feeding. It also provides a framework within which, over time, detailed EU directives on the welfare of particular species can be added to existing directives on laying hens, calves and pigs. The regulations before us today implement the general directive into United Kingdom law.

We recognised early on, when drawing up regulations, that it would be difficult to amend the current Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 without making them difficult to follow. We decided that the 1994 regulations should be revoked and replaced with new ones that would combine the new EU requirements with our existing rules in a logical way that people could follow easily.

When drafting those regulations, we had five objectives in mind. First, we wanted to ensure that the regulations are as user-friendly as possible for those who must implement them on farms. Secondly, we wanted to follow as closely as possible the three EU directives on calves, pigs and laying hens, and the new general directive which embraces them. Thirdly, we wanted to retain the higher standards that we have chosen to adopt nationally and we did not want the regulations to weaken existing requirements. Fourthly, we wanted to keep the burden on the livestock industry to a minimum. Fifthly, we wanted to ensure that any new requirements are in line with the action plan for farming that was announced by the Prime Minister in March, and which relates to unilateral action. If we introduce new, higher standards, we must give thought to how that will affect our farmers compared with European farmers.

I shall explain in more detail how we have met those objectives. On our first objective—user-friendliness—we are conscious that a wide variety of people use the regulations, including members of the state veterinary service, other enforcers, the courts and various others through to livestock farmers. The regulations needed to be structured carefully. We decided to set out in schedule 1 the requirements that will apply to all animals. Subsequent schedules contain species-specific requirements. A pig farmer, for example, will be able to read the general provisions in schedule 1 and turn to schedule 6, which contains specific provisions on pigs.

Our second objective was to ensure that we should depart from the wording in current legislation only when it was sensible to do so. I shall discuss one case, the tail docking of piglets, in some detail, because it raises complicated issues. We have abandoned the wording that was used in the predecessor Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 and adopted the wording from the parent directive on the welfare of pigs. We did so because the parent directive and the 1994 directive were concerned to allow the practice of tail docking but not—I stress this because we are wrestling with the matter—routinely. Both directives allow tail docking to be carried out when there is evidence on a farm that injuries have occurred to piglets as a result of failing to tail dock. However, the 1994 regulations also allow tail docking where injuries ``are likely to occur'' if the procedure is not carried out. That additional provision has not made our law clearer or better in any way. As that wording has not proved to be helpful, we have decided to revert to the words of the parent directive.

The phrase ``are likely to occur'' is a catch-all phrase which appears to encourage routine tail docking. Any farmer could say, ``Injuries are likely to occur,'' and doing so would encourage the routine tail docking of pigs. We should get away from that—the question is, how to do so.

Some welfare organisations wanted us to go further in discouraging—or even to prohibit—tail docking. I have had many detailed discussions about that with my officials and welfare organisations. I stress that we are committed to finding ways to reduce and, eventually, to end tail docking. We do not believe that such mutilation is acceptable. Tail biting can be significantly reduced if growing pigs are provided with more space and a better environment—research has been carried out to show that. However, we have a problem in this regard because we do not know exactly how to guarantee that tail biting will be eliminated. We do not know how to give specific guidance to farmers that says, in effect, ``If you follow this particular rearing method, there will be no tail biting.'' We do not have access to relevant research or to a system that could guarantee such a result.

If we made it legally more difficult for farmers to have recourse to tail docking in this context, the inevitable consequence would be that at least some farmers would incur greater costs and there would be a greater incidence of tail biting, which would result in poorer welfare. If we are not careful, we could end up placing unilateral additional burdens on our pig sector without any welfare return, which would be the worst of all worlds.

We do not yet know enough to appreciate exactly how to make the law tighter. We must continue to monitor the relevant scientific work, which is in hand, and the progress that is made by farmers who explore ways of avoiding tail biting without docking. In addition, I am glad to say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is funding research into pig behaviour to find a solution to the problem. We are determined to seek to change the law. When it is clear how best to do that, we hope to do so at EU level, which would ensure that standards were improved across Europe.

I stress my commitment to respond to the need to make progress in this context. The provisions in this statutory instrument are not the end of the tail-docking story. I am open to suggestions about the appropriate form of words, although more than that is involved—I want to make genuine progress and to reduce the practice and eliminate it.

We are already preparing for negotiations on a forthcoming Commission proposal, which will update the parent EU directive on the welfare of pigs. We expect it to be produced in the autumn, when there is bound to be discussion of the whole issue of tail docking, which will probably leading to a revised requirement. We are committed to that. Once the directive is finalised, we shall need to revise both the regulations and our welfare code on pigs. In doing so, our priority will be to move the industry away from routinely docking piglets' tails. The measure represents an important opportunity to tackle tail docking within the EU welfare code. It enables us to address the matter in detail, and to call on expert advice from the European Scientific Veterinary Committee. Furthermore, it will apply across the entire EU. We want to see high standards not only in the UK, but everywhere in the EU, applying to all farmers and to all methods of production—in this case, those in the pig sector.

I emphasise that I have spent an enormous amount of time on the wording of the directive. I confess that I am not entirely happy with the wording in relation to pigs and tail docking, and I do not rule out reconsidering it in the near future—although it would have to go out to consultation as a legal requirement. At the moment, my priority is to get the directive into place, as we are required to do. It is an important directive, which brings a range of benefits, and I would prefer to make progress on it now and take the opportunity to address tail docking in another context—probably the European directive that will be introduced later this year.

Our third objective of retaining our national standards where they go beyond the EU requirements applies to sow stalls and tethers, which have been banned in our industry, and to standards in other sectors, such as those regarding rabbits.

Our fourth objective—that of keeping the burden on industry to a minimum—is rightly a concern of many hon. Members, and is regularly raised during Agriculture questions and debates on agriculture. It might appear that this new raft of measures applying to all farmed animals is likely to place extra costs on our industry, but I must make it clear that that is not so. The new measures simply put into legislation the good practice that the vast majority of UK farmers already follow. The lack of feedback from producers on our regulatory impact assessment, which was placed in the Library and circulated for comments, suggests that the industry agrees with our assessment that the measure represents good practice and good standards, which most people in our industry have applied for a long time. It is good news for British farmers, because it will require their counterparts in some parts of the EU, who have not hitherto been subject to such welfare rules, to come up to the mark.

I should mention in passing that in revising the regulations we have not sought to implement the new directive on the welfare of laying hens that was adopted in June 1999. To do so now would have complicated and delayed the making of the good regulations that are before us today. We have until January 2002 to bring the new laying hens rules into force, and we need to conduct a full consultation with all interested parties, which we have already started, to ensure that we produce sensible implementing regulations that take account of the practicalities.

The last of our five objectives is to ensure that the new requirements are in line with the action plan for farming that was announced by the Prime Minister in March. When we originally went out to consultation last June, we proposed building in three additional provisions: regulation 11, introducing provision for the serving of an ``improvement notice''; paragraph 17 of schedule 1, introducing provision for a ``well-drained lying area'' for animals that are kept outside; and a provision to restrict the beak trimming of laying hens.

I shall explain those extra measures. The provision for the serving of a notice formalises a situation that already exists unofficially. State veterinary service officers often send letters to farmers outlining all that needs to be done following a welfare inspection. Regulation 11 allows for a formal notice with a specified time limit to be issued, requiring a person in charge of animals to take the necessary action to resolve welfare problems. In consultation, that was welcomed on all sides as a positive measure. We are proceeding with it, as it will ensure effective—but not more burdensome—enforcement.

It is anomalous that existing law requires well-drained lying areas for animals kept indoors, but not for animals kept outside. We thought that we should rectify that by giving legal effect to a provision that is already in our welfare codes. Consultation responses from all sides hailed this as a welcome requirement, with especially warm endorsement from the veterinary profession.

The third of the extra provisions that we proposed at the outset is not currently in the regulations. It is the provision prohibiting the beak trimming of hens kept in cages. The Government have not the slightest liking for the practice. However, it is the norm in the EU, and producers responding to our consultation exercise have made it clear that they do not like our proposal to authorise beak trimming only for birds in non-cage systems. I do not agree with that position, but we have left the proposal out of the regulations because the Prime Minister's action plan for farming expressly states that we will avoid implementing legislation ahead of specified EU deadlines.

The EU provision requiring us to control beak trimming is part of directive 99/74 on the welfare of laying hens. We warmly welcomed that directive, which was introduced following a great deal of pressure from the United Kingdom. It prohibits beak trimming in cage systems, and we intend to implement it. We do not intend to duck that intention. Although we have two years before the implementation deadline on 1 January 2002, we will in due course introduce national implementing regulations, in which I firmly intend to address this issue. I also want to hold further discussions with the poultry sector.

I want to place on the record now that it is our intention to prohibit beak trimming in cage systems. I see no reason why the industry should not voluntarily begin to organise itself to phase out the practice as soon as possible, bearing in mind that the regulations will come into force on 1 January 2002 at the latest. I shall pursue the question of how we can make progress on the issue with the poultry sector.

I will now turn briefly to the code of recommendations for the welfare of sheep. Our present sheep welfare code was drawn up in 1990. Since then, there have been many changes in industry, and the Farm Animal Welfare Council has produced a report on the welfare of sheep. We welcomed that report, and we recognise that it is time for the code to be updated. Welfare codes are made under Section 3(1) of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968.

Codes exist to help stockmen care for animals and are a positive force for improving the welfare of farmed animals. In the event that a livestock keeper is prosecuted for causing unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress, a breach of the code can be brought forward in evidence and may be regarded by the court as tending to establish guilt. The codes have real influence—they are not just cosmetic. The new sheep code also gives farmers useful advice on how to ensure that their animals' ethological needs are met, in accordance with the guiding principle that underlies the directive.

The law states that stock keepers must have access to welfare codes and be familiar with the codes' provisions. Employers must ensure that staff receive guidance on them. We will send all sheep farmers a copy of the code, so that they and all their staff have access to it. Unlike the existing sheep code, the revised one will apply in England only. Similar codes are being produced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The code contains detailed advice on important matters such as the prevention of disease, the construction of buildings and the provision of food, water and bedding. I hope that the Committee will agree that the new format adopted in the revised code is far more user-friendly than that of its predecessor. Following recommendations by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, we have included boxes throughout the document that highlight, alongside advice, the relevant legal requirements. We are thus putting all sheep welfare information in one place, to make it easier for farmers to follow the code. That should be a positive help to the industry in relation to some of its current problems. For example, following the code's advice will help reduce the incidence of sheep scab, which is a cause for concern in the industry.

The sheep welfare code is the first in a series of codes that will be updated in this way. The next one that I hope to bring before the House for approval is a broiler welfare code, which is currently in preparation. It will address several issues that have recently been raised.

I hope that I have explained the thinking behind the codes, our commitment to them, and the complications relating to tail docking and, for poultry, debeaking. I also hope that I have answered the points that were raised in the letter from Compassion in World Farming. I was disappointed by that letter, because I have taken the trouble to talk to such groups at some length. They know the difficulties associated with, for example, trying to eliminate tail docking without compromising the pigs' welfare, which is the whole point of the practice. I also want to make it clear that we are determined to take this forward, in relation both to tail docking and the debeaking of poultry in caged systems. We will be conducting further consultations on those matters.

This is a welcome step forward in the improvement of farm animal welfare and in ensuring the application of consistent standards throughout the European Union—something for which our farmers have argued strongly. The revised code delivers on those uniform standards and deals with areas of concern in farm animal welfare, which the Government are committed to addressing. We are proud of our record on improving farm animal welfare, but we are not complacent about what needs to be done. The revised codes show our commitment.

4.51 pm

 
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