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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 18 December 2000

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000

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 Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000.

It may benefit the Committee to know that the order is made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932. The Act is concerned with the control of mammals that are not indigenous to this country and that pose a threat to the environment because of their destructive habits. The order will ensure that mink are kept securely to prevent their escape into the wild. It replaces the existing order, which expires on 1 January 2001.

Last month, the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 received Royal Assent, and fulfilled the Government's pre-election pledge to ban fur farming. The order will have no effect on the banning of fur farming under that Act, and the ban will go ahead after a winding-down period, which will be until the end of 2002 at least. We do not know whether all fur farmers will want to continue during that winding-down period, but the provision is available in the Act, so we must ensure that mink continue to be kept securely. If the order were not renewed, mink farming would be deregulated and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would not have the power to enforce the stringent security conditions required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. That would be unacceptable to the Government and, I am sure, to the Committee because of concern about the environment.

The order should be read with the requirements of the Mink (Keeping) Regulations 1975, which prescribe the way in which mink must be kept and the precautions that must be taken to prevent their escape. To qualify for a licence to keep mink, fur farm operators must comply with the conditions of the 1975 regulations. Currently, there are 13 mink farms in England and all are inspected at least twice a year by the Ministry's wildlife advisers to ensure that security arrangements meet the requirements laid down in the 1975 regulations. One of those visits is made at the time of the annual licence renewal, and the other is made during the year and is unannounced. The advisers check that cages, buildings, enclosures and perimeter fences meet the requirements of the 1975 regulations.

I must stress that neither the order nor the regulations cover welfare issues, which are dealt with under separate legislation. We shall, of course, continue to ensure that fur farmers comply with welfare requirements, which will remain in force while the industry is winding down under the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000.

Previous mink keeping orders covered Great Britain as a whole, but following devolution the Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000 will cover England only. Separate orders are being made in Scotland and Wales to renew their powers to enforce security conditions. The current restrictions in force under the 1997 order will be renewed in so far as they extend to England, so that the keeping of mink will be prohibited absolutely in areas where there is currently no feral mink population and no mink farms—that is, all offshore islands, excluding the Isle of Wight, which already has a mink farm. The purpose of the absolute prohibition is to prevent the establishment of feral mink populations. Mink keeping may continue in all other areas of England under licence until the end of the winding-down period under the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000, when fur farming will be banned absolutely in England—and in Wales, which is also covered by the Act.

Prior to the 1997 order, mink keeping orders were made for five years. The duration of the 1997 order was reduced to three years to signal the Government's intention to ban fur farming. Under the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000, the earliest that a ban can be brought into force is 1 January 2003. That might suggest renewal of the order for two years only, but I propose a three-year order to allow flexibility on the bringing into force of the ban without the need to renew the order. A modified order covering mink keeping will be required when fur farming is banned to permit the licensed keeping of mink and coypu for special purposes, such as exhibition and research.

The order is essential to maintain the powers necessary to enforce the stringent security conditions required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. Until fur farming is prohibited, applications for licences will be considered in the usual way, and licences could be issued when the required standards have been met. If farmers do not comply with the required security standards, firm action will be taken, including prosecution when justified. Of course, that will also apply to the welfare conditions, which are covered by separate animal welfare legislation.

This is an important measure to ensure that the necessary protection is kept in place during the winding-down period for fur farming, and I commend it to the Committee.

4.35 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley? However, I hope that on this occasion the pleasure will not be too prolonged.

We welcome the order. Given current circumstances in the industry, it is vital that the order be renewed, and we accept the Minister's explanation that a three-year period provides a little more flexibility. Although, as he rightly pointed out, the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 comes into force at the end of 2003, we follow his reasoning and accept that the order constitutes a sensible action.

There is still harassment and intimidation in the industry, and several fur farmers have asked us to plead with the Minister to ensure that matters progress as quickly as possible. Clearly, such intimidation ought to cease, and it is important that those responsible recognise that the law will take its course. Given that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill has been enacted and will come into force within the given time scale, one hopes that such people will get the message that they should not resort to tactics that could in any way lead to the freeing of mink. As the Minister has pointed out, the freeing of mink has severe environmental consequences, so the message should be broadcast loud and clear that if the harassment continues, the law will take its course.

The Minister suggested that the winding-down period should be as short as possible, and the industry shares that view. All those concerned want a speedy and positive resolution to the outstanding issues, particularly compensation. Although he said that he wants a statutory two-month consultation period, the industry is asking that matters be speeded up. There are just 13 fur farms and 12 owners, so the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be able to consult speedily with them and the National Farmers Union. Both the owners and the NFU say that they could respond within three or four weeks, which would help the entire process.

On the same theme, the Minister said that the farms will be visited in February and the number of mink calculated, and that the calculations will form the basis of compensation. However, there is a potential problem to which, I believe, the Minister has been alerted. If the time scale slips, those visits may not occur until March, when the breeding season begins. Farmers who want to leave the industry are hoping that the assessments will be carried out as early as possible—preferably by the end of February. Otherwise, and despite the order, production may have to continue for perhaps another year. As a result of putting mink sows to breed, the Minister's people will have more mink to count, and higher compensation may have to be paid.

Given that the 2000 Act has received Royal Assent, the industry wants to get on with matters as quickly as possible. On its behalf, I urge the Minister to get the consultation period under way and completed as soon as possible, and to make the count of mink that are covered by the compensation scheme by the end of February at the latest, or earlier if possible. There are only 12 or 13 farms to visit, so that should not be too difficult to achieve.

In the meantime, we accept the need to renew the order, and we shall support it.

4.40 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Illsley.

Liberal Democrat Members welcome the order, as we welcomed the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000—a long-overdue measure on which the Government are to be congratulated. I share many of the views that were expressed by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) on the need to implement the Act quickly. A prolonged period of doubt is in nobody's interests, and I hope that matters will swiftly be brought to a conclusion. In the meantime, the order provides for the necessary licensing regime. That regime must include an active programme of welfare inspection. If anyone doubts that, they should bear in mind the fact that a successful prosecution for cruelty to mink kept in captivity took place only last year.

I hope that mink farmers will be given as much support as possible in diversifying into new and acceptable activities from which to earn their incomes.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, what will happen on the expiry of the order? Presumably, other primary or secondary legislation gives MAFF the capacity to deal with the destruction of animals at large. Nobody needs to be reminded of the mink's destructiveness. The feral mink population are a menace, especially in wetland areas—as I know to my personal cost, having lost livestock to them in the past. Feral mink must be dealt with effectively, irrespective of whether they are held in captivity.

Secondly, why did the Minister refer to a renewed order for exhibition and research? That surprised me. Why would a separate order be required to deal with the exhibition of mink or coypu or with research programmes based on those animals? Surely that could be encompassed within the normal provisions for non-indigenous species in dangerous wild animals legislation. I am not precisely sure of the relevant Acts—perhaps the Minister can help me with that.

We welcome the order and trust that members of the Committee will give it their support.

4.43 pm


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