Draft Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 and Draft Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens and Meat Chickens and Breeding Chickens

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Mr. Prosser: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many Labour Members and hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country would look on any delay in the consultation as what he himself described as another way of putting off better and more radical animal reforms?

Mr. Simpson: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I did not say that. I have followed the Government's logic in their approach to animal welfare and health issues, and agree that we must establish the facts. Until that is done one can consult with every organisation one likes, as the Minister has. The Department's files are probably full of lobbying papers from interests such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the egg industry, as well as representations from Members' constituents. Members of the Committee have such papers in front of them and are aware of public opinion.

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That is not the issue, however. The issue is about getting the facts correct. Having done so, let us hold consultations. I do not say that they should last for four or five years—we are frequently consulted to death. Once the facts are established, it will be right for the Minister to take a decision. The Government set up a range of scientific studies, which they rightly want to co-ordinate and bring forward as quickly as possible. However, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster the Minister could not say when that would be. I believe that it is wrong to have another general consultation alongside that process. I do not say that to delay matters; we need to establish the facts.

Mr. Wiggin: I am deeply concerned—perhaps my hon. Friend is too—that a double standard seems to be appearing. The Minister has decided, probably rightly, that trimming beaks is bad and that beak tipping would be better. I am fairly confident that he is not in favour of enriched cages. However, despite his sensible suggestions on beak tipping, he appears likely to hide behind consultations, so that eventually the Government's delays will force people out of the egg-producing business.

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is a balance to be struck. The Minister said that there was a strong feeling among many members of the public, who are keen to see the worst abuses of animal welfare—in whatever form—ended as quickly as possible. In addition, however, we do not want a dramatic drop in the viability of the UK egg industry. We need to establish the facts and make certain that the transition period is reasonable and not, as the hon. Member for Dover said, a way of delaying. I gave some examples. People may or may not invest large sums of money in the UK egg industry over the next five to 10 years. Those people look to the Government to approach the issue clearly and logically and, having agreed to the report's conclusions, to make certain that they are implemented fairly and are EU-wide. As Conservative Members have said, they also want the Government to make certain that the UK does not get ahead of the pack and then face unfair competition. We have seen examples of that in other areas.

I turn to the draft Code of Recommendations for Livestock: Laying Hens. The British Egg Industry Council has written to the Minister concerning changes in that document that relate to the handling of livestock. I will be interested to hear the reasons for some of the changes. For example, I note that the change is not included in the draft code of recommendations attached to the statutory instrument laid in the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that the Minister can explain the reason for that difference.

I will reiterate the points on which I seek assurances from the Minister. Will he assure the egg industry that conventional laying cages will not be prohibited before 1 January 2012? That assurance is essential if the egg industry is to move on without incurring even greater financial burdens than at present. I would like the Minister's assurance that he will proceed with further

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public consultation into enriched cages only after DEFRA has received the results of the research for which it is funded. That is the logical way to approach the consultation. Will the Minister outline any proposals to assist the egg industry in overcoming the major financial and administrative problems associated with implementing the legislation?

Nobody wishes to see animals, whether farmed or domestic, cruelly treated. That is not only a moral issue, but counterproductive in terms of animal health and welfare and because a large proportion of the population may be turned off from the products of UK farming. Unless the Minister provides those assurances, the UK egg industry may go through a period of crisis and decline.

The Secretary of State, in her letter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, said that it was not the intention of the UK Government to gold-plate the EC directive. However, many people suspect that crab-like gold-plating has occurred. That is unfair on the UK egg industry.

The Minister may also be storing up problems for himself in the future. People involved in the egg industry, the pig industry and many other industries in the UK face increasing problems with extra legislation, even if much of it is well intentioned. We pass that legislation, sometimes as a result of EU regulations and sometimes as a result of our own national experience and policies. However, we do not always realise that the side effect may be to create a situation in which the business and industry is no longer viable.

It would be a supreme and awful irony if, in 10 years' time, the majority of eggs consumed in the United Kingdom came from abroad, and if a significant proportion were produced by hens under welfare conditions that would be unacceptable today, let alone by the time the legislation is enacted.

5.14 pm

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): The scientific case for banning battery hens has been well made by the Commission's scientific committee. In essence, it said that battery cages severely affect the welfare of hens. Its scientific research has shown what is self-evident to most of us—namely that keeping hens in battery cages is cruel and unnecessary, is not in the best interests of the animals and should have been phased out and banned long ago. We have rehearsed the problems and deficiencies of battery cages on many occasions: there is the cramped space, the lack of perching, the hens' inability to peck and scratch or to nest properly, and so on. In other words, natural behaviour patterns are made almost impossible. With that in mind, the directive is most welcome.

However, the directive is also long overdue. I find that disappointing, as do animal support groups and welfare organisations and hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. It is also disappointing that we must wait until 2012 before the directive is fully enacted. There is a feeling that the directive covers only the bare bones—the very basic minimum—of what should be done. I do not want to use the expression

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''gold-plated'' because it is not helpful. However, we should look ahead and be a little more progressive and radical about the animal welfare elements of the changes.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has already said, this country, the Government and the Minister have earned an enviable reputation for animal welfare reform. There have been small steps and small degrees of change, but we are getting there and we lead most European countries in that respect. Having said that, we are all conscious that the German Government are not waiting until to 2012 to ban battery cages. I believe that they will ban battery cages by 2005 or 2006. I would be much more pleased and prouder to speak in today's important debate, if this country had followed that lead. An opportunity has been missed, but perhaps that can be addressed during the consultation period, when matters are researched further.

Mr. Bacon: Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he has been inside a battery hen-house?

Mr. Prosser: I represent Dover, which is regarded as an industrial base. It used to have a coalfield and it has a massive dock and the busiest ferry port in the world. However, it is also rural: there are more than 100 farms in my constituency, so I have a good feel for the matters before us.

Mr. Bacon: My question was simple: has the hon. Gentleman visited a battery farm? Has he seen inside a battery hen-house?

Mr. Prosser: I have seen the films and read the books. The important point is that I have studied the evidence and I am very concerned about it, as are hundreds of thousands of people. That is why I am happy to line up with organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA, which kindly laid on a nice cruelty-free fried egg this morning—perhaps I should declare an interest—and which are campaigning to bring changes forward much faster and make them more fundamental.

The issue of the enriched cage—the modified cage mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge—is also disappointing. There is a fear that, instead of having a major reform to encourage farmers to move away from the whole idea of battery cages and confinement to develop genuine free-range facilities, with good perching, husbandry and management, we will see a slip—a gear change—from battery cages to enriched cages. Expanding and encouraging the industry is important and the Government should help in that respect, but the positive moves I have just talked about must not be forgotten.

My information—and I have not visited an enriched cage facility either—suggests that, although the directive defines the minimum space and facilities that will be required inside modified cages, such cages are still woefully inadequate in terms of space and the facilities are still insufficient to allow proper behaviour patterns to take place. The cages have only a marginal impact on animal welfare. The Minister referred to the

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opinions of the animal welfare groups on that matter in his opening remarks. So, I welcome the change. However, I am disappointed that while the headline message is that battery cages are to be banned, the small print shows that that will not happen until 2012 and that those battery cages might be replaced by enriched cages. That is a double disappointment.

5.20 pm

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