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

[back to previous text]

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I support most of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). His is a balanced approach, and we are trying to achieve a balance between the welfare requirements of animals and the realities of farming, particularly for farmers who produce eggs. We could have a semantic conversation about whether the directive is gold-plated, but, while there is no gold-plating, a certain amount of gold leaf has been added to some parts and that does not fit precisely with the impression that was given to the industry beforehand.

The public consultation exercise must be carried out in an informed way. For example, we need to ensure that proper scientific, and other, evidence is obtained. However, we already have an idea of how public opinion works on such matters. The public are, rightly, concerned about animal welfare issues and make their concerns known, but their buying habits show that they tend to disregard those concerns and buy the cheapest products that are available. Thus, on one hand there are legitimate concerns and on the other there is economic reality.

We must ensure that the public consultation exercise reveals that situation and that the public recognises that it is no good having a conscience about the improved welfare of animals unless it is supported by their buying habits. I hope that the public consultation can make that clear, because that clarity will be needed in this and other areas of agriculture.

I understand that a large number of German operations may introduce enriched cages at an earlier date, but most existing production facilities are, even at this stage, being transferred to new plants in Poland that will not be subject to the directive. We, too, will find that investment will be diverted across the border to circumvent some directives.

The German Government may provide investment loans or assistance, but we have always been told that we cannot do that because it would amount to state aid. If such action did not contravene state aid rules, would the Government consider creating similar circumstances in the UK? If it does contravene the rules, we should make darned certain that that course of action is not being pursued by the German Government so as to benefit their egg industry at the expense of ours.

A large egg producer is sited in my constituency and I have visited it on a number of occasions. We should recognise that the egg industry has spent a lot of time, effort and money raising standards in many ways, that investment has been made over a long time, and that

Column Number: 16

there has been much improvement—for example, the little lion and other things—without any Government support. The industry must operate in a fiercely competitive market and must sell its product in what is, perhaps, the most competitive market of all—that run by supermarket purchasers. Margins have been squeezed until they are wafer thin.

If we genuinely want to assist the industry to make the necessary improvements to animal welfare, we need to recognise that costs will have to be sustained somehow. The industry should be able to recoup its costs. For example, it could operate a code of practice with supermarkets or get its message across to the consumer. If the costs cannot be recouped, we will not have an egg industry 10 years from now.

Finally, I want to draw a comparison with the pig industry. A favourite publication, Pig World, shows an interesting reduction in the figures for our pig industry and an increase in the Danish pig industry. That is no coincidence; it is because, rightly, we have been moving towards the sort of animal welfare that we want. However, there is a cost which must be borne by the production process, either through supermarket regimes and consumer recognition or through some recognition by Government, which I hope will not be in contravention of state aid rules. If that can be done it will be a worthwhile exercise, but I fear that it will not happen. There will be a reduction in the egg industry and a loss of jobs to those abroad, but no significant overall improvement in animal welfare.

5.26 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, who, like my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Leominster and I, was a member of the Committee on the Animal Health Bill. The hon. Gentleman made some cogent points.

The regulations are slightly depressing. On Saturday, I took part in a round-table discussion with a group of farmers in my constituency. Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, most farmers do not have the impression that the Government have their long-term interests at heart. Some farmers told me last Saturday, and others have done so on other occasions, that they wondered whether the Government really cared whether there would be a serious agricultural sector in this country in the next few years. In the past two or three years, 50,000 farmers have gone out of agriculture.

The measure appears to be another attempt to kick farmers in the face, especially those who are trying hard to meet the welfare standards. My constituent, Mr. Basil Cook, knows a thing or two about looking after animals and about laying hens. He has been running a farm for 50 years. Although he is, I think, almost 80 years old, he continues to work every day, rising 6 o'clock in the morning. His business, which he runs with his son, who is following in his footsteps, produces 22 million eggs a year. It is situated in Wicklewood in my constituency, which is quite close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk.

Column Number: 17

The reason why I asked the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) whether he had been into a battery hen-house because I visited one recently, at Mr. Cook's invitation. That visit completely changed my views about battery hens. Like many who had not been into a battery hen-house, the notion of battery-cage production was repulsive to me—I had assumed that it would be better if it did not exist. I was therefore extremely surprised by how wholesome it was, and to learn that, apart from very small-scale free-range systems, the only system of large-scale egg production that does not involve the use of antibiotics is battery cages. [Interruption]. I see a civil servant shake his head, but he may want to check his facts. If he talks to a vet, he will find that what I say is correct.

Apart from battery-cage systems, most egg production systems in this country use antibiotics. So-called free-range barn systems use antibiotics. Why? Because the hens are running around in their own chicken litter and they get diseased. Similarly, when hens are outside, exposed to the elements, they are exposed to diseases carried on the wind, and they have to have antibiotics.

I must say to the Minister and his advisers that it is a fantasy that UK egg production can be satisfied by a bunch of small-scale producers with beautiful young wenches running around in Laura Ashley dresses and green wellies, picking up the odd egg here and there. That is not how most free-range systems work, although it would be splendid if they did. I speak with some feeling, as I was brought up in the country on a very small holding. We had a house, a couple of acres and a hen-house holding 24 hens, and that is more or less exactly how our eggs were produced—until a fox got in and killed all the hens, but I digress.

My point is that Mr. Cook and many farmers like him know how to look after animals. Extraordinarily, Mr. Cook has just invested £300,000 to bring his facilities up to the standards laid down in the last directive. The explanatory memorandum to the regulations—signed by the Minister, so I presume he either wrote or approved it—states:

    ''The present rules for caged hens date back to 1988.''

The implication is that the existing regulations date back to the Ark or to 1066, and that it would therefore be completely beyond the pale to continue with them. The last directive was not transposed into UK law into 1994 or 1995. Mr. Cook spent £300,000 to comply with that directive, but he now finds that to meet the standards of the new directive—whereby he must have not 450 sq cm but 550 sq cm—he will have to spend an extra £40,000 on his farm. When building his cages, which were finished only in 1998, he went not for 450 sq cm, but for 500 sq cm, because he thought that that was better for his animals. Mr. Cook knows a thing or two about how to look after animals. Hon. Members have referred to scientific evidence, but the best evidence that hens are being reasonably looked after is that they lay eggs—no distressed hen will lay; they simply stop laying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to exporting welfare problems. Mr. Cook was on the NFU poultry committee for some 15 years, and

Column Number: 18

he has travelled throughout Europe. He visited an egg-production farm in Italy where the farmer kept seven to eight birds in cages smaller than his—and Mr. Cook keeps only four or five birds in each cage. He was told that the inspector came no more than once a year, and that when he did come and saw that there were too many birds in the cage, he issued the farmer with the equivalent of a parking ticket—a £150 fine. The farmer paid the fine then carried on as before, and the inspector and he had a glass of grappa to celebrate. If the Minister thinks that that sort of behaviour will change—[Interruption.] It is always an honour to provoke the Minister into intervening.

Mr. Morley: I am not so easily provoked. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will investigate the case if he will give me the details, including when and where it happened. We will pursue matters if we think that another member state is not complying with the regulations.

Mr. Wiggin: Like France on beef.

Mr. Bacon: As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, like France on beef. I will give the Minister the details if I can get them. His was a kind offer and it would be churlish not to accept it.

The costs concern me. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the fact that the industry makes a profit of £5 million to £10 million a year, which I did not know. If the British Egg Industry Council is to be believed, the cost of the regulations will be £431 million. That would mean that the industry would have to devote between 40 and 86 years' profits—depending on whether the years were good or bad—to financing the improvements. No one who has been involved in business would consider that a particularly fair or balanced equation, to use the word that has been mentioned several times.

I have two questions for the Minister, which are on issues that my hon. Friend has already raised. First, if my constituent, Mr. Cook, spends £40,000 bringing his facilities up to the standard laid down in the directive, will the Government assist him in any way? In some ways I regret having to ask that question, because I believe that the Government should stay out of his hair and not ask taxpayers to stump up the money. However, if the Government are to impose the regulations, there is at least a case for saying that they should help farmers who must adhere to them.

Secondly, will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that, if my constituent makes that investment to bring his facilities up to the right standard, those facilities will be usable until 2012? Or, will he find in not so many years from now that exactly what happened to him before will happen to him again, in that he will be required to spend yet more money to meet yet more new regulations?

5.36 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 June 2002