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. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Following the extremely emotional and very accurate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, I shall keep my points brief. I want the Minister to assure the

Column Number: 19

egg industry that conventional laying cages will not be prohibited before 1 January 2012. My concern is that if we do not get that assurance today, we will lose at least 60 to 70 per cent. of all egg production in the country.

I declare an interest as a poultry owner. I feed ducks and geese, and I am delighted that there is a 350-bird limit in the regulations, otherwise I would have to press the feed into the hands of my next-door neighbour, who I hope will feed the bantams that are due to hatch in 21 days.

The important point is that if we are genuinely concerned about animal welfare—I believe that the Minister is concerned—we must ensure that we do not export cruelty. If egg production is exported, not only will people have to buy foreign eggs from their supermarket, but the manufacture of all food that includes eggs will be exported. All the jobs of people who currently make quiches for various supermarkets will be exported. There will be an extremely serious knock-on effect right up the food chain, which is why we need the assurance that we will not ban conventional laying cages until 2012. That is fundamental. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has helpfully worked out how many years of profit are needed to invest in the new type of cages. For people to start saving for these welfare improvements, they must have that assurance now.

The other issue of great importance is that the consultation into enriched cages will not proceed until the results of the DEFRA-funded research are known. I hope that the Minister will take on board the seriousness of the need for an assurance in relation to 2012. I look forward to hearing his reply.

5.38 pm

Mr. Morley: The contributions that have been made have generally been thoughtful and constructive. One or two points were mistaken, and I shall correct those in a moment, but fair questions have been asked by the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk, for South-East Cornwall, for South Norfolk and for Leominster, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. He is very involved in animal welfare and is highly respected by the various organisations in this sphere.

I shall try to address the concerns expressed about the time scale, which I know many people share, but first I want to make it clear that the Government recognise the importance of the poultry sector in terms of eggs and meat. These are important and successful industries, and the sector is unsupported. They have been successful in terms of market share and in responding to consumer pressures. For example, we have the highest level of free-range egg production of any country in Europe. The organic sector has some problems with imports and supply, but we have almost 100 per cent. UK production and UK supply of organic eggs. The industry deserves great credit for that.

Column Number: 20

I also emphasise the success of marketing schemes, such as the British Egg Industry Council's lion quality mark, which has successfully created salmonella-free flocks. That is a significant breakthrough. In terms of standards, we are willing to play our part in labelling, assurance schemes and consumer education, as the Curry report recognised. The industry has a role to play in marketing, promotion and consumer awareness, and the British Egg Industry Council has successfully played its part in that. We intend to pursue issues such as labelling with the European Union. That would help our own industry, which needs to be changed. Last night I went shopping because some colleagues were coming round to watch England's football match at 7.30 this morning and I thought it would be nice to give them an English breakfast. When I was looking for free-range eggs in the local shop, I noticed that some eggs were described as farm-direct—there was rather a lack of information about what system they came through, although I could guess. I also rooted through the freezer for British bacon so that I could be sure I was supporting our own industry and its commitment to quality and welfare, as the Government wish to do.

Mr. Bacon: The Minister will not be surprised to know that I am strongly in favour of British bacon. Does he agree that, although British farm standards and the various initiatives undertaken by the industry to promote British labelling are to be welcomed, unless and until those who import from elsewhere, inside or outside the EU, are also required to label their products as clearly as possible, we will not have a level playing field? Obviously, foreign industries do not have the same incentives to do so. The only way that we will achieve true fairness is if a labelling regime is implemented with a Napoleonic vigour, like the health warnings on cigarette packets, so that people can see where everything comes from. Only then can consumers make a fair, informed choice and support British farmers if they wish to do so.

Mr. Morley: I certainly agree that if consumers are to make a fair, informed choice, they must have the information to do so, which includes labelling. Retailers are entirely free to enter various labelling schemes, such as the red tractor scheme promoted by the NFU, but there should also be statutory labelling standards. We are pressing for that within the EU and it is being achieved in terms of egg labelling from the various systems. We want eventually to take that further.

There were questions about aid for people switching over to different cages. The first issue is that of time, which covers the point made by my hon. Friend. The UK Govt often think that the time scale for changing over to systems agreed by the EU is longer than we would like, but in trying to agree a change within 15 member states, one sometimes has inevitably to accept a less ambitious time scale. It is important to get EU agreement. The other side of that is the longer the switch-over times—for example, until 2012—the

Column Number: 21

longer one has to write off the write-down on capital investments. That minimises the cost to individual farmers.

As a general principle, there is merit in the argument for support through structural funds or the rural development framework for moving to welfare-friendly systems in agriculture. We have to debate that, and such systems would have to be laid down by an EU measure that applied fairly across the Community. We have an interest in that eventual change. We are interested in the German proposals and in whether they are compatible with state aid. We would expect any capital assistance—this is a loan assistance, which is slightly different—to comply with state aid rules, so that individual producers in other countries are not disadvantaged. We will examine carefully how the system works.

Mr. Keith Simpson: On that point, the Minister has effectively said that he must examine the issue and there must be an EU-wide element. However, as his Department flagged up, the British egg industry is faced with a financial burden of £400 million. Is there any way in which the Government can help it cope with that burden, or is it on its own?

Mr. Morley: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the industry has a decade to make the changes, and one reason for that time is to minimise the cost. If we minimise the cost, we minimise the case. As I have said, I am interested in the general principle of giving capital support for animal welfare-friendly systems, and we may want to debate that in due course. However, there is no current provision for such support because of the time scale that people have for the changes.

I should like to deal with the question from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk about why are we not waiting for the research programmes before conducting consultation. Others have made that point too, and it is not unreasonable. The problem is that we have a range of research programmes, including some that do not address the welfare issue. Some address the practical issues of operating the systems in a commercial operation, and they must be part of our consideration. However, much research is being conducted both in this country and abroad into the welfare of laying hens. We can examine that, and many informed people and organisations have views and considerable knowledge about the systems and will want to express a view.

Ultimately, it is the talks that I have had with the industry that have influenced my decision to embark on the consultation now. Not unreasonably, it wants to know where it stands, which is a perfectly fair position to take. Although there are some attractions in delaying the consultation, I am not sure that all the research will give us all the answers. On balance, it is more important to start the consultation at the first opportunity so that we give people a chance to be involved in the discussion of whether the cages are appropriate. That will allow us to come to a conclusion as early as possible and influence the industry's long-term decisions.

Column Number: 22

Mr. Simpson: It is a balance of judgment. I have received representations from the British Egg Industry Council, which wants the research to be completed as quickly as possible followed by wider consultation. Consulting people who are informed and have lots of ideas is well and good, and many lobbies, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the BEIC, will have generalised informed lobbying. However, as the Minister would agree on EU fishing, and as Franz Fischler has said, we should not go for uninformed consultation but instead establish the scientific facts. Is not the best way forward to conclude the scientific research quickly and then use the evidence in the consultation? If the Minister has those facts at his disposal and, hopefully, agreement is reached by large numbers of people, he will be able to advance matters very quickly.

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