Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 17 March 2003
[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]
Draft Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Cattle
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Cattle.
May I say how nice it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cran? I hope that the debate will be interesting, but succinct.
The Committee will recall that it considered the cattle welfare code on 4 February, alongside the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003 and the pig welfare code. The Committee approved all three documents and the discussion was interesting and constructive. The three documents were debated in the other place on 6 February, but the cattle code was withdrawn because it contained two drafting errors. Those had been pointed out in Committee, but it is part of the fair way in which we debate matters that hon. Members realise that misprints and typing errors occur from time to time and that they will be put right in the final publication. However, that was not acceptable to the other place, so the code was relaid on 26 February; it now has to be considered again. Perhaps the debate should be entitled, ''Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Cattle (Misprints)''.
The errors in paragraphs 23 and 40, in which pigs and cattle were mixed up, have been put right. As we had to return to the code and formally alter the misprints, we took the opportunity to take into account some of the points that people raised in the Committee debate. There were some minor formatting and punctuation alternatives, but the only other substantive change is an amendment to paragraph 137. The Committee will recall that I gave an undertaking to amend that paragraph to give it greater clarity.
The wording now used in the first sentence makes it clear that ''dairy cows'', rather than the ''animals'' mentioned in the previous draft, should be given more ''forage'', rather than ''feed'', than they are expected to eat each day. That is to ensure that there is always sufficient forage available to satisfy the needs of all cows in the herd and to minimise competition. Some fair points were made about feed and whether dry feed, which does not go off in the same way as forage, has to be taken away. The advice in the second sentence of the paragraph, which stated that farmers should remove surplus food ''every day'', has been deleted on practical grounds, but to ensure good food hygiene the paragraph still stresses that ''old or stale feed'' should not be offered to cows.
Column Number: 004
I have written to Committee members giving further details of a technical point relating to the recommendation in paragraph 106, which states that calves should not be offered milk
''from cows treated with antibiotics or those being treated for mastitis''.
I am sure that hon. Members have received my letter, which goes into some detail about the reason for that provision.
Welfare codes are a positive force in improving the welfare of farmed animals and an important part of the Government's animal welfare strategy. With that in mind, I commend the code to the Committee. I appreciate the comments that hon. Members made in the previous debate and I hope that the Committee will recognise that I have tried to take those comments on board and respond positively.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am delighted to be able to say that for the second statutory instrument in a row I hope not to detain the Committee unduly. The code has been considered quite fully in this House and the other place, and hon. Members will have read the Hansard reports of those debates assiduously. The Minister rightly said that there were two or three technical issues, and he has addressed them.
Feed issues were raised by the industry when the code was first introduced, and the Minister has quite properly dealt with the feeding of calves. However, there are one or two general points that it would be wrong of us not to amplify, although we shall not debate them at length. The first is the implementation of the standards among our competitors. The Minister will be fully aware that that was raised in this House and in the other place. There is real concern that the code will not be implemented universally, which will create a significant competitive disadvantage for domestic producers. I share the concern felt in the industry and more widely that the gold-plating and copper-bottoming—if I may mix those metaphors—of the regulations would be most disadvantageous to our producers, and extremely undesirable.
The second general point relates to bureaucracy and implementation. Those matters have been debated before and I do not want to go into them at great length, but we need further assurances from the Minister to clarify implementation and the extra bureaucracy that might be involved, including the overhead burden that the code might place on our producers. It would be useful if the Minister reaffirmed the assurances given in that respect.
It would be appropriate to say word or two about fallen stock, which is indirectly related to the matter before the Committee. At a time when producers are having to grapple with those difficulties, it is important to know whether these further measures will bring an added burden. The Minister is absolutely right to say that good animal welfare is desirable. Producers, too, want that—no good farmer wants anything other than the best possible standards for livestock. However, there are real concerns in this House and in the
Column Number: 005
industry that a multiplicity of challenges is creating a worrying climate.
The industry is already demoralised and concerned about additional burdens, and fallen stock is of particular concern. The Government have decided to introduce a national scheme—that is taken as read. I know that that is the practice in other countries, but there is a lack of clarity about the scheme's details. The timetable is short and there are real worries that the ducks are not all in a row—to throw in another metaphor. As a result, the scheme might not be implemented as effectively or efficiently as it might have been and producers might have some difficulty in doing what by law they must do.
The last thing we want is to put producers in a position in which they cannot abide by the law because there is not the facility or provision to do so. No farmer would want to be put in that position, but there is real worry that they are on the cusp of such a dreadful dilemma, in which some have to choose whether to obey the law, or not do so and survive. That is not a happy choice with which to present any farmer. I mention that subject because it relates to and should be seen alongside the code that we are debating today. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful for the opportunity to clarify that matter because he is secretly as concerned as I am about the timetable set and the extent to which we are in a position to adhere to it if we implement a scheme that works.
It might be worth restating a couple of the questions put in the other place. I repeat verbatim questions put by Baroness Byford:
''What evidence do the Government have that the new welfare measures . . . will be fully implemented in other member states''
of the European Union?
''Do the measures mean that third-country imports that reach us will also have been subject to the same animal welfare standards? If not, will the Government ban the importation of such meat?''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2003; Vol. 644, c. 387.]
I know that there are difficulties with EU and World Trade Organisation regulations. In an untypical moment of clarity, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) drew attention to those and made a good point in calling for a reappraisal of the WTO practices. I suppose that if one speaks as much as the hon. Gentleman does, one will eventually hit upon a good point. I do not mean that unkindly—in fact, I mean it very generously, as Liberal Democrat Members will realise. The hon. Gentleman said that we would need to go back to the WTO and consider those matters in relation to the regulations. If we found ourselves in the unhappy situation of accepting imported meat that did not meet these animal welfare standards and were unable to do anything about it, farmers would greet the measures with a considerable degree of doubt and scepticism. We must not put domestic producers in such an intolerable position. I ask the Minister to reassure the Committee, the House and the industry that he is mindful of that, and is taking action to do something about it.
I shall be delighted to have the Minister's reassurance that the sort of unfortunate drafting errors that have preceded today's discussion will not
Column Number: 006
be repeated. I know that he never wants to waste the time of the House, and neither do you, Mr. Cran.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I acknowledge your chairmanship, Mr. Cran.
I hope that we all agree that there is a great deal of common sense in the draft code. The vast majority of farmers undertake such measures and do not need reminding of them. They consider it in their interests—and their animals' interests—to look after their animals. They have a commercial reason to maintain proper animal welfare. It is important that farmers keep proper records, not only for the Department, but for their suppliers. Record keeping and traceability are extremely important in today's commercial world, and it is vital that farmers keep proper records.
Biosecurity has become more ingrained in normal farming life—it is thought about constantly. Reappraisals of practices and the way in which farmers naturally do things fall more in line with what we want to happen in relation to biosecurity. It is much more part of farmers' daily life, and the recommendations of the code reflect good sense.
I do not want to repeat all that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said, but I am sure that the Minister realises that many farmers feel that they are at a distinct disadvantage on many occasions. Often, they want to look after their animals and comply with welfare arrangements but find themselves in a distinctly uncompetitive market position. Unless we make an effort to spread good practices to other competitor countries, more farms will be put under pressure, perhaps giving impetus to the creation of larger and larger holdings, which could be a double-edged sword in relation to animal welfare. We must recognise that the proposals should not be imposed only on our farmers. There are good commercial reasons to spread the practice more widely.
Overall, we have a good opportunity to recognise that the practices are good. We ought to commend them to farmers, the vast majority of whom are already using them, but we must also ensure that the practices spread to our competitors, so that our farmers are not put at a disadvantage.