Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 253-259)



  Q253 Chairman: I will not say at this juncture we move into more familiar territory because this is a new area of work for the Committee but in terms of our witnesses this morning, with no disrespect to the now not quite so new but I will still call him the new President of the National Farmers' Union, Tim Bennett, we are delighted to see you and your colleague Barney Holbeche, who I think is well known to this Committee for his parliamentary liaison work on behalf of the Union, and Annette Jacobs. It is always dangerous when people bring their lawyers, but I suppose Parliamentary privilege still pervades so we are all right! I do not want to break from the line that I have taken with all of the witnesses to date because I think it is quite helpful for us again to ask this question: in terms of the Bill there is a huge amount of detail but if you wanted the Committee to know of one key reason why you believe this is a good measure could you tell us, and what is the key reservation which the NFU has that you would ideally like us not to forget as we proceed on our considerations of this measure?

  Mr Bennett: In terms of the Bill it is a timely update of the law which dates back to 1911, and the good thing is that the law is being updated. I also welcome the fact that there is early scrutiny of the Bill, and I think that is good practice. In terms of the things that we have reservations about, I put two in. One is it is most important that all these decisions in terms of animal welfare are based on science and not sentiment otherwise the law does become difficult, and we do have some concerns about the element of confusion over enforcement. I think it is absolutely vital for professional animal keepers to know who the enforcement authorities are and what powers they have.

  Q254 Chairman: Let's just develop that point because in paragraph two of your evidence you make an interesting point and you say, "In some instances we are concerned that what may be appropriate provision for companion animals is not necessarily appropriate for animals kept for commercial purposes as in farming", and I think you have gathered from some of the lines of questioning, particularly from Mr Wiggin and others, that there does seem to be potential scope for difficulty in necessarily adapting normal practice on a farm to an ideal state, as our previous witnesses indicated, in defining welfare issues as far as animals are concerned. I wonder if you would in that context care to develop the thinking that lay behind the sentence that I have just read out?

  Mr Bennett: The Farm Animal Welfare Council, for example, discussed this in your previous evidence session, and there are practices in terms of farming in terms of teeth clipping in pigs and castrating animals which are not necessarily normal practices in terms of companion animals and in terms of what is necessary for commercial farming it is essential that that is not in jeopardy in terms of the Bill. The other thing that has become more difficult sometimes is the perception of welfare of the animal. We, for example, very often get complaints about whether a sheep has been left out in the rain! This is a quite a serious problem in moorland areas, and also at lambing time small lambs are seen on the road while the mother goes off to graze but she knows where the lamb is to come back to, and people pick up the lambs and take them to the police because they are orphans, and of course that means they then are orphans. So in terms of what is known, established, commercial practice with animals outside of companion animals there are different things that go on. Apparently it is a bit of an education job, and I think it is important that the law does not create problems for what is normal farming practice.

  Mr Holbeche: Adding to that, in the earlier session you used the expression "horses for courses" and I think that summarises the point from our point of view—that in enforcing new legislation of this kind it is very important that it is appropriate to the animals and, in our case, the commercially kept animals for farming purposes. For example, under Clause 38 there are powers for entry and inspection of farm premises in order to check compliance with Clause 6 in relation to the promotion of welfare, which is absolutely fine in principle. All we would say is that needs to be done appropriately by people who are familiar with the operations of commercial farms as opposed to people who may be concerned with other types of animal.

  Q255 Chairman: In paragraph 6 of your evidence you make an interesting point where you say, "We think that an offence turning on the keeper's failure to have a proper regard for the welfare of the animals could be a better, and fairer test" than the way the Bill is presently defined. Again, I wonder if you could explain a little bit more about the thinking of the critique of the welfare test which is currently there as opposed to your own suggestion?

  Mr Bennett: I meant we always get nervous about the use of the word "reasonable". It might be paradise for lawyers but it is not very easy to interpret, and I would like to ask Annette Jacobs to comment on that.

  Ms Jacobs: I think what we would like to highlight is that the obligation needs to recognise the point in fact that has already been made—that the starting point for farmed animals is that there are legitimate and acceptable ways of treating them within that context. There is already a level of intervention which you would not ever expect or get or even find appropriate with companion animals. With farm animals you are starting with a level of intervention and, clearly, it is highly appropriate that any treatment after that baseline should be carried out with regard to the animal's welfare, but if you are going back to a test that the bottom line, if you like, is animal welfare, then you can get into conflicts with the normal practices that are appropriate within animal husbandry and keeping animals on a commercial basis. That is our concern.

  Q256 Chairman: Just to conclude my opening line of questioning, Tim, you said this represents a timely update of the current situation. I hope it will not put you to too much trouble but it would be very helpful to know what the before and after effects are of the measure in terms of farmed animals, because in a way the Bill defines an ideal state, a benchmark, by which to judge the conduct of people keeping animals, but for those of us who are not overly familiar with the existing codes of practice in the existing law, it might be quite useful just to have a little note from you on the before and after effect so that we can measure the degree of change which the Bill introduces.

  Mr Bennett: We can certainly do that, chairman.

  Q257 Ms Atherton: Can you explain your views on the powers of entry, because I would like to see where you think the threshold should be and where the balance lies between the views of maybe the police that there is a responsibility and the rights of the owners of the farm, or the farmers?

  Mr Holbeche: Paragraph 16 of our evidence is particularly pertinent to this. The point we are making there is that, as the Committee knows, there was a considerable amount of debate in connection with the Animal Health Act of 2002 which followed, as you will recall, very soon after foot and mouth disease and there was a great deal of emotion about animals on farms and the Ministry of Agriculture, as it was then, inspectors coming on the farms to inspect or slaughter, as the case may be. The Bill was changed in the very last few days before it became law to make a better balance, as we saw it, between the policy objective of ensuring in that case that animal diseases were properly dealt with, and in the case of the Welfare Bill here they were obviously wanting to ensure that welfare is delivered, and the reasonable rights of the occupier and the keeper of the animals. Although the Animal Welfare Bill goes a fair way towards the balance that was struck in the 2002 Act, it seems to us that there may well be merit in having a similar procedure in this Bill because, to some extent, it does not quite meet the same standards for the occupiers.

  Q258 Ms Atherton: I am struggling with this because at any one time 99% of farmers are acting in a responsible and careful manner in caring for their livestock, but it is this tiny percentage that is not. They, of course, are going to be the ones who are going to do everything to obstruct the police or any other enforcement agency that wants to go in. That is my concern, that by making the legislation too restrictive, you therefore open the door to that tiny percentage which we really want to be targeting, and that does have such an enormous impact on the rest of the industry.

  Mr Holbeche: It is certainly no part of the NFU's purpose to encourage people who are misbehaving in relation to animal welfare to try to evade the law. Indeed, the Bill of course does allow, in cases of urgency where the magistrate is convinced by the inspector that the conditions are such that urgent entry is required, that the warrant can be granted without having to go through the business of informing the occupier and all the paraphernalia set out in the Bill, so I think that is a safeguard in that situation.

  Q259 Mr Mitchell: You are asking effectively for one law for the farm animal, the commercially-reared animal, and one law for the companion animal, are you not? You say that should be based on sound science rather than sentiment, but when we went over the arguments for docking tails of dogs, there did not seem to be much science to it; there seemed to be a lot of sentiment. Many of these cases are not amenable to sound science. The proponents of stopping tail docking said that this was mutilation of the animal, an assault on the animal's dignity. The same applies to farm animals, does it not?

  Mr Bennett: No, I think there is a difference. We are not asking for a different law for farm animals from that for other animals because the law exists in terms of farm animals. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, which gave evidence earlier, has done lots of very good scientific work to show what is cruelty and what is not and what is good practice. We have some very good science to show that the things that we have to do are part of good commercial practice. Where there were concerns about that, one has tried to find better ways of doing it, either through husbandry or the use of new technology. I do not think we are asking for different laws. This is about an understanding that, frankly, we have more background knowledge and experience in some of the practices that take place.

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