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

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 260-277)



  Q260 Mr Mitchell: But still, a mutilation is a mutilation?

  Mr Bennett: What is the definition of mutilation? In terms of taking the horns off cattle, under welfare codes and farm assurance, I have to do that as part of my good farming practice to be a farm-assured farmer. Do you define taking the horns off cattle as mutilation? Surely, what you have to do is make sure that you look at what is necessary for the welfare of the animal and what is there for the welfare of the animal and then look at the science that has taken place and at the advisory and welfare codes that have been developed over many years.

  Q261 Mr Mitchell: You are in danger of saying that what is appropriate to the commercial interests of farmers is good science and what is not is sentiment. For instance, on the question raised earlier about overcrowding of chickens or hens and the treatment of geese for paté de fois gras, the reaction against, it could be argued, is a matter of sentiment but sentiment is valid in those kinds of areas.

  Mr Bennett: We have legislation on stocking rates for broiler chickens which is constantly updated. We, as British farmers, follow that. I cannot comment on French law and fois gras because we do not practice it here.

  Q262 Mr Wiggin: One of the things that you are obviously here to talk about is farm animals but I cannot think of a group of people such as your members who are more like to have pet animals as well. Do you feel that the Bill protects your members as well as their animals in all aspects? For example, if someone's daughter's goldfish dies, most people can bury it in the garden but farmers cannot. There are many more examples that I could quote. How do you feel about that?

  Mr Bennett: As farmers, I think we would want to respect the law that society feels is appropriate to animals. As a farmer, I would like to think I looked after my farm animals as I would look after my sheepdog. That is why I do take exception to the fact that we are looking for two separate laws. Surely, what we are looking at here is proper welfare of animals and, as farmers, we would support that.

  Q263 Mr Wiggin: The trouble is that the way you treat your sheepdog is not the same as the way you would treat a guide dog,

  Mr Bennett: Certainly not, and my sheepdog would take exception to being locked in the house, for example, and would probably take great exception if I did not allow him to run behind my tractor when I went out into the field. In fact, if you tied him up, that would be cruelty.

  Q264 Ms Atherton: But farmers do that and sheepdogs often are tied up.

  Mr Bennett: Sometimes they are, yes.

  Q265 Joan Ruddock: On this aspect of cruelty, you will have heard the discussion we have just had about breeding and breeding for production in such ways that the animals that result do then suffer. That is very clear in the case of chickens that cannot stand and things like that. I wondered whether you had any views on where intervention might be appropriately made in the breeding of animals to ensure that any resulting breed would not produce an animal that could not meet the standards that are in this draft Bill.

  Mr Bennett: It is very difficult to frame law to intervene at a stage before an animal, in a sense, becomes an animal.

  Q266 Joan Ruddock: No, this is before it goes into production. Clearly animals are bred but they need not be further bred.

  Mr Bennett: There are very good economic drivers not to produce animals that result in bad welfare. May I use the example of high yields in dairy cows? You can breed a high yield in dairy cows. If those cows are professionally managed with good nutrition, there is no problem whatsoever. If those cows go to someone whose ability to cope with the demands of high-yielding dairy cows in nutritional terms is weak, then the cows' welfare is not looked after. Very often the genetic potential arrived at through breeding is about professional management afterwards. If you have high-yielding animals or better genetics, the emphasis should be on making sure that the training and understanding of that enhanced genetic potential ensures that there is no cruelty to that animal and that the farmer has understood it. I am saying that we have to make sure that the industry is trained to take on board the benefits of that genetic extension.

  Q267 Joan Ruddock: If a chicken cannot stand on its own two feet, then there is a welfare issue, and no amount of good housing will prevent that being a welfare issue, in my view. What we are talking about, and accepting entirely what you have said, is that there would be a point at which the welfare parameters of this draft Bill could not be met for an animal that was bred for a production that meant it could not stand on its own two feet. Could the NFU support a body that had the right to make those decisions?

  Mr Bennett: We could certainly support the science in the sense of making sure that chickens are bred that do not suffer those effects. It would have to be a very well-informed body because one never quite knows the effect of selection until the benefits of that selection are seen. It is not straightforward in that we do not know exactly what is going to happen. That is why it takes some time to establish better genetic potential in some areas. We would not support creating animals that would suffer bad welfare. I am partly agreeing with you on that issue.

  Q268 Alan Simpson: Can I ask you to explain a bit more to the Committee your comments on abandonment. You said in particular that it must be clear when the seller's obligation ends in respect of an animal. Yet when I read clause 3(3) I did not see what was confusing about that. The clause reads: "Any person who immediately before that time was a keeper of the animal shall continue to be the keeper of the animal until another person becomes a keeper of it." What is that you are trying to say to us that is not clear about that?

  Ms Jacobs: I think the issue is that there is a difference between the companion animal market, where you are looking for responsible selling as well as responsible buying, and responsible care thereafter. That is, after all, an industry where animals are sold on and, in a sense, are part of the business assets of the business that is selling them. They pass on and their ownership changes. It is problem I think then to be trying to trace back the responsibility for animals that have been commercially passed on, whatever the nature of the change of ownership is. In the same way, it is a very simple concept that somebody who sells a companion animal has a moral responsibility, if you like, to make sure that person is doing something responsible with it; the animal's future welfare, to a certain extent, is related back to them. It is a different thing where, as apart of a commercial operation, you are disposing and passing on ownership of animals.

  Q269 Alan Simpson: I do not understand that, Chairman. A sale is a sale. If I agree to buy goods from you and that passes to me, at that point cash goes from me to you and the goods come from you to me and I am responsible for that. If you are talking about it being an animal, then I am responsible for the animal at that point in time. It makes not a ha'p'orth of difference whether that is a companion animal or a farm animal.

  Ms Jacobs: I think you put your finger exactly on the point here. The issue is that you trace back to the keeper. You will be reinstated, if you like, as the keeper, despite the fact that legally perhaps title has passed. That is what the Bill is saying. It is looking forward and saying that if you are going to dispose of an animal, you must make sure that whoever is going to get it is going to look after it properly, and if you do not, we have recourse back to you. That is not an issue to do with legal title; it is saying that you will be deemed to be the keeper. Suppose, for instance, somebody comes to a farm and buys an animal off that farm, a sheep or something. If someone has bought a nice big house in the country with a couple of acres attached, he might think it would be nice to have sheep to save pushing the lawnmower around. He buys three or four sheep and takes them away. The next minute, for some reason, the sheep have escaped and cannot be chased back to the owner. If those sheep could be traced back to you, you would still be responsible as keeper of those sheep. That is a concern.

  Q270 Chairman: I was going to ask about that point you have just raised, which is the escape of animals from a farm. An interesting issue is whether in fact you are not providing a proper setting in which to keep animals if you do not keep your fences and hedges in good order so that your animals can then escape.

  Ms Jacobs: I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was not saying they escaped from the farm but that they escaped from the person who had taken them over, the new owners.

  Q271 Mr Mitchell: They had escaped from the person who bought them?

  Ms Jacobs: Exactly, but you would still be deemed to be the keeper if that person cannot be identified and you can be identified as the seller. That is my concern. I am not suggesting animals escaping from farms at all.

  Chairman: Looking at the clause in question, it says  "if an animal has been abandoned". My understanding of "abandoned" is that you positively decide that you as the current keeper are not going to have a continuing responsibility for the animal. In other words, say you had a dog—the old slogan is about a dog is not just for Christmas—and you go out and dump the dog on the streets or wherever and walk away from it, that would be my layman's understanding of abandonment. Therefore you are saying, "I do not want anything else to do with that dog". I can understand in that circumstance that you might have a continuing duty of care because it is still your dog, but I cannot quite see how it works in the farm context.

  Q272 Alan Simpson: I do not think the wording goes with your interpretation of the responsibility residing with the previous owner.

  Ms Jacobs: As long as that is clearly established, that is fine. We did perceive an element of ambiguity. If that ambiguity is not meant to be there and as long as that is ruled out in the drafting, that is absolutely fine.

  Q273 Chairman: Could I pursue the question I raised about animals that escape from the farm? I wondered if you had any reservations about this. When an animal escapes, that immediately causes a potential prosecution because the animal, by definition, is no longer under the farmer's potential control. The farmer therefore could not deliver, for example, the five freedoms because the animal is now wandering about on the road or elsewhere and the animal is now out of the farmer's control but the farmer still owns it. Do you have a concern that every time animals escape there could be a potential welfare prosecution issue?

  Mr Bennett: In terms of the law as it exits today, we have a legal obligation for our animals. Even when they escape or do damage to others, we are still liable. That does create problems for us, particularly in terms of access legislation. Very often gates being are left open. A recent legal judgment has held that we were still liable for animals even if people leave gates open. We have thought about this. We have a legal obligation to those animals and if they do escape, it is very difficult to guarantee their welfare in terms of road traffic. That is why we are concerned about good countryside care and people in the countryside. This is not just about access. Unfortunately, sometimes there is malicious behaviour when people quite deliberately let animals out. On occasions in certain fringe areas they actually take the gates and sell them. It is an issue and we have a legal obligation.

  Q274 Chairman: I move on to another part of your evidence where in paragraph 9 you raise an issue which many people have commented on about the Bill, which is clause 6 and the broad powers. You say in your evidence: "We would draw attention to the extremely broad powers which this clause would provide to the government of the day in the name of promoting the welfare of animals." You go on to comment on the fact that the list shown in (a) to (q) in subsection (2) is not exhaustive. That raises what I call the forthcoming attractions element of this Bill, that there is an awful lot which is conferring order-making powers on the Government, with a great long list of possible things, some of which could take up to 2010 to enact. Are you content with this particular section of the Bill? Do you think more information should be provided about what the Government's intentions are in this area or are you happy to see things evolve?

  Mr Holbeche: This clause perhaps par excellence in the Bill is where the most enabling character of the Bill might be found because although we do have paragraphs (a) to (q) in subsection (2), subsection (1) states that the appropriate national authority may, by regulation, make such provisions as the authority thinks fit for the purpose of promoting the welfare of animals kept by man. That is extremely broad. I think there is a dilemma here because clearly if one tried to find a way of narrowing those powers, then you may run into the difficulty that the legislation would become outdated which is, in a sense, where we came from. That is why we need a law that can be kept up to date with current research and science and so on. There is something of a safeguard in the clause in the sense that the regulations will be subject to affirmative procedures and so will have to be consciously approved by both Houses of Parliament. We would say that is absolutely appropriate, not least because the powers do include the ability for Ministers to make regulations with custodial sentences and fines up to level 5, which is potentially fairly tough, given that there will not actually be any specific debate on the details in Parliament in the way that there would be if it was primary legislation. I do not think we have a solution to the problem, Chairman, but we would want to encourage the public and MPs to monitor very closely the way Ministers behave in the operation of these powers.

  Q275 Chairman: Are you quite happy that the consultation processes gives you sufficient chance with Defra to tease out the practical implication of what is proposed? You are quite right in commenting on the affirmative procedure but, as you well know, our House does not allow amendment at that point. You can have a debate and a vote but you cannot actually change anything, and so it adds greater emphasis to the consultation side.

  Mr Holbeche: It does, and I would draw attention to the remark we make in paragraph 10 that in fact clause 6 does not at the moment provide any obligation on Ministers to consult. We would say that it is absolutely vital that there is a statutory obligation on Ministers to consult before introducing any regulations of this kind.

  Q276 Chairman: That is a helpful and timely reminder. In your evidence, and indeed in the comments that are being made by many, the whole question of enforcement has been raised, matters relating, for example, to powers of entry, the expertise of local authorities, and the resources that are available to them. Would you care to comment on those aspects as far as the Bill is concerned and whether you are satisfied with the way it is presently drafted in that context?

  Mr Holbeche: We had a discussion a few moments ago about the powers of entry. We think that the Bill as drafted does not quite match the standard of the 2002 Act, and we see no reason why it should not in that respect. There is an issue potentially about enforcement in terms of the regime of inspectors because the Bill gives local authorities, as we understand it, new powers in relation to carrying out inspections in addition to the powers that are already used by the State Veterinary Service. It comes back to the point that we discussed earlier on, that we would feel assured if we could be certain that the inspectors who came onto the farm were appropriate for the purpose. That does not mean two laws; it means inspectors who know about farm animals as opposed to companion animals, for example. We are interested in the question about the way in which inspectors would be appointed. We would want to see the Secretary of State consulting widely and having a proper debate about just what sort of experience is required, background and so  on, because clearly the enforcement of these potentially very wide powers is crucial to the success of the legislation and crucial to its enforcement in a fair manner as far as the keepers of animals are concerned.

  Chairman: I apologise to you and other witnesses. I have to go and ask a question in Education Question Time. I shall return. Mr Mitchell will take over the Chair.

  In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Mitchell was called to the Chair.

  Q277 Mr Mitchell: You say that the procedure is odd and unsatisfactory for parliamentary approval in clause 8 of the codes. Why do you say that?

  Mr Holbeche: I must, if I may, answer that. It is odd in the sense that it is at variance with the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, which is the current law that provides for the farm welfare codes which will be repealed and superseded by this Bill when this becomes law. In the 1968 Act the codes have to be consciously approved by both Houses of Parliament before they can come into force. Under this clause in the Bill as drafted, it would be possible for the codes to come into force if neither House of  Parliament within the 40 parliamentary days actually voted them down. That seems to be bit of a default procedure which I think we say might suit the interests of Whitehall but might not be so appropriate for Westminster.

  Mr Mitchell: I thank the National Farmers Union for coming to give evidence.

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