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24 May 2006 : Column 475WH

My right hon. Friend also drew attention to the important role that Oxford Brookes university plays. It is a centre of excellence for social and health care and has been for some time, offering significant training opportunities. He also referred to the sad news that some of his constituents will receive today at John Radcliffe hospital. Although I cannot comment on the specific circumstances, I am sure that he will be making very strong representations about the decisions made by the hospital management, particularly in the context of any impact on patient care, and that he will maintain a dialogue with members of the ministerial team on those issues.

My right hon. Friend and others talked about cuts in training in certain areas and asked what the pattern was. We should begin by saying that there has been a massive increase in the number of training places made available since the Labour Government came to power. As a consequence, there is a massive number of new entrants into nursing. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) was good enough to acknowledge that. However, in every public service there is a tendency to regard the training budget as the first to go—the soft target—and as former Minister with responsibility for skills, I am highly aware of that. We need to monitor the impact of decisions on training budgets, and we will do that, but it would be wrong to use words such as crisis and decline; we have to adopt a measured approach and should always look at the issues in context.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth talked from personal experience about the realities of nursing in the past. What she said about academic snobbery is absolutely true of the way that this country treats vocational education and training generally. Frankly, if we are to be successful in our public service ambitions and in the economic challenges that we face, we have to change that almost uniquely English snobbish approach to vocational education and training—I can feel myself making one of my speeches as a former Minister with responsibility for young people and adult skills. That is a real problem that is endemic in the culture of this country, and we have to attack it in every way that we can.

My hon. Friend also referred to the Chancellor’s role in ensuring unprecedented levels of investment in the national health service, year on year. Frankly, it was an act of political leadership for him to tell people not long ago that increasing national insurance by 1 per cent. was merited and morally right if we wanted the kind of national health service that this country deserves. What was interesting about that decision and that leadership is that—if we remember the political climate at the time and the electoral consequences of that decision—people actually endorsed it. It was right to be honest and to say that to achieve the growth in NHS investment required, difficult decisions would be necessary. People in this country cherish and value the national health service and believe that there is nothing more important than investing in it and ensuring that it continues to be something that we can be proud of in any international context.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister is multi-talented. He referred to his time at the Department for Education and Skills, so he will be aware of the need to ensure that training
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places fit the needs of industry and commerce. In nursing, there is a question whether the commissioning of places actually reflects hospital needs. That has not been touched on so far; will the Minister do so?

Mr. Lewis: It is common sense to look into that and make sure that the content of training reflects the needs of the health service, not just now but in future. That links to the point that the hon. Gentleman made about primary and community care, which I shall address in a moment.

My hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth and for Crawley talked about the heroes and heroines who work on the front line of our national health service every day, making a difference to the quality of people’s lives, and indeed saving lives, and it is important to mention them in an abstract, general debate such as this. We cannot possibly mention them all today. However, for family reasons, I have recently experienced what they do, so I know that not only their expertise and specialist knowledge, but their sensitivity and compassion make a tremendous difference when a person has health difficulties. We are very fortunate with the quality and calibre of the people who nurse on the front line in this country.

The hon. Member for Southport described this place as the last Victorian asylum, and most of us would agree, although inmates—at least some of them—are allowed home at weekends. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to acknowledge the Government’s and the profession’s success in work force development in the context of nursing. He said that it would be disingenuous not to welcome the long-term strategy, but expressed concerns about what is happening now and how that might undermine it. I certainly regard one of my responsibilities as keeping a close eye on ensuring that the challenges that we face do not end up undermining that long-term strategy, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, enjoys a tremendous amount of consensus.

I thank the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for welcoming me to my new position. That is probably where we part company; I do not think that we shall agree on much else. It is difficult for Labour Members to hear Conservative spokespeople talking about financial and resourcing difficulties in the national health service. It sticks in the throat a little, not because of naked, tribal party politics, but because of the real-life history of the national health service between 1979 and 1997.

There were real-terms cuts, a dramatic decline in morale and a belief that people who worked in public services were leaching the public purse rather than making a massive contribution to the well-being of this country. The criticisms and challenges from the Conservative party do not have the same credibility and legitimacy as genuine concerns expressed by trade unions, members of the professional bodies and Labour Members of Parliament. As a Government, we have been willing to match rhetoric, passion and a belief in the health service with hard, real additional resources—and reform and modernisation—to recognise the needs of patient care in the 21st century.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Government’s micro-managing the NHS and so on. Actually, under
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the NHS reforms, we have been devolving more and more responsibility and power to the front line. Equally, I do not believe that we should take politics entirely out of the national health service; in my view, it is one of the great dividing lines of British politics. No wonder the Conservative party wants to take politics out of the national health service.

Mr. Baron: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: I cannot give way, as I do not have enough time. The hon. Gentleman mentioned micro-managing the national health service. When we say to trusts and managers, “You have deficits, and it is about time you brought them under control. You have to make difficult decisions. We cannot allow the situation to go on because it destabilises the national health service,” we get criticised. We leave people to make some of those difficult choices at a local level in local circumstances.

We shall take no lessons on the national health service from the Conservative party. I shall listen to constructive suggestions, comments and even criticisms. However, to pretend that the NHS is in some kind of meltdown or crisis is disingenuous and dishonest from a party that starved the service of resources and demoralised it.

The hon. Gentleman says that there has been a decrease in the number of primary care and community care nurses. I shall correct that for the record. The number of nurses in primary and community care in this country has increased by 37 per cent. since 1997.

The health service is in a good position. There are daily challenges; demography itself means that we face an ever-growing elderly population with acute health needs. However, we can be proud—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. We must turn our attention to the next debate.

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Animal Welfare

11 am

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to lead this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am on the Opposition side of the Chamber because of the defects of this room: only from here can one look straight into the eyes of the Minister to assess the reaction to the comments that one has made. The possibility of my having defected is roughly equivalent to that of Lord Adonis making warm and complimentary comments about community comprehensives.

I am glad to have secured this debate. Animal welfare is perhaps my highest personal political priority, and indeed this Government have a good track record on it in the legislation, regulation and changes that they have introduced since 1997. Nevertheless, there is more to be done in respect of laboratory animals and especially animal husbandry, which is at the core of today’s debate.

The Government’s position on the common agricultural policy is rightly to move away from direct payments to farmers, which reward them for production, towards setting incentives for the delivery of public goods. England is to be congratulated as the only one of the four devolved regions to have moved immediately to a system of decoupled payments to farmers under pillar one of the common agricultural policy, but it is difficult to reconcile that position with the proposals in the draft England rural development programme, which aims to deliver public goods, but in which the ability to make payments for better animal welfare has not been utilised.

The Government say repeatedly that the United Kingdom is the leading country in Europe on animal welfare, and I go along with that view to a considerable extent. If that is the case, however, the ERDP ought to present an opportunity to demonstrate that leading position in Government policy, and to provide further incentives to continue to improve welfare standards.

Let me review the background to opportunities for RDPs. New rural assistance measures were agreed by the European Union in June last year under regulation 1698. There are six elements in axis 1—membership of food quality schemes, food quality promotion, training, farm advisory services, investment in agricultural holdings and meeting Community animal welfare standards—and one in axis 2: payment for higher animal welfare standards. Under the European regulation, member state Governments can include those seven measures in their RDPs.

The first ever European animal welfare strategy was agreed by Farming Ministers as recently as January this year. It set down, for the first time, how the EU believes animal welfare should develop in the 2007-13 period, and the goals for the Commission and Farming Ministers. The strategy sets five areas of action, including updating minimum standards for animal welfare, introducing animal welfare indicators so we can measure progress and better informing animal keepers and handlers of current standards.

At the UK level, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set itself two public service agreement targets on animal welfare: PSA 5, to deliver
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a more competitive and sustainable farming industry, and PSA 9, to improve the health and welfare of kept animals. I strongly support both those targets. Additionally, strategic indicators relating to animal welfare are being developed in the DEFRA animal health and welfare plan and in the Curry commission plans. In other words, there is an overarching commitment at the European and domestic levels to drive forward improved animal welfare standards, and of course I welcome that.

So what features in the draft ERDP, which is currently out to consultation? It includes only one reference to improving animal welfare, and that one, which deals with training, has existed under pillar two opportunities since 1999. I am sad to say that DEFRA has apparently ignored measures central to the theme of making agriculture more competitive, which would provide crucial links with other opportunities while being measurable and providing value for money, which are both important characteristics.

There appears to be a manifest misunderstanding of animal welfare and what seeking improved standards can achieve, as there is no joined-up thinking between the animal welfare part of DEFRA and the team responsible for drawing up the ERDP, whose expertise appears to be in environmental measures only. Animal welfare has been ignored, even in areas where it could be easily incorporated. For instance, paragraph 47 of the draft lists

as a priority, but it does not list any scheme or incentive to achieve that priority for animal welfare. That could simply be rectified by including the words “and those promoting higher welfare standards”. I hope that the Minister will undertake to consider that point with a view to rectification or explain why DEFRA has decided to ignore almost all the measures available to improve animal welfare standards in that regard, in a misunderstanding of what improved animal welfare can deliver and a failure to match up with its own public service agreement targets.

Of course, we need to measure animal welfare objectively and assess outcomes before they can feature effectively in the ERDP. Measurable indicators and outcomes for animal welfare do exist. The EU is funding a €5 million academic project involving centres from the member states, including those in Scotland, Wales and England, to establish single indicators to measure good welfare, which will report in 2009 and form the basis of future EU legislation. It is an integral part of the Commission’s action plan.

Indicators have been drawn up by Bristol university for pigs, cattle and laying hens and they are already used on Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals freedom food farms to assess welfare. I contend that objective measures exist that could be used to measure animal welfare improvements, ensure value for money and provide a goal-oriented approach. We are told that England is a continental leader for animal welfare, so let us see how the draft ERDP measures up against the RDPs of other countries.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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David Taylor: I am happy to give way to a fellow member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Mr. Drew: It is a pleasure to intervene on my hon. Friend. Does he agree that part of the problem is that at the time of the last European budget round, every country, including the UK, made some of the cuts from rural payments and at the expense of some of the changes that we need to see in the rural economy? Is it not right that the Government should reconsider those cuts and lead the charge to say that if the CAP means anything, it should mean a different CAP that will invest in the rural economy rather than on production subsidies?

David Taylor: I agree. When DEFRA is seeking cuts and reallocating resources, it tends to concentrate too heavily on rural payments—a point that I shall refer to later.

I was considering how the ERDP measures up against other RDPs. With devolution, probably more than 50 RDPs will be drawn up in the EU. Most are still in consultation, but some have been announced and show how innovation can help. The Scottish RDP has three budget lines for encouraging animal welfare, including membership of an assurance scheme, completing a veterinary health plan and training. The response to those measures has been extremely positive, and they form the second most popular of all incentives given under the development plan.

The existing Welsh RDP has animal welfare measures such as payments to reduce stocking levels, membership of an assurance scheme, improving knowledge of animal welfare through training and investing through the farm improvement grant to improve welfare standards in holdings. Finally, it has measures to improve the marketing of farm products that adhere to minimum animal welfare standards. The consultation on the Welsh RDP highlights the animal welfare pyramid scheme and the intention to give incentives to farmers who enter into agreements committing to higher welfare standards than the baseline ones under agri-environmental schemes.

Finally, to deal with our third fellow country, the Northern Ireland draft plan has three measures for animal welfare, including marketing and processing grants and grants to change over to higher standards of animal welfare. In Germany, the RDP provides intensive grants for investment costs in nine sectors: laying hens, turkeys, pigs, beef and dairy cattle, broilers, suckler cows, goats and sheep—this sounds like a farming report—providing that higher welfare standards are met. Those standards include not exceeding stocking densities of 25 kg per square metre for broiler chickens, as opposed to the proposed 38 kg per square metre under the draft directive.

Another example is Austria, which recently submitted its RDP for agreement with the Commission and highlighted a number of ways to promote innovation and the marketing of higher welfare products. As a final exemplar, the RDP budget in France has rewarded farmers who have produced a higher welfare standard. The animal welfare measures that have been used have again included reducing
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stocking density, enlarging pig stalls, reducing live transport times and giving access to green pastures. Incidentally, all those measures have proved successful and—this is an important characteristic—cross over into promoting French produce.

I feel that the ERDP as drafted is unimaginative in comparison with many others in Europe and the UK, and that it risks putting English farmers at a competitive disadvantage. We would expect the draft ERDP to align closely with DEFRA strategy, would we not? So let us just see whether it does. One of the measures in the DEFRA animal welfare strategy is higher animal welfare incentives. The strategic policy driver is the sustainable food strategy PSA 9. What action is mentioned in the ERDP? None. The second of the four measures is a more competitive farming sector, as set out in the sustainable food strategy PSA 5. How much reference is there in the ERDP? None. The third of the four measures is sustainable farming, including animal health and welfare, which is again a DEFRA strategic priority, addressed in PSA 5. What reference is made in the ERDP? None. Fourthly, encouraging innovative approaches to farming, such as knowledge transfer, skills training and so on is part of the UK sustainable development strategy, in article 201. What ERDP action is there? Not none, but it is unclear whether any will be animal welfare specific. The ERDP as drafted is a poor match with the strategic drivers for animal welfare policy.

What other drivers are there? The ERDP has no measures for supporting animal welfare, yet there are many other drivers for improved standards that have economic implications for farmers. Many directives have started to phase out certain intensive methods of farming, such as 1999/74 and 2001/88, which phase out the battery cage system and sow stall respectively, and directive 1997/2, whose prohibition of the veal crate system is finally fully operational in member states. Itis important that we measure and ensure cost-effectiveness. All those changes have economic implications for farmers. They have all been costed, but the legislative drivers are currently missing from the consultation.

I conclude with the tightness of the budget, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred. For the ERDP, the provisional figures show that £1.48 billion of payments are committed for 2007-13, and that £1.8 billion is available. There is therefore still some scope, despite a cut of 22 per cent. for the pillar 2 budget, as announced and agreed in December 2005, which means that some €19 billion will not be available. There is a tight budget, but there are still some incentives that have win-win consequences for more than one issue, and which deliver measurable goals against the national agricultural strategy.

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