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11 Oct 2006 : Column 110WH—continued

2.51 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I shall endeavour to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing this important debate. Outside the House, I regard him as a personal friend, but parliamentary convention requires that I refer to him as “the hon. Gentleman”. He does the House a service by raising these issues.

I would like to pay tribute to another friend, the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), who has played a considerable part in contesting the export of live animals through the port. Many of those animals go through the county of Kent, part of which I also have the privilege to represent.

It is a sad fact that the trade in veal calves and meat on the hoof has been resumed. Several cross-channel ferry companies have honourably and properly decided, on a commercial basis, not to carry animals. The fact is that they carry the traction units, the animals are carried by commercial freight ferries in animal transporters without the traction units, and the traction and freight units are married up on the other side of the channel. In other words, the exporters are finding ways of bypassing the wishes of the passenger ferries. I regard that as a retrograde step and a great sadness.

I now take no pride in this whatsoever, but I was one of those who worked with Compassion in World Farming and managed to secure from the Conservative Government of the day a ban on the use of veal crates in the United Kingdom. At the time, we thought that that was a tremendous victory, but it was a pyrrhic victory. What in fact happened was that we banned the use of veal crates in the UK and then saw a flood of veal calves that were unwanted in the UK exported across the channel under infinitely worse conditions than they would otherwise have experienced to be reared briefly under even worse conditions in Belgium, France and Holland. Far from achieving an enhancement in animal welfare, we actually made it worse.

I learned one lesson from that. If the problem is to be solved, it must be solved on a pan-European basis. I say that with a high regard for the British farming industry. It is by no means perfect, but I believe it to be among the best in Europe and, probably, the world. I now see no merit whatsoever in seeking to disadvantage the British farming industry as against our European and worldwide competitors in the name of animal welfare. If we are to solve the problem, we will not solve it by moving it from A to B and pretending that we are done. We will solve it by ensuring that the rest of the world—most certainly the rest of the European Union—raises its animal welfare standards to the same high level that exists throughout most of British agriculture.

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The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire rightly made a point about the plight—I use the word advisedly—of battery and broiler chickens brought up in cages. That is no life for any living thing—it is frightful. The method of execution following that brief life is almost worse. Such practices bring shame on humanity, but, again, we will not solve the problem if we penalise British farmers, egg producers and producers of birds for the table only to import an equivalent or larger quantity of eggs and birds from the new European Union entrants in the east or from other countries. That will do nobody any service at all.

At present, the farming industry is unable to afford proper animal welfare, and that is a disgrace. I have to say to the Minister that the imposition—again, I use the right word—of the veterinary medicines directive has militated against the use of proper veterinary medicine by the farming community, which finds that the value of the animals, birds and livestock that they are rearing no longer justifies proper veterinary medical attention. It is cheaper, easier and quicker to kill a bird or an animal and quietly dispose of it by whatever means than it is to call in the vet, pay for the medicine, treat the animal or the bird properly and move on from there.

We have done the farming community a grave disservice by putting it in a position where animal welfare is no longer commercially viable. I know farmers who are passionate about their animals and who care about them enormously. In the end, those animals may go to the table, but that is not the point. The farmers care about the animals in their charge while they are alive, and they want them to be properly looked after, but the commercial reality that they face, particularly with the disgraceful single farm payment system and delay, is that they can no longer afford to pay for proper animal welfare, unlike their contemporaries in mainland Europe who can afford to pay through subsidy.

If we are to move further down this road, as we must, it behoves all of us, whether in government or opposition, to take a clear view of the matter and to seek to ensure that no animal, bird or farm produce raised elsewhere under conditions that would not be permitted in this country should be allowed to enter the UK. My late friend, the right hon. Eric Forth, who was the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, found that it was his duty—peculiarly, in his case—as a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry to abolish the trademarks legislation and bring us in line with the European Union. Subsequently, it has been much harder for us to brand English and British food in the way that we would wish, but I urge the Minister, with his colleagues in the DTI, the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and Downing street, to investigate every conceivable way of making absolutely certain that the purchaser of food stuffs in the UK is completely aware whether the foods that they are buying have been produced under the standards that we in this country find acceptable. And I urge him to go one stage further: we must insist that all produce sold in this country adheres to the standards.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman would probably agree that there is a growing love affair in Britain with ethically sourced food, and that there is a demand and
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a market for the standards to which he refers. The egg industry has successfully promoted higher standards to the extent that 40 per cent. of all sales are of free-range eggs, but the broader industry has yet to do that. Only 3 per cent. of chickens are brought up by high welfare standards. That is the target and the focus. That is where the Government can be active.

Mr. Gale: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: the fact that 40 per cent. of the eggs sold in this country are produced under acceptable conditions is to be applauded. It is not acceptable that 60 per cent. of eggs, by implication, are produced by hens living under other conditions. It is not acceptable that 1 per cent. of produce sold in this country should be produced under conditions that we would not permit and under which British farmers would not be allowed to operate. I hope that the Minister will be address those issues.

3 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is a privilege to follow such doughty fighters as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), who made an intervention. They have established a reputation in the House on this important issue, and much though we might not be great in numbers here today, I hope that the quality of our input will make up for that.

I make no apology for concentrating on just one issue, perhaps to the despair of my hon. Friend the Minister, who will not be surprised to hear that I am going to talk about bovine tuberculosis. In passing, however, I want to look quickly at five issues relating to the subject, two of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.

First, I am pleased that the Hunting Act 2004 eventually made it onto the statute book, but it behoves us to make it clear that we will monitor the behaviour of hunts. It might seem that hunt monitors—human beings—are the most endangered species in the country, but it is important that we do not simply pass the legislation; we must make it clear that we want it to have an impact.

Secondly, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—I consider her my friend in this case—is presenting a petition to Downing street at this very moment, in which thousands of signatories are demanding that the Government ban snares. I took that campaign up some years ago, and there is an early-day motion on the subject in my name. However, as it is not necessarily related to this debate, I shall pass quickly on. It is an important, though, and there should at least be a debate about it. The majority of farmers to whom I talk want to ban snares because they are a pretty hideous way of trying to control wildlife.

The third issue is that of animal experimentation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire alluded, and I have had a debate in this Chamber on the way in which the 3Rs—reducing, refining and replacing animal experimentation—are evolving. Although that is the responsibility of the Home Office, not my hon. Friend the Minister, and
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although I understand that the time for a royal commission on that may have come and gone, I am concerned that, having had a commitment in a previous manifesto to establish a royal commission, we still have quite large numbers—indeed, there is a steady increase in our laboratories—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. The subject of the debate is animal husbandry. The hon. Gentleman is going rather wide of the mark in talking about animal experimentation. Will he come back to the subject in hand?

Mr. Drew: I certainly take your advice, Mr. Weir. I was merely commenting on what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said.

Fourthly, on husbandry, it would be remiss of me not to mention the reports that have come out in the past few days on the foot and mouth outbreak. Like other hon. Members, I read the article by Magnus Linklater in The Times today, which talked about “carnage by computer”. We must learn the lessons of that outbreak. I was sympathetic towards the Government at the time, but we must do something about the problem. It is not a matter only of the way in which we dealt with the outbreak, and all the ways in which that showed how our husbandry was deficient, but of the way in which the whole EU apparatus encouraged us to send animals around the country, which resulted in the outbreak being that much worse than it would have been.

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman definitely shows his credentials and cares about animals. How, therefore, does he feel about ventilation turn-off as a way of dealing with outbreaks of avian influenza in broiler farms?

Mr. Drew: I do not agree with it, but it is right to hope that we learn some lessons. We must prevent such diseases. If we cannot, we must shut them down as soon as possible. The only way to do that is to have good animal husbandry and methods in place that work on the basis of consensus. The saddest thing about the outbreak was that it brought division rather than the consensus that we needed to deal with the problem.

The last point that I want to mention in passing is also one about which I am very concerned. In passing EU regulations into British law to prevent farmers from burying dead stock on farm, we have brought about a situation in which farmers come to me saying that they have no means of disposing of animals and wildlife on their land—some of those animals may, indeed, be theirs—and certainly on the roads abutting it. I hope that the Government will understand that if we are to bear down on disease and have good animal husbandry, it is crucial that we have mechanisms in place to allow us to deal with the problems that wildlife can cause, not least when it is, sadly, lying dead on the side of the road or on farmers’ holdings.

On bovine TB, my hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have enormous sympathy with him—I have expressed it more times than I care to state—for his having to face the problem of bovine TB. I despair of
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the extreme things said by the two sides involved, none of which is credible, let alone fair or reasonable. There must be a way of dealing with this dreadful disease. It has a direct impact on the way in which we keep our livestock, but it is also prevalent in our wildlife.

All that I ask my hon. Friend to do is to consider the comments of those of us who have served on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or who have taken part in the various debates in this place and not to take any precipitate action. From all the evidence, however, I would not say that he is going to do that. As he knows, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended continual investment and interest in good husbandry as one way of bearing down on bovine TB, and I hope that that will continue. However, given all the other issues involved, including whether to cull or not to cull, the danger is that some of the sensible things that could be done in passing will often be left out.

On whether to cull or not to cull, I am against a cull on one simple ground: the scientific ground. There is no evidence that culling—certainly at the level that some would have us believe is necessary to make an impact on bovine TB—will work. In fact, all the current scientific evidence tends to suggest that the opposite would happen and that there would be a further increase in the disease. That would be completely bizarre, but it might well occur because of the impact of perturbation and badgers moving around more readily, which seems to happen when they are diseased and because they are often expelled from their lairs. There is also the fringe issue of driving diseased badgers to move among those that are clean. That has a major impact on husbandry.

I am pleased to see that the number of animals affected by bovine TB has come down, but I would not jump to the conclusion that that is entirely due to pre-movement testing and bearing down on cattle involved in cattle transfer. I have to hope that that is one of the reasons, but it is too early to reach that conclusion. However, I hope that the Minister is looking carefully at the issue and that we will continue to consider the need for good husbandry. I also hope that we will continue to search for a vaccine, and I am pleased that an experiment is going on in my area, as he knows. I hope that that work bears fruit in due course.

The most important thing is that we use science, that we do not jump to ready conclusions, that we ensure that husbandry is at the forefront of all that we do with our livestock, and that we continue to investigate wildlife issues, such as avian influenza, foot and mouth and bovine TB. I wish the Minister good fortune in dealing with those things because we are only one jump ahead of the next problem caused by animal disease.

We underestimate the impact of animal disease in this country. We talk about terrorism and other things happening around the world, but animal disease, as we know from foot and mouth, can cost us millions of pounds—let alone the moral dilemmas that it confronts us with. We must move it up the agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire has done us a great service in raising again in Westminster Hall the need to see the subject as much more important, because the welfare of our livestock and wildlife is crucial to millions of people. We should never forget that.

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3.10 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) is quite right: British consumers should be able to know that they are buying British food when they go to supermarkets. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is also quite right to raise the important issue of bovine tuberculosis and its connection with the badger population.

I want to draw attention to a matter of crucial importance with regard to animal welfare and husbandry—the operation of the greyhound racing industry. In particular, I want to speak in support of an organisation called Greyhounds UK, which is campaigning not for a ban on greyhound racing but for the improvement of standards of welfare for racing greyhounds.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said:

It went on to comment that

which should not wait until 2010.

With regard to the husbandry of greyhounds, there are 30,000 active racing greyhounds in the UK. Three quarters of those are imported from the Republic of Ireland. About 10,000 leave racing every year. The industry-controlled Retired Greyhound Trust is said to find homes for 3,000 of those 10,000 every year, which leaves something like 7,000 retired greyhounds a year whose fate no one knows. The rules of the National Greyhound Racing Club allow euthanasia by veterinary surgeon, but no figures are kept for the number of dogs for which homes are found other than through the Retired Greyhound Trust, and no one knows how many are destroyed, by veterinary surgeons or otherwise. That raises the issue of the effectiveness of self-regulation of the industry.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I have let the hon. Gentleman discuss this matter, but he is rather wide of the debate. Will he bring his remarks around to the particular terms of the debate on welfare standards in animal husbandry?

Mr. Hollobone: I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Weir. The issue is a crucial one for the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds. My point is that the Government are seeking self-regulation of the welfare and husbandry of greyhounds, while organisations such as Greyhounds UK point out that self-regulation is not working and that the industry needs to be licensed.

In no other sphere of animal husbandry and welfare are such a large number of animals subject to the gambling industry. Racing brings no benefits at all to the greyhounds concerned, but makes substantial profits—from which the Treasury draws revenue—for the bookmakers and race promoters. In 2004 the Association of British Bookmakers declared a net profit of £92 million.

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Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but now that he is talking about gambling he is well outwith the terms of the debate. Unless he can bring his remarks back to animal welfare standards and husbandry I shall have to cut him off.

Mr. Hollobone: My fate lies in your hands, Mr. Weir. The point that I am trying to make is that the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds is subject to the gambling industry. I am seeking to use the opportunity of the debate to draw to the attention of the Minister responsible for greyhound welfare and husbandry the reasons why the system is not working, and why the industry needs to be licensed as other aspects of animal husbandry and welfare are licensed.

Mr. Gale: Sparing your wrath, Mr. Weir, I think that I am right in saying that it was in the early 1990s when the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I was then a member, and which had responsibility for the issue at the time, conducted an inquiry into the greyhound racing industry. We concluded that the beneficiaries of the industry—the industry and the bookmakers—were paying a pitiful sum towards the husbandry and welfare of racing greyhounds. It is an incredibly sad fact that 10 years have gone by and no significant improvement has so far been made.

Mr. Hollobone: My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet is, as always, spot on. In fact, in 2005 bookmakers increased their voluntary levy to the greyhound racing industry, but only from 0.4 per cent. to 0.6 per cent. of off-course turnover.

Those who manage rescues for greyhounds will testify to the frequent abuse of greyhounds, which are found wandering, injured or starving. Those can include old or injured ex-racers or unwanted dogs that failed to qualify in the first place. The experience of organisations such as Greyhounds UK is that although the greyhounds may have identification in the form of ear tattoos, the NGRC, citing the Data Protection Act 1998, will not disclose details of the registered owner to anyone, including the police.

Bill Wiggin: We will all have read during the recess the appalling stories about the treatment of greyhounds and the disappearance of large numbers of them. My hon. Friend will know that that is covered by the Animal Welfare Bill, for which the Minister is responsible. I hope that my hon. Friend will also agree that the priority given to regulating, through codes of conduct, the keeping of greyhounds has been set far too low. Should not that be moved further up, and should it perhaps even be the Government’s first priority?

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