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11 Oct 2006 : Column 116WH—continued

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose constituency I had the pleasure briefly to visit in the summer. He is, of course, right. That point was made about the Bill on Report. I had the privilege of sitting as a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, and although I could not move my amendment on Report, I requested of the Minister that when he got round to drawing up codes of practice for the different categories of animal covered by the legislation, greyhounds should be at the top of the list.
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The sad truth about the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds is that over the summer some very disturbing articles appeared in the national press, including, for example, details published by The Sunday Times on 16 July of the destruction by means of a bolt gun of thousands of greyhounds, over decades, and their burial in a field in Seaham in county Durham. The names of the trainer and racing manager who were involved were also published. On 17 September, The Sunday Times published an account of the routine destruction, without veterinary intervention, of greyhounds allegedly from NGRC-approved tracks, by a so-called animal sanctuary in Wigan.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I understand that those matters may be sub judice, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman could desist from referring to those cases. I appeal to him again: he is sailing very close to the edge of the debate.

Mr. Hollobone: I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Weir. I am simply referring to articles in the public domain, which appeared over the summer, the content of which has disturbed many people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I suggest, Mr. Weir, that it may be helpful, not necessarily in this debate, but in a more general forum, for all Members of the House to receive the updated legal advice on sub judice matters and parliamentary privilege.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): I shall bring that to the notice of the Speaker’s committee.

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful for the Minister’s advice and for yours, Mr. Weir.

In conclusion, the greyhound racing industry is an industry. It is controlled by gamblers and those involved in gambling. Each year, 7,000 greyhounds disappear, effectively without trace. It is high time that the industry was licensed and that the Government stopped allowing it to self-regulate because the industry has been guilty of too many abuses over too many years.

3.20 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and everyone else who has contributed. Although there are not many people in the Chamber, it is important that we continue to press down on this issue. Over the years it has been demonstrated that continual pressure has significantly improved animal welfare conditions in this country, in farming and elsewhere. We hope that through continued pressure from individual Members, pressure groups and other organisations, which will put the subject in the public domain, and by dragging up the standards of our European partners, in particular, who are way behind where they should be, we shall continue to raise standards not only here but abroad.

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The problem is that in this country we raise some 900 million livestock a year. A huge variety of welfare issues are associated with the rearing, handling, transportation and slaughtering of such a number of animals. To ensure that throughout the process we consider the quality of life of farm animals is, for anyone, highly challenging, not least in terms of legislation.

We are paying the price, as we all recognise, for what we might call cheap food—inexpensive food. Over the years, through a range of actions—some of which had implications that we had not quite realised—we have borne down on the cost of food. It was the objective of a number of Administrations to ensure that quality food, which was also affordable, was available, but we have concentrated on the cost and, as is so often the case, forgotten some of the other issues. We are beginning to learn the lessons. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned disease, and I have no doubt that some of the intensive practices in which we have engaged in recent years have contributed, in a way, to the extent of disease that we have seen.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he were to go to the largest supermarket in his constituency, whichever it might be, with a clipboard and urge people to sign a petition protesting against the iniquities that we visit on broiler chickens—how they are brought up and how they have their throats cut, often when still alive—people would queue up and push others aside to sign it? However, 97 per cent. of people buy chickens according to price. How do we bridge that gap between the welfare approach clearly adopted by many people and the decisions that they make when they put their hand in the chiller cabinet?

Mr. Breed: I totally agree. There is little doubt that many people would sign up to require animal welfare standards to be implemented but immediately go and purchase a product much cheaper than it would be if those standards were in place, and they will find no problem with that. We can deal with that by the usual methods: trying to raise awareness, putting information in the public domain so that consumers have choices and ensuring that those choices can be made with better labelling and better promotion. We need also to deal with the issues that arise as we begin to recognise that we have gone too far and need to draw back. As an aside, we have not only done such things to animals but to the soil and things that grow. We have produced such intensity that the nature that we control is at risk.

Tribute has rightly been paid to the farming industry for its role in improving the situation. I also pay tribute to the Government, who during this period of administration have concentrated much more on some of the issues that are important to us.

The live transport of farm animals from the UK for slaughter or for further fattening is, I totally agree, unnecessary and fraught with risk to animal health and welfare. It has an economic aspect, too. It is better that animals are slaughtered in this country than exported. However, we must recognise that banning the trade might simply export the problem. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) recognised that unless we have EU-wide legislation on the matter we will not get the effects that we want and, of course, we will disadvantage
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our farmers who are compelled to or want to raise their standards and bear the resulting costs.

Standards have to be raised and we have to ensure that others raise them. That is the message. We want better standards and EU-wide legislation that will force others to raise standards so that we have the mythical level playing field to which we all refer on occasion. That will mean that we do not export the problem or see absurd situations where, because of consumer demand, we import and put on sale animals produced under processes that would be banned here. I cannot let the time go by without saying that some of my colleagues represent constituencies in the Orkneys and Shetland where farmers are quite horrified at the fact that they might not be able to export their animals to the mainland. We must recognise that there are always exceptions, but I am sure that proper legislation could always take account of the exceptions when trying to deal with the generalities.

Another aspect of the question that we have not really tackled is the fact that we do not have a network of local abattoirs to the point where we have slaughtering facilities closer to the rearing establishments. Although there may only be a short journey involved in taking animals to slaughter, that can sometimes mean that standards are not as good, and we need to encourage a better network of abattoirs.

Our key welfare concerns with broiler chickens in particular have already been mentioned. Slower-growing birds should be selected for meat production. The rapid growth rates that have come about have produced welfare problems. There are many ways of trying to measure the space allowance, but the measurement that I have considered and that has been recommended to me relates kilograms of bird to square metres of space. Of course, some birds are bigger than others. At the very minimum, space allowance needs to be increased so that serious welfare problems are diminished.

Those of us who have visited the facilities for broiler chickens have seen that they live in a barren environment, with dim light to discourage activity so that the growth rate is maximised. It seems pretty bad to have to live in half-light all the time. All animals need a day and a night—a proper rest period where the lighting levels are brought down. We have to try to enrich the quality of life of chickens and animals in general. The natural behaviour that we enjoy as animals is in many ways destroyed for other animals, and we must recognise that they need to enjoy their natural behaviour.

I do not want to speak about greyhounds. I do not know much about them, although I accept that the subject needs to be considered. As for husbandry generally, I was fortunate to be a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which undertook the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Animal Welfare Bill. I am pleased that it is making progress, albeit somewhat slowly.

The husbandry of circus animals needs some attention. I believe that not much of a case can be made for considering how they are transported and shown. The Government were keen to ban hunting and so on. I believe that, as a minimum, there ought to be some sort of licensing arrangement setting minimum
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standards for circus animals. As I say, I do not think that there is any need for it, but as a minimum it ought to be considered.

Bovine TB is a subject on which the hon. Member for Stroud and I have spoken many times. Whatever the transmission rates from cattle to cattle, cattle to wildlife, wildlife to wildlife and back again, I am convinced that if we merely slaughter out one part without addressing the other, we will not have a prolonged effect. The disease will go on and on. We need to understand that the eradication of this disease is necessary; it is a welfare issue as much as anything else. We may have seen a dip lately for some reason, but while we merely concentrate on one particular animal among our livestock and slaughter it out, without recognising that we have to do something about the wildlife, we are deluding ourselves.

3.31 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing another debate this year on this extremely important subject. I am sorry that he did not attend the debate on the ventilation shutdown measure in Standing Committee in June. His presence was missed, as I am sure that he shares my anger at the Government for even expecting to fail to control avian influenza and therefore factoring into their plans ventilation shutdown as a legal method of killing chickens.

David Taylor: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I tabled an early-day motion almost immediately the news broke—it received wide cross-party support—that condemned the suggestion of slow suffocation as a means of eliminating the national flock should avian flu, God forbid, start to affect it.

Bill Wiggin: I know that the hon. Gentleman did so, and I shall tell the House of something else that he did. On 24 May, when Westminster Hall last debated animal welfare, he raised a number of points about the inclusion of animal welfare in the England regional development programme.

During DEFRA questions the previous week, I pressed the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), on the issue. He responded that the Department thought that it could deliver improved animal welfare through a training and access to skills scheme, like the one that it is already using. That lacklustre response was very disappointing, especially when we consider that the rural development programmes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in other countries such as Germany and Austria, have more animal welfare improvement measures. In Germany, for example, RDP funding is being used to provide for higher welfare standards, including a stocking density of 25 kg per square metre—that is 13 kg lower than the 38 kg that the Commissions want to enforce through the draft directive that the European Standing Committee debated in April. In Wales, RDP funding will be available for reducing stocking densities and joining an assurance scheme. If other countries can use their RDP to raise animal welfare standards, we in England should be able to do so.

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Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is totally wrong to link competition with welfare standards? It depresses me that people should argue that improving welfare standards, particularly of farm animals but also of wildlife, always has a huge anticompetitive effect. It is a dangerous line to take. Welfare should be considered because it is right.

Bill Wiggin: If I understand correctly what the hon. Gentleman says, I do not have a problem in agreeing with him. Yes, competition is a separate issue. However, I am talking about the Government’s failure to support schemes similar to those going on elsewhere in the world which would reward good behaviour. We are used to seeing plenty of sticks; this was a carrot opportunity, and the Government have missed it.

Another disappointment is DEFRA’s failure to meet its own targets for supporting ERDP projects benefiting animal welfare. The target during the 2000-06 programme is to support 91 such projects. In 2002 only one project was achieved; in 2003 only five were achieved; in 2004 another five projects were achieved; and in 2005 only two more projects were achieved. Only 14 projects are up and running, which is 77 short of DEFRA’s target, and there is only one year to go. At that rate, it will take DEFRA at least a quarter of a century to achieve all 91 projects. The Department’s animal welfare ambitions for the ERDP relate only to training within the rural enterprise scheme, and it is still failing to provide it.

In May, I asked the hon. Member for Brent, North about linking animal welfare to the ERDP. He said:

It is bad enough when DEFRA does not significantly promote animal welfare through the ERDP, but when the Department considerably fails to reach its own targets, it demonstrates that farm animal welfare matters are being excluded and sidelined.

Will this Minister let us know how many projects have been achieved this year? Have 77 been achieved to reach the target? If not, why is the target not being reached? Will those projects continue into the ERDP for 2007 to 2013? DEFRA has announced that it is unlikely to make the January 2007 start for the new schemes. Will the Minister confirm that he intends to use the extra time to reconsider the animal welfare component?

Despite the Department’s being lobbied by the RSPCA and the Wildlife and Countryside Link for the inclusion of further animal welfare measures in the next ERDP, animal welfare does not get a single mention in DEFRA’s initial summary of consultation responses. Given that DEFRA excluded animal welfare from the ERDP in the original consultation document, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that animal welfare measures were still considered by the Department. I hope that he will be able also to let us know how many respondents lobbied for its inclusion in that scheme.

The apparent exclusion of animal welfare from the 2007-2013 ERDP is surprising when we consider the growth in public interest in the subject. Public interest in animal welfare matters has never been higher. I am
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aware that animal welfare-related matters are among the top three most asked questions that DEFRA receives from the public, and the most asked question relates to the live export of calves. Although members of the public are demanding higher welfare standards for the animals that they consume, the Department refuses to use a crucial measure to raise the welfare of farmed animals.

We would all like to see improvements in animal welfare, starting with better husbandry on the farm and going right the way through to the abattoir. People should be rewarded for doing the right thing, for going that little bit further; and it would be a missed opportunity if DEFRA did not improve the range of support for animal welfare measures through the ERDP.

The export and transportation of live animals is an important issue that Parliament has rightly debated at length over many years. I am sure that we would all prefer to see livestock reared close to the point of slaughter so that our animals do not have to endure hours of travel, whether they are staying in their country of origin or being transported for rearing abroad. We have all been lobbied by various NGOs and our constituents on the matter. We should develop policies that produce high animal welfare standards throughout the food production chain.

The UK is typically at the forefront in animal and livestock welfare, and that is something of which we should be proud, but we want to see consistency in other countries, and in particular in other EU member states. The UK has traditionally had higher standards of animal welfare than other countries; we interpret and enforce directives more stringently and readily, and our high level of compliance has left British farmers at a competitive disadvantage. While UK meat supplies have increased since 1997 from around 4 million tonnes of dressed carcase to 4.5 million tonnes, domestically produced supplies have remained static and imports have increased by 50 per cent. I am keen for British farmers, who have superior husbandry standards, to fulfil the demand for more meat and reap the rewards.

On livestock transportation, the UK has led the way. In 1990, the Conservative Government banned veal crates and it is a shame that it has taken 17 years for the rest of Europe to follow our lead. I thought that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made an important and powerful speech. I am worried about further livestock transport regulations. Under the new EU regulations to be introduced on 5 January 2007, transporters carrying out journeys of more than 65 km lasting under eight hours must be authorised by the competent authority. Journeys by road lasting more than eight hours must be authorised by the competent authority and vehicles and livestock containers inspected. So far, that is all right. New vehicles will have to be fitted with satellite navigation systems and training will be a requirement for all personnel who work at markets and assembly centres. On 5 January 2008 all drivers transporting farmed animals, horses or poultry on journeys of more than eight hours or 65 km will need to be assessed and receive a certificate of competence. That worries me because 65 km is 40 miles, which is not a great distance. If one travels through London the average speed would be 11 mph, so in eight hours one could go considerably further than 40 miles—that is a discrepancy.

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