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Mr. Gale: My hon. Friend referred to satellite navigation, which relates to the traction unit not to the container of the animals. It is perfectly practical and possible to bypass the regulations by changing traction units.

Bill Wiggin: Those issues have been raised so that the Minister will consider the regulations, decide how appropriate they are and ensure that we get proper animal-driven welfare regulations, rather than ones that appear to be helpful but are not.

Earlier, we talked about poultry. There have been significant changes in that industry. I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the British Egg Industry Council, which has promoted the lion brand so successfully. Yes, we do have a problem with battery chickens—I have visited them. My hon. Friend said that if we are not careful we will simply export the problem—that is an extremely valid point. We want the highest standards of welfare for everything that we eat, not just the eggs that look like eggs, so we have to be careful about the catering sector.

This morning, I was excited to read that it is now possible to buy an egg with a lion brand on it which, when the egg is boiled, will change colour and indicate whether the egg is soft, medium or hard boiled. That type of innovation can only be good. It is a tremendous idea that encourages people to eat eggs and read on the label where they originated. We should recognise that the industry is doing everything that it can to promote higher welfare standards through its ability to innovate, and it deserves credit for that.

We are supposed to have a common agricultural policy with our European neighbours, but it is of less benefit to British farmers when the rules that we implement are different from those of our competitors. One of the most prominent issues relating to farm animal transport is the export of veal calves and part of the problem is that there are different standards and policies between the UK and other EU countries. Although farmers on the continent can claim a premium for raising a veal calf, British farmers cannot. Consequently, they are faced with the choice of either disposing of the calf or selling it for export. That is just one example of where British farmers are missing out and broader animal welfare issues are ignored because of our anomalous application of the common agricultural policy. The Government can make a real difference to animal welfare by ensuring that our farmers either have a level playing field or create the right circumstances for a veal market in the UK.

One way that we can all agree to reduce livestock transportation is through promoting consumption of local produce and strengthening the domestic market. The Secretary of State has referred to that being part of one-planet farming and the Government should use the full range of tools at their disposal to reduce livestock transportation and promote better animal welfare.

The single greatest correlation between poor animal welfare and the Government’s ability to make changes is when it comes to poverty. The Government have an opportunity to ensure that the 2006 single farm payment is made on time. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance today that the 2006 payment will be at least 80 per cent. paid by Christmas day, thus
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breaking the link between poverty and poor animal welfare and ensuring that we have a British farming industry that is properly supported and that the Government rectify the appalling record they have in paying the 2005 payment. I hope that the Minister will assure us that farmers can look forward to receiving at least 80 per cent. by Christmas day.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I almost thought that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) was announcing that he had converted to my long-held view that there is a connection between animal welfare and human poverty. We will do all that we can to ensure that the farmers receive the payments he talked about.

I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), a long-time champion of animal welfare both inside and outside the House, on securing this timely debate. It is timely because as he has acknowledged, we have already agreed and are about to implement new rules on animal transport and there is an important broiler directive currently being debated under the Finnish presidency.

I will confine my remarks to the title of this debate. We have had a debate that has ranged widely over the whole gambit of animal welfare issues. If I have time, I will come back to one or two of the points that were not strictly within the subject of my hon. Friend’s debate.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, as a number of hon. Members have acknowledged, we probably have the highest animal welfare standards we have ever had and that they are among the highest in the world. This Government have been not only at the forefront of implementing higher standards domestically, but active both on a European and international level in trying to improve standards. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made a vital point, to which I shall return, that it is no good our having the highest animal welfare standards in the world if they are not replicated elsewhere. In a single market and an increasingly global economy that would result only in our farmers finding it more and more difficult to compete and going out of business, as the hon. Gentleman has warned. We would then suck in imports from countries with far lower animal welfare standards. It is a very difficult balance to strike, and although we have improved domestically, the Government, animal welfare organisations and all political parties will have to think carefully about how to move the agenda forward on a European and international level.

Bill Wiggin: During the UK presidency of the EU, the Minister was chairman of the farming committee and could therefore have had a huge impact on animal welfare. What did he do while he was chairman to achieve that?

Mr. Bradshaw: I will come on to that shortly if the hon. Gentleman is patient.

It is worth reminding ourselves what we have already achieved in the past few years. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, we are on
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the brink of enacting a historical Animal Welfare Bill, which will be the single most important piece of legislation governing the welfare of animals for a hundred years. We have banned veal crates and battery cages for chickens, and we have successfully argued for an EU-wide veal crate and battery chicken ban as well as for inclusion in the proposed EU constitution of a specific article on the protection and welfare of animals. We have worked for agreement on the farm animal welfare directive, which sets minimum standards across the EU and relates to the important issue of labelling raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet—I will come back to that shortly. We banned the close confinement of sows in stalls, and the EU is preparing a similar ban. We have introduced new codes on the welfare of sheep, cattle, pigs, laying hens and broilers, and we are preparing new codes for goats, ducks and turkeys.

We spend £3.4 million a year on research on animal welfare to ensure that our policy and its application have a sound scientific base and to support the UK’s negotiating position in the EU. That money has supported a wide range of research, including on the management and welfare requirements of broiler meat chickens. I shall come to that in a little more detail.

We have improved the welfare of animals at slaughter, accepting nearly all the recommendations in the report of the independently established Farm Animal Welfare Council, and we will consult on a new code of practice shortly. We have introduced new regulations to improve the welfare of pigs. They relate to the minimum space for sows and gilts and increase the minimum weaning age from 21 to 28 days.

On transport, which formed a major part of my hon. Friend’s speech, we have always said that we prefer a trade in meat to the long-distance transport of live animals to slaughter, whether in the UK or across borders. A number of hon. Members said that they would like this to happen, but we cannot stop the export of live animals under European law. However, the House should note that the proportion of live sheep exports, for example, has fallen from some 15 per cent. in 1999 to 3 per cent. in the last few years.

One thing that we did during our presidency was to push the Commission for more radical changes on the rules for transporting animals. Although I acknowledge, as I have before in the House, that we did not achieve everything that we wanted, we have won important improvements through new regulations that will come into force from next January. Those will give more clarity on an animal’s fitness to travel; improve the protection of horses and young animals, including calves; require training and assessment of drivers, attendants and transporters to be authorised; set standards for transport, be it by sea, road or air; and introduce additional requirements, including the inspection and approval of vehicles, for journeys of more than eight hours. We fought hard for an eight-hour journey limit; unfortunately, we were not successful. The regulations will also improve co-operation and the exchange of information between member states so that rogue transporters can be tackled and enforcement across the EU is more uniform.

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Mr. Breed: I think that we all support those measures, but they will all involve some cost to the industry. It would be helpful if, after the regime has been established for a while, there is a review of how those costs are bearing down on the industry. One idea may be to reduce the number of inspections down to one, rather than having lots of different ones. We want to maintain standards, but we need to reduce the costs of that on the production side.

Mr. Bradshaw: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The industry has been very supportive of the UK negotiating position on the animal transport regulations. Yes, the UK industry does not want extra costs imposed on it over and above what is happening in the rest of Europe, but it does want a level playing field, and those measures were about trying to raise the standards in most other EU countries to the level of standards here and about trying to ensure that we have more consistent enforcement. We will shortly lay secondary legislation before Parliament to support the regulations.

The issue of veal calves was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire and for Dover (Gwyn Prosser). Indeed, the latter spoke about an issue that has arisen in his constituency today. I am well aware of the public concern regarding the resumption of live exports of calves and veal calves in particular. The rules governing the welfare of veal calves and their transport have improved considerably since the trade last happened, before the ban because of BSE. However, I am working closely with the farming industry and the welfare organisations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire kindly highlighted the fact that I had attended a summit meeting bringing both sides together to try to find a way forward to boost our domestic veal production. I recommend all hon. Members who are not vegetarian to buy British veal, support it and encourage other people to buy it, because one of the big problems that we have here is that we simply do not have a strong veal market. I will go away and write to my hon. Friend in detail about some of the ideas that he has proposed in his paper.

On the question of market price, because there is not a strong consumer demand for veal in this country, there are much higher prices to be gained on the continent, where consumers eat veal in greater quantities. Before the live export, particularly of male dairy calves, resumed, many of those calves were simply shot because of their low value, but we are working hard to try to address the problem.

I am extremely concerned to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Dover says about the particular incident in Dover today. I have tried to get some information on that during the debate and I understand that there was an incident with consignments of calves for export that suffered considerable delay. Our staff at Dover docks ensured that the animals had water and they made the best possible arrangements for the calves to reach a place where they could rest, but I have to say that the transporters should have had contingency plans for such an event, and our officials will investigate the incident closely.

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Gwyn Prosser: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that assurance. Since my intervention, a further note has been passed to me that says that a second consignment of 1,800 calves has been on the quayside for 15 hours. Another four or five hours’ journey time is expected, with five hours beyond that, so it will be more than 24 hours’ journey time in total. That report is from KALE—Kent Against Live Exports—of which I am proud to be a member. Its observers say that the animals have not been properly watered or fed and that they are clearly in distress—they are howling and crying.

Mr. Bradshaw: I will investigate that as a matter of urgency and get back to my hon. Friend after the debate.

On the issue of broiler chickens, negotiation is, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, going on in the EU to introduce the directive, which is long overdue in my view. The UK is among the countries committed to a maximum stocking density and we will continue to push for that. This comes back to what I said earlier. EU enlargement has been very good for the UK in many ways, but on animal welfare it is making it more difficult for welfare-minded countries, such as the UK, Sweden and Germany, to win the arguments in the EU. One reason the animal transport directive was, in the end, not as good as we would have liked was the accession countries voting with the Mediterranean countries, which traditionally do not have such strong concerns for animal welfare. We must redouble our efforts in this country, across parties and with animal welfare organisations and their international partners, to make the case for animal welfare in Europe so that we win back that majority on the Council, otherwise we will face real problems.

David Taylor: Does the Minister accept that labelling is an issue? Ninety-four per cent. of unprocessed meat in British supermarkets has country-of-origin information clearly attached to it; only 19 per cent. of processed meat has such information. The National Pig Association argues that low-welfare foreign produce is often passed off as high-welfare British pork. That cannot be allowed to happen without damaging its members and damaging the welfare of pigs, can it?

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Mr. Bradshaw: No. I agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that the UK pushed for strongly, which we are pleased has been agreed, is animal welfare labelling as part of the EU animal welfare action plan. That is work in progress and we will continue to push for it to happen as soon as possible.

Let me deal briefly with specific points raised by hon. Members. Ventilation shutdown has been comprehensively debated in the House. We have argued before that we took the view that we needed every tool in our armoury to tackle avian flu. Ventilation shutdown would be used only as a last resort. There are other, preferable culling methods that we would use, but there could be circumstances in which it was better for the welfare of birds infected with the disease for them to be killed quickly than to let them die slowly from a very nasty and painful disease.

ERDP funding is a matter for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), but I will ask him to write to the hon. Member for Leominster with the details of the projects that he requested. However, one consequence of devolution is that different decisions will be made on funding details in England, Wales and Scotland.

Greyhounds have been comprehensively debated in the House in proceedings on the Animal Welfare Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) that the reports over the summer were particularly shocking. They are being investigated and a court case may be pending, so we have to be careful about what we say on that, but I have summoned the greyhound authorities to come and meet me to talk about what they will do to deal with the issues raised by that case.

As I said earlier, it is no good for our animals, or indeed the world’s animals, if the UK acts unilaterally. I am asking our chief vet to consider how we can engage better on a European and international basis to increase welfare standards across the world, so that we can carry on improving our welfare standards without jeopardising the livelihoods of our producers.

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Couples Living Together

4 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I believe that this is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate this subject with the Minister of State, and I look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas on this topic with her and other hon. Members.

I begin by telling a story about a woman whom I met at a roving surgery in my constituency in August. She was homeless, and she and her 14-year-old daughter were sleeping on sofas facing each other in their friend’s one-bedroomed flat on an estate. The woman’s long-term relationship had recently broken down. She had lived with her partner for 14 or 15 years, brought up their child and contributed to all the household bills, but when the relationship broke down she was entitled to nothing, and her partner forced her to move out of the family home. She is unlikely to be entitled to a share of their home unless she can prove to a court that there was a common intention of joint ownership, either by agreement or through financial contributions to the property itself. When they moved out of the home, her daughter had to change schools at a critical time, just as she was about to start her GCSEs.

My constituent’s case shows, on a human level, the dangers that couples face when cohabiting relationships break down. Because she was not married, the courts do not have the power to consider what might be a fair outcome, so she is effectively left destitute. Sadly, she is not alone. The statistics show that substantial and increasing numbers of people choose to live together. Between 1996 and 2004, the number of cohabiting couples with children increased by more than 50 per cent. to 2.2 million. The proportion of unmarried women who cohabited with a partner trebled between 1979 and 2002. Today, one in three babies is born outside marriage, compared with one in 20 in 1963. Those statistics show the huge social changes in our society.

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber recognises that people choose to marry or cohabit for various reasons, but most couples have no idea that there is no such thing as a common law marriage. It is not surprising that people who are not lawyers do not know anything about the law. Fortunately, most of us do not have much to do with the law. A recent survey showed that more than half of British people believe that couples who live together for a certain amount of time acquire the same legal rights as married couples. Despite the fact that common law marriage was abolished in 1753, the idea that it exists is still prevalent.

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