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Standing Committee Debates

Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) (Lab)
Morley, Mr. Elliot (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 29 June 2006

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006

8.55 am
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006 (S.I., 2006, No. 1200).
The Opposition, being respectful of animal welfare, object to the changes in the slaughter of birds as detailed in the regulations. Not only are they draconian but they touch on the realm of barbarism and inhumanity. Moreover, they are inconsistent with the modern-day and progressive animal welfare laws that hon. Members on both sides of the House of Commons have been promoting in recent years. They do nothing to enhance the credibility of England as a world leader in animal welfare.
This year, we will be passing the innovative Animal Welfare Bill into law. Back in April, we had a productive discussion on a European directive on the protection of chickens kept for meat production. With all these careful, well-thought-out, science-based and consensual measures either being introduced or developed further, it is such a shame that this divisive amendment will be not only a step in the wrong direction but a giant leap backwards. Many hon. Members on Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches have fought hard through parliamentary questions and early-day motions and in various committees to improve animal welfare legislation. To permit this amendment to pass into legislation through the back door would constitute a real failure in parliamentary democracy.
No one disputes that there are, regrettably, occasions when we need to slaughter animals for the purpose of disease control. What are, however, in dispute are the methods used to kill in these circumstances and the details of such circumstances. Following the introduction of the regulations, not only did my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) table the early-day motion which led to this debate but the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), a Labour Member, tabled an early-day motion urging the Government not to use ventilation shutdown. Further opposition to these changes has also been provoked. Both the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has argued that VSD is illegal under Council Directive 93/11/EC, and Compassion in World Farming are opposed to it.
Criticisms of the VSD method on welfare grounds are well founded, and hon. Members should take note. The process of removing oxygen supply from, for example, a broiler shed where tens of thousands of chickens could be present would be seen by most of the general public as inappropriate, barbaric and inhumane. I am sure that all hon. Members would have great difficulty justifying to their constituents—which they will have to do—giving powers to Ministers to suffocate tens of thousands of birds.
Suffocation, while cooking birds alive, will cause distress and misery for thousands of birds for periods of potentially more than a day. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), has admitted that VSD is unlikely to deliver welfare standards equal to other recognised culling methods.
Previous amendments to the Animal Welfare (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 have reduced the suffering of birds due for slaughter or killing. For instance, the time for which poultry may be suspended before entering a waterbath stunner has been reduced. Hon. Members will be aware that this amendment will have the opposite effect and set a bad precedent for animal welfare. At a time when we are striving to reduce cruelty and animal stress, VSD brings back memories of the appalling suffering and cruelty of burying birds alive. I think we were all shocked when we saw the images from Turkey of birds being buried alive and from Nigeria, where individual birds were suffocated with polythene bags. Similarly cruel practices would not be welcome on British shores.
Those who, like me, have poultry farms in their constituency, will no doubt be disturbed to see birds being killed in this manner in their locality. Those who will not be affected directly in their constituency will no doubt find their mailbags full of mail from all the animal welfare groups that are unanimously opposed to VSD.
The Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations have yet to propose VSD and, as it is not a method recognised for disease control by the OIE—the world animal health organisation—of which the UK is a member, questions have to be asked about its legality. The OIE guidelines for the killing of animals for disease control purposes state:
“When animals are killed for disease control purposes, methods used should result in immediate death or immediate loss of consciousness lasting until death; when loss of consciousness is not immediate, induction of unconsciousness should be non-aversive and should not cause anxiety, pain, distress or suffering in the animals.”
They continue:
“In designing a killing plan, it is essential that the method chosen be consistently reliable to ensure that all animals are humanely and quickly killed.”
Further legal questions need to be answered when we view these measures in the context of Council directive 93/119/EC, which does not authorise killing methods that cause a protracted death or considerable suffering. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, most birds being killed by VSD are likely to perish through hyperthermia, or being cooked alive, or suffocation. I am therefore not convinced that VSD fits in with these guidelines, as suffocation and hyperthermia are not quick or humane ways to die. Whereas gassing and poisoning are deemed acceptable, VSD is not.
As the amendment has been rushed and not thoroughly consulted on, concerns have been arising regarding its application. It was issued over a bank holiday weekend, stakeholders were not consulted and it therefore appears to be a response to the bird flu outbreak in Norfolk. There was no accompanying written ministerial statement, so I think the Minister needs to justify why this matter has not been looked at and consulted on in more detail in recent months and why it is being introduced through the back door.
Although we have been assured that these measures will be used only in exceptional circumstances and with the written authority of the Secretary of State, these exceptional circumstances have not been explained or specified. Paragraph 3.3 of the explanatory memorandum leads us to believe that the prevalence of avian influenza with reference to the outbreak in Norfolk has led to the legalisation of VSD as a method of disease control. Why then are the regulations not written specifically for the purpose of avian influenza control and why is there not a distinction between highly pathogenic and low pathogenic diseases and viruses? Moreover, at what point is an outbreak classed as an “exceptional circumstance” in which VSD is to be used “as a last resort”, and does a shortage of poisonous gases count? Also, we do not know whether food and water will be withdrawn during VSD. The Minister needs to explain to us how this killing method will prevent the spread of the H5NI virus through bird faeces.
In addition, this debate gives us the opportunity to ask the Minister how well planned England is for an outbreak of bird flu. Surely if we had enough resources for more humane killing techniques, such as poisonous gases, the Department would not even have to consider this most cruel of killing methods. I hope that he can update us on that.
We also need to know about the associated risks to human health for poultry workers. Should there be an outbreak, they would all require treatment. Following on from the foot-and-mouth disease killings and the mounting bovine TB crisis, there is little trust in DEFRA’s abilities to carry out effective disease control, and faith in Government safeguards has been severely diminished. How can we be sure that these powers will not be used recklessly?
Eight hundred and fifty million chickens are reared for meat production. In the event of an avian influenza outbreak, I would like to think that the chickens that have to be killed would be killed efficiently and humanely and without VSD. At the moment, there are too many unanswered questions, too many doubts and too much inhumanity in the regulations for them to be worthy of parliamentary approval.
I urge Labour Members to save the Minister from these regulations. I hope that his heart is not genuinely in the proposals. There are by-elections to attend to, there are other reasons to absent oneself and there are still other ways of avoiding these regulations becoming law. I suggest that as we are not in the middle of an outbreak now, the need for urgency is somewhat abated and that, with our help, the Minister can withdraw to reconsider why his Department is planning for a total failure of all his contingency plans. We could then return with a well-thought-out and helpful scheme that will protect poultry workers while allowing us to continue to set the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. Our poultry sector is a great one. We can and should be proud of it, and prevent it from becoming a focus of such inhumane practices.
9.6 am
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew, but not quite such a pleasure to debate an issue that to my thinking, and that of many other hon. Members, is a step back in terms of animal welfare.
I, too, question why this statutory instrument is being rushed through at this stage without the full consultation with the industry, which would have been helpful. The people who keep animals and those who are responsible for introducing legislation on animal welfare have a duty to ensure that the animals enjoy the highest standards, not only during their lifetime but when it comes to their death. Some animals are slaughtered for food production, some for their own good and some, as in the case we are discussing, so that a disease is not communicated to other animals, domestic and wild.
The question is how the animals should be killed. We have not heard from the Minister yet, but I understand that the case he will be making is that the proposed system will be used only in the most exceptional circumstances. Some of the reasons put forward—for example, the lack of suitable poisonous gases or the lack of labour—certainly would not be available in usual circumstances for a chicken farmer or someone else responsible for animals. The Minister therefore has to plead exceptional circumstances. If the circumstances are indeed exceptional—that is, they occur only on a very limited number of occasions—surely we should ensure that the resources exist and are available so that this form of slaughter is not necessary and is not practised. Certainly, most of the animal welfare bodies are very concerned about the proposals and that the powers are being made available to the Secretary of State, although I understand that they will be used only with his specific permission.
As a method of causing death, closing off ventilation has a profound effect on the environment in which chickens are reared. If, for instance, ventilation is accidentally closed down because of, say, a power failure, chickens suffer very quickly. Although we do not want to dwell on this manner of death, it is not one that is acceptable to many hon. Members.
First, we must consider the increase in heat. Ventilation ensures that the temperature is kept at a level which is suitable for chickens. When the ventilation is shut down, the temperature rises very quickly in the premises. Secondly, there is an increase in the carbon dioxide in the building and in the bodies of the animals. A reflex applies to respiration so that when carbon dioxide levels build up in the blood of an animal their respiration rate increases as well. We have a picture of animals getting hotter and hotter, unable to control their body temperature because the external temperature is rising quickly, and at the same time their respiration rate is increased.
All the advice that we have is that when chickens are going to be slaughtered, carbon dioxide is not acceptable as an agent because of its harmful effects on the welfare of those chickens. The recommended gases are the inert gases, such as nitrogen or one of the rare gases. Without detaining the Committee for too long, and having given the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) time to get his respiration back in order, I want to reflect on the unease felt about the practice in the House of Commons, in the industry and among the general public. It does not do the Minister any honour to be associated with it. He has a reputation for looking after animal welfare issues, as have many. Members present from all parties.
I ask that hon. Members carefully consider the regulations and listen to what the Minister has to say. The question is whether the circumstances are acceptable enough to betray the animals for which we are responsible and to take Britain back one step in terms of animal welfare.
9.12 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I hope to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and perhaps to explain some of the background that led the Government to feel that it was necessary to take such a step and have this extra tool available in exceptional circumstances. In my view, not only the welfare of the birds but the danger of disease spreading to infect more birds, negatively affecting bird welfare, would be worse if this tool was not available.
Every member of the Committee accepts that avian flu is a serious disease that poses a serious threat to our poultry industry and potentially also to human health, and that the best and most effective way to tackle avian flu is to identify the virus quickly and to eradicate it by slaughtering the birds on infected premises as quickly as we possibly can. As the hon. Member for Leominster mentioned, we have a number of methods available to do that under the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, otherwise known as WASK. Most of those methods require hand catching of birds. That can be a slow process and could seriously limit the rate at which killing could take place. More importantly, it places the personnel involved in extremely close contact with birds and, in the case of highly pathogenic strains, that should be reduced as much as possible.
The use of containerised gassing units has become our main technique for dealing with medium to high volumes of birds. That was the method we used successfully in the recent Norfolk outbreak. Following work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the university of Bristol, the state veterinary service has now acquired 50 of those units, which provide us with enough capacity to deal with 1 million birds a day. More than 60 veterinary and technical officers have been trained in their use.
One of the other methods available to us is whole-house gassing, which has been effectively used in other countries. It involves the introduction of gas with anaesthetic properties, such as carbon dioxide, into sealed poultry houses to kill large numbers of birds humanely. We are still doing further work on that and how we can best use it, although the SVS is in a position to deploy whole-house gassing operationally were the need to arise. However, whole-house gassing is not appropriate or practical in all circumstances. There are some types of poultry houses and laying houses in which layers are on different levels, or houses that have deep litter, for example, where whole-house gassing might not be effective.
So, I now come to the method that has provoked this debate: ventilation shutdown. If there is advice that a serious threat to public health exists, if our resources are stretched beyond capacity as a result of multiple outbreaks or if insufficient catchers are available to catch birds, this method can be justified. Let me say a bit about the recent case in Norfolk, which is the most densely populated poultry region in the UK. Although we never considered ventilation shutdown as an option in those cases, an issue arose to do with securing sufficient poultry catchers quickly to deal with the catching and slaughter that needed to take place.
In fact—I do not think that this is in the public domain yet—slaughter on the infected premises was delayed by 24 hours because of unforeseen difficulties in locating and assembling the catching teams to do the work. Ministers at that time decided that it was intolerable that we could not carry out the necessary slaughter to prevent further disease spread from the premises and to reduce the possible risk to poultry workers and those involved in the slaughter.
In the light of those events, we felt that it was important to get the power as quickly as we could, because we did not know at that time whether the disease would spread. Thankfully, we successfully contained and eradicated it.
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