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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Joe Benton
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Challen, Colin (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
Clarke, Mr. Charles (Norwich, South) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)
Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Jones, Lynne (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield, North) (Lab)
Shaw, Jonathan ( Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs )
Smith, Mr. Andrew (Oxford, East) (Lab)
Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Mike Clark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 12 May 2008

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw):
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008.
I am pleased to speak to the Committee about the regulations, which make important and necessary changes to the original Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007. The 2007 regulations provide exemptions from the general provision in section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 that all mutilation of animals, other than for medical treatment, is prohibited. By mutilation, I mean the
“carrying out of a procedure which involves interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structure of the animal.”
The rationale behind the original regulations was to permit procedures that benefit an animal's long-term welfare or management. We consulted stakeholders widely as to any procedures that should or should not be allowed. When the regulations came into force, we believed that in most cases the status quo in common practice had been replicated when a procedure was felt to have long-term welfare or management benefits. However, after the 2007 regulations came into force, we were made aware of certain procedures that were common practice before the 2006 Act and the 2007 regulations came into force, but which were not highlighted by the relevant sectors during the original consultation.
After consideration of the welfare costs and benefits of the procedures, it was judged that they had long-term welfare or management benefits for the animals involved and that they should, therefore, be added to the list of permitted procedures. It is to that end that we are amending the regulations. Although it is regrettable that the relevant stakeholders did not put those procedures forward during consultation on the 2007 regulations, it was always anticipated that the list of permitted procedures would be added to or reduced with changes in current practice and with new technology.
Some other minor drafting changes have been made to the 2007 regulations, particularly to ensure that the regulations are in line with the requirements of EU directives relating to pigs and laying hens. These changes are not intended to affect current farming practices, which we understand comply with EU requirements. The amending regulations will have a number of beneficial effects on animal welfare and conservation. They will allow certain artificial insemination techniques to be used in sheep and goats. That will enable continued genetic improvement of the sheep and goat breeding stock in England, and provide an animal welfare benefit in that, for example, it facilitates improvements in resistance to scrapie in sheep and goat flocks.
The regulations will allow the wing and web tagging of birds to be used for conservation and research purposes. Wing tagging is often used by conservationists to identify wild birds in reintroduction programmes, as the monitoring of populations is extremely important in conservation efforts. For example, wing tags were used with great success during the reintroduction of the red kite. However, that policy intention cannot be implemented solely through these regulations because to allow non-veterinarian conservationists to carry out wing and web tagging requires an exemption order under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. That exemption order is being prepared and is expected to come into force in autumn 2008. We have informally consulted officials at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and it seems that the change to the Act will be uncontroversial. The regulations are therefore the first stage of a two-stage process of working towards the full implementation of our policy intention to allow conservationists to wing and web tag birds for conservation purposes.
The regulations will allow poultry and duck breeders to tag birds that are involved in breed improvement programmes. The wing and web tagging of poultry, and the neck tagging and web notching of ducklings, are considered to be the most welfare-friendly forms of identification for such birds. Breeding birds need to be identified by breeding line immediately after hatching. Other forms of identification, such as leg rings, require birds to be handled regularly and therefore cause them more stress, as well as possibly restricting the growth of hatchlings’ legs.
The new permitted procedures have conditions attached to them to safeguard animal welfare. Those conditions include the purposes for which procedures may be performed, whether an anaesthetic is needed and the maximum age at which procedures may be performed. It should be noted that the regulations already require the permitted procedures to be carried out in hygienic conditions, in accordance with good practice and in such a way as to minimise pain and suffering.
4.36 pm
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): May I start by saying how nice it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton?
We all want to see the highest welfare standards maintained and pain and suffering kept to an absolute minimum. That is why it is important that the Government get these regulations, and others that should be forthcoming under the Animal Welfare Act, correct. Although I support the regulations and the procedures that they permit, which are important for bird conservation, farming and breeding, it would be helpful if the Minister could address a number of points relating to the regulations and the broader context. He is usually very helpful, but if he cannot answer all my questions, I would be grateful if he could drop me a note.
I note from the regulatory impact assessment that accompanies the regulations that the policy is to be reviewed in five years’ time. Does that mean that they will not be amended for a further five years? That matters because science and our understanding of animals move forward. If procedures have been missed out, it may be necessary to amend the regulations early, as is happening now. For instance, in the case of goats, the regulations permit embryo collection or transfer using “a surgical method”. However, there is evidence that non-surgical procedures can be used to collect healthy and viable goat embryos. Such procedures would not, therefore, require anaesthetics, tranquilisers and tissue adhesions, but the regulations do not appear to be flexible enough to incorporate such procedures as they develop. Nor do they take into account the need to cover other animals, such as camelids—llamas, guanacos and alpacas. Is the Minister looking at future amendments to the regulations to include provisions covering camelids, other animals or other mutilations?
The consultation document that was sent out in November 2007 stated:
“it is imperative to have the amended regulations in place by April; the time of the next sheep and goat breeding season and to allow the wing tagging of young birds for conservation purposes.”
Why were the regulations not presented to Parliament earlier so that they could be in place by April? Has the Minister made an estimate of the damage done by that delay? Furthermore, the procedures for sheep and goats of embryonic collection or transfer, laparoscopic insemination and ovum transplantation have been prohibited without exemption over the last year under section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act. What has been the cost to British agriculture of that prohibition?
I understand from the regulatory impact assessment that about 26,000 such procedures are carried out each year and that the cost of this ban to veterinary surgeons could be as much as £13 million. We must not forget that this profession is having difficulty with recruitment and retention and that there is a shortage of farm vets. When so much money is involved, should we not be a little surprised that this matter was not resolved last year? On top of the losses to veterinary surgeons, there are other potential losses caused by the impact on breeding programmes and the loss of revenue from the export of genetic material.
What was the cost of not having these exemptions in place over the last year? What damage has been done to British export markets in sheep and goat genetics? Will someone take responsibility for this apparent oversight? Given the importance of these procedures to farming and the possibility that farmers and vets may have been unaware that they were prohibited by the 2006 Act, is the Minister aware of any breaches of the law?
The regulatory impact assessment claims that the ban on wing and neck tagging and web notching could cause a 5 per cent. loss in the value of genetic improvements in the farm bird sector and a 0.1 per cent. reduction in the future population of affected wild bird species. Is the Minister aware that any species have been affected by that over the last year, such as the red kite or hen harrier? When did the need to amend the regulations come to his attention? Will he outline the science behind the decision to permit the wing tagging of farmed birds? The RSPCA has concerns over the use of wing tagging in farmed birds and has stated that the welfare benefits of wing tagging over other methods of identification are as yet unclear. Is the Minister satisfied with the available science or does he think that more research is needed?
The regulatory impact assessment states and we were continually informed in debates during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act, that the legislation—including the section on mutilations—would be enforced through “a common enforcer”. In most circumstances, that would mean the RSPCA. How does the Minister envisage these regulations being enforced? How will a common enforcer be able to prove whether an ovum transplant has occurred in accordance with the regulations? How will they prove that the neck tagging or web notching of a bird took place after the regulations were passed and not over the last year when it has been illegal?
On cross-border issues, can the Minister confirm whether the devolved Administrations are also making these changes or whether they already have them in place? A number of cross-border farms may be affected and there would be a degree of legal uncertainty and ambiguity for farmers who are stuck in the middle of the two different regulatory regimes. For example, there are over 300 farms on the Welsh border.
Jonathan Shaw: I think we know that.
Bill Wiggin: I remind the Minister at every opportunity because many of those farms are in my constituency.
During the passage of the Animal Welfare Act, hon. Members were given assurances by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) that secondary legislation would be forthcoming. So far, we have had only the secondary legislation that relates to tail docking, farmed animals and mutilations. Sixty MPs have signed early-day motion 31, which calls on the Government to bring the secondary legislation forward. We know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is having problems pressing forward with the secondary legislation under the 2006 Act, but will the Minister tell us what is the current provisional timetable?
We were promised dog and cat codes, action on greyhounds and regulations on wild animals in circuses this year, among other measures. Last November in a written answer, the Minister informed me that the codes for cats, dogs, primates and game bird rearing were due in 2009. By January, that had moved to some point in the next three years. Now the DEFRA website states that the timetable for introducing secondary legislation is under review. There is no indication of when it will be forthcoming. If the few regulations that have been passed need continually to be updated and amended, like these, there is little chance of the Minister and DEFRA making much progress with implementing all the proposed secondary legislation by the end of this Parliament.
Can the Minister confirm whether it is still the Government’s intention for the maximum prison sentence that can be imposed for breaching these regulations and for acts of animal cruelty to increase from six months to 51 weeks? During the passage of the Animal Welfare Act, we were promised that the maximum sentence would increase. A press release issued by DEFRA when the Act came into force last April stated that, under the Act, offenders can be
“sent to prison for a maximum of 51 weeks.”
However, in a written answer to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), the Minister said that the maximum term of imprisonment was six months and that he was
“satisfied that these sentences are proportionate and in line with those provided for in comparable legislation.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 113W.]
Opposition Members pushed for the maximum prison sentence for acts of cruelty, including mutilations not exempted in regulations, to increase from six months to five years. It would be very disappointing and would undermine the Government’s animal welfare credentials if the Minister could not inform us when the 51-week maximum prison sentence will be available.
4.46 pm
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Benton, although it does have a touch of Groundhog day about it, because here we all were not much more than a year ago with the same Opposition spokesmen, the same regulations, a different Minister and a slightly different list of animals and gory mutilations. We have had to revisit the regulations much earlier than we intended.
Broadly speaking, we believe, like the hon. Member for Leominster, that many of these measures are important conservation techniques and management techniques for animals. A more comprehensive list than was included in the previous regulations must be welcome, but it raises an important question. Why did we not get the regulations right first time? There have been consequences, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. There is the income loss to the veterinary profession. There has presumably been quite considerable disruption to the management of the animals now being included in the exemptions. In addition, there may have been delays, through attention having been diverted back to these regulations, to the implementation of important secondary legislation on, for instance, circus animals. I, too, would like to know when that secondary legislation is likely to come forward.
The obvious other reason why we did not get the regulations right first time was the short consultation period, which was about eight weeks rather than the usual 12 weeks. Apparently, as was also mentioned, that was because of the short time between the passing of the Act in November 2006 and the need to bring the regulations into force with the Act by common commencement in April 2007. The consultation on the regulations before us has been summarised by DEFRA, which raises a question about why it did not get the original regulations right. DEFRA’s executive summary states:
“Since the 2007 Regulations came into force it has become apparent that there has been two oversights. Firstly, a number of procedures for the control of reproduction were allowed only for cattle. We are now aware that similar procedures are also used for sheep and goats.”
It is rather extraordinary that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has become aware only during this part of the process that techniques on which it was passing legislation were in use.
Secondly, on the wing tagging of birds, DEFRA claims that the issues
“were not flagged up by stakeholders during the consultation for the 2007 Regulations.”
To put it bluntly, DEFRA seems to be blaming the consultees. That in turn leads to another question about the regulations before us. Will it also be the consultee’s fault if the amended regulations are also inadequate? It is rather surprising—even at this late stage—that one major consultee, the National Farmers Union, is still unclear about the answers to some important questions about the regulations. It raises two issues that I would draw attention to. The first issue—mentioned by the hon. Member for Leominster—is why the exemptions on embryo collection or transfer and laparoscopic insemination should be limited to sheep and goats. Why is that the case? It seems sensible that if those are accepted as straightforward management techniques in the care of animals, they should not be so species specific. Do we not risk making the same mistake as last year?
Secondly—also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—ovum transplantation, and embryo collection or transfer are specified as being by surgical method. The NFU supports the hon. Gentleman’s point, and says that Pereira et al in the Journal of Animal Science in 1998
“describe a technique which allows the successful non-surgical collection of viable and healthy goat embryos which negated the need for tranquilization or anaesthesia and therefore reduced stress to the animal and long term physiological conditions such as the formation of tissue adhesions.”
In other words, making the regulations slightly less prescriptive might be a concrete aid to animal welfare. So perhaps the Minister could now tell us whether the kind of techniques described in the Journal of Animal Science and referred to in the National Farmers Union’s brief—of which I assume the Department is aware—would count as mutilation under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and therefore be covered by the Act and risk being banned as well.
I sincerely hope that this time the Government have got the consultation right, before the regulations have been introduced, and that concerns such as those of the RSPCA about tagging techniques have been satisfied. I would also, along with the hon. Member for Leominster, welcome clarification on that, otherwise I fear that we may all be back again next year.
4.52 pm
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Thank you Mr. Benton. It is a great pleasure to be here with you again. I am not a farmer’s boy but I am a product of the boot and shoe trade and am a country boy. I know of the great care that farmers and country people generally take of their animals and how important that care is to them. However, I am concerned about regulation 5(2), under which an animal—particularly a pig—aged not more than seven days may have its tail docked or be castrated
“by a person experienced in performing the technique involved and who is either a person responsible for the animal or a person employed or engaged by such a person to attend to the animal.”
That seems to assume that they will be experienced as a matter of course from day one. I wonder how the Minister feels that somebody becomes experienced, and whether there is a concern here about the description in the Act. What degree of experience does a person require before he or she becomes qualified to carry out that function?
4.54 pm
Jonathan Shaw: I thank hon. Members for their questions. The point made by the hon. Members for Leominster and for Cheltenham as to why we were consulting again is fair. I thought that I had said reasonably in my opening statement that we issued the consultation in good faith. As a Department we obviously discussed the matters regularly with different industry and conservation groups. We said at the time that if there were areas that had fallen outside of the regulations we would need to look at those gaps. That is why we have come back as swiftly as possible to amend these regulations. The industry and conservationists brought those matters to our attention so we can avoid any unnecessary costs. The Opposition were right to raise them.
I shall deal with the final issue raised by the hon. Member for Northampton, South while it is in my mind. Regulation 5 refers to the tail docking of pigs, and he was right to highlight it. There is no change in policy in relation to this regulation, which concerns drafting. The hon. Member for Leominster will remember our discussion in this Committee Room about the regulation for the various codes for animal welfare of farmed animals. Anyone with the relevant responsibility must follow certain codes that we have put in place.
The hon. Member for Leominster was right to highlight tail docking, which dominated the debate. Many hon. Members will remember it, because we were all lobbied quite fiercely by animal welfare non-governmental organisations. There was a consultation; there were areas that were not brought to our attention; and we have sought to change that.
Bill Wiggin: The Opposition’s point was that it may be necessary to come back again. If the Minister feels that technology has moved on, will he bring back the regulations?
Jonathan Shaw: Where technology moves on, we are all comfortable in bringing back regulations that provide better safeguards for animal welfare and reduce suffering by using techniques that promote welfare and conservation. We should always look at that, and we will never be reluctant to do so. Obviously, the best way to go about that is in partnership with the various industries, because this is not a Government against industry situation. There is consensus among the British public that we should promote animal welfare, irrespective of whether that involves farmed or wild animals.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman about camelids. He also mentioned poultry and duck breeders and said that there were questions about the use of tags rather than rings. As I said in my speech, we believe that tagging is better, because leg rings often cause more stress to the birds—they can restrict the growth of hatchling’s legs. The welfare test in these circumstances is that it is best to use tagging.
Bill Wiggin: My question focused more on wing tags for birds of prey rather than an alternative to leg tagging. If a leg tag were left on a duck or chicken and that leg were restricted it would be a breach of the Animal Welfare Act. One cannot tag animals without being able to do the handling. My question centred on the casualty rate from wing tagging.
Jonathan Shaw: I cannot provide the hon. Gentleman with the casualty rate, but we know that there has been a successful red kite reintroduction programme, which we all welcome. Certainly, the conservationists have advised us that tagging is a necessary part of that programme, particularly for identification of specific birds in specific locations. That is the advice, and we hope that those conservation programmes continue to move forward and be successful.
On the further amendments to the regulations, an amendment is likely to be needed to implement the meat chickens directive by June 2010 to ensure that procedures banned under the directive are also banned under these regulations. Our understanding, which is to be confirmed, is that those procedures are not practised by the industry anyway, but nevertheless, in certain circumstances, it is a case of belt and braces. We do not want to have a situation in which the good husbandry and good animal welfare regulations carried out by the vast majority of the industry are undermined by poor practice.
I was asked why DEFRA did not include the procedures on the list of permitted procedures in 2007. As I have said, during the original consultation stakeholders did not alert them to us. In response to the hon. Member for Cheltenham, I hope that I have made it clear that we have an ongoing relationship with stakeholders, and so clearly those issues slipped through the net. If he wants to point the finger of blame at the Department, it is a matter for him, but I can genuinely say to him that the procedures were not brought to our attention.
The hon. Gentleman was right to raise the issue of future priorities. The message is that there is an ongoing commitment to improved animal welfare, and we have a very good track record on improving animal welfare. We introduced the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the first Act of its type for many decades. So we have been committed, but obviously we have resources that we must consider, and we must look at priorities. That will mean that certain work may not be delivered in this financial year, but the priorities will be kept under review. The intention is that that work will meet the commitments to reform and update animal law that were made by Parliament during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Those commitments will be met, although we are not in a position to provide the detailed timetable for this year. Work is being done to agree a timetable.
Like all hon. Members, I would like to see every aspect of the 2006 Act implemented. However, like all hon. Members, I understand that we have to act within certain resources—
Martin Horwood rose—
Jonathan Shaw: Apart from the Liberal Democrats, for whom money is no object.
Martin Horwood: I asked the Minister two specific questions, which were raised by the NFU. The first concerned embryo collection or transfer by “surgical method”. I asked whether the phrase “surgical method” is necessary and whether it implies that non-surgical techniques would still be banned. Secondly, I asked about the exemption whether it is necessary to limit the provision to sheep and goats, or whether that, in turn, risks us making the same point again.
I would like answers to those questions. They were raised by the NFU during the consultation on the regulations, and although the Minister has rather excused the previous lapse by saying that the matter was not raised in the consultation, it is the responsibility of a Department that employs thousands of people and many experts to do its homework before introducing regulations.
Jonathan Shaw: It just so happens that I am coming to that point. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that non-surgical methods of artificial insemination—embryo or ovary-only collection—are not a mutilation and therefore do not come under the 2006 Act.
On prison sentencing, which is another important issue that the hon. Member for Leominster raised, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides for a maximum sentence to be the 51 weeks to which he has referred, but that will not take effect until the relevant section of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 commences. When that comes in, the sentence will be 51 weeks rather than the shorter sentence at the moment.
Bill Wiggin: That was also my understanding. The key question for the Minister is when that section of the 2003 Act will come into effect. After all, it has been on the statute book for a long time, and anyone who has read any of the animal cruelty cases, such as that involving the horses at Amersham, will be as concerned as I am sure that the Minister is that the power is available to the judiciary to put people who are cruel to animals in prison for a long time.
Jonathan Shaw: That is a second letter that I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall ensure that the Committee also receives a copy, because the matter is important.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 was the most significant piece of legislation for nearly 100 years. It better ensures animal welfare by banning all mutilations unless they are specifically permitted.
Martin Horwood: I do not want to test the Minister’s patience, but he seems to be drawing to a close. I want to press him a third time on the exemptions on ovum transplantation and other techniques being limited to sheep and goats. Given that those are acceptable management techniques, why do they need to be restricted to those species?
Jonathan Shaw: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear the hon. Member for Leominster ask me about camelids, and I thought that I was answering that wider point when I said that I would provide confirmation in writing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will gain some comfort from the fact that he will know soon.
The mutilations regulations do the important job of permitting certain mutilations that offer animal welfare, management or conservation benefits. We believe that the mutilations listed in these amending regulations will have a positive effect on animal welfare, management and conservation.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008.
Committee rose at seven minutes past Five o’clock.

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