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Tim Farron: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We must take action and consider the role of the supermarkets and the all-powerful purchasers in the market. The drive for larger profit margins leads to increased pressure for reduced costs, which affects livestock farmers of all varieties, not just those in the poultry sector. The poorer welfare standards that result from that drive for lower costs, which often leads to sourcing from overseas, is the key.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), supermarkets take advantage of the lack of clarity in labelling to exploit ethical demand without actually improving ethical standards. The position of the consumer is all important, but let us not understate the power of supermarkets in delivering what I hope that all of us in the House want achieved. It is clear that consumer pressure for better welfare standards and premium-priced eggs and poultry meat is growing and that they want to buy free range. Interestingly, recent research has shown that consumers were about five times more interested in animal welfare standards in the production of food products than about the impact on climate change. I make no editorial comment about that—it is just an observation.

The top end of the market is a minority one, not least because, unlike the average television chef, most people whom I represent are on a budget and cannot afford to purchase at the premium end of the market—or at least not often. We must ensure that the debate on animal welfare in food production does not become the preserve of the chattering classes. If we focus simply on the premium end, we risk ignoring the 98 per cent. of poultry meat and 68 per cent. of eggs in this country that are not free range, but which often are, and certainly can be, produced decently and humanely.

The RSPCA is absolutely right to concentrate on the animal welfare standards employed in commercial farming, rather than on specific systems, and to develop the concept of freedom foods, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. It should be applauded for taking action that will help the vast majority of animals, not just those reared at the top end of the market. It is also right to press farmers to convert buildings to higher welfare standards.

Let me make a couple of brief political points. In light of that situation, the Government might like to reconsider their decision to abolish agricultural buildings tax relief, which will surely discourage farmers from developing buildings to meet the higher standards for which hon. Members have called. They might also wish to reconsider their excessive implementation of the nitrate vulnerable zones directive, which will add significantly to the costs to the poultry industry and put investment in facilities for higher welfare standards beyond their reach.

The movement towards higher welfare standards is led by the consumer. To that end, honest labelling is vital to ensure that we can make informed choices. Many shoppers trust British produce simply because it is British and they know that our animal standards are the highest in the world. It is an outrage that meat products from countries with worse welfare standards need only be moderately transformed or processed to qualify for the misleading label of “British produce”. In seeking to assist consumers to make the ethical choices that we increasingly want to make, it is crucial that the
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Government ensure honesty and clarity in labelling, and that high standards are maintained throughout the poultry sector—not just in an elite niche beyond the affordability of the majority.

10.20 am

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Thank you for allowing me to speak in today’s debate, Mr. Atkinson. I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who, unfortunately, cannot be present to speak on behalf of the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team. DEFRA is not my Department; I am a shadow Home Affairs spokesman. However, I focus on animal welfare in my job, so I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which gives us an important opportunity to discuss free-range issues combined with animal welfare. I shall make a number of observations on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Since the House last discussed the issue at length, several strides have been made on free-range and animal welfare issues. However, I am sure that Members of all parties will agree that there is still much to be done. One of my high priorities since becoming a Member has been to campaign for greater standards of animal welfare. Fortunately, in my role as shadow Home Affairs spokesman with responsibility for animal welfare issues, I have been able to meet many organisations that are engaged in the vital work of caring for an amazing variety of creatures great and small. I thank all those organisations for providing me with the information on which I shall base my comments.

The issue of free-range produce and the animal welfare associated with the industry has rightly been brought to the House’s attention on several occasions. Broiler chickens and egg-laying hens have received much media attention of late, and an update on the national situation and a thorough review of what the European Union is doing on the matter are long overdue. Consumer culture in recent years has shown increasing compassion towards livestock that is reared in humane conditions, which I certainly welcome. For the most part, it has impacted positively on animal welfare, particularly that of chickens, cattle and pigs in Britain.

According to the 2007 report by Compassion in World Farming, the biggest change in broiler meat among supermarkets involved a general shift towards better welfare, which we all welcome. Similar comparisons can be drawn with cattle and sheep, most of which are given some access to pasture, especially during the grazing season, and with pigs, with many supermarkets now refusing to sell pigmeat that has been farmed with the assistance of sow stalls and farrowing crates. They are certainly positive steps forward, and credit is due not only to supermarkets and the media’s celebrity coverage, but to British consumers, who have exercised their right to buy produce involving high standards of animal welfare.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out in a similar debate in October 2006 that this is in fact a pan-European issue. It is all well and good attempting to promote free-range produce and to raise standards of welfare in the United
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Kingdom, but without the co-operation of the European Union, we risk alienating our farmers and forcing them to spend more and to forfeit competitive costs as they rear livestock to our own high standards of welfare. Meanwhile, our European counterparts undercut prices with no regard for the animals involved. That has been a problem for several years, and inroads have been made only recently.

I welcome the EU agreement of May 2007, which provided strict regulation concerning chickens that are reared for meat production, allied with the threat of action against anyone breaking the rules. Concurrently, the decision by some of our supermarkets to ban the import of low-welfare white veal and to sell only the high-welfare rose variety means that farmers do not have to send calves abroad. In turn, the animals forgo exhausting and traumatic overseas transportation, while farmers have an incentive to produce high-quality but financially viable meat.

On free-range produce, another area in which improvements will be implemented concerns the 1999 EU directive on the welfare of laying hens. I am sure that hon. Members know that directive 88/166 sets out a ban on conventional battery hens from 31 December 2011. There is strong public feeling against that cruel practice and, once again, it must be tackled not only nationally, but Europe-wide. Concurrently, however, the replacement of the battery environment with enriched cages by 2012 does little to quell the moral questions that many consumers have about the industry. It is a sensitive issue, not least because of the conflicting arguments made by the RSPCA and the National Farmers Union about the cost of increasing space for birds. I understand the difficulty that the UK farming industry faces as it attempts to balance animal welfare concerns with the public’s demand for cheap food. However, I was disappointed, as I am sure that others will be, to learn that well over 50 per cent. of egg-laying hens in Great Britain are still of a battery variety, meaning that there has been no substantial reduction in their number since the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) spoke about the issue in 2006.

Industry figures that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) bought to light when speaking to a ten-minute Bill in 2003 showed that barn eggs cost only 8.5p a dozen more to produce, and that free-range eggs cost only 18.5p a dozen more to produce. Given that we consume about 180 eggs per person per year, that is a relatively small price to pay for ethical farming. In light of a reply to a parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I look forward to the European Commission’s report on the laying hens directive. It will be of great interest to not only myself, but—I am sure—a large majority of the public, who would like to know whether the UK will be prepared for the 2012 transition and whether it will offer protection to competitive British farming.

My final point relates to broiler chickens, which I mentioned earlier.

David Taylor: I might be intervening with regard to a point that the hon. Gentleman is about to make, but does he hope that the Minister will examine very closely the existing standards for broiler density? A
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sheet of A4 paper, which the RSPCA used to great effect in its weekend campaign, is the typical amount of space occupied by a 2 kg broiler chicken bred to slaughter weight. Some 100,000 of those chickens have been killed in the hour since this debate began—the numbers are 2.4 million a day, or 800 million a year. The standards are absolutely unacceptable, and if the broader British public were more fully aware of them, I am sure that they would press all politicians to raise standards much more quickly.

Andrew Rosindell: I certainly agree. The public are greatly concerned, but they have the power to purchase chickens that are bred differently. It is not only up to the Government and the European Union to examine the issue and to take necessary action that balances the needs of farmers and animal welfare standards. The public can vote with their feet and make their own decision about what they purchase and in which particular supermarket. I am sure that hon. Members know that broilers are selectively bred and reared for their meat, and that they weigh between 1.8 kg and 3 kg within just six weeks of hatching. That situation is horrendous when one considers that it would take five or six months for a chicken to reach that size naturally.

There are approximately 116 million broilers in the UK at any one time. According to a reply to a parliamentary question tabled last month by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), more than 679 million broiler chickens and hens were slaughtered in England and Wales in 2007. That is only a marginal decrease from the number in 2006, let alone 2003. We should be doing more.

The RSPCA’s 2004 report “Behind Closed Doors” was highly critical of the industry. It said:

The health and welfare of a bird correlates directly to the quality of the litter. Poor-quality litter can lead to painful, unhealthy and sometimes contagious conditions such as hock burn, breast blisters, skeletal disorders, lameness, heart failure, bacterial infections and bird flu, to name but a few.

Given that public concern for the welfare of such animals is at a high, I believe that the majority of consumers would be willing to pay a small cost increment to show their support for higher welfare and, in my opinion, to obtain better quality meat. It is commendable that the private sector has taken the initiative. The supermarkets have proved instrumental by stocking welfare chickens at reasonable prices, setting an example that the public sector can surely follow. We can only hope that with better EU co-operation we will see much higher standards domestically and internationally.

Britain has always proved to be a world leader in animal welfare and we should be no different in the matter of farm animal welfare. The steps that we have taken need to be furthered. Although the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 show our intent, our greatest difficulty still lies in raising European standards without alienating the British farming industry. At the risk of repeating myself, I should say that we need to liaise with our European neighbours on the matter and perhaps take more of a leading role, with the
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welfare of the industry, individual farmers and animals firmly in mind. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

10.32 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for allowing me so much time to respond to this debate. So far, at least, it has justified the House’s institution of Westminster Hall debates. It has been an extremely well-informed and well-researched debate involving policy issues that resonate with the many members of the public who are concerned about the matter, not least the daughter of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who is probably responsible for instigating this important debate. I hope that many members of the public will read the Hansard report. I wish that the newspapers would employ more parliamentary reporters, so that they could carry comments from debates such as this.

With all respect to the celebrities, Members of Parliament from all parties have been campaigning on the issue for many years, since before the celebrities discovered it—although, as has been said, the publicity that they can generate is welcome. However, I caution against the unintended consequences of such campaigns; the impact of the campaign on the quality of school dinners caused many parents to withdraw their children from school meals because they feared that the meals were bad, even after the school cooks had made them good. The point made in that respect by Unison, the public sector union, was strong. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on raising this important issue and giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.

I shall answer hon. Members’ questions and then outline the Government’s policy. In that way, I can ensure that I have responded properly to the debate, although I am not sure that I can guarantee to answer the questions in order. I begin with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy). I was dying to know which new year’s resolution she was not able to fulfil, but she should be congratulated. She made a number of important points. She gave figures on the number of kilograms of cereal required to produce 1 kg of beef. That is hugely important, because it is a major reason—along with the implications of human-made climate change—why food prices around the world are rising as world prosperity rises, particularly in the far east, and human beings consume more meat and less cereal.

My hon. Friend also asked whether higher welfare standards in EU policy would not simply open us up to cheaper competition from third countries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened to mention the World Trade Organisation. The Government and this country operate under WTO rules, which do not allow member countries to ban imports of like products—those that are essentially the same as domestic products except for the method by which they have been produced. Discrimination against like products is a restriction on trade not allowed under agreed exceptions to WTO rules unless the lower welfare standards practised in the exporting country gave rise to safety concerns under the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. That relates directly to the point made by both my hon. Friends. Of course, that is not to say that the UK Government do not promote changes in those areas,
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but there is a balance between consumer expectations and the Government actions that reflect them and the effect of protectionism on the needs of the developing world.

Mr. Drew: It is true that in the early days of common agricultural policy reform, the UK had clear objectives in raising concerns about animal welfare and the environment. Sadly, though, those concerns got lost in the wider competitive drive. Will the Minister assure me that the UK Government—as well as those of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, I hope—will ensure that they continue to argue the case with one voice that environmental and animal welfare standards are crucial?

Mr. Woolas: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is passionate about those issues and agrees strongly with that point—as is known, he is a vegetarian. He will be representing the United Kingdom on the European Union Environment Council; indeed, he attended one of its meetings yesterday. The forthcoming CAP reform talks present the opportunity to push further on that point.

David Taylor: The supermarkets have outsourced much of their poultry meat production to Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere. Will the Minister tell us what responsibility he believes they have to ensure that welfare standards, even the lowish ones set by the WTO, are observed by the countries concerned? When the Select Committee that I chair reported on that area of industry, I was astonished by the negligent and blasé way in which supermarkets said that they visited their production units in Brazil from time to time after giving notice and being told which units to go to: namely, those with the highest standards. The supermarkets are useless in that regard.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We have had various discussions with supermarkets and the National Farmers Union on that issue. As I shall discuss in a few moments, labelling and consumer information are extremely important and are at the heart of our policy. We believe, and there is consensus on this in the House, that informed consumer choice is the modern way. If there is an advantage to having large supermarkets that control large percentages of the marketplace, it is that such policy levers can be made more easily available. I say that because it is a fact rather than because I welcome it.

Let me answer hon. Members’ questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East asked about the evidence comparing welfare in free-range systems with that in enriched cages. Various studies have shown that each system has strengths and weaknesses, as she pointed out. Industry figures show that mortality continues to be significantly higher in free-range systems than in other systems.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about the research of the university of Bristol. That research, which was funded by DEFRA, found that the incidence of bone fractures over the life of a flock is reduced significantly in hens kept in enriched cages compared with those kept in barns or free-range systems. The LayWel research project, which is funded principally by
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the EU Commission, concluded that cage systems tend to provide a more hygienic environment with a low risk of parasitic disease, and that feather pecking is still a predominant welfare problem in commercial flocks in non-cage systems, with a prevalence of 40 to 80 per cent. The prevalence of cannibalism is lower, but up to 20 per cent. of flocks were affected in one survey, and up to 40 per cent. in another. The situation is not black and white. That brings me to the valid contribution that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who is no longer in his place, made when he intervened on the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He said that the skill, knowledge and intention of the stockkeeper is the most important factor.

Enriched cages provide more space for the hen, as well as a nest, a perch, and material to peck and scratch. In recent years, the design of enriched cages has improved in the UK and elsewhere, with larger cages and colony sizes that allow birds to perform many more individual behaviours. Larger colony cages have been trialled by producers, and productivity and welfare results are positive so far. That is extremely encouraging. A DEFRA-funded project considered the effect of stock density and cages on the health, behaviour, physiology and production of laying hens. Further research into enriched cages is taking place, including a study to compare the health and welfare of birds in different types of enriched cages.

Mr. Oaten: What will happen next regarding the DEFRA research? Does it simply help and inform the Department, or is there a specific Government response to it?

Mr. Woolas: I shall come to that point shortly. First, I should like to address hon. Members’ other questions. I was asked whether the EU Commission had any intention of changing the date of the new system’s implementation. The answer is no. I recognise the point made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), given his portfolio—there is a tie-over in animal welfare law. I was pleased to note that he is a full convert to the need for EU co-operation in that regard. He asked about the dates: there is no slippage in the implementation.

I was asked what the public sector food procurement initiative is doing to improve animal welfare. Our policy is to encourage public sector bodies to specify higher animal welfare standards. For that reason, we have developed a model specification clause that promotes farm assurance standards, including those of higher level schemes, such as freedom food. The model clause allows for bias when awarding contracts so that a higher weighting can be given to produce that meets higher-level standards. I was also asked about the PSFPI promoting the red tractor scheme. The Farm Animal Welfare Council considers that farm assurance schemes have resulted in greater focus on animal welfare. In the council’s view, even if that did no more than assure minimum welfare standards, the growing influence of regular audits required by farm assurance can only be of benefit to raising the awareness of both the public and policy makers.

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