As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, there are two issues. One is a matter of principle—do we support the export of live animals in this way?—and the other is about pragmatic practicality and regulation. Are the Government

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going to continue allowing live exports? I do not believe that European legislation should hold us back because, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, representations can be made and we can use other legislation to enforce the ban if necessary. However, if a ban is not introduced and we seek a pragmatic inspection regime—this is the point raised by the hon. Member for South Thanet—the work done by Thanet district council has been superb. It has set out a number of recommendations, working with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and delegating some of those functions to the RSPCA, to gain maximum confidence in the implementation and rigorous nature of those inspections. Those recommendations, if taken on board by the Government, would at least provide a practical way to address effectively some of the abuses of the past.

Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend has been an absolute champion of agricultural workers during his time in Parliament—often, I dare say, a lone voice. Does he accept that a ban on live exports would be a huge hit to the agricultural industry and hurt the very workers he has worked so hard to champion?

John McDonnell: My hon. Friend always knows the point of vulnerability in a debate. I have never been convinced about the economic necessity of live exports, which is why the idea of an inquiry is important. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is looking at a wide-ranging inquiry into the practical nature of how the industry operates.

As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, we need to address the location of abattoirs and how they operate. By locating, promoting and developing local abattoirs we can overcome the problem of the lengthy journeys that animals take, and particularly any necessity to export live animals.

Bob Stewart: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and reading about this issue. Surely when the animals see that ramp into a truck they will start panicking. They must panic the whole time and be terrified for the whole journey and that really worries me. I feel so desperately sad for them that I am beginning to think that the way we should proceed is to slaughter at the farm. I know it is difficult, but that is what I am beginning to think.

John McDonnell: My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) will come back and argue about the practicalities of that for certain geographical locations in the United Kingdom. However, the desire must be to have slaughter as close to the farm as possible and to obviate the need for any long-distance journeys, whether in the UK or to the continent. I am arguing that we should look again seriously at the recommendations of Thanet district council, the RSPCA and others. From experience, every regime so far put in place has not worked. We had another scandalous example with Joline this time round, and there have been others in the past. That is why I support the proposal for an inquiry.

I would prefer the Government to set up an independent inquiry, but if it must be the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so be it. That Committee can

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look at animal welfare, the economics of the industry and why there is such economic necessity for live animal exports, as well as at the distribution of abattoirs, which in themselves have the potential to generate employment. It can look at how, if we are to transport animals in the future, we can reassure people that those animals will be safe and secure, and that their welfare will be maintained not only in this country but, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, when they reach other countries. In the past we seem to have lost control of what happens to our exported stock in other countries.

That is the short-term practical approach; we need to undertake an inquiry, take on board Thanet district council’s recommendations and introduce an economic debate on this issue. I am also worried about the staffing of individual organisations on which we rely to undertake these tests and checks. I give the example of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Its offices are being closed, staff are being laid off, and I doubt whether it has the capacity to maintain the vehicle inspection regime that we would expect of it. I am also concerned about staffing in DEFRA and the cutbacks there, and about the resources available to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The inquiry should consider that range of staffing issues because the worst thing that could happen is that we put an inspection regime in place, but the resources and the expertise are not available. That includes the expertise of working alongside voluntary organisations such as the RSPCA. That is the problem with a pragmatic approach in the near future if we do not move towards a ban.

So often, promises have been made, and procedures and regimes have been put in place that have not worked. My view now is therefore that a ban should be introduced because the animal welfare issues are overriding.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about ensuring that adequate resources are available to do the job. On Tuesday, Committee proceedings finished on the HGV Road Levy Bill, which gives the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency additional resources to monitor and enforce the levy that will be introduced in due course for foreign hauliers using our roads. Perhaps the Minister will say whether, given the additional safeguards that appear to be required at Ramsgate, DEFRA will provide additional resources to address that matter.

John McDonnell: I think that the Minister heard the question; he does not need me to repeat it.

The Minister has a job to do now in negotiating with other Departments. Yesterday, I met some Public and Commercial Services Union representatives, who are involved in the Department for Transport, including VOSA and DVLA. There are genuine issues about the future, including the review of Department functions, the threat of privatisation and outsourcing, and staff numbers. I am therefore fearful for whatever regime we expect to be put in place. I believe that neither the staff nor the expertise are there, or that they will be so stretched that the regime will not meet our requirements.

After several years as a Member of Parliament, with the problem arising regularly, it is clear that every regime put in place has not worked, resulting in immense animal suffering and immense concern throughout the country. I have many letters from constituents who are

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concerned about the matter and constituents who have been on demonstrations in Ramsgate. Time and again, they have come back extremely concerned about what they have witnessed. It is now therefore my view that we should introduce a ban and, if necessary, lobby Europe to challenge the European interpretation of the directives, thereby reassuring many of our constituents who are anxious about the matter.

Failing that, if there is to be an inquiry, it needs to be done quickly and be fully inclusive. I am anxious that organisations such as the RSPCA, as well as producer representatives and the trade unions, are fully involved, and that the inquiry comes up with some recommendations fairly soon. That must include representations about the level of resources, as well as the regime that will be put in place.

2.22 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise to you and the House for not being present at the start of the debate. I am a member of the Backbench Business Committee, so I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and her colleagues were successful in obtaining the debate. Unfortunately, I thought that it would start at 1.30, and I have been entertaining a newly elected member of the United States Congress, Mr George Holding, who represents the 13th district in North Carolina, together with Congressman Robert Pittenger. I am sorry.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. That causes some difficulty. We have now had three Members in a row taking part in a debate that they have not heard on the basis that they were busy doing something else. As all hon. Members know, when wishing to take part in a debate, one has to make a choice between being in the Chamber and doing other things. On this occasion, I have called each Member, but I want to put it on the record that the convention of the House is that, if you wish to speak in a debate, that is your priority, and you should be here to do it. The hon. Gentleman, being the third Member in a row to give a reason for not being here, gives me the opportunity to make that point. Those Members have not had the benefit of hearing the other speakers.

Mr Amess: I have been a Member of Parliament since 1983 and I absolutely agree with everything you have said, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Throughout my time in Parliament, I have supported sensible animal welfare measures. Indeed, if anyone had time on their hands, they could look in Hansard and see that my views on animal welfare have been pretty consistent.

Thomas Docherty: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s reasons for being late. Does he agree that doing television is a poorer excuse for not being here?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We are really not going to follow that route. We are considering a serious subject, and I expect Members to continue to behave seriously. So, Mr Docherty, thank you, but we will not have that answered, and Mr Amess, you may continue with your remarks and ignore the intervention.

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Mr Amess: The late Member of Parliament for Newham, North-West, Tony Banks, was a great champion of animal welfare measures, and I would stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the subject of the debate. It saddens me that, nearly 30 years on, we have to revisit the issue.

I was flattered last year when Dods gave me an award as charity champion for animal welfare and environment, which I accepted on behalf of the animal welfare kingdom. Indeed, I promoted the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, and I also supported Bills on the welfare of dogs—the list is endless.

However, I want briefly to consider live export of animals. I am pleased that it is not a growing industry, and that it is shrinking. I note that, for example, the transport of live calves fell from 93,000 in 2007 to just 7,000 in 2009. That is real progress. I hope that, in time, such a debate will be unnecessary.

I associate myself with the views of the RSPCA, which is a wonderful charity, and which I hope will continue to promote sensible animal welfare issues. It wants an end to long-distance transport of live animals, with the aim of carcass-only trade. It wants a maximum eight-hour journey time for all animals travelling to slaughter. It wants a change to current law to allow ports to refuse to partake in the transport of live animals trade. It also wants the organisations involved in the trade, not the taxpayer, to bear the costs of veterinary and animal health inspections, alongside other costs.

Mr MacNeil: I disagree about animal exports, but would the hon. Gentleman concede that sometimes animals can be exported for breeding purposes, not just for slaughter, so stopping it altogether might have other consequences, which are not the focus of the debate?

Mr Amess: I recognise that hon. Members rightly represent all sorts of interests. I have said that I support responsible animal welfare measures. I would not want to use the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet has introduced to bash farmers and the farming community. I therefore understand the points that the hon. Gentleman and others have made.

Thomas Docherty: Like me, the hon. Gentleman supports banning the use of wild animals in circuses. One of the solutions is to export those wild animals to new homes. If I understand the matter correctly, an unintended consequence of a blanket ban would be that we could not find new homes for those wild animals.

Mr Amess: I cannot believe for a moment that that would be the result if the motion was supported. I want to stick to my script. I was not present when other issues have been discussed in the Chamber, so I would like to stick to the specific issue that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, said that we should talk about.

I want to see an end to the long-distance transport of live animals. There is a clear case for the ending of the transport of live animals altogether. It is a cruel practice that regularly leads to the distress—or worse, the death—of animals. Indeed, recently we saw terrible pictures of little puppies who were dead, and rare, exotic fish dead in their containers. For example, inspectors, when they were able to investigate, found one animal with a ripped

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horn that had to be euthanised. In another incident, a vehicle had to offload all its sheep and 46—yes, 46—had to be euthanised for various reasons. Any practice that regularly inflicts such pain on living creatures, and, worse, regularly leads to their deaths, should be ended as soon as possible.

This is not an impossible dream. More often than not, animals are now slaughtered in their country of origin and then transported to whichever country they are going to. That is a much more humane way to approach the transportation of animals. Another reason why it is right to pursue the end of this practice is that even if we manage to transport live animals effectively and safely, we cannot ensure that the countries the animals arrive in live up to our high standards.

Compassion in World Farming has issued a report that shows that many member states do not provide penalties that are “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”. While some countries have shown recent signs of improvement, namely the Czech Republic, Italy and Romania, the European Union Food and Veterinary Office indicates that they, and other countries, still need substantial improvements in enforcement levels. Those two reasons—the cruel nature of transportation and the worrying lack of enforcement in other EU member states—are reason enough for wanting the practice of live transportation to be stopped altogether. That said, until that aim is fulfilled, there are other curbs that could be applied to the industry to protect transported animals. For example, there should be a maximum eight-hour journey time. Journeys for calves can be up to 19 hours, and for horses and pigs up to 24 hours. For horses and pigs, 29 hours can be an incredibly long time before a 24-hour rest. That is cruel—to make any creature travel for 29 hours before having a rest is very cruel indeed. At the very least, a middle ground should be found that enforces shorter breaks after eight hours, and then a longer 24-hour rest at the current limit.

On ports, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states on its website that when dealing with animals it is important that vehicle loading and unloading facilities are designed and constructed to avoid injury and suffering. While that may be the case for road vehicles, I have concerns about the UK ports that animals leave from and about the ships that transport them. According to the RSPCA, the Joline, an old Russian tanker, currently transports animals from Ramsgate. It is too slow, and is overly exposed to poor weather conditions. I urge the House not to accept such poor conditions for animals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

It appears that the ports of Ramsgate, Ipswich and Newhaven do not all currently live up to the standards set out in section 23 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Ports have no choice but to opt out of the transportation of live animals due to the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847. I believe strongly in choice. Ports that currently do not have the right facilities to transport animals to a high standard must be able to choose whether they wish to partake in this practice.

On veterinary costs, the economy is going through tough times at the moment. There are a lot of elderly people in Southend West, the area I represent, and animals are their lives. Animals are everything to them and we should not trivialise how important they are to them. Veterinary bills can be very high. The taxpayer

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foots the bill for veterinary checks on animals in live transportation. If that cost was shifted to those involved in the industry—I know that hon. Members with farming interests will say that that would be yet another burden passed on to them—not only would the taxpayer save money during these hard times, but the industry would be incentivised to look after its animals well, as the cost of veterinary bills could otherwise be very high.

The last topic I wish to touch on is labelling. It has come to my attention that a sheep or cow can be born, raised and fed here in England, transported to France and, once slaughtered, labelled, “produce of France”. If, as I hope, the EU agrees to stop this practice, surely the incidence of live transportation will fall as the pressure to have and eat home-grown food in each European member state will grow. I therefore urge hon. Members to support any such law on labelling.

In my brief speech I hope that I have highlighted a number of issues I feel strongly about that have not already been covered concerning the suffering of animals. Maximum journey times must come down if at all possible. Ports must be able to opt out if they do not feel that they have the resources to adequately look after animals. Veterinary costs should not be met at the expense of the public purse. Labelling issues need to be addressed.

We must look after animals to the best of our ability. The fact that we need this debate at all sadly reminds me of the quote attributed to Frederick the Great:

“The more I see of men, the more I like my dog.”

I then think of the quote from Ghandi:

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

I said that I entered this place 30 years ago. We are hardly pressed for time in this place. We used to sit until 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock in the morning. We used to sit for five days a week—we certainly put the hours in. Hon. Members no doubt love to pat dogs and like to see cats in their constituencies. They are concerned about their constituents, who feel that their animals are important. They should demonstrate their support for animals by supporting the motion introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. I would hope that most hon. Members feel that transporting live animals in horrendous conditions is totally unacceptable. We live in an era where we no longer write letters to each other. MPs respond to e-mails, blogging, Facebook and so on. There is not the amount of personal contact that there used to be.

I was privileged recently to attend two carol services for animals. I feel very strongly that the quality of our nation should increasingly be judged by how we treat the animal kingdom.

Mr MacNeil: I am intrigued about the carol service for animals. Was it per chance, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes”, or something of that sort?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I think the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) has finished, so, if that was your speech, Mr MacNeil, it was quite a short contribution. Do you wish to say a little more?

Mr MacNeil indicated dissent.

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Okay.

2.40 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow such a commendable contribution. I understand that a few weeks ago one of my Labour colleagues made a contribution of one word, before time ran out, so the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) does not get the record, but it was quite a contribution none the less.

People watching will have seen a well balanced, diverse range of well considered contributions and interventions putting forward a variety of views on animal welfare and the live transportation of animals. It has been a good day for the House, and I hope that I and the Minister will continue in that frame of mind. I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and other Members, not only for calling the debate and enabling us to air our concerns, but for maintaining and arguing in favour of their long-standing, if sometimes differing, views. I will deal with the contributions first, because some of them pre-empt my own comments.

The hon. Lady spoke eloquently on behalf of herself, her constituents and—I suspect—her local authority, given that its views are very much aligned with hers, and said that DEFRA had been a bit too “meek and mild” and might need to go further. I will try to draw that out in my comments too. She said that DEFRA might need to focus more on this intriguing idea of fit and proper operators—a leitmotif in several contributions. We are talking not always about individual instances, but about operators that have had constant warnings—mention was made of six warnings in a short period in Ramsgate—and those patterns of behaviour draw out an interesting theme for the Minister. What does zero tolerance actually mean? When should we intervene to stop something that is a genuine animal welfare concern?

On another interesting theme, the hon. Lady talked about cost-sharing. Like other Members, including those who have farmed for many years, I sometimes wonder how the economics of this trade stack up. But they do stack up. The live export of lamb from south Wales, the moors of Ramsgate or Scotland maintains not just a premium price but a remarkably high premium price—there is huge demand for it. It would be interesting to know what would happen to the economics of the model if the additional costs of inspection, licensing and the adequate enforcement of animal welfare considerations—so that we can have real confidence in the integrity of the process, particularly of the long-distance travel—were loaded on to the transporters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has been a consistent campaigner on animal welfare issues, rightly recognised the differing standards of animal welfare applied in many parts of the continent—another issue that I will return to—and its impact on the UK export trade. Even if all our domestic arrangements for animal exports are of the highest standards—what the hon. Member for South Thanet called the “gold standard” that we should be proud of aspiring to—what happens if the animals pass through or reach a part of the continent where the standards fall well below what we would expect? I ask the Minister to focus on that.

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This has to be about the end-to-end journey, not simply about what we are doing. The hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) would be appalled if any animals they were trading in—having done all the right things, such as loading the animals in good condition and ready for market, in the belief that they would be transported in good condition and get rested, fed, watered and given emergency treatment when needed—were ending up somewhere on the continent, such as Spain or even Brussels, where the same rigorous standards of animal welfare were not being applied. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East put to the Minister the valid question of what discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on this issue, particularly on the topical issue in Europe at the moment—it is being debated as we speak and has been debated all week—which is the consistency of those standards across the EU. I am sure that the Minister will address those concerns.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke with great personal insight and expertise—given his farming background—and spoke proudly in favour of the gold-plating of animal welfare. He said we should be doing that and that he would want to be doing that as a farmer. He took pride in driving towards those standards. We are talking, of course, in part about a sector—sheep exporting—that is for farmers who are not prosperous or massive landowners. These people are often farming on less favoured agricultural land where the only option is sheep farming. Only a few years back, the price of those carcasses was half or a third of what they are now. They have always struggled, but they have always focused on the highest standards, and the Government need to help them to do that.

Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend is making an eloquent case. He just mentioned personal experience. Will he say a bit more about his own personal experiences in this industry, and will he set out what terms of reference he thinks the Select Committee should consider, if we do indeed do a report?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I shall return later to the specific things that the inquiry should consider—it will not be an exhaustive list, but I will give some good pointers. On my own personal experience, I have not been a sheep farmer, but my friendly and well loved father-in-law was a sheep farmer for many years on the uplands of the Brecon Beacons.

Mr MacNeil: Crawler!

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. I am just worried about any inheritance potential, so I had better continue.

For many years my father-in-law was a sheep farmer, and I would go out and help him. I was born on the Gower and, curiously, my first ever job as a young lad of 10 or 11—I know not everybody will like this, including on my Benches—was to go to Gowerton market. At that time, we had a live market right in the centre of the village—it is long gone; now it is housing. We had just turned metric, and my job in the market, for 50p a day, was to go with the farmers on the back of their wagons, load what seemed to me to be these

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massive beasts—they were massive, because even a sheep to me at that age appeared to be very big—and take them off to what were then local slaughterhouses and abattoirs. One of the problems with those abattoirs is that not all of them had the high standards that we now expect. We have seen a diminution in the number of abattoirs across the country, which brings us back to the points that many Members have made. We would love to see more local abattoirs—I will raise this again with the Minister in a moment—but we also need to have high quality abattoirs, with the very highest standards for both consumers and farmers.

Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the reduction in the number of abattoirs. In this important book—“Little Book of Meat Facts”, published by Hybu Cig Cymru—it says that in 1990 there were more than 60 slaughterhouses in Wales and that in 2011 there were just over 20. That gives an indication of the reduction in the number of slaughterhouses.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a good intervention, which points to a long-term trend. Some of the reasons behind it were negative, in that the drive to improve standards in slaughterhouses and abattoirs meant that some of the smaller and—let us be honest—lower-standard ones were forced to close. We are fortunate, because the town I live in—Maesteg, which has a population of 17,000—still has a working, prosperous, thriving abattoir right in the centre, which is unusual nowadays. The abattoir services not only the local farmers, but the butchers in town, which are also thriving. However, that is unusual. The abattoir has had to increase its standards massively and absorb those costs or pass them on. Perhaps the Minister will return in his closing comments—I think we will have time—to what more can be done not only to protect the remaining network of abattoirs at the very highest standards, but to encourage, where possible, the resurrection of others. There are some worries—the pig sector has been mentioned, with the retreat of Vion from the market, but there are others as well. We want the resilience of the slaughtering sector to be maintained.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) rose

Huw Irranca-Davies: I give way to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Miss McIntosh: As the Minister probably knows, an announcement on Vion is imminent, but does the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) agree that the reduction in the number of small abattoirs probably contributed to foot and mouth disease spreading in the way it did? Small abattoirs are also hugely popular with farm shops and help the local farming community enormously.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the popularity of small abattoirs increasing as people become much more aware of the provenance and source of their food. Her first point is also valid, because of the biosecurity risks that result from increased animal movements generally. In my constituency, farmers

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would summer-pasture their sheep down in the lowlands and in the winter literally drive them on to the top. Come time for market, they would drive the sheep down the old drovers’ route into Blackmill for the market—a grass-based market, not a concrete market—from where they would go straight to the local shops and so on. Those days are gone. We now routinely—because of biosecurity, as well as for other reasons—shift animals in trucks. That brings with it the massive obligation of looking after their welfare.

Bob Stewart: Is it not also true that a local abattoir gets better meat because there is less stress on the animals, which directly affects the quality of meat?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am not in a position to make a completely evidence-based judgment on that. I can only say that we buy directly from our local abattoir in Maesteg, and the produce is absolutely fantastic.

Thomas Docherty: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend out. The answer is that it depends on the stress that the animal goes through in the build-up. The point is—it is a point he has made before—that although at first glance a local abattoir might be preferable, if standards of hygiene and humane treatment are not met, that leads to a poorer outcome. I suspect that the key thing in this debate is the standards of humane treatment that we all want to see.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly formed point.

I shall proceed at a rate of knots now, because I want to touch on the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire talked about the Spanish diet given to exported sheep. I am intrigued to know what it consists of; I suspect that it is not tapas. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke with the benefit of his experience as a well loved and well respected food and farming Minister, although he was not quite so well respected by publications such as Horse & Hound. He made a considered and well balanced contribution, in which he rightly praised the higher standards generally to be found in the UK. He also echoed other Members’ call for a wider review, in the interests of animal welfare and of the industry. He made detailed points about the Ramsgate incident, as did others, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire also has huge experience in this area. I do not think that my father-in-law’s sheep ever mingled with his; there was a little obstacle in the way, known as the Brecon Beacons. He focused on animal welfare considerations and raised the issue of zero tolerance. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister define that concept. What does it mean, particularly in the context of repeat offending by individuals, companies or organisations? Are we going to step in and take action much more rapidly in those circumstances? I hope that the answer will be yes.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath) indicated assent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am glad the Minister confirms that.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, made a very good contribution. He talked about getting a fair price for meat exports, which could help to continue the downward trend in live exports. If farmers are able to get a good price for meat on the hook, rather than on the hoof, they will certainly go for that market. I am glad that he also mentioned the importance of listening to the views of the devolved nations and Administrations.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) rightly spoke about end-to-end protection for animals throughout their whole journey. He also mentioned the importance of the right provision of animal welfare being in the right place at the right time. The Ramsgate incident illustrates that need. Having lairage facilities in the right places along the route, for example, is critical. I hope that the Minister’s internal review of the Ramsgate incident will throw up some of those issues for wider discussion. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton also said that live animal exports represent only a tiny proportion of the export market. He is right to say that live exports are declining as a part of the overall meat sector, but they are nevertheless vital for certain farmers, especially those who are not big, wealthy barley barons.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made a good contribution. We have to respect those whose ethical reasoning leads them to form different conclusions from those of other Members who are also exercising their own ethical reasoning. She went into quite some detail about the importance of maintaining animal welfare standards from end to end. She also referred to the very good initiative between Compassion in World Farming and the NFU on the treatment of young calves in the pink veal trade. That initiative has enormous potential, but we need to take consumers with us as well and to brand that. We have done that successfully in other meat areas over the years, but it has usually taken a few years to get there. It is great to see animal welfare organisations working hand in hand with farming organisations to try to create that market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about patterns of behaviour leading to regular problems. That links back to the question of zero tolerance. I welcome his support for an inquiry, whoever might carry it out. I hope that the Minister will change his mind and express an interest in such an inquiry, but if not, I look forward to hearing the response of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), to whom I have recently written on this issue. My hon. Friend also raised the vital issue of the capacity of the animal inspectors at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to carry out inspections in the light of the cutbacks and of the rise in concern about confidence in the trade. How will such inspections be sourced, given that DEFRA has already had cutbacks, along with every Department, and is now facing more?

The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) spoke eloquently about the RSPCA campaign, and I thank the RSPCA, the NFU and many other organisations for contributing to the debate and providing briefings for it. Interestingly, he raised the issue—nobody else did—of the labelling and provenance of meat that is transported to various destinations and rebranded as indigenous to an area different from where it was raised and produced.

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I think we all agree that animal welfare considerations in the movement of live animals for trade, for slaughter, for breeding or for other reasons should be absolutely paramount. Logically, the volume and duration of the movements of live animals should therefore be kept to a minimum. That is why in opposition now, as when in government, we want a growth in the trade and export of meat or germ plasm rather than of live animals. That is why in opposition, as when in government, we believe it best that animals are slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible so that the transportation of live animals is minimised and the welfare considerations are lessened. In short, more exports on the hook, not on the hoof, is the right aim.

The trade is legal, and any attempt to ban it, which has wider European and UK-Ireland implications than the focus on any one transit route such as the one through Ramsgate might suggest, would break on the rocks of article 34 of the treaty of Rome. That was the consistent legal advice we received in government—my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse would have received it—so I invite the Minister to intervene to say whether that advice has changed in any way.

Mr Heath indicated dissent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The Minister shakes his head, so the advice is still the same. In that case, our focus must be on the paramount issue of animal welfare considerations for a trade that will continue, to and from the UK and across other parts of the Europe, for the foreseeable future.

Mr MacNeil: Is not the key point the fact that when it comes to the crossing of borders, animal welfare is the bottom line?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that is absolutely valid. We strongly believe in that focus, the Minister strongly believes in it and many contributors to the debate believe that the focus must be animal welfare. I did not touch on an issue that was raised consistently in this debate: that even if we take away the crossing of seas to Ireland, Northern Ireland, the highlands and islands and mainland Europe, we still have a massive internal trade of live animal shipments, and it is part of the integrity of our current livestock business. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to say that we should focus on animal welfare.

I say that in the knowledge that, only yesterday or the day before, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development voted strongly in plenary session to support a report on the protection of animals during transport, which had many recommendations. As I know from my meetings with European parliamentarians and Commission officials in Brussels over the last few weeks, this issue is of topical concern right across Europe, not just in the UK. It is a good and comprehensive report that makes some sensible recommendations on the effective and improved implementation of existing measures to safeguard animal welfare.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the one part of the report that is causing great debate at the moment and that has been referred to in today’s debate—the

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growing momentum behind support for an eight-hour maximum for animals travelling for slaughter or for fattening across the EU? As has been mentioned, over 1 million EU citizens have now signed a petition that was organised by Compassion in World Farming and others.

Miss McIntosh: A local farmer recently approached me to say that for the first time he has won an order to transport a small number of cattle from Thirsk to Italy in excellent conditions. This would probably breach that petition, but would not breach animal welfare provisions. He would risk losing that trade, as would many others from Scotland and other parts of the north of England, if we strictly implemented what the shadow Minister proposes.

Huw Irranca-Davies: That is not what I am proposing. What I am proposing is a live debate. Given the existence of a petition bearing more than 1 million signatures, I think that we need to consider the issue in considerable detail. That would include consideration of impacts such as the one cited by the hon. Lady, about which I shall say more in a moment. She has made a very valid point.

Roger Williams: I think that the public often assume that all animal transport takes place in the worst conditions. A good debate on the issue, and an understanding that some transport conditions are a great deal better than others, would help us to reach a conclusion.

Huw Irranca-Davies: As we know, the big issues that hit the headlines in the press involve the worst possible examples. What they do not tell us is that, as has rightly been pointed out a number of times today, the standards that we apply in the UK—at least within UK borders, because beyond those borders a difficulty arises—are generally much higher. We have not been singled out by the European Commission for having poor standards of animal welfare. It would be churlish of me, at Christmas, to name the areas in Europe—whole areas, as well as individual nations—where there are such problems.

Although today’s debate has been very useful, I would go further if I were in the Minister’s shoes. I would be seriously thinking of commissioning a piece of work—let us call it an impact assessment, for want of a better phrase—dealing with the likely effects of an eight-hour journey limit on the transport of live animals both inside and outside the UK. Let us see, in black and white, the probable impacts on exports of live animals to the continent, on trade between Great Britain and Ireland—including Northern Ireland—and on internal movements on the UK mainland and between the highlands and islands. Let us not leap to conclusions. Let us make our policy on the basis of the evidence: the evidence on animal welfare, and the socio-economic evidence.

In making that policy, we must acknowledge that, although the focus in the United Kingdom has recently been on exports via Ramsgate involving the hugely regrettable slaughter of more than two score animals, there is a far wider trade—most of it involving short journeys, but some, by necessity, involving longer ones—within the UK, among our islands, and with our neighbours in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Although the Minister’s focused investigation of the lessons to be learned from

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Ramsgate is welcome—I should like to know when we are likely to see its outcome, by the way—it is essential for a wider review to be conducted so that we do not end up making policy on the basis of individual incidents, no matter how harrowing they may be. That piece of work should also pull together the best available evidence from all sources on the animal welfare considerations that would support, or otherwise, the case for any limit on the duration of a journey.

The time is right for a more wide-ranging review of the live animal trade to and from the UK. It should be independent of the trade in order to be seen to be fair and impartial. It could focus on animal welfare considerations, but also on the economic importance or otherwise of the trade. It might give the existing trade a clean bill of health, or highlight areas of concern where improvement is needed. In either event, it would benefit the trade to have, as it were, an MOT, in the light of well-publicised recent concerns that risk damaging not just the trade in live exports, but the wider reputation of the food and farming sector.

I have discussed this matter with representatives of farming unions. I have told them that I believe it would be in their interests to support the call for a review of the trade, and I hope that any of them who hear or read my words will support that reasonable call. Resisting it would suggest there was something to hide. As the Minister knows, I have already asked, in a written parliamentary question, whether he is minded to carry out a review, and he replied that he had no plans to do so. That is a pity, because I think that he could do a service to the industry and to animal welfare by changing his mind. He recently changed his mind about including the power to use financial penalties in the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which was a welcome precedent. He is a listening Minister.

In the absence of the Minister’s willingness to carry out a review, I wrote to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the knowledge that, given her expertise and that of the other Committee Members, a forensic and helpful eye could be cast on these matters. I know that the Committee’s programme of activities is chock-a-block, but if it is unable to pursue a separate review of the trade, perhaps that could be incorporated in the wider animal welfare review which I understand that it may be undertaking in the new year.

Such a wider review could address the following questions. Is the level of veterinary inspection sufficient at all stages of the journey, from the loading of animals through to ports or other stations and onward on the UK mainland, the European mainland and in Ireland and Northern Ireland? Such an investigation could also serve to provide us with an end-to-end assessment of the level of mortality and injury. What assessment has the Minister made of the levels of mortality within different sectors of the trade and on different durations of journey? Is the current level of inspection good enough for longer journeys?

We welcome the Minister’s temporary strengthening of procedures through Ramsgate, but it is only temporary. Should the current heightened level of inspection be maintained, and have any areas of concern been identified? Are animals that are unfit for travel ever loaded? I hope not, but it is one of the concerns people feel. Why is some unsuitable transport still being used? How often

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does that happen, and what sanctions are imposed? Should we take more robust action against the risk-takers and the rogues?

There are major issues to be addressed if Ramsgate or any other port is to be used as the long-term staging post for live exports, including the suitability of vessels and the availability of emergency facilities at or near the port for unloading, feeding and watering animals. Which exit points from the UK are most suitable in respect of minimising animals’ travel time? Is it desirable at all to offload animals at a port, except in the most exceptional circumstances, where they cannot be transported to a nearby facility? Do some transporters have a history of poor animal welfare behaviour?

On the wider issue of animal transportation across the UK, do any aspects need to be addressed to ensure we comply fully with our obligations under EU regulation 1/2005? If additional measures are identified in a wider review, the Government should take action under article 1.3 of the regulation.

What is the Minister doing to make good on his, and our, ambition to encourage the slaughter of animals close to their point of production, in order to minimise the transportation of live animals? Is the reduction in numbers, and geographical spread, of abattoirs a relevant factor? I think it is, so what more can we do to promote local slaughter?

This has been a very good debate with some expert and well-informed contributions. I hope the Minister will deal in detail with the concerns expressed, and finally may I reiterate a request I made in a letter to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, and urge the Minister to consider whether, in addition to the Ramsgate-focused review, we should look more broadly at animal welfare issues and the socio-economic aspects of the wider trade in and out of the UK?

3.13pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): I agree with the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that this has been an extremely good debate. The speeches have been well informed, non-sensationalist and have expressed various points of view. I have hugely enjoyed listening to all the contributions from both sides of the Chamber. Members have deeply held beliefs, but recognise the facts. I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for securing the debate and for her contribution to it. I also recognise that she and her constituents have been put under considerable pressure on an almost daily basis for some time, as has Thanet district council. I commend her on the way she has addressed the issue in question and tried to secure the best possible outcome.

I am particularly pleased that the hon. Lady began by talking about our country’s proud history in respect of animal welfare. We should not shy away from the fact that we have a very good record at promoting animal welfare and ensuring that rules and laws are enforced. The title of today’s debate does not confine itself to live animal exports, although inevitably that is what most hon. Members have wanted to focus on, as it also deals with wider animal welfare issues. Even in the very recent past, we have been making steady progress on improving the welfare of all kept animals. That is not

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surprising because that is one of the top priorities in my Department and within government. So we have ensured that no hens are kept in battery cages. We have also ensured that our farmers do not use sow stalls, and of course the European ban is coming up. The hon. Member for South Thanet asked me whether there was an instance recently when we had been pressing for European compliance, and I can tell her that that is a clear area where we have been pushing very hard to ensure that other member states comply with the regulation coming into effect on 1 January. I fear that some states will not be ready to have 100% compliance, and that is not acceptable. We have been having discussions with the European Commissioner, who I believe shares that view, to say that that is not acceptable and member states will be expected to comply.

Miss McIntosh: We have the opportunity to recognise and celebrate this high standard of animal welfare in this country, which we introduced as early as the 1990s, disadvantaging our own farmers, who have faced what one might call unfair competition from other EU member states.

Mr Heath: That is precisely the case, and now is the time to level that playing field for our producers. We have commitments—I have personally been given commitments—from the main retailers in this country that they will not import meat derived from non-compliant states. I want to hold them to that, because it is only fair to our producers that if they are expected to comply with high welfare standards, as they should be, others have to do the same.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): On that wider theme, what would the Minister say about the importation of foie gras? Would he be sympathetic to trying to take measures to prevent the cruel practice that takes place on the continent, with that product then being imported into the UK?

Mr Heath: My personal view is that people should not buy foie gras, because of the method of production. It is up to people to make their own decision about what they buy, but unless there is a humane way of producing foie gras, and I am far from convinced that there is, they should make that decision when they decide what to put into their shopping trolley—I suspect that foie gras is rarely put into a shopping trolley—and what they ask people to provide for them. We have taken a view in this country; foie gras is a legal import and therefore there is no constraint that we can place on its importation, but we can ask people to think carefully about what they buy. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Let me continue setting out our recent measures: we have set a maximum stocking density for meat chickens that is lower than that required by European regulation; we have made sure that farm inspections are better targeted on the farms more likely to have welfare problems; for the first time, we have welfare standards for game birds; we have delivered a licensing regime to safeguard the welfare of circus animals, and we are working on delivering a ban, as hon. Members know; we are working on proposals to tackle—

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Chris Williamson rose

Mr Heath: I have just given way to the hon. Gentleman and he cannot really have two bites in the same sentence. We are working on proposals to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and to protect the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses; and we have demanded in Europe better protection for animals being transported for long distances, especially horses and unweaned calves—that comes back to a point to which we will return.

Having set out that broad framework, let me move on to the topic that most of this debate is about: live animal exports. I am going to use phrases that are uncannily similar to those used by the hon. Member for Ogmore in expressing the Government’s position and my personal position. I want to see animals slaughtered as near as possible to their point of production, and I would prefer to see a trade in meat or germ plasm to a trade based on live animals, particularly where journeys may result in livestock travelling very long distances across Europe. There are a number of reasons for that. Quite apart from animal welfare, it helps to support our domestic slaughter industry and is simply more sustainable. We should bear that in mind, too.

Local abattoirs, which are a very important issue, were mentioned, as was the fact that we have lost so many. In opposition under the last Government, I was critical of the fact that we lost so many abattoirs under them. The hon. Member for Ogmore is nodding; he probably remembers me saying that. If he does not, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) probably does.

The lack of abattoirs is becoming a major issue in many areas. I was on the Isle of Wight the other week and the island does not have an abattoir, so any animals that go to slaughter have to cross the Solent. People on the Isle of Wight would like to have an abattoir on the island. They are right to want one and we need to find ways in which we can support a viable alternative to ensure that they have. If we are talking about never moving animals across any waterways, the Isle of Wight will have a problem. Let us bear that in mind when we talk about what constitutes the export of live animals.

Again, I do not want merely to echo the hon. Member for Ogmore—that is a very bad practice—but I must say, in similar terms to those that he used, that the trade in live animals is lawful and we must remember that. There were a number of legal challenges by local and port authorities in the early to mid-1990s, but none was successful. In fact, some of those authorities have had to pay significant damages to exporters as a direct result of their failed attempt to block the trade by direct or indirect means. That is why, although I understand the sentiment expressed, I have a little difficulty dealing with writing campaigns that use postcards, e-mails and the rest of it to tell me that I must ban the live trade when I have no power to do so. It would fundamentally change the basis of free trade within the European Union area if we were to do so. We might want to do that and consensus might form in the EU at some stage, but it is not there at the moment and it is therefore not within my power to make that change.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I am sorry that I have not been in the Chamber for the whole debate, but I have been here for quite some time and

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speak as someone who was a Minister for agriculture for a time 22 years ago. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we cannot say that something is illegal when it is not, but I think the test is the degree of reasonableness or unreasonableness that should bring the law in. I think we can agree that unnecessary journeys in bad conditions are undesirable, but we need to draw a line so that we can say when they should become illegal. Clearly, we cannot make them illegal just because they cross a national boundary. Sometimes, journeys are necessary, such as in the cases we have heard about from the Isle of Wight, the western isles, and highland farmers. We need to understand that the public’s understanding and acceptance matter. When circumstances are unacceptable because we care for the welfare of food and farm animals, if the law is not good enough we need to be prepared to change the law.

Mr Heath: I think we need to do two things. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I shall discuss the circumstances over recent months that were, let us be clear, totally unacceptable. We certainly need regulation and law that are fit for purpose and satisfy the requirements, but we need to enforce them rigorously. My view is that in areas of animal welfare, there should not be ifs and buts—we simply need rigorous enforcement. People need to understand that.

People need to understand that if they are looking after animals, they have a duty that is set out in law and we will hold them to it. If they fail in that duty, there will be consequences. That is the message I want to express and I think it would be supported by every good stockman, male or female, in the country who understands that the care of the animals in their protection is of paramount importance.

Thomas Docherty: We all seem to be on the same side of the argument. Does the Minister agree that if we went for a blanket ban on exports, it would affect not just slaughter and circuses, but the racehorse industry and its involvement with the great French races? Our colleagues in Ireland would also suffer immensely.

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. We must be careful what we wish for because there are sometimes unforeseen consequences. Coming from an area where we have lots of excellent stables producing first-class racehorses, I have to say that the way racehorses are transported is very different from the way the average sheep is transported. Let us understand that as a basic rule of thumb. However, it is not unreasonable to expect every animal that is transported to be transported in proper and appropriate transport. That is what I am determined to ensure.

Chris Williamson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Heath: I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman as he is persistent.

Chris Williamson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me for the second time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who spoke from the Dispatch Box, called for a review to be undertaken to give an MOT, so to speak, to animal exportation. May I refer the Minister to article 3 of EU Regulation 1/2005, which states:

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“No person shall transport animals or cause animals to be transported in a way that is likely to cause injury or undue suffering to them.”

Until we undertake the MOT review that my hon. Friend mentioned, we cannot know whether that regulation is being complied with. I suspect that on almost every occasion undue stress or injury is likely to be caused to the animals concerned. We cannot refute that until a review has been undertaken.

Mr Heath: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Yes, he is right to read out that article. The legal requirements that the EU sets down for transport have to be in compliance with it. I believe—I will always look to see whether we are right in this belief—that if the legal requirements laid down in the EU welfare and transport legislation are observed, there is a satisfactory level of protection for the animals being transported. It is a highly regulated trade, subject to multiple levels of official controls. There are significant and specific, but I think justified, requirements on the farming and haulage industries. The EU Commission estimates that on average it costs nearly €12,000 to upgrade a vehicle for long journeys, and there are other significant costs.

There is already a regulatory framework. My task is to make sure that movements within this country comply with those regulations, and that we have the framework to make sure that that is the case each and every time. Where it is not the case, as it would appear may have happened recently—I have to couch what I say in careful terms—we take the appropriate actions.

Those controls include the need for all commercial transporters of animals to be authorised. For long journeys, vehicles must be inspected and approved. Drivers must pass a competency test. For long journeys of more than eight hours between member states, transporters must apply for a journey log providing details of the proposed route from point of departure to point of destination. The timings of the journey must be realistic and in line with the maximum journey times and with the compulsory rest periods laid down in the legislation. Once the journey has been completed, the journey log has to be returned and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which has been mentioned many times in the debate, checks to make sure that there have been no infringements of the legislation during the course of the completed journey. If there have been infringements, AHVLA will take the appropriate enforcement action.

Somebody—I am afraid I do not remember who—suggested that that was a passive arrangement. It is not. I do not have the power to order my inspectors to inspect French vehicles on French roads or Spanish vehicles on Spanish roads. What I can do is make sure that the UK legislation, which is consistent with European legislation, is enforced rigorously. It must be observed.

One of the first situations I faced after taking up this post was the regrettable events of 12 September at the port of Ramsgate. There were serious consequences, as has been well reported, with 40 animals having to be humanely killed. That led me to look very closely at what could be done to ensure the most rigorous and robust enforcement of the existing legislation in this country, and I am absolutely committed to doing that.

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The first thing I did was ask AHVLA to undertake a review of its existing procedures with a view to making the necessary improvements to ensure that, as far as possible—I was asked earlier to give this commitment—the events of 12 September would not be repeated. I have been given the review and accepted its conclusions, the vast majority of which, I am pleased to say, have already been implemented. As I have made plain publicly, and as other Members have said today, essentially I am asking for zero tolerance of lapses in animal welfare standards and rigorous checks on all journeys where there is a risk that we can identify.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) asked about a fit and proper person test—[Interruption.] She is looking dubious, so obviously I have misrepresented her. I apologise and will let her have the credit anyway, even though it was my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet who raised the matter. I think that it is crucial to our understanding of what is and is not within the powers. There is no test in those precise terms, but article 10 of the regulation sets out the circumstances in which the competent authority can refuse to grant authorisation. Basically, that is when the applicant has a recent record of serious infringements of laws relating to the protection of animals, and that includes proving that the applicant has appropriate facilities.

If, after authorisation, a transporter authorised in the UK commits offences, we can withdraw their authorisation. With regard to transporters authorised in other member states, we can report them to the equivalent competent authority and it should take action. Independently of that, we can prevent a transporter authorised by another competent authority operating here, but we obviously cannot stop them operating elsewhere. Those are important provisions that will come into effect, and I will use them when someone has been convicted of animal welfare infringements, but I make the point that they have to be convicted in a court of law; I cannot do it on the basis of suspicion or anecdotal evidence.

Thomas Docherty: I would like to take the Minister back to the report he has received. He will be aware that the NFU, the RSPCA and indeed this House are keen to see the contents of the report, so can he confirm when he will place a copy in the Library and whether he will sent one to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee?

Mr Heath: I was just about to come to that. The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. Nothing would have pleased me more than to have immediately published the report, which I was keen should be made public. However, on advice from lawyers in the Department, and having received a specific request from Kent trading standards department, which is pursuing criminal investigations, I reluctantly had to agree to withhold publication until those investigations and possible prosecution actions have been completed. There is a view that release of the document might prejudice those proceedings, which I am simply not prepared to do.

Following Thanet district council’s decision on 29 November unilaterally to lift its temporary ban on the movement of live animal exports out of the port of

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Ramsgate, and the High Court hearing on Tuesday this week, I can explain the changes made to existing procedures by the AHVLA to help to prevent a recurrence of the events of 12 September. That is why I made a statement yesterday, at the earliest opportunity, so that the House was at least aware of the changes that we have made.

Let me focus on the most important of those changes. The AHVLA has always undertaken a proportion of its inspections at the point of loading based on an assessment of risk. On the basis of the risk that I perceive following the Ramsgate incident, I have asked it to inspect 100% of loadings at the point of loading in order to make sure that the risk at that point is properly assessed. Those inspections are much better, in some ways, than inspections undertaken at the roadside or at points of rest or transfer such as ports. They enable the AHVLA inspectors to undertake over 30 different checks—there is a list—on the welfare of the animals and the facilities on board the vehicle. I want to make it plain that I will maintain that 100% inspection regime for transporters using Ramsgate for as long as I believe that the risk is high. I hope that it is helpful for the House to understand the approach taken.

Earlier we heard reference to inspecting at the port itself. There is a good reason not to offload animals at the port if it can be avoided—doing so distresses the animals. It is better to have a visual inspection on-vehicle following the loading inspection, with veterinary controls at the point of loading. In everything we do, we are trying to make sure that we reduce the stress and improve the welfare of the animals as far as possible.

There is a particular issue at the port of Ramsgate, which, it is fair to say, is not the ideal port for this purpose. I understand exactly why Thanet district council has concerns, as there are other ports that might be better equipped. Having said that, there are problems associated with trying to undertake this very difficult work with live animals when a substantial protest is going on. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse touched on this when he referred to perverse consequences. The protesters are people who care passionately about the welfare of animals, and I ask them to think about whether they are enhancing their welfare by exacerbating the job of the inspectors employed by the Department, who are already doing a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances; I thank them for the care that they take in protecting these animals. People will have to search their consciences in this regard, but I make that plea to them.

I will not go into the other changes to the existing procedures because all those details are in the DEFRA press release and Members can look at them for themselves.

Let me move on to the enforcement of the legislation by the AHVLA. The number of statutory notices served by the AHVLA on transporters using Ramsgate is clearly unacceptably high. Approximately 95% of transporters using Ramsgate are not authorised in Great Britain. All 30 statutory notices served by the AHVLA have been served on transporters who are authorised in other member states and whose vehicles are inspected and approved there or elsewhere. This is a significant issue. It is not about British livestock transporters using vehicles that have been licensed in this country; it is about overseas operators. When we make complaints about conduct, they go back to the authorising authority. In the case of one major operator registered in the Netherlands, we can send reports to the Dutch authorities,

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and I have been in touch with them. In fact, however, he does not operate in the Netherlands but is merely authorised by the Dutch Government, and that poses problems in terms of enforcement.

Miss McIntosh: We had similar protests at Brightlingsea when I was an MEP. At that time the port of Dover had closed for live animal transports, so everything came through Brightlingsea. Could the Minister repeat that 90% of live animal exports now go through Ramsgate? What has happened to Dover and Brightlingsea, because live trade used to go through those ports?

Mr Heath: As we have heard, Dover is no longer used. There may be more than one reason for that. I am not sure whether it was because of the damage to its docking facilities or because of the effect of the public protests on a port that has a high throughput of other traffic, but the perverse effect is that vehicles and shipping are being used at Ramsgate that might not be ideal for the purposes of the trade.

Laura Sandys: I thank the Minister for all the work he is doing, but what he outlined before the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) was the lack of clear accountability and the Department’s lack of ability, as the competent authority, to unravel the different layers of licensing and the different regimes under which licences and competencies are managed. To be frank, we as a Parliament should collectively be pushing this on Brussels, to ensure that there is absolute clarity that the Department can take action and enforce its responsibilities effectively, without having to go through a Byzantine licensing and competency regime.

Mr Heath: The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The EU Commission itself notes that the level of enforcement varies significantly between member states. Taking regulatory or enforcement action against transporters based abroad presents legal and technical challenges that do not exist in relation to British-based transporters.

I do not like picking fights with those who argue strongly for animal welfare, but it is wrong for some welfare activists to claim that my Department and the AHVLA have been reluctant to take action against transporters when necessary. Since exports of livestock commenced from the port of Ramsgate, the AHVLA has inspected 113 vehicles at the port and supervised the loading of a further 68 vehicles at its premises of departure and three vehicles at control posts—that is 60% of the total number of vehicles presented for export via the ship, Joline—carrying more than 41,000 farm animals out of a total of 120,471 animals exported from Ramsgate.

As a result of those inspections, the AHVLA has taken regulatory action on 41 occasions, serving 30 statutory notices and issuing 11 verbal warnings. Regulatory action by the AHVLA has resulted in four vehicles being prohibited from continuing their journeys. In addition, 10 vehicles approved and certified in another member state have been temporarily suspended from operating in Great Britain until the necessary modifications have been made to them. Three incidents have been referred to a local authority for investigation with a view to possible prosecution.

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I repeat and make clear that I will not tolerate the use of sub-standard or faulty vehicles that, in the view of the AHVLA, are not fit for purpose. I am confident that the AHVLA will continue to take robust action against any transporter using poorly equipped or designed vehicles in the future.

I, the hon. Member for Ogmore and others have mentioned the EU Commission’s recent report on the impact of transport legislation. The EU has competence in the area of animal welfare during transport, so we cannot take any unilateral action. That would be contrary to the requirements of Council regulation 1/2005, which has been mentioned many times. This is an important legal point and it is essential that people understand it. Although article 1 of the legislation permits member states to take stricter national measures, they can only apply to transport taking place entirely in their own territory or during sea transport involving trade outside the EU. Stricter national measures do not apply to intra-Community trade, so we are not in a position take unilateral action.

A point that has not been raised much today, but that has been raised outside the Chamber, is lairage at Ramsgate port. It has been claimed that Ramsgate port requires lairage facilities at or close to the port so that the requirements of the EU welfare in transport legislation can be properly enforced. That is not correct on two counts. First, there is no legal requirement for such facilities at a port that operates a roll-on/roll-off ferry service, such as the MV Joline. Those who claim that such facilities are needed at the port appear to have confused the legal requirements for livestock vessels, which animals are physically loaded on and off, with those for roll-on/roll-off vessels that do not require the loading or unloading of animals at a port.

It must be remembered that the EU legislation places a legal responsibility on transporters to minimise the length of the journey. There is also a requirement that the competent authority must not detain animals in transport, unless it is strictly necessary for the welfare of the animals or for reasons of public safety. I have touched on the point that the routine unloading of animals is also wrong from the animal welfare perspective. The EU legislation acknowledges that the unloading of livestock during transport is stressful for the animals, can lead to injury and increases the risk of animal diseases.

As a result, the AHVLA will unload animals only when it is absolutely necessary. Should it need to do so, because other options are not practical in the circumstances or because it is in the best interests of the welfare of the consignment as a whole, two farm-based facilities are available within one hour’s drive of the port. Those facilities have been used by the AHVLA on four occasions in the recent past. We believe that their existence continues to fulfil the legal obligations on DEFRA as the competent authority under the EU welfare and transport legislation.

Some Members have pointed to the fact that the last audit inspection by the food and veterinary office, which is part of the European Commission, engendered exchanges concerning emergency unloading facilities close to the port of Dover. The facilities that we now have were not available when that report was written, so it is not directly relevant.

The issues that the Commission has identified in the enforcement of the EU welfare and transport legislation are crucial to our understanding of this subject. This is

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where we all share common ground, even those who feel that we should not be exporting animals beyond our shores. The welfare of animals in transit is what we all want to achieve.

Sadly, there are still cases in which severe animal welfare issues persist. The Commission has identified key areas of concern, not within the UK, but across the EU. Those are the transport of unfit animals, the overstocking of vehicles, the transport of animals in vehicles in which the internal height of the compartments is inappropriate, animals not receiving enough water during the journey, and animals being transported for longer than the maximum permitted journey time. Having identified those issues, I am disappointed that the Commission is not taking decisive action to address them. We will push hard for it to do so.

This matter has not been raised when I have attended the Agriculture Council, but it was raised at the Council in June. My predecessor, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), while supporting the Commission’s desire for better enforcement, recorded his desire to see improvements to the legislation, particularly through a review of the journey time rules in the light of more recent scientific evidence. That point has been raised by several Members in this debate. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Government could not support the demand for a maximum limit of eight hours on all journeys involving livestock because the scientific evidence does not support such a limit for all major species of livestock.

The committee on agriculture and rural development of the European Parliament appears to support that view in its recent report on the protection of animals during transport. The report recognises, among other things, that such a demand alone has no scientific basis, and considers that animal welfare during transport in some instances depends more on proper vehicle facilities and on the proper handling of animals, as documented in the opinion of the European Food Safety Authority of December 2010, than on the overall length of the journey.

Although we will continue to press the EU Commission to update EU legislation on welfare in transport in line with available scientific evidence, it has decided to take a more strategic approach by tying the rules on transport more closely to requirements in the official food and feed controls legislation—regulation 882/2004—which is currently being re-written. Although it is possible that such a move could help to solve some of the problems with enforcement mentioned by the EU Commission in its report, it is too early to form a judgment on whether that is the most appropriate method of doing so.

Thomas Docherty: The Minister is doing an excellent job of setting out a complex set of arguments. He will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) suggested that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee look at this issue, given its complexity. I know that the Minister has covered a lot of topics, but before he concludes his remarks will he tell the House his observations on the merits of that suggestion, and say what issues could be looked at? Would he welcome an opportunity to give evidence to that Committee?

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Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that and this is probably an appropriate place to begin drawing my comments to a close. Some of what I have said has been a little complex and dry, but it is important to set out the legal background to some of the issues and I hope that I have answered in main the points raised by hon. Members.

I want to thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate, including the hon. Members for South Thanet, for Bristol East, for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). Although the speech by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) was brief, it was beautifully formed in a pre-Christmas spirit that somehow seemed so appropriate. All those Members have practical experience in this area.

I also thank those Members with a genuine interest, concern and expertise in this area such as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, for whom I have a great deal of respect, as well as the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Southend West (Mr Amess).

Thomas Docherty: What about the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)?

Mr Heath: I have mentioned the hon. Member for Ogmore many times and covered what he said almost word for word. It is unnecessary for me to say again that he and I agree on this issue to a large extent, and that is as it should be because this matter ought to transcend party labels.

I said that I do not want a formal review on this issue, and I do not see any great attraction for one in the Department at the moment. I will, however, continue to consider whether I should change my view on that. However, I want to review all our animal welfare issues, and live exports is just one among many. Whatever we do, I want to ensure that this country has the highest levels of animal welfare and protection—I hope I have given a flavour of that to the House—and that regulations and laws are enforced rigorously. I want an environment in which people understand that they must carry out that duty if they look after animals, whether a domestic pet, flock of sheep, herd of cows or killer whale. Whatever animal people look after, they must do so properly as it is their responsibility and we will enforce that.

If the Committee wants to undertake a review—it is not for me to tell it whether it should or not—I would be delighted for it to do so and happy to provide any evidence and support it needs to do its work properly. That is a matter for the Committee to decide. The Government welcome this debate and the opportunity to put on the record some of the things we have done and will do to ensure that what happened at Ramsgate on 12 September does not happen again. Wherever possible we must maintain the highest possible levels of animal protection in this country, which is what the House wants us to do.

3.54 pm

Laura Sandys: I thank the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for co-sponsoring the debate.

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I also thank all other Members, from farmers to animal campaigners, who took part in it. We have had a full spectrum of views, but we have been bound together by our common purpose of considering animal welfare.

I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for his contribution and the Minister and his team. I represent the people of Ramsgate, and we want the most robust regulation that can be put in place. We welcome the statement about zero tolerance, which must be upheld. We would like to establish a definition of a fit and proper operator of the trade. One day, we will resolve the trade through the EU. In the meantime, I look to the Minister’s good offices to ensure that it is regulated effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of live animal exports and animal welfare.

Business without Debate

privileges

Ordered,

That, with effect from 7 January 2013, Mr Kevin Barron, Sir Paul Beresford, Annette Brooke, Mr Robert Buckland, Mr Christopher Chope, Mr Tom Clarke, Mr Geoffrey Cox, Fiona O’Donnell, Heather Wheeler and Dr Alan Whitehead be members of the Committee of Privileges.—(Mr Syms.)

STANDARDS

Ordered,

That, with effect from 7 January 2013, Mr Kevin Barron, Sir Paul Beresford, Annette Brooke, Mr Robert Buckland, Mr Christopher Chope, Mr Tom Clarke, Mr Geoffrey Cox, Fiona O’Donnell, Heather Wheeler and Dr Alan Whitehead be members of the Committee on Standards.—(Mr Syms.)

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Order, 29 November, and Standing Order No. 118(6)),

House of Commons Members’ Fund

That pursuant to section 4(4) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1948 and section 1(4) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1957, in the year commencing 1 October 2012 there be appropriated for the purposes of section 4 of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1948:

(1) The whole of the sums deducted or set aside in that year under section 1(3) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1939 from the salaries of Members of the House of Commons; and

(2) The whole of the Treasury contribution paid to the Fund.— (Mr Syms.)

Question agreed to.

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Sexual Health Data

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

3.56 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Over the past 20 years, we have seen numerous high profile inquiries and serious case reviews after children have been harmed and abused. Each one has said that failures in data sharing and ineffective inter-agency working played a significant role in the child’s injury or death. Lord Laming’s progress report on child protection in 2009 following the Victoria Climbié and baby P inquiries stated:

“Despite the fact that the Government gave clear guidance on information sharing in 2006 and updated it in October 2008, there continues to be a real concern across all sectors, but particularly in the health services, about the risk of breaching confidentiality or data protection law by sharing concerns about a child’s safety. The laws governing data protection and privacy are still not well understood by frontline staff or their managers. It is clear that different agencies (and their legal advisers) often take different approaches.”

Disappointingly, that was echoed nearly three years later in the recent report by Sue Berelowitz, the deputy Children’s Commissioner, into sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. She highlighted the difficulties that she had experienced in collecting data from health agencies.

The overarching aim of year one of her inquiry was to identify the prevalence of child sexual exploitation and the warning signs that victims present, and to quantify the number of children at risk. She identified 16,500 children as being at high risk, using multiple indicators, and said that the figure would have been higher if the inquiry’s attempt to obtain health data had not been frustrated by “patchy” and “inconsistent” responses.

Of the 14 “signs” or behaviours generally seen in children who are already being sexually exploited, six relate to data collected by health organisations. Those health signs are: physical injuries; drug or alcohol misuse; repeat sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations; poor mental health, and self harm and thoughts of suicide. It was therefore important for the purposes of her inquiry that the deputy Children’s Commissioner was able to access that information.

Initially, it was her intention to collect individual level data in relation to children who have repeatedly attended clinics with sexually transmitted diseases and had had more than one abortion. The intention was to share the data with other known CSE indicators to assess the prevalence of child sexual exploitation.

However, because of current regulations it was not possible to get individual data on terminations. On sharing sexual health data, there were different legal opinions from the Department of Health, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and individual primary care trusts. The Department took the position that it would share its legal counsel and direct areas to not share that data. Aggregate national data provided by the Health Protection Agency and the Department of Health showed that 11,800 children had presented at a sexual health clinic on more than one occasion, 900 of whom had a repeat sexually transmitted infection, and 1,193 children under the age of 16 had an abortion who

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had also had at least one earlier termination. Those numbers indicate how important it is to have individual sexual health data to identify children at risk of child sexual exploitation.

The Department said a decision on substance misuse/mental health data could be made at a local level. Services operating in 41% of primary care trusts around mental health provided individual level data, while services operating in 30% of PCTs around substance misuse provided it. Those differences in data provided by PCTs indicate the wide variation in interpretations of existing law, regulations and guidance. A central request to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, which collects individual data on people accessing substance misuse units nationally, was also refused due to concerns about breaching the Data Protection Act 1998 and health regulations. In the end, the National Treatment Agency provided aggregate level data that was not possible to match with the other indicator data obtained at an individual level.

In answer to my parliamentary question last week, I am aware that the Minister has commissioned Dame Fiona Caldicott to lead a review on the sharing of health data that strikes an appropriate balance between the protection of confidential and identifiable information, and the use and sharing of that information for research and a range of other purposes. Given the extent of the numbers of children attending sexual health clinics, it is crucial that, for example, the frequency of visits to a sexual health clinic, which may be an indicator of sexual exploitation, is capable of being shared alongside other health data at a local children’s safeguarding board level if we are serious about better protecting children from child sexual exploitation. The problem is not only confined to the health professional sharing information with non-health professionals, but it seems that there are problems with health professionals sharing information with each other.

Anecdotally, the other day I was told by a GP that he had contacted a health visitor to discuss an issue relating to a family he was concerned about, and was told by the health visitor that he had to get the patient’s permission to do so. The General Medical Council issued guidance to doctors in July 2012 on information sharing, but of course this was not issued to health visitors. Unless we resolve the confusion about data sharing, it is going to result in different practices in different areas. In some areas, emphasis on confidentiality may mean that a child is continuing to be exposed to risk of child sexual exploitation because data that could identify the risk are not being shared, while in another areas, because of different practices, appropriate interventions are being made.

I have come across similar barriers to data sharing as chair of the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults. It seemed to us incredible that Ofsted was not able to share the names and addresses of children’s homes with the police because of existing regulations. I am pleased that the Government are now consulting on a change to the regulations that would allow this to happen. On the face of it, it seemed like a good principle to keep a child’s address secret. However, in trying to safeguard one piece of information about a child’s life, we were exposing that child to undue risk. It is the same with sharing sexual health data, where we

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are often looking at complex issues of confidentiality versus safeguarding. It is a shame that having sorted out data in one area, we still see barriers in another.

This is a difficult area, and it is made all the more difficult by the fact that there is separate guidance from the Department of Health and the Department for Education. To give one example, the Department of Heath guidance about patient confidentiality issued in 2003 says that NHS professionals must take all necessary steps to secure any information capable of identifying an individual examined or treated for any sexually transmitted disease, and that it shall not be disclosed except where there is consent to do so or to prevent the spread of the disease. The updated guidance on November 2010 says that decisions about disclosures of confidentially sensitive information must be made case by case. Having read both these sets of guidance, I find it easy to see how there can be widely differing interpretations of what data to share and with whom.

We also have statutory guidance from the Department for Education entitled, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”. It was published in 2010, but is currently being revised. The 2012 consultation paper stresses that partners and agencies should proactively share information with each other and with the local safeguarding children boards. It says that from 2010 to 2011, 615,000 children in England were referred to children’s social care services by individuals who were concerned about their welfare. The guidance goes on:

“A consistent message from research, which has been reinforced in every high profile inquiry on child protection, is that children are best protected when professionals are clear about what is required of them individually, and how they need to work together... It is important that children receive the right help at the right time. For that to happen, everyone who comes in contact with them has to play a role in identifying concerns early, sharing information, and taking prompt, informed action. This will involve a range of professionals - for example midwives, health visitors, GPs, early year’s professionals, teachers, police officers, youth workers voluntary workers and social workers. It will require all professionals to be vigilant and take prompt action when they suspect that a child is suffering harm.”

The guidance also points out that, under section 11 of the Children Act 2004, public heath and NHS organisations are among those key organisations that have a statutory responsibility to make arrangements to ensure their functions are carried out with regard to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. The Government are rightly urging local agencies to work together more effectively to safeguard children from child sexual exploitation, but the confusing and conflicting guidelines from the Department of Health and the Department for Education are creating barriers to effective data-sharing arrangements at a local level.

The confusion over current guidelines on sharing health data is giving rise to different interpretations and practices locally, which has led to a postcode lottery when it comes to safeguarding children. I have another anecdotal example. At a child sexual exploitation meeting in Greater Manchester where professionals were sharing data to try to assess the risk to a particular girl, it transpired that the girl had attended accident and emergency for treatment—a fact that had not been disclosed by the health worker present. She subsequently said that she thought that health information was confidential.

We are also facing big organisational change in the health service and in Greater Manchester. For example, several sexual health services run by different primary

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care trusts are due to be transferred to 10 local councils in 2013. I am pleased that Greater Manchester is trying to work towards a consistent interpretation of the different guidance from the Department of Health and the Department for Education for the whole of the Greater Manchester. It cannot be right that the safety of a child at risk of child sexual exploitation is dependent on where they live.

I hope that, in her review, Dame Caldicott will bring together existing guidance from both Departments that will allow local safeguarding children boards to share information in the best interests of the child. The importance of the proper collection of data and data sharing cannot be over-emphasised. The all-party group’s report in June emphasised the link between going missing and the risk of sexual exploitation, but no one fact will be enough and often something that does not seem significant to one agency might assume greater significance when placed with a fact picked up by another agency.

For example, a child who is reported missing for repeated periods, but not for any great length of time, might be the same child who visits a sexual health clinic with an older man. Those two factors being put together would set alarm bells ringing, whereas in themselves they would not seem significant. That is the value of sharing information. It is surely wrong that a child can walk out of a sexual health clinic back to a predator without alarm bells being rung. I am not advocating the routine sharing of every visit by every child to a sexual health clinic, but I believe that health and other professionals need better guidelines and training about when they should share information in the interests of safeguarding a particular child.

Given that identification practices of child sexual exploitation vary significantly across the country, with many areas adopting a reactive approach, accurate data are essential. That is particularly important in relation to black and minority ethnic victims. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner found it difficult to find information about that group of victims, although it established under-reporting of child sexual exploitation in BME communities. That information is significant, given that the general perception appears to be that sexual exploitation by gangs and groups is primarily a crime committed against white children. We have to be able to establish the true extent of sexual exploitation in BME communities, as well as understanding the underlying reasons for under-reporting. Those children have a right to our protection. That makes it even more critical that these sexual health indicators, which indicate risk, should be shared with other agencies.

Sharing data on health is vital in protecting children. These data will be of most value when matched with the data collected by police on missing incidents, by local authorities on absence from school and by youth offending teams, to identify and safeguard all children at risk of being sexually exploited. Lord Laming described the situation eloquently when he said:

“Whilst the law rightly seeks to preserve individuals’ privacy and confidentiality, it should not be used (and was never intended) as a barrier to appropriate information sharing between professionals. The safety and welfare of children is of paramount importance, and agencies may lawfully share confidential information about the child or the parent, without consent, if doing so is in the public interest.”

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This week Sue Berelowitz summed up the problem when she told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that misunderstandings about the Data Protection Act were

“getting in the way of children being protected”.

It is surely time to ensure clearer guidance about the disclosure of health information in the interests of protecting vulnerable children, who should be the main focus of our concern. I hope the Minister will respond by sending out a strong message to that effect.

4.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the work she does. Her energy and commitment to the most vulnerable people in our society are admirable and rightly well known. She has raised some important and disturbing issues. There is nothing wrong with anecdotes, because after all, that is what evidence is—it is, of course, anecdotal. As we have heard today, and as we know from the work undertaken by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, a large number of our young people are victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. Tragically, many of them do not even see themselves as victims. This is a very difficult subject; it is all about striking the right balance.

The deputy Children’s Commissioner recently noted that in preparing her report, she asked for certain data on young people attending sexual health clinics, as the hon. Lady explained. The deputy commissioner wanted the data to enable matching with other data to give an estimate of the numbers of young people suffering from sexual exploitation. The Department of Health took legal advice on whether it would be possible to share the sexual health data requested by the deputy commissioner. Our legal advice said that, given the limits on disclosure in the legislation and the fact that the data requested might identify individual patients, they should not be shared. I understand that around 60% of primary care trusts provided some data as requested. That is clearly a good example of confusion, with one piece of legal advice seemingly at odds with another. The hon. Lady is therefore right to make the point that she did about her great concern, which I share.

I understand that the point about the advice was that it was the deputy commissioner who had made that request, which is different from the point that the deputy commissioner—as well as the hon. Lady—is most concerned about, which is: what happens with data sharing out in the real world when children come along to sex clinics? Unfortunately, we hear many stories of things going wrong—we are all aware of those—but I would say, I hope with confidence, that in the overwhelming majority of cases things go well.

I pay tribute to all those in the health and other services who do a magnificent job in protecting our children. Sometimes we forget that. My experience at the criminal Bar, for what it is worth, taught me that those professionals involved in the protection of children—the hon. Lady read out a long list of the organisations involved—use their own common sense and compassion as well as all the guidance that is available. Anyone involved in such work should always be motivated by an overriding desire and determination to protect the child. That should be at the forefront of their considerations.

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We know from the deputy Children’s Commissioner that repeat attendances at a sexual health clinic are one of the key indicators of potential child sexual exploitation, which is a form of child abuse. Sexual health clinics are open access. That means that anyone can go into a sexual health clinic and receive free and confidential advice and treatment. Patients do not need to go to a clinic in the area where they live, or in the area where they are registered with a GP. They do not even have to give their correct name, age, address or other details in order to receive treatment. The purpose of that is to ensure that anyone, regardless of their age or circumstances, can get the advice and treatment that they need to protect their own sexual health and that of their sexual partners.

We know from a number of studies that confidentiality is highly valued by young people, as I know the hon. Lady will understand. They perceive that the services offered by clinics are likely to be more confidential than going to a GP. We need to reach a point at which any child sexual exploitation can be identified by the health or other professionals who come into contact with the child. Those professionals then need to build up a relationship of trust so that the child feels able to work with them and others to tackle the issues that they face and to make the necessary disclosures to enable action to be taken to protect the child and, if necessary, to bring the perpetrator to justice. Of course, that does not always happen. We know from the deputy Children’s Commissioner’s work that, all too often, the children do not see themselves as exploited or abused. That can result, in the initial stages, in the abuse not being identified by the professionals.

The starting point for everyone who receives health care is that, generally speaking, information about them is not shared without their consent. That is rightly at the heart of the working practices of all health professionals. Additional legislation limits the disclosure by the NHS of information that identifies a person who has been examined or treated for a sexually transmitted illness. That is to ensure that people do not feel reluctant to come forward for testing and treatment. There is agreement on that, too. The legislation allows the information to be disclosed in order to treat, or prevent the spread of, sexually transmitted illnesses. For example, the information might need to be disclosed to the patient’s sexual partners to prevent the spread of the illness.

For under-16s, specific concerns and issues must be addressed. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides that the age of consent is 16 and that sexual activity involving children under 16 is unlawful. The age of consent is there to protect children aged under 16 from exploitation and abuse. It is accepted that children under 16 are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and that they do not have the necessary maturity to make the decisions that young adults can make. That is why we have an age of consent. It is to protect children from exploitation and abuse.

All health professionals should be aware of the age of consent, and of child protection and safeguarding issues, and I believe that most of them are; they take the matter very seriously. When dealing with a child under 16, they

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should be alert to the possibility that that young person is being exploited or abused. It goes without saying that a 15-year-old cannot make a life choice to become a prostitute. Advice and guidance on child protection are available in “Working Together to Safeguard Children” and “What to do if you are worried a child is being abused”. The advice and guidance are available in sex clinics and they are also issued to workers in this field.

All sexual health clinics should have the guidelines and the referral pathways, as they are called, in place for risk assessment and management for child sexual abuse. They should use a standardised pro-forma for risk assessment for all those under 16 and also for those between 17 and 18 where there is a cause for concern or learning difficulties. They should be aware of local child protection procedures and work collaboratively under local safeguarding children arrangements to ensure victims are identified and protected. In my view, perhaps most of all, they should use their own common sense. If a child under 16 presents who has clearly been involved in sexual activity and where it is clear to the worker that there is an element of abuse or any damage caused by sexual activity, alarm bells should be ringing immediately that this is a child who needs protection, help and assistance if only to disclose what has been going on that has led them to be in that position. It is very difficult work, and it often takes a great deal of effort and intervention even to get a child to disclose what has been going on. It then requires even more work to take them through the long, difficult journey to full disclosure and, as I say, to protect them fully and, if necessary, to bring the perpetrators of the abuse to justice.

However, given the issues raised by the report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, we think it would be valuable to work with the NHS, Royal Colleges and other key stakeholders to develop guidance on effective information sharing within the law in order to identify and protect the victims of child sexual exploitation. As we work through those issues, we will need to strike a careful balance between sharing data in a way that achieves our goal of helping victims of sexual exploitation, without discouraging them, or other young people, from visiting a sexual health clinic.

As I said—I hope I did say this at the beginning—we have set up a health working group on child sexual exploitation, and it is working with the experts, the professional bodies and the voluntary sector on these issues. It will produce a report and recommendations in the spring next year. That report will determine the future direction of our work. We want to work closely with bodies representing health care professionals because they hold the key to making progress. We want to make sure that they can identify and support these young people to help them get the help they need at the earliest stage possible.

Finally, I thank the hon. Lady again for bringing this matter to the Floor of the House and for raising all the issues she has about identifying the need for real work to be done in the future to make sure, frankly, that we get it right.

Question put and agreed to.

4.22 pm

House adjourned.