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House of Lords

Wednesday, 6th December 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.


The Earl of Buchan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that there are sufficient slaughterhouses in the south of England available for the slaughter of sheep.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, yes. There are 80 slaughterhouses licensed to handle sheep which are located south of a line drawn from the Bristol Channel to Clacton-on-Sea.

The Earl of Buchan: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer--up to a point. What further financial or other encouragement can the Minister offer to owners such as myself of small flocks of rare breed sheep? I should like to declare an interest--it being both right and fashionable, an interesting political coincidence in itself--as a member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Ltd. What encouragement can be offered to those who wish to spread the good word about the excellent quality of their meat in contrast to that pink plastic product which is sold in supermarkets and masquerades as lamb?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I find myself in total agreement with the sentiments expressed by the noble Earl. I go to some lengths to make sure that I buy my lamb from a good butcher who knows where to obtain the best lamb and slaughters it himself. I hope that other people will be able to do the same. It is difficult for a supermarket which has to sell a large volume of a product of consistent quality to rely on a rare breed which may be available in small numbers and only occasionally. Those who appreciate such factors know where to obtain the product. I hope that they will follow my example and go to their local butcher.

Lord Carter: My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that this is not the best place to talk about the Rare Breeds Survival Trust? Does he accept that there is a case in both social and animal welfare terms for maintaining an appropriate number of small slaughterhouses in rural areas provided that proper standards are maintained? Would this not be a suitable case for a sensible European subsidy?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, there is a good number of slaughterhouses. Out of 490 slaughterhouses in Britain, 206 have what we define as a low throughput. They seem to survive pretty well at present. We do not see any need for additional subsidy.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can my noble friend state how many slaughterhouses have closed in

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the United Kingdom since 1990 largely as a result of zealous enforcement of European legislation? Can he say how many jobs have been lost as a result?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer either question except to say this: not as many as will be. There is still 40 per cent. over-capacity in slaughterhouses. That will inevitably result in further closures. There is no point in keeping open slaughterhouses that are not required.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that if he crosses Offa's Dyke, he will find the best slaughterhouses in this country and the best lamb in the world?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, indeed, yes. I did just that last weekend.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, if there are enough slaughterhouses in the country, will the Minister do his best to continue to ensure that sheep are exported dead rather than alive to avoid the unfortunate export trade involving cruelty to sheep?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, yes. We are doing as much as we can to encourage the trade in dead rather than live meat. We believe that there is much to be gained in terms of value-added in this country as well as in the comfort of the animals concerned.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that hundreds of slaughterhouses have been closed since 1990? Who decides whether a slaughterhouse should be closed? Is it the Department of Health, the people who enforce health standards, or by demand? If it is by demand, can the Minister state why demand has dropped suddenly since 1990?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not believe that it is a question of increased demand. It is mostly a question of expansion by the more efficient slaughterhouses and the less efficient finding it harder to survive.

Birds' Eggs: Smuggling

2.42 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are contributing to international arrangements to prevent the smuggling of rare birds' eggs.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the Government take seriously their commitments as a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The UK has led on a number of initiatives to enhance international enforcement. Trade in a wide range of birds' eggs is restricted under the convention and the UK Customs and Excise enforces the controls on imports from and exports to countries outside the EC.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Did he see the press

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reports that eggs of rare birds had been discovered at an airport, concealed in special compartments of the culprit's underclothes, designed to continue incubation during the flight, thus illustrating the lengths to which crooks will go to obtain young birds of great value? Since British special agencies are now seeking a new role after the end of the cold war, can they not be used to help stop such pernicious trafficking?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, like my noble friend, I saw that press report. It gave a new twist to the idea of an undercover operation and a plot hatched somewhere between Australia and Wales.

We take very seriously such matters as the trade in birds, particularly in this case the interesting way in which the people chose to carry the eggs in order to keep them warm so that they could continue to be incubated when they reached Wales. I am happy to tell my noble friend that a court case has proceeded in Australia and people have been convicted and sent to prison. In this country the people involved have also been convicted after pleading guilty. They are awaiting sentence.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I am intrigued that this is a Treasury matter. Can the Minister clarify how the law proceeds in this situation? Is it the case that the supplier, the smuggler, is committing an offence as well as the demander? Does Customs and Excise proceed by endeavouring to catch both those who are selling and those who are buying? Does it work from both ends in an attempt to stop what was rightly described as a pernicious trade?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, like the noble Lord, I wondered why I had got this Question. I thought that it might be considered by my friends that I could handle difficult issues without dropping eggs all over the place.

The noble Lord is quite right that the authorities both in this country and in Australia have worked at investigating not just the person who carried the eggs and who was picked up at the airport but also the people taking them from the wild in Australia and supplying them, as well as the people incubating them in this country. So we take seriously our investigation into and our intelligence on the trade not only in birds' eggs but in birds, live animals and other species covered by international conventions.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will my noble friend make inquiries as to whether the penalties under our law for smuggling and stealing the eggs of rare birds are adequate and have been sufficiently updated to enable us to comply with our international obligations?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I have no reason to believe that we are not fully complying with our international obligations. Certainly in Australia two of the people convicted received prison sentences of 18 months and one of six months. The judge still has to sentence the people convicted in this country. I shall

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look into the point which my noble friend makes, but from what I have read I believe that we have sufficient powers to deal with people convicted of such offences.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what kind of rare birds they are? Are they hawks, parrots or geese which lay golden eggs?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if they were geese that laid golden eggs, I suppose it would be appropriate for the Treasury spokesman to answer. However, as these birds have not been found--not even apparently by the party opposite--it would appear to be parrots that are largely the victims in this and other cases. People in this country and other countries of Europe seem to wish to keep rare parrots, and their eggs become extremely valuable if they can be smuggled from the wild.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that press reports indicated that cockatoos were involved? In a lighter vein, if my suggestion about special agencies were to be adopted, might not the situation then be described as the successors of 007 being in pursuit of the chicks? Little would have changed.

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