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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 October 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Transport of Animals

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.30 am

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I thank everyone for attending, and thank Mr. Speaker's Office for ensuring that we get off to a good start after the recess with this rigorous 90-minute debate. It is particularly timely because the European Commission is soon to produce proposals, which are based on the requests of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, for reforms to the transport of animals across the European Union. In addition—and not, I think, entirely co-incidentally—we have before us the RSPCA's report on the 39 steps that it believes must be taken if improvements are to be made within the trade.

I acknowledge the invaluable help that I have received from the RSPCA in preparing for the debate, as well as the help that I have received over the years from Compassion in World Farming. I declare an interest, as I am a long-standing member of that organisation.

First, I should like to consider whether the problem is worthy of our attention, because Parliament has a tendency to address any and every issue, regardless of whether parliamentary action is needed. In Westminster Hall debates, in particular, it is important to establish what priority should be given to an issue.

I shall refer to a recent study, made by the "Animal Angels" team associated with the RSPCA, of a journey from Spain to Italy that was made in July 2002, in which 300 sheep were transported. The journey lasted 220 hours, which is roughly 10 days. The route plan required under European regulations was systematically flouted. When the driver got to Venice, the RSPCA intervened because the animals had been on the road without being unloaded for 75 hours. After 85 hours, they were finally unloaded at Prosecco on the Italian-Slovenian border, but only after the RSPCA intervened and reported the driver to the police.

At that point, the sheep had been without food for more than four days. For more than three days they had been unable to rest. They were showing clear signs of physical and mental stress: they were frothing at the mouth, and showed other signs of stress that would be obvious to a veterinarian. One sheep was lying in agony, with its legs sticking out from the side of the lorry, where it had fallen, because it had been packed in so tightly. Many of the sheep had not been milked, and showed clear signs of mastitis.

The water supplies in Venice were empty, so it was not clear how long the animals had gone without water in temperatures of up to 40 deg centigrade, but they were desperate for water when they were seen. If the vehicle had not been stopped, the driver would have put his loaded vehicle on the ferry to Greece. That would have added a further 36 hours without water to the journey.

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At that time, we could see one dead sheep; it was likely that by the end of the journey there would have been many more. The death of animals during transport is a not-infrequent occurrence that worries the farming industry as much as anyone else. That driver drives every week, and one might ask what happened when the infringements were detected: the driver was taken to court and given a fine, and the sheep were allowed to continue their journey to Greece.

At the Italian port, the same crew overloaded two trucks with sheep on three tiers. The majority were not sheared and many were pregnant. They were in bad condition and breathing heavily with wide-open mouths. No vets were present at the port.

The temperature on the ferry was about 36 deg. Vets were present when the sheep arrived in Greece. They admitted that the trucks were overcrowded but the vehicles proceeded anyway because there was nowhere to unload the sheep. There was inadequate ventilation and a defective water system. Animals were dragged by their heads, horns, legs, tails and fleeces and there was severe overcrowding.

It might be said that that is an individual case and that hard cases make bad law. In practice, however, teams from the RSPCA and other organisations have made the same type of observations again and again.

The industry's scale is significant—5 million animals are transported every year. Until recently, live exports from Britain had been stopped because of the foot and mouth epidemic, and some of us felt that that was the only positive aspect to come from the epidemic. However, the exports have resumed, albeit on a smaller scale. Under the Government's interpretation of international law, it appears that it is not possible to ban them altogether. I think that the British public in general believe that maximum precautionary regulations and, indeed, a degree of excessive bureaucracy would be welcome. Ideally, every trip would have to be documented in a 100-page document in Serbo-Croat and submitted personally in the Falkland Islands. If that is not possible, we should at least attempt to ensure that every health and safety and welfare consideration is addressed and documented before any export takes place.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): We agree with the hon. Gentleman about the highest possible standards for exports. Does he agree that his broader point—that we must find ways of limiting the quantity of exports or, to use his words, abolishing it—would fall foul of two things? First, it would fall foul of the European free market. The whole point of being in the European Union is that we must trade with each other without restriction. Does he not understand that 1 million sheep and a quantity of other animals are exported from this country every year? If that were not the case, the domestic market would collapse and farmers who are already having a disastrous time would have an even worse time. Surely he understands the effect that any ban or restriction would have on the domestic market.

Dr. Palmer : In the real world, we can reach consensus. A ban is not possible in practice because of international trade law. We might disagree on the desirability of a ban but it will not happen. On the other hand, export

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conditions must be of the highest defensible welfare standards so that we can sleep easy in our beds about the trade. I accept the hon. Gentlemen's point that these matters are significant.

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I was struck by my hon. Friend's point that the farming industry wishes to observe the highest standards. Does he accept that organisations such as the National Farmers Union have a preference for the export of meat rather than livestock, which brings back added value to the farmer, as a primary producer, and to this country's meat industry? The way forward is to try to ensure that a level playing field throughout Europe brings the standards of animal welfare throughout Europe to the levels for which we, in this country, have pressed.

Dr. Palmer : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. What he said is entirely correct.

I welcome the National Farmers Union's stance on this point, particularly with regard to pig farming. It is generally accepted that several aspects of pig farming in Britain have a higher standard of welfare than is prevalent in other European countries. Therefore, it would be in the interests of the British farming industry—as well as of the animals concerned—if we were to level up standards across Europe, rather than level them down.

Parts of the NFU's response to the European Commission's scientific committee were a bit depressing. It justified practices as diverse as the use of electric prods and, on commercial grounds, insurance to compensate transport firms that allow animals to die en route. The NFU should recognise that the public expect a balance to be struck on such matters. Nobody wishes to drive farmers out of business, and everybody accepts that our practices cannot be too different from those on the continent because of the competitive issue, but the British public are not prepared to support certain practices, such as the use of electric prods, even in the interests of smooth commercial operations. It is important for an industry not to become too separate from its consumers on such issues because, if that happens, the medium-term commercial backlash can be significant.

There is a widespread consensus on this issue in Britain. Most of us continue to eat meat but we do not wish it to be produced in grossly inhumane conditions, and most people accept that the implication of that is that the price of meat will be slightly higher. The long-term interests of the industry require that that consensus be respected.

That consensus is reflected in many other European Union countries, and it is important not to generalise too much about it. In the test votes in the Council of Ministers, there was a majority in favour of an eight-hour travel limit, but it was not a qualified majority. That majority consisted largely of what we think of as the northern tier of countries, with the exception of France and Ireland. However, there is also significant public concern in other European countries, and I understand that some of the countries that opposed a strict eight-hour limit will be open to discussion about a modified approach to the matter.

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I wish to concentrate on three aspects of this issue: first, whether there should be any time limit at all on travel; secondly, whether conditions should be improved during travel; and thirdly, whether enforcements and penalties for infringements need to be toughened up. It is essential to distinguish between those three aspects of the debate, because if we were to blur them together by talking about enforcement while we are talking about the eight-hour limit, it would be easy to end up without any clear statement of what we want to achieve.

On the time limit, the European Commission obtained a report from the scientific committee on animal health and animal welfare—which we call SCAHAW—on the welfare of animals during transport, with details for horses, pigs, sheep and cattle. That was adopted on 11 March. It is a weighty document. The committee was chaired by Professor Donald Broom, who is a distinguished British scientist. The report has received a widespread—although not a universal—welcome as a serious document that addresses in detail the welfare issues for each species.

Despite the generous time allowed for this debate, It is not possible to summarise the entire report. However, on time limits, the report recommends inspection, food, watering and a six-hour pause after a journey of eight to12 hours—depending on species—followed by a maximum of one further eight to 12-hour stretch. That does not go as far as the majority on the Council of Ministers would have liked. It was hoping for an eight-hour limit, as was the European Parliament, and such a limit was also strongly endorsed by the RSPCA among its recommendations.

In the real world, we must recognise that negotiations take place in the Council of Ministers and that we will not achieve everything that we wish for. However, given the wish of the majority of Council members and the strong views expressed in the European Parliament, I hope that the Minister will assure us that Britain will be among the countries pressing for a reasonable limit within the eight to 12-hour range for the great majority of animals. We must rely on the Minister's famous negotiating skills to get the best possible deal, but I hope that this debate will reflect a consensus among hon. Members that our starting position should be the eight-hour limit advocated in the original Council of Ministers debate.

On the question of conditions during travel, the European Commission published a report in December 2000 that openly admitted the failure of the present transport directive to protect the welfare of animals, and the Commission agrees the need for new regulation. The first recommendation in the RSPCA report is that the definition of journey time should be from when the first animal is loaded to when the last animal is unloaded. The SCAHAW report endorses that definition because, should we adopt a less precise one, less scrupulous operators may take longer to transport animals in practice.

Secondly, the RSPCA recommends a maximum journey time of eight hours for farm animals intended for slaughter and that all farm animals must be slaughtered as close as possible to where they were reared. We are all aware of the problem surrounding the closure of small slaughterhouses, and have discussed reasons for the closures in several parliamentary

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debates. In discussions about common agricultural policy reform, there should be encouragements set out for farms and slaughterhouses in the form of subsidies. Subsidies that are currently available for intensive production should be available instead to encourage a high degree of animal welfare on farms and in processing procedures. We must recreate the market for local slaughterhouses to encourage their return. We are beyond the point at which the Government can direct that local slaughterhouses be reopened, but we must reach the point at which it is commercially sensible to do so with defensible animal welfare standards.

Mr. Gray : One slaughterhouse closes every 10 days under Labour. Most of the reason for that is nothing to do with the market. There is plenty of market, and farmers would take their animals to local slaughterhouses. They are closing because they cannot face the heavy burden of regulation that weighs on them and the cost of implementing it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should lighten the regulation on local slaughterhouses if they want them to continue?

Dr. Palmer : No. The regulation that we are discussing has not been imposed frivolously or randomly, but partly on welfare grounds and partly to discourage the spread of disease. The way forward is not to say that small slaughterhouses do not have to fulfil the conditions that large slaughterhouses do. That would be a market-distorting mechanism and would be deeply resented by other sections of the industry.

What is needed is support. The CAP negotiations may offer a basis for support for small slaughterhouses so that they can reach the standards that we want them to attain. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, would not endorse the concept that small slaughterhouses should have lower standards than large ones. We could discuss whether each regulation was ideal, but that might go beyond our debate. He surely accepts the principle that small and large slaughterhouses should both have high standards.

Mr. Gray : Of course I accept that. My point was that both types of slaughterhouse are heavily over-regulated by the Government. For example, what does the hon. Gentleman think about the pith regulations?

Dr. Palmer : The hon. Gentleman goes beyond my knowledge of detailed slaughterhouse regulation, and beyond our debate. I shall restrict myself to arguing the general principle that small slaughterhouses should have the same high welfare and commercial standards as large ones.

Another significant problem is the attitude of the main retail or wholesale purchasers. Some of the large retail chains and supermarkets insist on the use of slaughterhouses that may be in different parts of the country from the farms. That is an anti-competitive practice, and it would help if the Government considered ways to discourage it. It has contributed significantly to a decline in small slaughterhouses.

I shall return to the recommendations of the RSPCA. The third reads:

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It is widely recognised that it is easy for transporters to maintain that animals are transported for one purpose, but for the animals then to be re-transported for another purpose when they arrive. An audit trail needs to be applied to ensure that the intention of the European Union and the Government on the issue is not subverted.

The fourth RSPCA recommendation reads:

There is clearly potential for negotiations with some countries that opposed the eight-hour limit at the test votes at the Council of Ministers. I am grateful to the RSPCA for its brief on the position of each country in those discussions. Although some countries say that the regulations are fine, others concede that they may need to be improved; I hope that they will agree that if journey times for breeding animals are to be longer, the conditions should be right.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject in Westminster Hall. We are discussing the regulations and the opinions of various European countries. Does he have any idea of the views of those countries that are about to join the European Union? Now seems an ideal time to try to sort out such important matters.

Dr. Palmer : I discussed that matter with the RSPCA, which has contacts throughout Europe—both inside and outside the European Union. Somewhat to my surprise, it reports that the attitude of many of the new countries planning to join the EU is quite positive on animal welfare in general, and particularly so on this subject. I say that I was surprised because Poland and Hungary have large farming interests and we might have expected them to be sceptical. I rely on the briefing that I have been given, but it seems that we will not be flying in the face of the wishes of the majority of applicant countries if we strengthen the rules.

The strongest resistance comes not from the applicant countries but from countries on the periphery of Europe that have significant trade with the rest of Europe. I think particularly of Italy, which says that a large part of its trade involves long-distance transport because the country is such a long way from its markets. That applies less to Poland, which has substantial exports to Germany and would hope greatly to increase them but which would not have a problem in meeting an eight-hour limit. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is one of numerous issues that we should try to sort out before we have 25 countries attempting to reach agreement.

The RSPCA next proposes that animals should not start a new journey without a standstill period long enough to ensure effective disease control—both to reduce the risk of spreading disease and for welfare reasons. The report of the European Commission Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare—the SCAHAW report—recommends a 48-hour period between the end of one journey and the start of the next, during which time the animals should get

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rest and recuperation, and food and water. The RSPCA notes, however, that that would not be enough to act as an effective disease control measure.

The sixth recommendation in the "39 Steps" report is:

I believe that the Government could take action on that without having to wait for our European partners.

The seventh recommendation of the RSPCA report states:

Indeed, it should be compulsory to use the ventilation when the vehicle is stationary. As the NFU pointed out, the problem is that existing vehicles may not meet such standards. As always, however, there is scope for negotiation on transitional arrangements to ensure that the industry is not unreasonably disadvantaged. There is a balance to be had in such matters. We hope that such regulations will be introduced within the next few years, because the average lifespan of a lorry is not normally more than five years, and it should be possible to introduce improved regulations for lorry design within that period.

The eighth recommendation reads:

for instance, for breeding animals—

The SCAHAW report details the way in which various species react differently to long journeys. Animals such as cattle normally stand during journeys, but they will eventually sink to a vehicle's floor through exhaustion. That is an argument for shorter journeys, but it also means that in so far as we permit longer journeys we should allow for both standing and sitting postures, and ensure access to water.

The ninth recommendation reads:

The NFU accepts that that is reasonable and should not lead to significant problems.

Recommendation 10, which is uncontroversial, states:

The SCAHAW report contains detailed recommendations on the amount of fasting that should take place before journeys to ensure that animals do not suffer travel sickness, and recommends that excessive fasting should be avoided because it may cause suffering.

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Recommendation 11 states:

That would reduce the risk of injury if an animal were to fall in transit. I stress that we are talking about not only animal welfare but the quality of meat. It is well documented that meat quality is affected when animals are transported in unpleasant conditions, a case in which animal welfare and commercial interests are overlapping.

Recommendation 12, which relates to an earlier point, states that the

Recommendation 13 reads:

The NFU's response to the SCAHAW report makes the reasonable point that we need a precise definition of "inspection". Are we talking about peering through the slats on the side of a lorry or are we talking about examining every animal? Inspections need to be properly defined to inspire confidence in the process. It would be insufficient for a driver to say, "I had a look and everything seemed to be all right."

We need a defined process that haulage companies, which I do not want to demonise, must fulfil. We need to accept that the majority of them want to operate their businesses decently and require well-defined regulations that say what they mean. All of us who have worked in industry will be familiar with the dilemma that although one can attempt to fulfil every regulation in good faith, a campaign group can still attack a real or perceived violation of a regulation that was not clear, or was not there in the first place. We must define what we expect of haulage companies, enforce the rules and punish those who break them, but we should not demonise the companies themselves. Indeed, companies that try to comply with the terms of the regulations are being undermined by those who try to subvert them.

Recommendation 14 states:

In principle, that is non-controversial, as long as a reasonable transition period is allowed so that new lorries can be introduced and the old ones phased out. We need to ensure that the rules are framed carefully, and unambiguously defined.

On a point of parliamentary procedure, I understand that there will be responses only from the Front Benches. However, if any Back Benchers present wish to intervene, I will be pleased if they restrain me.

Recommendation 15 reads:

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There will be particularly strong public support in Britain for that proposal. The principle that an animal is entitled to a few weeks of life before it is subjected to extreme stress is widely accepted and if, as appears to be the case, these young animals are more than others liable to respond badly to extensive travel, separate regulations are needed.

Recommendation 16 provides:

That is partly because of disease and partly to discourage fighting during the journey. The paragraph continues:

Animals reared separately should be kept separately.

Many people will be surprised that it is necessary to make the proposals in recommendation 17, which states:

Many people will be pretty shocked to hear that all those practices occur on a regular basis. The NFU's response is that while it has reservations about the electric goad, which it believes is necessary in some circumstances, it does not dispute that it is a widespread, although bad, practice to lift sheep by the fleece and that extensive education is needed to change farmers' habits in that respect in Britain and overseas.

I will return later to recommendation 18, which states:

Recommendation 19 reads:

which will sometimes happen—

The Commission needs to impose meaningful sanctions on member states if the approved route plans do not provide the information that is required in the transport directive.

Recommendation 20 states:

There is a slight tendency to smugness in northern Europe on this issue; we are not particularly exemplary in imposing our severe penalties.

Recommendation 21 provides:

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That is a fairly routine matter within the EU, which follows most directives.

Recommendation 22 states:

In some instances we are treading on new territory. We must ensure that the directive is applied in practice and that unexpected problems, whether welfare or commercial, do not arise. It will be sensible to see a detailed annual report, certainly during the early years of implementation.

The RSPCA proposes in recommendation 23:

I hope that the Minister will confirm that there is likely to be fairly broad consensus within the EU on that. It is clear from the debate that took place in the Council of Ministers that most countries accept that there are significant violations of even the current guidelines. That is indefensible.

As we know from debates on crime and other issues, a regulation or law that is not supervised or enforced is eventually treated with contempt. The farmers and the haulage companies that adhere to the regulations ultimately feel that they are mugs because they are undermined by those who get away with violating them. We have a duty to the commercial interests of the companies that fulfil regulations to ensure that those that do not are caught and penalised.

Recommendation 24 provides:

I predict that that point will not necessarily appear in the Council of Ministers recommendations, but I hope that the Commission will take note of it.

Recommendation 25 states:

I gave the example of transport from Spain to Greece with a stopover in Italy at a major ferry port to illustrate the problems that can arise if the recommendation is not fulfilled.

Recommendation 26 states:

Recommendation 27 reads:

That is important for reasons identified in the SCAHAW report. It notes that, although the most severe point of suffering is during the loading process, animals can suffer significantly during the journey if, for instance, the vehicle takes corners at high speed.

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In practice, an inspectorate cannot enforce measures to deal with that. Unless every vehicle is followed as it travels, that cannot be done. We can only ensure that drivers have been properly trained, so that they know what is expected of them—the vast majority would prefer to adhere to regulations—and what they need to do to avoid causing suffering to animals being transported. We should not underestimate the role of ignorance. Many people want to do the right thing, but do not know what that is.

Mr. Randall : Ensuring that suffering in transit is limited is of great importance, but I know from my experience of travelling on the Good Shepherd—the boat that travels between the mainland of Shetland and Fair Isle—that sheep are extremely poor sailors. I do not know whether they are still transported on that boat, but is the hon. Gentleman aware of anything that can be done to alleviate problems while sheep are on board ship?

Dr. Palmer : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The question of transport over sea passages is particularly important for Britain and Ireland, and is dealt with by an RSPCA recommendation, to which I shall return.

Recommendation 28 provides:

There is a significant export from the EU to non-EU countries in north Africa and elsewhere but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister stressed, we should be promoting the meat trade rather than the live animal trade. Given the general commitment to reform the CAP, however shaky that may sometimes seem, this is a good opportunity to refocus the support for exports on meat rather than live animals. It is also important that the EU seeks to establish international guidelines that go beyond the EU, so that the commercial interests of its farmers are not undermined by cheaper and lower-welfare practices outside the EU.

Recommendation 29 states:

After the foot and mouth outbreak, we do not need to be told what the risk is if there is confusion about that, whether deliberate or accidental.

I hope that the industry and the Government will increasingly promote the use of electronic markets, so that the appropriate match between buyer and seller can be achieved without the cumbersome, as well as problematic, transport of animals around the country. In this electronic age, it should be increasingly possible—I do not say "universally possible"—to achieve commercial objectives without the physical transport of animals, just as it is possible to negotiate the buying and selling of other commercial property without moving it around the country.

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Recommendation 30 relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). It states:

The RSPCA suggests that the sea crossing of animal transport vehicles on roll/on/roll/off ferries should not be permitted if winds of force 5 or above are likely, or if sea conditions are similar, for some other reason, to those produced by such winds. That SCAFAW recommendation was rejected by the NFU, which argues that the rule is too general, and that some boats can cope with high winds, but others cannot. There is therefore a need to consider boats individually. I am not sure that SCAFAW's suggestion does the ferry operators and transporters any favours: an individual assessment would have to be made each time, and it would not be certain from studying the weather forecast each morning that one would be allowed to travel. One could turn up at the ferry port and find that the ferry was of a particular construction unsuitable for force 5 winds. There is a strong case for a specific ruling, rather than leaving the area fuzzy and to the judgment of a port official.

Recommendation 31 is that the European Union should agree additional specific detailed measures for the protection of horses during transport. The SCAFAW report identifies significant issues that relate specifically to horses. These issues are widely accepted in Britain because of the transport of horses of very high quality for racing and other purposes such as–dare I say it–fox hunting.

Recommendation 32 is that an official veterinarian with appropriate additional training and understanding of their role must supervise the loading of all animals to be transported for more than eight hours. The principle is that it is especially important that the conditions are optimal if it is decided that some or all animals may be transported for longer periods. I was disappointed that the NFU resisted that point. It is intuitively clear that the degree of inspection and control can be less for a short journey than if a major journey is about to be undertaken.

Recommendation 33 is that the Commission must provide a new definition of "fitness to travel" that includes the provision that no animal is fit to travel unless it can stand unaided and vary the weight on each of its legs when walking.

Recommendation 34 is that additional species-specific rules have been provided for the transport of the thousands of non-human primates that are imported over long distances from overseas breeding centres for use in biomedical research. Currently, there are no maximum times for journeys. We also need maximum intervals between the times at which food and water are provided.

Recommendation 35 concerns the need for improved provisions for the transport of poultry. It follows the publication of a SCAFAW report on the welfare requirements of poultry, which are not addressed in detail in the current report.

Recommendation 36 states that specific provisions for companion animals, such as dogs and cats, should be provided at a future date.

Recommendation 37, which will also have widespread support among the British public, is that the transport of heavily pregnant animals should be

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avoided. It should never take place during a period at least equal to 10 per cent. of the gestation period before giving birth, nor for at least one week following birth.

Recommendation 38 is that it should be prohibited to insure farm animals transported for slaughter and further fattening against mortality because of injury or poor meat quality. That is a SCAFAW recommendation, because if it is possible to insure against the consequences of bad transport, it will be in the commercial interests of some companies in some instances to circumvent the regulations. We must do everything we can to ensure that it is against the commercial interests of companies to have poor welfare conditions.

The final RSPCA recommendation is that the EU must consider introducing a requirement for all livestock vehicles transporting animals for more than eight hours to be linked to Galileo–the navigation positioning system–to help to police and enforce the regulations.

Mr. Gray : That is all very well, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Galileo system has not been designed yet, that it will require the launch of several satellites and that it may not be introduced for 10 or 20 years? I hope that the rest of the RSPCA report is more accurately and sensibly based than that recommendation.

Dr. Palmer : I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I believe that he exaggerates the difficulties with Galileo, but time will tell. Existing satellite systems run by the Americans can be used in the interim, and then Galileo will offer a more precise measurement, which I accept is perhaps not necessary in this instance. I accept his point that the system can be implemented only as it becomes technically feasible.

As I mentioned earlier, Britain is not as fine an example in enforcement and penalties as we might wish. In a case last year, JSR Healthbred Pigs and Chris Waite Hauliers admitted to providing false information on journey plans and violating the law deliberately. What happened to them? The pig farm was fined £1,500 costs and £500 for the offence, and the haulage company was fined £500 and ordered to pay £500 costs.

Those are derisory sums. As a business man, if I were not concerned with the issue, thought that the likelihood of being caught were not that high, and knew that, if I were caught I would have to pay perhaps only £1,000, I might be willing to take that risk. We need to avoid that situation and ensure that it is a severe commercial risk for a company to violate the regulations. It is a question of respect for the law, and there is no point in legislating unless the penalties are commensurate with the gravity of the offence, especially for deliberate falsification. Indeed, any deliberate conspiracy to circumvent the regulations should be a criminal offence.

Other campaigners and I are seeking some assurances from the Minister. First, will the Government give the strongest possible push in the European Council for the principle of a journey limit, even if compromises have to be made on the detail? Once the principle is established, we can make further progress, but we need to reach that bridgehead. The positive vote in the European Council gives us hope that it may be possible, with suitable compromises on detail, to achieve that principle.

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Secondly, will the Minister commit to the strongest possible implementation of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare recommendations and the additional points in the RSPCA plan? Thirdly, will the Government work for the transfer of CAP subsidies from intensive farming to animal welfare? It should be possible to reassure countries that are concerned about their farming interests that we are seeking not to undermine their farms, but to reorient them to the standards that we expect in Britain. Fourthly, will the Government work for much stricter enforcement and, in particular, more commercially threatening penalties and criminal charges for active conspiracy to circumvent the law?

I am proud of Britain's record in supporting improvements, and I hope that we will join our allies in the European Union to lead the way forward. I apologise to hon. Members for taking so much time on the issue, which, despite today's light attendance, due to the scheduling of the debate, has widespread support throughout Britain. I hope that the Minister will press ahead with the policy.

10.29 am

Matthew Green (Ludlow): I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) secured this debate and I welcome the RSPCA's report, which will help to continue the debate. We need to reduce and phase out live animal exports, but we must do so in a balanced way that will not harm the agricultural industry or the British economy.

There are many clear arguments for reducing live exports and increasing carcase exports. Many Liberal Democrats sympathise with and support good animal welfare, which the hon. Member for Broxtowe has pressed at great length, but the costs to industry are considerable. Exporting animals means a cost to the farmer, which would not apply to shorter distances; and transporting animals also has environmental costs. Generally, the shorter the distance, the less need for road haulage. Local slaughterhouses would benefit from a greater emphasis on carcase export. Evidence suggests that animals slaughtered after longer journeys produce a lower quality of meat on the shelves—a consumer issue. Finally, disease control is a factor. If the distance over which animals are transported is reduced, the likely spread of foot and mouth or other communicable diseases is further reduced—an issue fresh in our minds.

We should recognise that only about 10 to 15 per cent. of meat exports are live and that some export is not for slaughter. Export for restocking or breeding purposes is always a possibility. New methods are under consideration—in respect of breeding, the transportation of embryos or semen, for example—but we cannot escape the fact that for breeding purposes we shall have to transport animals at different times. Transport within the UK will always be a necessity: all parts of the country cannot be used to produce fat lambs or fat cattle, for example. The upland areas of Wales and the Welsh Marches classically produce light lambs and cattle, which are sold as store animals and are sent off to the midlands for fattening. We may not be talking about long journeys in that respect, but the need to transport live animals—and not only to the slaughterhouse—will always apply. The idea that we can do everything on one large farm and ship straight to the slaughterhouse will never be a practical possibility.

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We must rule out the closure of livestock markets, which perform a necessary function in the sale of both slaughter and store animals.

Dr. Palmer : That may be true, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that the exchange of information by electronic means may in the longer term reduce the necessity to transport animals from market to market?

Matthew Green : I accept that the need to transport animals to livestock markets may reduce, but I cannot imagine that there will ever be a time when livestock markets are not needed. We have to accept the permanent need for livestock markets. In the past year or two, some people have suggested that it would be possible to close all livestock markets. Frankly, that is not a possibility, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government understand that.

The hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in live exports. If we are to phase them out, we need Europe-wide action; action by the UK alone has clearly been ruled out. Reforming the CAP gives us an opportunity to move—entirely, I hope—from production-based subsidies to land management-based subsidies. Some of the incentives that the system provides for live exports would then disappear, which would be welcome, not least because we need to move to land management-based subsidies for other reasons.

I hope that the EU Commission will study and change the EU transport directive and implement some of the measures raised in the recent European Parliament report. I shall mention some of the specifics later.

Overall, there must be better policing at the European level. We cannot accept a situation in which standards are enforced in some countries but not in others. Steps must be taken at the European level; it would be counterproductive for our industry if Britain took unilateral action.

The number of local, smaller slaughterhouses has been declining since before the Labour Government's period in office. There are several reasons for that, and we have touched on regulation. Another reason is the buying methods of the bigger multiples, and no one has really got to grips with the impact of their purchasing arrangements. Unfortunately, market forces have also driven the problem.

Having more local slaughterhouses offers huge advantages, but restoring them will probably require direct support. Action will also be needed to reform the meat hygiene regulations and to put them on a headage basis rather than on a flat-rate basis, which clearly discriminates against small slaughterhouses. To restore some of those slaughterhouses, we may have to discriminate in favour of them rather than against them.

If we are to phase out live animal exports, we must consider the possibility of more UK-produced meat being consumed in the UK. The knock-on effect may be a reduction in the amount of meat imported into this country. If we are to seek higher standards in the movement of animals, we must ensure that imported livestock is reared and transported according to the standards that we expect in this country. I hope that the Minister will deal with that.

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I want now to touch on some of the European Parliament's proposals, which, as we heard, relate to time. However, they also talk about a distance regulation, which is slightly odd, given that it is time that matters, not the distance that an animal is transported.

On the more specific issues, the National Farmers Union is genuinely concerned that the request for the continuous feeding of animals during journeys will probably never be achievable.

Another issue is labelling. At present, we label animals where they are slaughtered, not where they start. If there was progress on that issue, I think that we would see a reduction in the movement of animals.

Finally, many of the proposals do not differentiate between different species. More work must be done. The needs of cattle are different from those of sheep, but there is a tendency to treat all livestock identically; we should be more species specific.

10.40 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) : I shall seek to be brief because I am keen to hear the Minister's response. Hon. Members often aim to be brief, but are not. I shall try to stick to my word, and if the Minister gives me a nod at the right moment, I shall happily curtail my remarks even if it means missing out some of the best bits.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on his well-balanced and sensible approach to an issue that can generate great passion on both side of the animal welfare debate. All good men and true in the United Kingdom are in agreement about the desirability of reducing distress to animals as much as possible, both during transport and when they are being slaughtered; they differ merely about how to do it.

I am not so happy with some of the terms used by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who seemed to suggest that it was desirable to move progressively towards the abolition of live animal exports. At one stage he even seemed to suggest the abolition or reduction of transport itself. That is not practical for two reasons.

Matthew Green : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray : I am sorry, but I do not have time.

The first is that the law is clear. The European Union would not allow the abolition of the export of live animals even if we wished it. Secondly, as I said earlier, we export 1 million sheep as well as many other animals, and were that to be outlawed, there would be severe consequences for our farmers. While that might seem like a good idea to the hon. Gentleman's more anthropomorphist constituents, it is not possible. In fact, we should avoid anthropomorphism in the debate. Animals are not like human beings. Of course, we would not want to be herded together in a lorry and carted around for eight, 12 or 24 hours. Equally, we would not like to be left in a field in the pouring rain to be milked twice a day and fed a lot of hay. Animals are different and it is reasonable to accept that. I suspect that some of the more extreme animal rights activists think that animals are the same as we are; of course, they are not.

The Opposition supported the Labour Government's Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997 because it was a perfectly sensible means of laying down the

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conditions under which animals should be transported. Our problem is that the terms of that order are not satisfactorily reflected—certainly not policed—in the European Union and elsewhere. Can the Minister comment on how the Government intend to make sure that the high standards of transport that apply in this country will be applied across the European Union and beyond—for example, in the case of the occasional transport of live animals by sea to the middle east? We must be sure that our high standards will be applied, not least so that our hauliers and farmers are not put at a competitive disadvantage. That has happened in the pig industry—we apply hugely high standards in this country but they are not applied even as close as Calais, and the consequence of the difference is that our farmers are, absurdly, put out of business.

I should like the Minister to focus on the important matter of local abattoirs. We have lost 336, some 44 per cent. of the total, since the Government came to power. There are only 500 left in the United Kingdom, largely because of costs and regulations, some associated with foot and mouth disease. The Minister must find a way in which to cut both. Will he tell us when he will implement in full the proposals in the Maclean report of 2000, which will be of great help with regard to small local abattoirs?

Will the Minister also address briefly the matter of the export of live horses? The export from the UK of live horses for slaughter has been illegal for some time; it does not happen. Will he confirm that that will remain the case and that it will not interfere with the export of live horses for other purposes, as there are some important reasons for exporting horses—for example, for competitions and racing? Will he ensure that there is no increase in the export of live horses for slaughter? In particular, will he review the disgracefully interventionist and unnecessary provisions of the horse passport scheme, which will become compulsory from 31 December 2003? Will he confirm that the introduction of horse passports will not increase the amount of horseflesh from this country that goes for eating on the continent of Europe? If that were allowed to happen, there might be a presumption in favour of allowing the export of live horses for slaughter.

Had there been time, I should have liked to raise several other points, but the Opposition broadly welcome the regulations. Broadly speaking, we welcome the RSPCA's proposals, "39 Steps", which I read with interest and which were wonderfully described by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, but we do not accept all the proposals. I mentioned Galileo, for example—a daft proposal, which would not be possible. I should also like to know what is meant by beating. Of course, we do not want animals to be beaten to get them on to lorries, but anyone who has ever loaded an animal on to a lorry knows that a tap on the backside with a stick is perfectly sensible. We must not allow ourselves to be tempted down the politically correct avenue of saying that animals should not be treated in that way. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points, and I shall be happy to discuss the subject with him in more detail on another occasion.

10.46 am

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on his well-informed and

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thoughtful contribution to the debate, as well as the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on their constructive contributions. My hon. Friend was right to focus on issues that go much wider than our responsibilities in the United Kingdom. He said that certain concerns were shared by the farming industry and animal welfare organisations, and following a conversation last night with one of the vice-presidents of the National Farmers Union I can confirm that that is the case.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has played a leading role in promoting animal health and welfare matters, is at the Agriculture Council today, but I took the opportunity of discussing this subject with him at the weekend, and I hope that, in my response, I can cover most of the points that have been raised, albeit briefly.

The transport of animals, especially over long distances, generates strong feelings. Over the years, hon. Members have helped to push the issue up the political agenda, as have organisations such as the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming. My hon. Friend focused on "39 Steps", which I recommend to hon. Members as essential reading, although unlike John Buchan's original, it may not grip the reader for hours into the night if selected as bedtime reading.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) rightly stressed the need for a balanced approach. We must deal with the issue in a practical way and ask what is necessary and useful in respect of practices that raise animal welfare concerns. The hon. Gentleman referred to the distance limit and stressed that time is more important. The proposal is eight hours or 500 km, which is an attempt to resolve the practical problems in remoter areas, where journeys by minor roads and greater distances extend journey times beyond those for producers who have easy access to motorways. It also addresses concerns about the uneven distribution of slaughterhouses.

The hon. Members for North Wiltshire and for Ludlow referred to the future of abattoirs. One of my first responsibilities as a city councillor in 1973 was as a member of the Cardiff abattoir working party, which included grappling with the impact of European requirements at that time, resulting from the decisions of a Conservative Government. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to pithing. Destroying an animal's brain by use of a pithing rod after a captive bolt stunning has taken place was widely used on cattle in this country, but the Food Standards Agency recently introduced legislation to ban that practice on human health and safety grounds. The industry must clearly adapt some of its operating practices, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want us to play fast and loose with public health issues.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Maclean task force, which was established to consider ways in which to reduce the impact on small and medium abattoirs of a move required by EU law to introduce full veterinary supervision in all abattoirs and cutting plants by 1 April 2001. It was clear that the move would result in substantial increases in costs in small and medium abattoirs and that, in consequence, some would be forced to close. As announced in the rural White Paper, the Departments responsible for agriculture in England, Wales and Scotland have provided the Food Standards

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Agency with £8.7 million for each of the next three years, from 2001-02 to 2003-04, to reduce the level of charges to small abattoirs. Since April 2000, the FSA has had responsibility for implementing European and domestic legislation on meat hygiene charges and other related matters.

We were pleased to award a grant to Humane Slaughter Services Ltd. to support the costs of a study of the feasibility of operating a mobile slaughter unit in central and southern England. That study has been completed and the company is now considering whether to go ahead with the development of a mobile unit.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the horse passport issue. I am happy to confirm that the move should not lead to an increase in exports of horses for slaughter. The exception is being made for the movement of horses involved in racing, for example. The horse passport proposals are widely supported by the industry.

I return to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, which are the main focus of the debate. The Government take his views seriously, and we have continued to state a preference for shorter journeys, but the United Kingdom cannot act alone in changing the rules for the transport of animals. All hon. Members who have participated in the debate have recognised that fact. We have acted in concert with other countries, because we are concerned about the bad practices leading to the cruelty to which my hon. Friend referred. In February, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary called for fewer live sheep exports and, in July, he called for the European Commission to introduce proposals to amend the current animal transport rules. In September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke at the Agriculture Council, urging discussion on a general eight-hour maximum for journeys within Europe.

As my hon. Friend said, there have been some appalling instances of abuse of animals on long journeys on the continent. Failures in the current rules and their enforcement have been the source of many concerns identified by the Commission's report on the experiences of member states since current rules were implemented. Our policy has been to enforce the rules in this country fully and consistently and to encourage those on the continent to do the same. We want a level playing field based on the highest possible standards—that is why, during the agriculture debate in September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State called for better monitoring of animal transport within the European Union. That would make a difference, because the monitoring of journeys is at present the responsibility of the member state through which the journey is made, which can lead to the inconsistencies to which my hon. Friend referred.

The problems identified by the Commission have led other member states to agree with us that changes and improvements must be made. During the Agriculture Council debate in September it became clear that progress must be made before we achieve a consensus on the extent of changes required on the length of journeys. There is deep division between EU member states that support reduced journey times and those that oppose any change in the current controls. The issue will not be

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a simple one to resolve, and voluntary organisations need to step up the pressure and the process of education of citizens throughout Europe. The Government are on their side, but some Governments are not. However some, as my hon. Friend suggested, are in favour of change.

We were disappointed to see live exports resumed this summer after almost 18 months of no trade, but we must remember, as hon. Members said, that that trade is legal and our role is to apply the rules scrupulously. One way in which the UK does so is to refuse to issue route plans to the continent if sheep are likely to be transported when the temperature is anticipated to reach more than 30 deg.

As a result of the foot and mouth disease outbreak, the European Union introduced new measures to control the movement of sheep through assembly centres and staging posts to minimise disease risk. Minimum residency and standstill periods must now be met before fattening and breeding sheep are eligible for export. Under EU rules, all categories of sheep may be assembled for export only at approved assembly centres, which must meet strict conditions and be under veterinary supervision. EU animal health rules also limit the time between sheep leaving their holding of origin in one member state and arriving at their destination in another member state.

In addition to those EU controls, we have reviewed national legislation and procedures relating to assembly centres. Earlier this year we introduced measures requiring assembly centres to have in place an operational agreement covering all aspects of biosecurity.

My hon. Friend referred at length to the "39 Steps" report, which we largely welcome. It is in four sections. The first refers to journey times and the Government agree with the points made in that section. I have already referred to the way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took that forward at the September Agriculture Council.

The second section covers vehicle standards and is a little more complicated. We want to see the Commission's proposals for changes in the legislation before getting caught up in a lot of technical detail.

The third section covers enforcement. The UK already operates controls that are tighter in some cases than those proposed. For example, we require route plans to be returned within 15 days of completion of a journey. We can support measures to improve enforcement in particular if they can be brought forward by changes in procedures and without the need to change legislation.

The fourth section refers to miscellaneous items, the majority of which we support. One point of concern involves livestock markets, which are covered by UK legislation. That is something about which, as hon. Members suggested, we need to be careful because there are differences between practices in some continental countries and the UK. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it reassuring that we can, in general, respond positively to what is a useful document.

My hon. Friend referred to rough weather. The Government are concerned that livestock should not suffer by being transported by sea in conditions that may cause unnecessary suffering. The state veterinary

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service staff have accompanied sailings in a variety of conditions up to and including winds of force 7 and 8 and in rough seas. They observed that sheep did not suffer as a result of those conditions in the circumstances referred to. Transporters must not carry animals if they may be caused unnecessary suffering when force 7 or greater winds or rough or worse seas are forecast. Dover staff discuss any scheduled sailings with the master of the vessel to ensure that he has satisfied himself that he can comply. If staff believe that the master intends to sail in weather that may cause unnecessary suffering, a notice can be issued to prevent sailing. In fact, no notices have had to be issued so far, but several sailings have been cancelled by the operators because of conditions and that sort of discussion.

My hon. Friend also referred to the handling of animals. It is already an offence under current EU rules to lift or drag an animal by its head, horns, legs, tail or fleece and to use excessive force, sticks or electrical prods other than in limited circumstances. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to that. Improvements are a matter for training and enforcement and we have already touched on that.

While we support moves in Brussels to shorten journey times on animal welfare grounds, three matters must be borne in mind. First, short journeys do not automatically guarantee improved welfare. A short journey that is badly managed can be more harmful than a long journey that is properly planned and carried out. That point must be acknowledged. Secondly, the different requirements of the sport and breeding industry, where animals of high value are generally transported under excellent conditions, must be recognised. Thirdly, the impact of changes on livestock producers in remote areas such as the Scottish highlands and islands, and on farmers such as those in Wales who need to find outlets for light lambs, must be taken into account. I hope that I have managed to cover most of the points that have been raised. There is a need further to join up our work with that of local authorities—

Mr. Alan Hurst (in the Chair): Order.

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