Draft Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 and Draft Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens and Meat Chickens and Breeding Chickens

[back to previous text]

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Does my hon. Friend agree with the experts who say that with proper management and the provision of ample high-quality litter, there is no need to trim or de-beak?

Mr. Morley: Yes, I agree, and I recognise that we cannot ignore the welfare issues relating to various intensive poultry systems. Welfare issues are the reason why there is beak tipping and beak trimming. I have been to several intensive units and know that people in the industry believe that beak trimming can be eliminated. Many simply use beak tipping—only the curve at the end of the beak is taken off, rather than the beak trimmed extensively. In the interim period, we will be able to manage with tipping, rather than trimming. I want to speak to the industry about how to achieve that before 2010.

The directive will be reviewed in 2005. That review will consider systems for keeping laying hens and the health, environmental and economic impact of those systems. New proposals will be made on the basis of the Commission's report and will take into account the outcome of World Trade Organisation negotiations. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) suggested, we are in an increasingly global marketplace, and our products are competing with foods that in some cases are produced in conditions that do not meet our current welfare standards, let alone new ones. It is appropriate that we press very hard on the issue in the WTO negotiations. I am very pleased to say that farm animal welfare in relation to world trade is one of the European Union's priorities agreed by the Council of Ministers. It will therefore be one of the issues that the EU negotiating team will press in the WTO. The 2005 review will be an opportunity to look at progress on that and welfare recommendations.

Column Number: 7

Although it is appropriate that there will be a review in 2005, I do not see it as an excuse for weakening existing proposals on welfare standards. That will not happen. However, it will be appropriate to look at the various welfare codes and standards. In the 2005 review, we intend to raise the point about ending beak trimming by 2010, with an EU standard that would apply across the whole of the EU. There is a willingness to do that, and by then we will have made considerable progress in strengthening our scientific and veterinary arguments to make the case.

The Committee is also discussing the new welfare codes that have been produced by DEFRA. They cover both laying hens and meat chickens, which are currently covered by the domestic fowl code—not the snappiest of titles—that dates back to 1987. The new codes have been designed to be user friendly. The format highlights the legal requirements and welfare advice in the same way as the sheep code, which we issued in 2000. The industry welcomed our producing something that is easy both to read and to follow.

We are trying to address welfare issues in the new codes, which will be made under section 3 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. The codes are essentially voluntary, not statutory and they have of course been agreed with the industry during consultation. They are important and should not be taken lightly. Lack of adherence to them can be used as evidence in any prosecution brought for causing unnecessary pain, distress, suffering or injury to livestock. Any of the codes can be used in that way. Although they are not statutory—I know that people sometimes say that they should be—they have effective force. We have consulted with the industry on them and are confident that the vast majority of the industry is signed up to them.

Stock keepers must have access to and knowledge of the codes, which are designed to focus on the welfare outcome for birds. They have been designed in relation to pragmatic and practical management experience, and the welfare of birds is the principal objective. They will apply to England and there will be separate codes, which have also gone through full public consultation, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The laying hen welfare code provides guidance on regulations for producers. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) asked about the space allowance. The increased space allowance in converted cages will apply from 1 January 2003, and the increase will be from 450 sq cm to 550 sq cm.

Mr. Bacon: Will the Minister clarify whether that increased space must be in situ by 1 January 2003?

Mr. Morley: Yes.

The meat and breeding chickens code, which was issued in the absence of EU welfare proposals, reflects ongoing concerns about the welfare of meat chickens in intensive systems. There has been a great deal of debate about broiler chickens and there is a need for those codes. Of course, it is desirable that EU

Column Number: 8

directives are brought forward, and the UK Government will press for an EU directive to cover the whole of the Community.

Our experience and that of the industry is that there are welfare concerns to be addressed in all poultry systems, whether laying or broiler systems. I pay tribute to the many industry organisations that have worked very hard develop the codes, introducing and, in some cases, financing a range of techniques and handling systems that promote the welfare of birds. A great deal of work has been done, and I have seen the results of much of it in poultry systems in my own constituency. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that a great many rearing systems and one of the country's biggest poultry factories are in or adjacent to my constituency.

The regulations and welfare codes are an important part of the Government's animal welfare strategy. With that in mind, I strongly commend them to the Committee. They represent a big advance in poultry welfare. Obviously, there will be ongoing debate, such as the consultation on enriched cages. I know that welfare organisations would like us to go further and faster—I understand that. I also know that some industry groups feel that we are going too far. That is always the case when the Government seek to strike a balance that recognises the legitimate needs of the industry as well as the pressure from organisations, consumers and the public to address welfare issues. We constantly seek to improve the welfare standards of farm animals in this country, across the board and in all sorts of systems. We should ensure that there is no mutilation of animals unless there are very strong welfare reasons for it, and even then we should address the science and management issues to ensure that we remove the reasons for such actions.

I believe that the codes and the new regulations strike that balance. We are taking a balanced and responsible position by starting the consultation on the future of enriched cages and by dealing with the issue of beak trimming, and I look forward to further discussions with the industry on those matters. Constituency MPs recognise that there is considerable public concern about the issues, and I am sure that we all recognise that the Government have gone a long way to address the concerns in a reasonable, pragmatic and balanced way.

4.52 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths? We members of the early morning Tea Room contingent often have a head start on everyone else.

I am delighted that the Minister has not been reshuffled to some other Department. I mean it in the best possible way when I say that he is like one of the survivors of the French Fourth Republic who passed from one administration to another. To mix my metaphors, he is like Talleyrand, the great survivor during the Napoleonic period.

Column Number: 9

The Minister has a deep and long-standing commitment to the welfare of animals and has spoken passionately on the subject. He has fairly pointed out that the problem in farming is to achieve a balance on the welfare requirements of animals that are ultimately killed to produce the products that we eat. It is not an easy balance to strike, and one of the things that the Committee will do is consider the balance that has been achieved. We have already heard some questions to the Minister on the matter. I shall raise a series of questions, bearing in mind not only what the Minister said about continuing welfare requirements, but the continuing survival of UK agriculture—another very important factor. As the Minister intimated—we have had this debate before in Committee—we do not want to end up exporting most of UK agriculture abroad only to see a large amount of our food being provided by countries that do not do not meet the high welfare standards of the United Kingdom or the European Union.

Pig farming is not a direct parallel, but I recall the debate on the future of the UK pig industry and the legislation passed by Parliament more than a decade ago. Pig farmers, who as a result of that legislation work to some of the highest standards, have been going through grave difficulties over the last five, six or seven years—swine fever being an obvious example. The problem is that the public are only too well aware that some of the pig products that arrive in the UK may originate from countries where pigs are reared under totally unacceptable conditions.

Broadly speaking, the farming sector welcomes the regulations, but it has already put a number of questions to the Minister, as have animal welfare groups. The Government's approach to the legislation is best summed up in a letter that the Secretary of State wrote on 8 April 2001 to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who had asked on behalf of a constituent what Government policy was on directive 99/74/EC. The Secretary of State replied:

    ''Our approach is to implement''—

that directive—

    ''without adding to it in any way. This is consistent with the Government's Strategy for Agriculture in which we undertook not to over implement ('gold-plate') European Union legislation . . . We need to ensure that we retain a viable egg industry and do not simply export welfare problems abroad.''

We would all say amen to that.

The Government have repeatedly stated in answers to written and oral parliamentary questions that they intend to implement the EU directive without adding to it in any way—in other words, unilaterally. That reassurance was necessary because of the widespread fear, noted by Ministers, that any gold-plating of the directive would place great and possibly uncompetitive financial burdens on the British egg industry, with the added danger that the British egg market might seek to purchase cheaper eggs from countries that did not meet current welfare standards, let alone those that would be implemented by the regulations.

Column Number: 10

I am struck by the fact that the British egg industry is not directly subsidised. It seems to me to have made considerable efforts—perhaps it should make even greater efforts—to deal with standards of health and welfare problems. Perhaps owing to lack of time, we have not heard from the Minister about the importance to the UK of the British egg industry. The industry employs some 8,000 people directly, and many thousands more indirectly in the haulage and processing sectors. It is the biggest user of cereal, using 800,000 tonnes every year. The majority of eggs sold through UK supermarkets come from the UK, and nearly 50 per cent. of so-called value eggs are from caged hens. It is an important business, which plays a significant role in the national and local economies. Indeed, few constituencies are unaffected by it. It is estimated that the UK industry makes a profit of about £10 million in a good year, and nearer to £5 million in an average year.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about aspects of the proposed legislation that the Minister has already flagged up. It is obviously right and proper that the Government should implement EC regulations that take account of the welfare of animals and the health and viability of UK farming, which is a difficult balancing act. The Minister concentrated on the welfare of animals, but I ask him to consider the latter point, about the effect of the legislation on the viability of UK farming.

I assume that the Minister wants a strong and viable UK egg industry, but as he said himself, that requires long-term confidence to encourage producers to invest heavily in the technology and processes required if they are to meet current and future directives in the next 10 or 15 years. That will entail high costs. The Minister's Department has undertaken a regulatory impact assessment, which is included with the documents available to the Committee. It indicates that the cost to the industry of implementing the regulations will be more than £400 million. The British Egg Industry Council estimates that the cost will be about £431 million, so the two estimates are not far apart. There is a further £109 million in annual running costs—we are not talking about small sums. As with other sectors of agriculture in the UK, the egg production industry is already suffering from severe financial pressures, but according to DEFRA's figures, a 100,000-bird unit would face a capital compliance cost of £1.6 million.

I recognise that if we adopt an accountant's approach to legislation, we will probably never introduce any new measures at all. The Minister emphasised that the viability of the egg industry is crucial, so the Committee should consider whether the legislation that will be introduced as a consequence of the Government's development of the EC directive will place an unfair burden on the UK industry compared with industries in other European countries, let alone those in countries beyond the EU. To return to my earlier point, the irony might be that we export welfare issues abroad. Is the Minister aware, for example, that the National Farmers Union survey of its egg-producer members showed that up to 60 per

Column Number: 11

cent. of egg producers could be lost by 2012? We should not forget that the industry is declining. What, if any, financial assistance are the Government considering giving to the egg industry to implement the regulations? Is the Minister considering any form of capital funding, for example? The German Government are considering investment loans. Are the UK Government considering that?

As the Committee knows, the continued competitiveness of the UK egg industry relies on its being able to make full use of all the permitted systems of egg production set out in the directive on the welfare of laying hens. The Minister said that research into bird welfare and bird behavioural aspects of enriched cages is taking place at the ADAS Gleadthorpe, at commercial egg production units and at several universities. That research includes the opportunities available to birds in enriched cages to exhibit a range of natural behaviours, such as nesting and foraging. The Minister also said that he intends to go ahead, at the same time, with a full public consultation on the future of enriched laying cages in the UK. I see a slight contradiction there. The Government have always said that we need to base our conclusions about welfare and health on objective scientific research, so I suggest that we need to complete the research, to establish the facts, and then enter into a public consultation based on those facts. Otherwise, we are in danger of putting the cart before the horse. I urge the Minister to ensure that the research is completed as soon as possible and to put on hold a wide-ranging public consultation, which will be based on lobbying by the various sectors, some of which will be pertinent and some of which will not, because we cannot hold a proper public consultation until we have established the facts. I do not say that as a method of holding up eventual implementation, like a death-row lawyer. I do not think that I look like a death-row lawyer; I look far too poor.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 June 2002