HC Deb 12 June 1972 vol 838 cc1066-70

6.46 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I beg to move, That this House, in view of the fact that investigators of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have evidence that the Balfour Assurances on the export of live animals for slaughter are not being strictly enforced, urges Her Majesty's Government to make strong representations to the governments of the countries concerned, and to consider restricting such exports to meat in carcase form. I am grateful to the House for allowing me a quarter of an hour of this Private Member's time in which to present my Motion.

As I understand the position, the Balfour assurances concerning the export of live animals to the continent concerned cattle, sheep and pigs destined for immediate slaughter abroad. The assurances are that the animals must be rested and inspected before embarkation, that they are exported only to countries giving assurances that the journey after landing abroad will not exceed 100 kilometres, that the animals will not be re-exported from those countries, and that they will be humanely slaughtered.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has evidence that these assurances are not being kept by Belgium. Between 23rd March and 1st April this year and also between 17th April and 22nd April this year teams of investigators from the RSPCA and from the International Association for the Protection of Animals visited Belgium and France and watched English sheep being landed at Ostend from the motor vessel "Bontikoe". The investigators watched the sheep being taken by lorry to the French frontier at a place called Wadelincourt 128 kilometres from Ostend. That in itself was a breach of the assurances, because 128 kilometres is more than the 100 kilometres allowed. The investigators then watched the sheep being driven into France—namely, re-exported from Belgium, which is a violation of the assurances.

The investigators saw one load being driven to Dieppe, where they were slaughtered in the slaughterhouse. They saw another lorry load being driven to Marseilles. The investigators followed the lorry all the way to Marseilles, where it went into the abattoir and where again the sheep were slaughtered. It is believed that some consignments of sheep driven to Marseilles from Ostend were loaded on to ships and sent to North Africa or even to Greece.

Other teams of investigators found sheep from England in abattoirs at Sisteron and Digne in the South-East of France. The management of the abattoirs admitted that the sheep were bought regularly at Banbury market in England and exported to Ostend and from there driven to Sisteron and Digne by lorry. So there was a free admission of a violation of the assurances, at least by the Belgians, if not by the French, because I understand the assurances as far as the French are concerned apply only to bovines and not to sheep. They saw that no food or water was given to the sheep en route because the customs seals on the lorries were not broken throughout the journey and no one could therefore get in. It was cold at that time of the year, especially at night, and the sheep had been shorn recently. One team observed that they looked miserable and distressed. In one consignment one sheep was found to be dead on arrival and in another one sheep had to be lifted out of the lorry. Clearly they must have suffered as they sped down the French autoroutes at over 60 mph on cold nights without having been fed.

At the Sisteron abattoir it was admitted that between 1st January and 16th April no fewer than 8,641 sheep had been imported from England and slaughtered in that abattoir by having their throats cut without pre-stunning. Apparently equipment for electro-narcosis was installed but it had never been used, in spite of an order from the French Ministry of Agriculture that it should have been used after April 1971, and in spite of a notice to that effect in the main slaughter hall. Apparently no notice was taken of it.

It seems quite clear that some people concerned with this trade, at any rate in some slaughterhouses, and some exporters either do not know or not not care about how these animals are treated after they are exported from this country. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister of State can give an account of what is being done to prevent these breaches of the Balfour assurances, or if steps to stop these breaches are not taken by the Government concerned, I hope the British Government will do so by banning the export of live animals to those countries which either cannot or will not honour the assurances.

6.54 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State will probably know, I have a very close association with the RSPCA as its vice-chairman. He knows too that I have a very great interest in the welfare of animals and I think he will agree that I am not fanatical in these matters. I realise that farm animals are bred for the benefit they can bring to human beings.

There are one or two points I should like to emphasise. My hon. Friend must realise that this investigation by the RSPCA was under the control of their chief veterinary officer. This is very important. It was not run by a bunch of fanatics who do not understand the general welfare of animals. The report was drawn up by the veterinary officer, Mr. Brown. I think that the Department's officers have been in touch with Mr. Brown and will realise that he is a very responsible man, not given to exaggeration. My hon. Friend the Minister of State can take it from me that this is a true and factual report of what happened and it is quite horrifying. I hope he will agree today that steps must be taken to bring this unpleasant traffic to an end.

6.55 p.m.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I should like to thank both my hon. Friends for what they have said and for giving me a chance to say something which I hope will reassure them about the episodes which have been mentioned this afternoon. As time is short I shall come right to the point and put on record my thanks to the RSPCA and its inspectors for the report which they have prepared. I have been on record on several occasions in this House asking for evidence in order that we can act, and I am most grateful to the RSPCA for the report. It is a well-prepared document which describes how the Society kept a careful eye on certain consignments of sheep exported recently to Belgium for immediate slaughter.

It reports that instead of being slaughtered in an abattoir within 100 kilometres of landing at Ostende the sheep were forwarded on to France. It describes and criticises the conditions during the journey by road in France and the methods of slaughter. It refers to hearsay evidence that some sheep from Britain had been shipped through Belgium and France to North Africa, thereto be killed by inhumane methods and that others were sent on from Belgium to Greece.

I accept that the RSPCA's efforts, which it has performed with the zeal and diligence one would expect of it, have revealed a serious loophole in the Balfour arrangements as they apply in Belgium. This is a loophole we intend to close. It is there because sheep exported from this country for immediate slaughter are not coverd by documents which have to be produced to the authorities abroad to establish that the animals are for slaughter. The Belgian authorities assure us that they apply the Balfour assurances to all sheep declared to them by the importer as being animals for slaughter but, of course, they do not apply them to other sheep.

This means that the Belgians merely ask the importer what the sheep are intended for. They do not ask to see the documents. We have taken this up with the Belgian authorities and we are discussing urgently ways and means to remedy this defect in our arrangements. It is a loop-hole and I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to put this on the record this afternoon. He has referred to Sisteron, Digne and Marseilles, and there is certainly very strong evidence that British sheep were at Marseilles. There is no question from the report that they were at the other abattoirs as well. Undoubtedly they should not have been there if they had left the United Kingdom, as declared on this side, for immediate slaughter.

It is a loop-hole which we must stop up. The House has expressed an anxiety which is a virtue in the welfare of animals, because animal welfare is a subject over which the House is deeply and very properly concerned. As a practising farmer, like my two colleagues in the Department, I share the feeling. But the anxiety is about the welfare of animals outside this country where we cannot control things in the way we can control them here. We have the problems of transport in this country. Sheep often travel long distances from, say, the north of Scotland down to Devonshire. The distances may well be far greater than 100 kilometres, but the great thing is that we can at every stage keep an eye on whether the sheep are being adequately watered and fed, and we have rigorous inspections of slaughtering, whereas abroad we are in difficulties.

That is why the Balfour Assurances exist at all. They resulted in 1957 from the inquiry headed by Lord Balfour of Burleigh. They were devised to do the very thing we want to do, to protect the animals we export for immediate slaughter. They are bilateral undertakings freely—

It being Seven o'clock, Proceedings on the Motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government Business).

Forward to