HC Deb 17 April 1975 vol 890 cc834-44

11.30 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden

(Gillingham): In 1972 concern was expressed about the way in which animals exported from Britain for slaughter, particularly sheep exported to France, were treated on their arrival on the other side of the Channel. There followed investigations by various individuals and organisations.

Early in 1973 a team from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the News of the World made a very disquieting report. The climax came in January 1973, when public opinion was outraged as a result of a film shown on BBC television in "Midweek" The film disclosed beyond doubt that on arrival in France sheep exported from Britain for slaughter were sent non-stop on journeys of over 800 miles lasting up to 47 hours without rest, food or water and that when they arrived in the South of France they often went to abattoirs, where some were slaughtered without pre-stunning.

In 1973 the then Conservative Government banned the export of sheep from this country. They stated that no further licences would be issued. On 12th July 1973 the House debated whether the ban should be extended to all live animals exported for slaughter pending the report of a committee of inquiry. That was agreed. The export of all live animals for slaughter from Britain was banned on that date and it was agreed that no more licences would be issued.

The O'Brien Committee was set up to investigate the situation. On 16th January this year, when the House discussed the committee's report, I stated that the committee was under a considerable disability from the beginning of its investigations in that the ban was already in existence, and had been for a considerable time on sheep exports, before it started its investigations and, indeed, that all its investigations and visits were notified beforehand to abattoirs and other places visited on the Continent.

The O'Brien Report made no attempt to disprove or deny the evidence of cruelty produced by the impartial and dedicated BBC team. The report stated that the trade could restart with very specific safeguards. Paragraph 96 of the report contained this significant statement. this issue is one which should be settled on welfare considerations. On 16th January 1975 the House agreed by 232 votes to 191 to a resumption of the trade after the Minister, who in July 1973 had voted in favour of the ban, had given very strong and solemn undertakings that the proven cruelty which had resulted in the ban would not be repeated. He said this: it is the welfare considerations that I believe must always be predominant."—[Official Report, 16th January 1975; Vol. 884, c. 705.] Licences were issued as from the following day.

On 20th March of this year BBC Midweek "shocked all who saw the programme and proved that the solemn undertakings given by the Minister on 16th January were completely worthless. In a statement last Friday the Minister said: I pay tribute to those who made the television film. There were then some generalisations. The right hon. Gentleman finished by saying: On the question of trade with the Continent, this was a decision of the House."—[Official Report, 11th April 1975; Vol. 889, c. 1600.] The Minister did not on that day question the cruelty disclosed in the BBC film.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the decision to lift the ban was a decision of the whole House. Yes, it was, on the positive undertakings of the Minister, but they have not been realised. Therefore, as he and the O'Brien Committee stated the welfare consideration must predominate, he should in my view now reimpose the ban.

In 1973 the BBC team and the RSPCA officials established the fact that the market for fat sheep was in the South of France. They assumed that when the ban was lifted that would be the destination of the new consignments. They proved to be absolutely right. They understood from their research and they were actually told by exporters Johnson and Mills and Mr. Clay, who controls 80 per cent. of the trade, that the sheep had to go to the South of France because that was where the demand existed.

There seems no doubt that the slaughter destination of Paris for which the licences were granted was absolutely bogus. It is surely not coincidence that Mr. Clay was the exporter and Mr. Massicard the French importer responsible for the imposition of the ban in February 1973 and that it was on their vans, their sheep and their consignments that the BBC team reported on 20th March. I believe that this is supported by the fact that when the BBC producer, Mr. Bower, of "Midweek", tried to question Mr. Clay about the destination, he was physically assaulted by him.

Last Friday the Minister refused to stop the issue of licences to this man, yet on 16th January, following an exchange between himself and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), when the hon. and learned Member put this question to the Minister: Can the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that licences will be granted only to those exporters who are willing to abide by the conditions which he has outlined, and that in any event if anyone is found to be in breach of those conditions no further licence will be issued to him? the Minister replied: I accept that"—[Official Report, 16th January 1975, Vol. 884, c. 706.] During the week ending 30th March Mr. Richard Beaugie, chairman of the Ashford branch of the National Farmers' Union, wrote to the Kentish Express as follows: Anyone who saw the BBC programme can only be shocked and disgusted at the way the O'Brien recommendations were ignored. I am sure that I speak for all the farmers in this area when I say that they would never sell another animal to this exporter. Mr. Clay has been banned from Ashford market for over two years now, and I personally feel that he should be banned from every market in the United Kingdom, have his export licence revoked for life. Those views were strongly supported by the deputy county secretary of the Kent and East Sussex National Farmers' Union and others.

The Minister says that he saw "Midweek" on 20th March. If he really wanted to get at the truth about these matters, why not interview the members of the BBC team who were responsible for the film? Why not interview Superintendent Butfield, of the RSPCA, who accompanied them? I cannot speak too highly of the members of the "Midweek" team and Superintendent Butfield. They carried out their task impartially and objectively despite every effort on the part of the French importers and police to frustrate and impede them. The House and the nation as a whole should be grateful to them for their disclosures of the unacceptable cruelty imposed despite all the undertakings given by the Minister and others.

The NFU's campaign seeking the resumption of the trade asserted that it was of great economic value to the country and to our farmers. It painted a gloomy picture of thousands of starving farm animals and bankrupt farmers unless the trade was resumed. It stated that Continental countries would not accept carcase meat and that there were not enough slaughterhouses to provide it even if they would. None of those prophecies is true.

The ban on the export of live sheep for slaughter was imposed in February 1973. Are there any records of farmers going bust in consequence of that ban during the two years when it was effective? Of course there are not. Is there any proof that thousands of farm animals would starve to death unless the ban was lifted? I think not.

The Minister of Agriculture is responsible to this House to issue and control licences. Hon. Members have the right to know whether the destinations given for the licences are true and to know the category of animals involved, thus to be sure that they are going only to countries where the standards of carriage and slaughter are acceptable to Parliament and the British people. We have to be sure that they conform to the undertakings the Minister gave when the ban was removed. The disclosures would also give some indication of the real economic value of the trade to Britain and its farmers.

The Minister must give an undertaking to provide this information in future, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to make that response in replying to the debate. The O'Brien Report said at paragraph 96 Our review of the economic arguments suggests that from the national point of view the benefits from unrestricted trade are of small significance which confirms our earlier judgment that this issue is one which should be settled on welfare considerations. I believe that the economic arguments of the NFU were utterly destroyed by the disclosure—this certainly applies to sheep —of the latest figures of exports of carcase meat given by the Minister of Agriculture. In January 1975 the total exports of carcase mutton from this country amounted to 3,467 tons, to the value of £2.9 million. That represented 210,000 carcases. To the EEC alone there were 3,308 tons, a value of £2.8 million, representing 200,00G carcases. These are official Ministry figures and they show conclusively that EEC and other foreign housewives will and do buy English carcase mutton and lamb.

The Minister stated that action was being taken by the French Government against the importer of the sheep followed by the BBC "Midweek" team. At no stage during that journey did the French police examine the consignments to see whether the sheep were in good condition or whether there were any infringements of what the Minister has called the French Rural Code. Of course, the vans were sealed by the French customs and remained so for the whole of the journey. The cruelty came to light only because the BBC television team and Supt. Butfield exposed it. The only real future check is to follow every consignment to its destination and to supervise slaughter, but that would be an impossible task.

I submit that the ban should be re-imposed immediately for the following reasons. First, the economic value of the trade to this country and the farmer is, as has been stated by O'Brien, insignificant. Second, the Minister was either unwilling or completely unable to enforce the solemn undertakings given to the House on 16th January as a result of which the House agreed that the trade should restart. I point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that at least four of the Minister's Cabinet colleagues voted on 16th January against the resumption of this trade. Third, there is irrefutable evidence not only that the carcase trade is acceptable to EEC and other countries but that we have the slaughtering facilities in order to make it available.

Most important of all, the O'Brien Report and the Minister himself have said that the issue must be resolved on animal welfare grounds. This trade imposes upon the animals proven cruelty that is repulsive and unacceptable to the vast majority of the British people and, I believe, to Members of the House of Commons.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for allowing me one or two moments to express the feeling, which I know is shared by a very large number of hon. Members, that in the light of the "Midweek" programme the question of the continuance of this trade should be reviewed again by the House.

I remind my hon. Friend that when this matter was debated on 16th January the question was one on which a very considerable number of Government Members and the Government Whips were under the impression that it was not appropriate for Government Members to vote otherwise than in the Government Lobby. What we need is a fresh and completely free vote on this issue. I believe that at present that would produce a result quite different from that which was arrived at in January.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that when the statement was made about this matter on the "Midweek" report on 11th April, the Minister said that the breaches were basically breaches of French law and he relied upon the fact that the offenders were being prosecuted under French law. In practice, however, unless we can deal with this matter under our own law we shall not be able to prevent the serious abuses which so horrified everyone who saw that programme.

Mr. Burden

What penalties were imposed? A fine of £5 or so.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman may be correct in that.

Secondly, I urge my hon. Friend, if we are to continue this trade, to see whether we can at least get back to the Balfour Assurances and the 100-kilometre limit from the port of embarkation. From what we know, it has been demonstrated that in practice the procedures are not effectively enforceable. But if we could have effective enforcement it would mitigate the damage which exists.

On 11th April the Minister said that he would look into the question whether the final slaughterhouse destination should he on the certificate."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April 1975: Vol. 889, c. 1601.] That is the absolute minimum requirement if the trade is to continue.

Basically, however, I urge that the question of continuing the trade be put before the House again so that it may be reconsidered in the light of the evidence now available as to the way in which this trade operates when it is not under supervision.

11.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) for raising this important matter of exports of sheep to the Continent and for giving me the opportunity to clarify and amplify what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in his statement last Friday, 11th April. I am also glad that there was time for my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) to make a contribution to this brief debate.

I say at the outset that the Ministry pays tribute to the BBC team and to the Chief Superintendent of the RSPCA for all they did to bring to light the particular episode concerning two lorry loads of sheep which went from Dover to the South of France on 12th and 13th March.

First, I should like to make it clear beyond all doubt that the Government stand by all that was said by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales in the debate on the O'Brien Report on 16th January. The Government share the deep and sincere concern which all British people have about the need to protect animals from cruelty and suffering. I go further. The Government's aim is to ensure, so far as is humanly possible, that all animals are properly treated and that wherever they are—on or off the farm—they are kept in suitable conditions and given proper care. That, of course, includes proper rest, food and water when they are travelling.

The Government's aim is for higher standards of animal welfare than we have achieved in the past. Within the United Kingdom we have our own animal welfare legislation and we enforce it. We are also working on plans to update and improve that legislation. For example, later this year we hope to make a new order dealing with animals moving by road and rail. In addition, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee is currently working on a new welfare code for sheep on the farm.

It is also our policy to give all the encouragement we can to other countries. We took a leading role in the introduction of the European Convention for the protection of animals in international transport, now ratified by eight of the nine EEC countries, including the United Kingdom and France, and by five other countries outside the EEC.

We are actively supporting the proposal for an EEC directive to give effect in Community law to the European Convention. As I shall explain more fully later, we have also established a close and effective liaison at veterinary level with those countries with which we trade in live animals. The point I make is that the control of sheep exports is only a part of the very considerable effort we put into the improvement of animal welfare, both in this country and more widely.

Before going further, and to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I must make it abundantly clear that I am not in any way attempting to decry the BBC film. As I have already implied, the BBC team did a valuable job. It put us to the test. We had assured the House that we would ex- ercise close control, achieved by close cooperation between our State Veterinary Service and the services of other countries.

The BBC film made allegations. My right hon. Friend acted immediately and announced his findings three weeks later. No one can dispute that he acted swiftly. particularly with Easter intervening and if one has in mind that we had to have discussions with the French authorities. More generally, what the BBC programme did was to remind all of us—not just the Government—of the need for vigilance.

Mr. Burden

Is it not a fact that Mr. Clay's veterinary surgeon was also a Ministry veterinary surgeon? Is it not the fact that he was doing the two jobs of inspecting the sheep for the Ministry and for Mr. Clay?

Mr. Strang

I think that there is some confusion on this point.

I shall turn quickly to some of the points which the hon. Gentleman has made. I reject his statement that the BBC film proved that the solemn undertakings given by my right. hon. Friend were worthless. I also reject his suggestion that the House would not have taken the decision that it did had it not been for certain evidence or facts of which it was unaware. It must be recognised that no British Government can accept responsibility for breaches of the law of a foreign country. We shall do everything possible to see that only fit animals are exported. That is why they are examined in lairages. Furthermore, we shall see that every effort is made to ensure that the authorities know of movements of animals and have advance knowledge of their destination.

We are aware of the international agreement on the movement of animals, but we cannot be held responsible for individuals in France or in any other country who have contravened the law. We have already heard that certain individuals are being prosecuted by the French authorities. I saw the film, which I thought was impressive. It was not impartial, but that is not to say that I criticise the film on that score. It set out to achieve an objective, and it did so effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden argued that there was not a free vote when the matter was decided. I was under the impression that it was a free vote, but perhaps members of the Government felt inhibited on that occasion. However, I cannot accept—and I do not think my hon. Friend argued on these lines—that anything my right hon. Friend said on that occasion has been in any way nullified or shown to be untrue on the basis of subsequent events.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

It is incapable of achievement.

Mr. Strang

My hon. Friend says it is incapable of achievement. I reiterate that my right hon. Friend did not claim he could prevent individuals in this country or abroad breaking the law. However, I suggest that the Labour Government have done everything possible to see that every effort is made to ensure that proper welfare considerations are maintained in the export of these animals.

There is a further point I should like to make clear. As my right hon. Friend said in his statement last Friday, the BBC film drew attention to a possible loophole in our export certification arrangements. It would be wrong, however, for the House to be left with the impression that the loophole would never have come to light if there had been no BBC film. We had already spotted it and were reviewing the certification procedure. As a result, we were able to take swift administrative action to require all exporters to apply in writing for a veterinary inspection certificate and to state in the application the final destination of each consignment of animals.

The immediate purpose of that declaration is to improve our surveillance. It will enable us to send particulars of each consignment as it leaves our shores to the veterinary authorities of the receiving country so that they can satisfy themselves that the animals are being treated properly in accordance with their welfare laws.

We are also considering acting against anybody who provides false information when applying for a certificate. This would be in addition to the powers that already exist in the Customs and Excise Act 1952 to deal with breaches of the export licence conditions—for example, exporting to a country not specified in the licence, exporting different animals from those specified in the licence or exporting without a veterinary inspection certificate.

This leads me to one further point. I should like to amplify that part of my right hon. Friend's statement which referred to the arrangements we have made to maintain still closer liaison with the French authorities on every consignment of animals sent to France. First, we have the assurance of the French authorities that they intend to enforce their animal welfare law. We already have proof of this in their readiness to prosecute in the case which was the subject of the BBC film. The French law, incidentally, requires animals in transit to be fed and watered at least once every 12 hours, whereas the Strasbourg Convention specifies every 24 hours.

I can also assure the House that the appropriate British and French officials at central Government level, veterinary and administrative, enjoy a full and close co-operation. The new arrangements which have been introduced include our notifying the French central veterinary authorities of each export consignment and its declared final destination. In return, the French authorities will notify us if the actual destination turns out to be different. We already have evidence that this new arrangement is working. It is not our intention to confine it—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.