HC Deb 17 November 1981 vol 13 cc218-56
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the Opposition's amendment.

7.49 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8832/81 containing proposals laying down minimum standards for the protection of laying hens kept in battery cages and supports the Government's intention to seek agreement to arrangements which would enhance conditions and strengthen controls in the Community as a whole while fully meeting the requirements of the United Kingdom. These proposals made by the Commission are the culmination of two years' work and, before I describe the proposals, I should like to explain what has happened in those two years.

At the September 1979 Council of Agriculture Ministers, my right hon. Friend fully supported the initiative taken by Herr Ertl, the Agriculture Minister of the German Federal Republic, to promote a discussion on the Community's work on animal welfare. The Commission was asked to prepare a report on systems of egg production that would satisfy animal welfare requirements, hygiene, and social ethics, and which would take economic considerations into account. The Council also asked for proposals to bring to an end after a period of years the system of keeping hens in batteries as currently practised in the Community.

The Commission prepared an interim report for the July 1980 Council of Agriculture Ministers. The report concluded that current knowledge was not sufficient to justify a prohibition on battery housing. Too little was known about other systems to say whether they were more satisfactory for the birds and met the requirements of producers and consumers. It recommended further research and development, which is in hand, by the Commission and the early introduction of minimum requirements for more humane battery-cage housing.

The Council agreed that the keeping of laying hens in cages must be subject to compliance with minimum standards and criteria in order to ensure the protection of the birds. It invited the Commission to submit before 1 July 1981 a further report and proposals for achieving that objective, taking into account the economic implications.

In the event, this report and proposals were not submitted to the Council until 6 August this year and the Council has also now missed its self-imposed deadline of 1 November for the adoption of a directive. Nevertheless, the matter is under active consideration by the Council, though, given the absence of an opinion from the European Parliament, the Council is now unlikely to be able to take a decision at its next meeting.

The report from the Commission, which accompanies the proposals, considers the economic aspects of minimum standards for caged laying hens and the scientific aspects of the welfare of laying hens. It concludes that there is a wide divergence of opinion on the behavioural needs of laying hens and on the effects of battery cages. It also concludes that there would have to be a transitional period to allow the industry to adapt with minimum disturbance to the market. It adds that further studies are needed on various systems of housing, including cage design, and also on the economic and marketing aspects of egg production.

The proposed directive would, specify minimum standards for laying hens in battery cages. In particular it would require each hen to be provided with at least 500 sq cm of unrestricted floor space. Standards would also be set for feeding and drinking equipment, cage height and floor type and slope. Further, more general conditions are set out in the annex to the proposed directive.

Member States would be required to ensure inspections to verify the requirements of the directive. The directive would also provide for inspections by Community experts. As mentioned earlier, provision is made for the Commission to continue its studies on the welfare of laying hens and to report to the Council, with proposals if appropriate, before 1 January 1984.

Member States would have to bring into force legislation to implement the directive on 1 July 1983. Minimum standards would apply from that date to cages used for the first time, and to all cages from 1 July 1995.

The Agriculture Departments have circulated the report and proposals to a wide range of interests for comment. The views of the various interests are understandably polarised. On the one hand, the industry is concerned that it would have to meet a substantial cost following implementation of the directive. It questions whether the changes proposed would be of enough welfare benefit to the birds to justify the cost, drawing attention to the Commission's conclusion that current economic and scientific evidence points to a minimum floor area per bird of 450 sq cm. Many welfare interests argue strongly for the immediate abolition of battery cages on the grounds that this production system cannot meet the needs of the birds. Some welfare groups would support, as an interim measure, the early introduction of a minimum floor area of 750 sq cm.

The Agriculture Ministers have also sought the views of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The council's advice, which it has published, stresses the need for immediate action to help improve the welfare of all hens kept in battery cages. It argues that any proposals for minimum standards must be seen as an interim measure pending the outcome of research into alternative systems. Against that background, the Farm Animal Welfare Council seeks the early introduction of a minimum floor area of 600 sq cm per bird as an interim measure. That would mean reduced stocking rates in the United Kingdom and the council expresses the hope that some producers would turn to other systems to make good any loss in egg production. The council also made a number of comments on the annex to the proposed directive.

The Government have taken account of the views on battery cages expressed in the recent report of the Select Committee on Agriculture on animal welfare. The Government will make their views clear to this House on the whole of the important Select Committee report as soon as they have prepared their formal response.

The Commission's proposals have been subject to some improvement in the discussions so far in the council. many people were concerned at the Commission's idea that a minimum floor area should, for some years, apply only in new cages. We shared that concern and have supported an alternative two-stage approach. Under that approach, a basic minimum floor area would be fixed from an early date, probably 1 July 1983. We have supported a minimum area of at least 450 sq cm per bird at this stage.

At a second stage, after a reasonable transitional period, a more generous space allowance and the other minimum cage design standards would come fully into force. We are not only seeking a figure of 600 sq cm per bird but we want it to apply from a date earlier than 1995. We are also insisting that there must be reasonable provision for Community monitoring of the inspection arrangements in all member States.

It is fair to add that the views of member States are fairly divergent. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in particular have joined us in pressing for higher standards of welfare for battery hens; other member States argue for floor area figures as low as 450 sq cm per bird even in 1995. We believe that we should recognise the need of the industry for a reasonable time to adapt, and the need to keep to an acceptable level the likely increases in production costs and any consequent increase in the price of eggs. But we are supporting more generous space allowances than the Commission proposed, to apply from an earlier date than they proposed. For that reason, I can accept the amendment tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

I mentioned earlier the need for time to adapt. We estimate that in Great Britain the capital cost of achieving a minimum floor area per bird of 600 sq cm in the early 1990s would be about £67 million, or an addition to the cost of production of about 6 per cent. In Northern Ireland, where producers may have even greater difficulty in adapting to improved standards, the capital cost would be proportionately higher—at about £10 million—with a production cost impact of perhaps 8 per cent. Nevertheless, we believe it is right, in the interests of the birds, to press for those standards to be applied uniformly throughout the Community. But, as I have said, time will be needed to adjust to those effects.

We expect the council to agree the directive in the near future. Agriculture Ministers will then have to make regulations under part I of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, which are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Regulations will also be required in Northern Ireland.

It is clear that the conditions in which hens are kept vary widely in the Community and we believe that it is right, as a first step, to remove the worst of those conditions. Research into the requirements of laying hens and how they can be met under the various systems of housing cannot be undertaken overnight. The proposals in their present form will provide for a significant improvement in the conditions of all hens kept in batteries in the Community. Until there is a clear, practical alternative with definite welfare benefits for the birds, I do not believe that we can realistically look to do more at this time.

8.2 pm

Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)

In its written comments to the European Legislation Committee on 22 September 1981, the British Poultry Federation made the following important statement: It must be right to ensure that birds are not only protected from cruelty but also that they enjoy an environment that is as pleasant as we can make it. I wish to preface any remarks that I may subsequently make with the clear statement that the vast majority—99 per cent.—of poultry farmers in this country are concerned with the welfare of the hens in their keeping, that I do not believe that they are intentionally cruel or that they are in any way involved in knowingly causing hurt to the birds in their care. But when the hon. Lady talks about so many square centimetres per bird, many hon. Members get confused.

Yesterday morning, in preparation for this debate, I took the trouble to measure the square area of this Dispatch Box. That is what the debate is about. The number of square centimetres on the Dispatch Box is approximately 2,000. It measures 58 cm by 34 cm. We are saying that at present, within the confines of this Dispatch Box, five hens should live out their miserable lives and that by 1995, out of our kindness, we reduce that number to four. That is a position which, as a legislator, I am appalled to recommend to the House. If it is said that five fully grown hens—even if they are white leghorn crosses and are very small—can comfortably, humanely and properly live out their lives in that confined space, I do not believe it.

I am concerned about the reduction of that number, first to four. The normal Order Paper of the House is marginally larger than the amount of floor space that is allowed for a battery hen to live out its life. If we believe that that is the way, in this time and in this society, and that that is the amount of space in which we expect hens to live out their lives, then count me out. I shall not ask, and I would not require under law, for that to be the minimum—never mind the maximum—amount of space. By 1995, another 10 generations of hens will have had to live out their lives on a space smaller than the size of our Order Paper. I shall not have that.

Mr. David Myles (Banff)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that while that is the space per hen, the hens can move about off that space and around the cage?

Mr. Hughes

If all roll over, one moves out. As long as the other three make way, there is room for the other. That is where the scientific advice given to the Community moves into the levels of obscenity. The anticipated space is half as much again as this Dispatch Box because, according to the experts, there is a fine balance to be drawn between the ability of a hen to stretch on its legs, stretch up its neck and flap its wings. However, if the hen is given too much room, the next hen in the same cage can mount it. Therefore, the ceiling has to be kept down to prevent that. In the name of the humane treatment of hens, I find that totally obscene,

I shall come in a moment to my outright objection to keeping hens in batteries, but my first main concern is that the area of this Dispatch Box instead of holding, as is our current practice, five laying hens each on 400 sq cm, should hold four, each on 500 sq cm. That is the order of magnitude, and if any hon. Member believes that it is humane, proper and decent to keep even five small hens in the area of this Dispatch Box, I defy him to tell the House that.

I am arguing not that battery hen keepers are cruel, but that unwittingly they are involved in a system which deprives laying hens of the essential requirements for the limited freedom and enjoyment of life available to that species. I cannot put it better than the terms of the British Poultry Federation's letter of 22 September to the European Legislation Committee, in answer to its request for evidence on this specific legislation. The federation said: It must be right to ensure that birds are not only protected from cruelty but also that they enjoy an environment that is as pleasant as we can make it. If anyone tells me that keeping five hens in an area the size of this Dispatch Box is as pleasant an environment as we can make, I do not and will not believe him.

To change the regulations as I would wish would clearly involve some extra cost. Again, I refer to the written evidence given to the Scrutiny Committee by the eggs authority. If the number of hens in the area were reduced from five, which is the current practice, to four, the production cost per dozen eggs would rise from 40.1p to 42.2p That is an increase of 5 per cent., but it would not catastrophically reduce consumption. I accept that it would not do the egg producers a great deal of good, but it would not be catastrophic. If the same area held three rather than five hens, the production cost per dozen eggs would rise to 46.4p That was the evidence of the eggs authority, from ADAS, to the Scrutiny Committee in September and October this year. So the case that abandoning the current levels of stocking would be catastrophic to the British egg industry is difficult to sustain. There are, of course, capital costs which are not included in those figures. According to those calculations, a reduction from five hens to four would involve between £60 million and £70 million, and a reduction from five hens to three would involve a sum about three times as great. One accepts that.

The interesting fact, however, is that when the number of hens in the area of the Dispatch Box is reduced from five to three, the litter and straw yards become competitive, so that those methods of hen keeping and egg production become economic not too far down the line along which these proposals inadequately move.

In dealing with the evidence to the Select Committee, I must crave the indulgence of the House because for the first seven meetings I had the privilege of being a member of the Committee, hearing the evidence and listening to the private discussions which took place after the evidence was given but thereafter, I ceased to be a member of the Select Committee and thus was not privy to any of its debates. Therefore, anything that I may say must be treated with the care with which I hope that I shall now treat the Select Committee's recommendations, having been an early member of it and having asked many questions at its earlier hearings, but not having had the privilege of being present during its later deliberations.

Paragraph 150 of the Select Committee report, Cmnd. 406-I, states unequivocally that the Governments of the Community should make a clear statement of intention that after, say, 5 years from now egg production will be limited to approved methods which will not include battery cages in their present form, and that imports of eggs into the Community will not be allowed from sources which do not observe equivalent restrictions. That recommendation by the Select Committee is unequivocal. There is no dubiety about it. The Commission proposal does not adequately answer it and nor does the Government motion. Indeed, if I may say so, even the Opposition amendment does not wholly satisfy the requirements of the Select Committee.

In this matter, we are faced with the difficulty of the "slowest ship in the convoy" syndrome. Not only the ability to legislate, but, more importantly, the ability to monitor and enforce legislation among our Community colleagues is highly suspect. I do not believe that in signing the Treaty of Accession to the European Community the House intended to deny itself the ability to pass animal welfare legislation, with consequential restitutions if there were economic difficulties. Even though I voted against it, I thought that when we accepted the Treaty of Accession matters such as animal welfare would remain the prerogative of the House, which would retain the ability to take countervailing action if it did not accord with Community rules. I do not believe that the Government can use poultry health as a proper means, which I would support, of banning the import of poultry products, eggs and so on, not because they damage human beings, but because they affect the welfare and health of poultry. The House cannot be prohibited from legislating on the welfare of caged birds, because welfare and health—as those of us who served on the Select Committee found, time after time—are inextricably intertwined.

The rule that bans the import of French turkeys or eggs must apply because of the possibility of Newcastle disease or this country's determination that our poultry should be treated humanely. If the Government argue that they are inhibited from protecting our laying birds adequately from the dangers of the battery hen system because of our membership of the Community, not only the Government but our membership of the Community will stand condemned. Even if we are out of step with the French, Germans or Italians—leave aside the Frankfurt high court judgment—if we cannot say that we shall require a countervailing duty to protect our poultry farmers, there is something wrong with our relationship with our Community partners.

That is the crux of the problem. Unless the Government accept the corollary of the current court case on Newcastle disease et al, they cannot do other than accept that we have a national interest in animal welfare—beyond the hazards of particular aspects of animal health—that the House must continue to determine. I am delighted that the Government have accepted the amendment. It would be a little wicked to say that we shall watch what happens in the poultry field like hawks, but we shall watch carefully to ensure that the national interests of the British poultry producer are not interfered with through unfair European competition. However, the demands of the Select Committee, the animal welfare lobby and the House will not allow inhumane methods to continue.

8.23 pm
Sir William Elliott (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I am happy to speak after the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes). As Chairman of the Select Committee that produced the report mentioned in the amendment and in the hon. Gentleman's speech, I thank him for his contribution to it. As he said, he was with us for only seven sittings. We appreciated his opinions and the contribution that he made to the report. We have missed him, although we realise that he left us for reasons of promotion.

I shall be brief. My right hon. Friend the Minister has responded to the report in an interim form. I have received a letter from him in which he states—and my hon. Friend the Minister has confirmed this—that he will fully respond to the report before Christmas. I hope that it will be a full response and that it might take the form of a White Paper.

This is an important subject with far-reaching consequences. When we receive that full response I hope that we shall have a full debate on the report.

The Committee was well aware of the effect that any recommendations might have on agriculture. Indeed considerable amounts have been invested in the present intensive methods of production, including the battery hen system. The Committee was fully aware of that. As our report makes clear, the Committee was also aware that the pressure of economic circumstances brought about such intensive methods of production. Indeed, in the Committee's opinion those methods were, in some cases, inhumane.

I appreciated the vivid analogy drawn between the Dispatch Box and the battery cage. As Chairman of the Committee, I thought I had seen so many battery hens during the past year that I would rarely have a night for some time when I did not see them every time I closed my eyes. There is no doubt that the battery system leads to great congestion. However, we were well aware that any recommendations that we made would have a heavy bearing on those who had invested capital. Nevertheless, our recommendations have been made and we believe they are right.

All of us fully appreciate that note must be taken of this European recommendation. Indeed, note is being taken. I am extremely glad that the Government have found it possible to accept the amendment. The hon. Member for Durham quoted paragraph 150 of the report, in which we recommend a five year period for adjustment. Two years is not nearly as far away as 1995, by which time some of us will be quite senior hon. Members. The five year period is sufficient to make adjustments.

During the entire course of our deliberations we were also aware that it was essential for all the member States to move together. It is impossible to envisage one country in the Community having regulations that would increase the costs to its producers to their detriment, because the product could be imported at a lower cost from other countries within the Community. Once again, we have made it clear that all member States should move as one.

Mr. Stan Crowther (Rotherham)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is in Europe a considerable difference in the rate of progress towards confining hens in cages? According to my information, only 50 per cent. of Denmark's laying hens are in cages, whereas the figure in Britain is 95 per cent. Given that there is such a difference in the rate of movement, why should the hon. Gentleman feel it necessary to move in the opposite direction at the same speed?

Sir William Elliott

I am recommending no such thing. It is essential that we have Community standards for intensive food production. It is also essential that there is similar supervision throughout the Community once we have achieved those equal standards. I do not believe that to be impossible.

Our report makes it clear that when the Council of Ministers considers the Commission's recommendations my right hon. Friend should take a strong initiative to lay down a minimum standard for adult laying hens. We would like a minimum standard of 750 sq cm per bird, but our report suggests that he should not settle for anything less than 550 sq cm.

The welfare codes on poultry have not yet been produced. My right hon. Friend's full reply to our report is not yet before us. We should therefore take note of this document, but I strongly recommend a full debate in due course on this all-important present and future problem.

8.30 pm
Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

My intervention shall be brief. It can be argued that the present situation is slightly better than it was. I am therefore glad that the Minister has accepted the Opposition amendment, but that only makes the position slightly better than deplorable.

I take it that the figures referred to are the minimum and that they would not prevent any Community country from laying down reasonable standards. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) referred to the cost to farmers. Of course, money has been invested, but everyone recognises the system to be cruel. Anyone who has seen day old chicks running about scraping in the farmyard knows that this system is an unnatural way of raising hens.

I just wonder how many farmers keep their hens in battery cages. In my opinion, this is an entirely different type of industry. If the farming community raises animals and birds without heart and feeling, it will lose public sympathy. The battery hen system is totally repugnant, and it would serve such producers right if the consumer decided only to buy free-range eggs.

Arguments about square centimetres, Community standards and so on are deplorable. This system should be banned because it is one of deplorable cruelty. It has been argued that its banning would make eggs marginally more expensive. However, if I argued that the price of beef could be reduced by 30p in the pound if animals were raised by a cruel method, would hon. Members back me up? Of course not. There is, therefore, no justification for battery farming.

It is shameful that this method of production should continue, especially when the British pat themselves on the back for being animal lovers. It is a cruel system that ought to end at the earliest possible moment.

8.34 pm
Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate, because this is a difficult problem. I doubt whether the Council of Ministers will find it easy to reach a decision that will satisfy everyone, let alone our own Minister. Firm views are held by both sides. The farmers feel that they have a strong case, as does the welfare lobby. We must try to strike the right balance and, above all, look at the facts.

I was wondering whether the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) reflected Socialist policy on these matters, and perhaps the House could be told whether what he said is the official view of the Labour Party. I do not say that in any sense of criticism. Farmers and welfare people want to know the answer.

I apologise for not declaring my interest as a farmer. Most people know that I am one, although I do not keep any egg-producing birds.

The proposals must be taken seriously and examined carefully. It is unwise for the farming community to dismiss the concern about this type of production felt by many people—such as the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart)—who believe that battery farming should be outlawed. They should look carefully at the facts and the results of such a decision, which would be serious.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) was right to make common standards one of his major points. I support in principle common standards for battery cages throughout the EEC. I am just as concerned about birds in Germany, France, Italy, Greece, or wherever, as I am about those in this country. There should be common standards throughout the Community.

If welfare standards are high in one country, as I believe they are here, but not in others, unfair advantages in production would occur to the detriment of those who are seeking to maintain welfare standards for their birds. Therefore, it is necessary that we have common standards throughout the Community.

In the United Kingdom there is no question but that we have good standards. We have codes of practice that have been in operation for 10 years or more. It is right and proper that we should constantly put these practices to a welfare committee in order to bring producers up to date with the latest developments. In the past, these have worked well. Mortality is at its lowest ebb these days. Our producers ensure that we have fresh eggs and that consumers enjoy advantages of price, among others.

Intensive production is repugnant to some people, but when I was a young man it was repugnant and alarming that birds were subjected to the conditions of the farmyard, with wind and rain, lack of food and the ever-present danger of foxes. Today they have warmth and contentment in many of the battery cages. I know which I would rather have if I were a bird.

British egg producers are to be congratulated on their standards. That is not to say that there is no room for improvements and alterations. Out high standard is not to be found in other European countries. A general all-round improvement in Europe would be in the interests of animal welfare and we must therefore support it. I trust that the Minister will urge that this should happen before moving forward to even bigger changes in this country. We need to see a fairly dramatic improvement in their standards.

The next problem, if changes are to be made, is that of Community policing. I have a terrible fear that we would keep to the rules and others would not. We have seen it time and again. We keep to the standards and other countries do not. I know that it is unfair to generalise but it is true. It would be a considerable problem to ensure that standards were maintained in the Community. If they were not, it would be totally unfair to British producers. A proper system must be devised and agreed before any changes are made. United Kingdom producers fear that we shall keep to the rules and that others will not.

I wonder whether the public appreciate that eggs produced outside battery production cost substantially more. The pamphlet that was sent to us by the Farm Animal Welfare Co-ordinating Executive quotes the extra cost that is involved. It is somewhat greater than many hon. Members appreciate. It is not a minor matter for the housewife.

If there were to be a return to the old free-range methods that were in use when I was a boy, eggs would cost at least 30p a dozen more. That would be a considerable extra amount for the housewife to pay. With four birds a cage, the cost would increase by only 1p a dozen. With three birds a cage, it would increase by 3p a dozen. With birds in deep litter, the cost would increase by about 7.5p a dozen. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the increased cost to the consumer would be considerable. I wonder what housewives would say if they had to pay that extra cost. Would they accept it? No doubt some would be prepared to do so. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members, no doubt, buy only free-range eggs. I do not know how they can tell the difference. There are many so-called free-range eggs that have been produced in batteries.

One way forward would be to put the problem—as I believe the Minister has—to his welfare committee. I do not feel qualified to deal with the scientific aspects of the question. I am not sure whether Labour and Conservative Members who condemn the system are qualified to consider it from a scientific point of view. The welfare committee, which has scientists on it, should consider the question as quickly as possible and advise the Minister accordingly.

We should seek to get other European egg producers to bring their standards up to ours. Much research needs to be done on the subject. It should be started as quickly as possible.

I should like to refer to the very reasonable brief that has come to us from the British Poultry Federation. The NFU also supplied us with a brief, but I thought that the one from the federation was particularly useful and helpful. It suggests that the way forward is to consider the dimension of the cage; that it should be shown whether the battery is the best system of egg production; that it should be shown whether an increase in cage size would be beneficial to birds; and whether the extra cost would be acceptable to industry and the consumer. I believe that those four suggestions are the best way forward. I ask the Minister to consider them carefully before the matter is discussed by the Council of Ministers.

The problem will not go away. We need to look at it calmly and carefully and, although it is an emotive subject, we have to strike a balance between the welfare and fanning sides and try to get it right, in the interests of the consumer and of the welfare of the birds.

8.45 pm
Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)

I agree with much that the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said. He touched on an important aspect when he mentioned welfare in the poultry industry.

As a member of the Select Committee, I felt that we failed to pay sufficient attention to welfare matters in the poultry and pig industries. I was particularly concerned that we were not able to get to the crux of the problem when we questioned Ministry vets. We did not cover adequately their inspection duties and their concern and interest in welfare matters, which are extremely important in all aspects of farming. As an ex-trade union official, I am more accustomed to talking about the welfare of operatives, but here I am concerned with the welfare of animals. I was not satisfied that the Committee was able to ascertain that there were enough Ministry vets to carry out inspections properly or that they were able to deal with welfare aspects.

Five freedoms are essential for hens—the freedom to turn round, the freedom to groom themselves, the freedom to get up and down, the freedom to lie down and the freedom to stretch and flap their wings. In the battery cages that the Select Committee saw, those freedoms were impossible. However, when the Committee visited Denmark I was not impressed by the Pennsylvania system, which is one of the alternatives to battery cages. That was little, if any, better than the cages used here and in some places on the Continent.

The Pennsylvania system comprises two large wire netting enclosures on a platform, with struts through which the droppings fall. The droppings are removed only at the end of a cycle and I found our half-hour visit to the cages particularly unpleasant. I was almost overcome by the intense fumes. Hon. Members can imagine why. I saw birds there with none of the five freedoms that should be available to birds in battery cages. The cages were built on a slope. The birds were climbing over each other to try to reach the food. I did not think that this system was a substantial improvement.

I am grateful that the Government have accepted the Opposition amendment. That is right. I am pleased that there seems to be agreement on both sides of the House that we should urge upon the EEC the need to abolish ultimately this system of battery cages for hens. I am certain that it is cruel. I am also realistic about the economic situation. There are those who say that they will buy only free range eggs and free range chickens. I am sensible enough to realise that most people in a supermarket will buy the eggs that are the best quality at the cheapest price.

I also believe that the Select Committee realised that it would be useless to impose a ban on the present method of producing eggs or chickens or both. If a ban meant that there were insufficient eggs to meet the needs of the population, no earthly purpose would be served in the cause of animal welfare—much as I condemn the present system of rearing hens in battery cages—by purchasing eggs from other European countries that produced them in precisely the same way. We need to seek, as I think is the aim of the amendment and also, for that matter, the Government motion, some international or at least European agreement to stop the source of supply that would simply replace that in this country if we were to abandon all battery cages and go back to the old-fashioned method. This would be preferable from the point of view of animal welfare but it would also force up the price of eggs in the shops.

Knowing the distributive industry as I do, being sponsored by a distributive trade union, and knowing, I think, the British housewife, I am sure that the housewife would opt for the best quality product at the cheapest possible price. This would apply to eggs, joints of meat, or whatever the commodity. There is no point in abolishing our system merely to buy the product from abroad and put our poultry farmers out of business. We need to try to secure agreement in Europe despite the condemnation that I have made of the Common Market, which I do not retract. I am sure that that is what the Parliamentary Secretary who will reply to the debate will say that she is trying to do.

The Government—who have accepted our amendment—must press for the abolition of cages in the EEC so that we have a more humane method of rearing birds. I agree with the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) that so often in Common Market negotiations and rulings Britain honours the rules but France and the other countries do not. If there are agreements within the EEC that battery cages should be bigger, that there should be fewer hens in them or that the cages should be abolished, we must ensure that the other countries honour those agreements and do not put our poultry farmers at a disadvantage, as they have done in other spheres in recent years by their subsidies. We have kept to the rules and they have broken them.

Cheap eggs should not be imported into Britain which are produced under wrong rules and which compete with and put out of business our poultry farmers.

8.58 pm
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

One often hears that first impressions are the vivid and lasting ones. I shall never forget the occasion some years ago when two ladies from "Chickens' Lib" brought two miserable specimens of hens to my flat and carefully laid them on newspaper on my lounge floor. Those hens had bare chests where they had been rubbed. They could not stand properly. They were at the end of their laying period when very often they can be bought cheaply. I have never forgotten those two miserable hens. Unfortunately, I have seen their like on many occasions since in the battery hen houses that I have visited. I have seen bad examples and, in the West Country I have seen a good example of battery units.

However, nothing can convince me that battery units are not a cruel confinement for those creatures. The caging of the birds means that they cannot fulfil many of their natural chatacteristics. They cannot stretch out their wings or preen. They cannot peck around for food or dust bathe. Those are things that hens in a more natural environment would do and to which those battery hens that are released from the system and given another start very often return. We are sometimes told that the hens now being bred understand the new system—hut when given half a chance they soon revert to the habits of their ancestors over thousands of years. That is why I am adamantly opposed to the battery cage system.

That is also true of the society that I represent. I should here declare a non-financial interest as vice-chairman of the council of the RSPCA.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I thought my hon. Friend was chairman.

Miss Fookes

My hon. Friend is not accurate in his facts. I am now vice-chairman.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

Is my hon. Friend convinced that the lens that were brought before her came from a battery? Will she confirm that free-range hens suffer from cannibalism and feather pecking, which is impossible in the battery system?

Miss Fookes

I am satisfied that the two creatures that I saw had been in a battery cage, if only because my subsequent researches showed me other such creatures in their battery cages. It is also important to recall that vices prevail even among caged birds and that they will go for each other. Indeed, that is one problem of the intensive system.

I am in a particular dilemma over the EEC directive. I welcome the fact that, on behalf of the Government, my hon. Friend has accepted the Opposition amendment, but I still feel that, even souped up a little, the EEC proposals fall so far short of being acceptable that I wonder whether they are worth having. We are to have the hope of 600 sq cm of space for each bird. My hon. Friend said that that would be worked towards as a second stage. This piece of card is precisely 600 sq cm I ask whether such progress is any progress at all.

The other fear that haunts me is that, if one accepts the proposals, whether they be improved or not, we might then give a certain respectability to a system which I deplore and which I want to see phased out in a reasonable time. I fear that we could lock ourselves into the system.

The European Commission is making inquiries into other systems for laying hens, and the Government have given money for research into alternatives to battery systems. I warmly welcome those developments, but it is strange that we should consider the recommendations for battery cages when at the end of 1983, if not before, we shall be getting the results of the EEC's inquiries and might hope for some information from our own researches.

If we accept the EEC proposals as a minor step forward, I hope that that will not deflect us from the central objective to find suitable alternative systems that do not so radically alter the natural behaviour of hens. I warn my hon. Friend that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who will not be content with little or no progress. In this connection, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), who cannot be here tonight, has asked me to express his deep concern about any inhumanity to hens kept in the battery system.

Moreover, it is not simply British welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA and others, which are concerned. There is now a body known as the Eurogroup, which consists of the leading animal welfare organisations in all the countries of the Community. They have got together and expressed their concern about the developments which are taking place. That group will be a more and more powerful force of which individual Governments and the European Community will have to take note. I trust therefore that in the near future there will be real developments towards a total change in the system. I, for one, will be content with nothing less.

9.6 pm

Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)

I hold the view that the draft directive contradicts the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes. Being a farmer, I declare my interest, as is the tradition of the House, although I have very few hens on my farm.

Article 3 of the convention lays down: Animals shall be housed and provided with food, water and care in a manner which … is appropriate to their physiological … needs in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge". Article 4 says: The freedom of movement appropriate to an animal … shall not be restricted in such a manner as to cause it unnecessary suffering or injury". This convention has been ratified by the United Kingdom and other EEC countries.

Evidence presented to the Council of Europe by the Society for Veterinary Ecology makes it clear that battery cages prevent natural behaviour such as dust bathing, and lead to increased pecking damage. That is increased by the lack of normal nesting facilities. There is a higher incidence of hysteria in cages, especially with young birds. Mortality rates are higher, as shown in recent laying tests, and diseases such as the fatty liver syndrome are more likely. It is difficult to see how the battery cage system now operating in this country can be reconciled with the convention within Europe.

Moreover, the Select Committee report on animal welfare recommends the phasing out of batteries within five years. The European directive makes no such recommendations, being content to ask for slightly more room in cages—500 sq cm—and even that should not come into effect until 1995. Thus, for another 14 years, the present admittedly unsatisfactory system would be maintained in this country.

It is arguable that acceptance of the draft would mean an end to any possibility of radical reform, even if research continues into possible alternatives. Surely there must be a firm, and much shorter, time limit. There are farmers who use other methods with commercial success.

People are being misled about the possible extra costs. According to the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, battery cage eggs cost 40.5p per dozen and free range eggs 72.5p per dozen. A switch to a system of aviaries, straw yards and deep litter would result in only a ½p increase per egg according to the Minister's desk study.

The House should make up its mind whether the Select Committee report is more acceptable than the European draft. That is what we must decide tonight. We must ask whether the acceptance of the directive would lessen the chance of phasing out battery cages. If we accept the directive as a step in the right direction we must at least insist on 750 sq cm.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Does my hon. Friend accept that he is arguing about whether a chicken is incredibly uncomfortably or tremendously uncomfortable?

Mr. Howells

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that a chicken is very uncomfortable in its small cage. It is a fact of life. I welcome the Oppositions's amendment as a step in the right direction.

Mr. Delwyn Williams (Montgomery)

Can the hon. Gentleman comment about the discomfort of small chicken producers? In my constituency, which is near the hon. Gentleman's, producers with no more than 6,000 hens have costs which will go up by £8,000 a year in income and £42,000 in capital if they have to change to accord with the European directive. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on their discomfort?

Mr. Howells

We are debating battery hens, not producers.

More improvements are necessary than reducing the number of years in which changes must be made. I call on the Minister to make a statement of intent to ban battery cages altogether. Until then she should make a firm commitment in favour of larger cages. Does the Minister intend to implement the Select Committee's recommendations? Will she take steps to ensure that any agreement in the EEC will be implemented by all member countries so that British farmers will not suffer from unfair competition? That is what it is all about.

9.17 pm
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

It is obvious from the tenor of the debate that there are a number of deeply held fears, worries and concerns about all aspects of the egg producing industry. It could be said, if it were not an unfortunate allusion to Denmark, that all was not well in the State of Denmark. In spite of all the rhetoric and deeply held concern, we must pay careful attention to the practical problems involved in transition which might be the consequence of what emerges from tonight's discussion.

People involved in the industry seem to be constructive in their attitude to what is needed and how it can be achieved. We have to pay attention to a number of their anxieties. We owe it to them to do that because we have a duty to take responsible action which will not lead to problems that could have been foreseen. Hon. Members who have made a number of suggestions tonight have not properly considered the consequences that they invite.

There is a European aspect to this. We are discussing a draft directive that is being considered on a European basis. We have to examine it in that context, whether we like it or not. We should not proceed further or faster than the European body of opinion. It is right to direct our efforts towards improving standards across Europe as a whole. It is tempting to say that we should raise national barriers to imports from the Community. However, it is right to say that within the Community we should raise barriers to imports from outside the Community that do not accord with the standards for which we aim within the Community. If we are part of the Community, we should seek to achieve the same standards of production across Europe so that the question of raising barriers at the Channel and North Sea ports does not arise. If we decide unreasonably to erect unnatural national barriers when there is not an ability to fulfil the market, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) said in graphic terms, there would be crazy consequences. We must consider the matter in European terms. We must do all we can to raise the European standards to those that we want to see in Britain.

There is a competitive question concerning export potential. We should never forget the export potential of our food production. We have for so long considered ourselves to be food importers that we have almost brainwashed out of ourselves the thought that it might be possible to export food.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

We export lamb.

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. Friend is right. We are beginning to turn around under the guidance of my right hon. Friend.

Let us not forget the export potential of the poultry industry. It exists, and can be developed because it is not necessarily dependent only on United Kingdom matters. We can put ourselves at a disadvantage by moving too far out of step with our European colleagues. Even now, we do better in relation to the horrible dimensions of cages that we have heard about this evening than most of our European partners. There is plenty of work for us to do within the Community to raise standards.

I wish to develop the competitive aspect. We are discussing a transitional period. Those who conform as soon as the new standards become effective will be at a competitive disadvantage with those operating on older standards to the end of the transitional period. That point has not received the consideration that it merits. It is an important point. In a competitive market such as egg production, it makes a difference between the ability to stay in business and not being able to do so.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Before my hon. Friend leaves that important point, will he embrace the fact that some of our competitors can borrow money to finance their transition at one-half or one-third of the rate of interest charged to our producers?

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. Friend makes a fair point that must be taken into account in considering the consequences of any actions we advocate or take as a result of the debate and also when considering any future legislation. I am grateful to him for adding that dimension to the argument.

If changes are made to the cage sizes, either producers must be allowed to operate to existing stocking densities or financial help must be made available during the transitional period. I do not know from where that financial help for the transition might come, but it is important that we recognise the competitive element.

I hope that when my hon. Friend replies she will be able to give me guidance on what is being rumoured within the Community about the Dutch Government providing cash to assist their producers to conform with any new standards without financial hardship. I hope that she will tell us whether in her opinion other Governments will follow suit.

In my hon. Friend's opening remarks, which I warmly support, she referred to monitoring. I should prefer to call it policing. I accept that there must be some form of Community policing. However, before we proceed any further we must have the method of policing cut and dried. It must be verifiable and "foolproof". I do not want to find that the officials of other countries who sign certificates that state that certain conditions are being complied with are different in nature from our officials.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

My hon. Friend means "corruption". Let us call it what it is.

Mr. Shepherd

I am talking not necessarily of corruption but of different ideas about what constitutes a vet, for example, between the United Kingdom and other Continental countries.

Various figures have been bandied about while discussing costs. There is no doubt that if we move from the battery system there will be cost penalties. We must not forget why there has been such pressure on the system, why there is such insensitivity and why the system has reached its present level.

It is we the consumers who have applied pressure. It is not necessarily we the consumers who visit the supermarket or the neighbourhood shop to buy half a dozen eggs who are responsible. It is we the consumers who take into account whether half a pound of ginger nuts produced by one manufacturer is cheaper than half a pound produced by another manufacturer. The manufacture of ginger nuts requires the use of eggs and that requires the manufacture of eggs. We are consumers of eggs when we consider whether to eat at one transport cafe or another. We take into account whether egg and chips is cheaper at one such cafe than at another. We the consumers have put the pressure on the system and the industry has responded to try to oblige us.

It is easy to say that the consumers will accept a premium of 5p per dozen eggs—

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will they?

Mr. Shepherd

I do not know. I am told so by the Farm Animal Welfare Co-ordinating Executive. Apparently a Gallup survey was conducted and 937 consumers were asked how much more they would be willing to pay for non-battery eggs. It transpired that nearly two-thirds of those so questioned were willing to pay the premium. The element that we fail to take into account is the different price of ginger nuts in different shops. The manufacture of such products requires enormous egg production. It is the eggs that are used in catering and not the two eggs in a double egg cup that appear on the breakfast table in the morning that requires a high level of production. We ignore that at our peril.

Are we to allow a price increase of 5p or 10p per dozen eggs? Let us not confuse the extra cost of production with the extra cost of a dozen eggs on the shelf. An additional 5p in the production of a dozen eggs cannot be translated into an additional 5p per dozen eggs on the shelf. The increase will be another 12p per dozen on the shelf. There is a multiplier of two and a half for distribution, handling margins and all the other factors.

If we create circumstances in which eggs appear on the supermarket shelves at a higher price, we shall not know the consequences until that happens. Perhaps the overall consumption of eggs will fall off. Fewer eggs will be purchased. People will vote with their feet and find substitutes for eggs. All of us in the House are agreed that eggs are a healthy product. They are a balanced product and a good diet—generally speaking, they are good for us unless we breakfast on two dozen or more. In moderation, they are good.

Therefore, we can damage the industry. We can damage the countryside if we take an unreasoned action and put on a heavy price penalty. We would have done it for the best possible reasons, but we might not like the consequences. It is important that everyone—not just hon. Members, but those outside the House—should be aware of the consequences, because we are all consumers.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Has my hon. Friend noticed that the Select Committee states in its report that the cost will not exceed a maximum of 4.9p per dozen and gives a footnote? If one follows up the footnote in the evidence, one sees that a maximum is not given—it refers to about 4.9p. In other words, what the Committee report says is a maximum in the evidence is a scatter figure with that as the median. That is different.

Mr. Shepherd

I agree with my hon. Friend. I take his point. It reflects the diligent care with which my hon. Friend reads the reports. The House is grateful to him for his observation.

Research is also important. It has been touched on because it relates to where we go from here, and how. I understand that the Community proposal calls for fundamental changes in the law in 1983. It then calls for research into alternative systems to be made public in 1984. It seems slightly imprudent, to say the least, to make legal changes on an arbitrary basis in advance of research that might show the need for something completely different.

If the legislation goes ahead on the present lines, it will virtually kill the chances of any viable alternative to battery cages being developed. It will stifle rather than encourage research. That is not what we are looking for. It is essential that research into more effective means of egg production that will satisfy the reasonable requirements of the House, the public, and the producers—in fact everyone, including the hens—is not stifled.

I am told that the British Egg Association is putting £140,000 into research into the aviary system. I have no means of knowing whether the aviary system is advanced, but I am certain that I would not want to see that money wasted. The association also does not want to see its money wasted. That research should be done and should not be stifled.

As a final part of the need to consider the transitional arrangements, it is important that we should not be too firm on dimensions until we are certain that the battery is the best system of egg production, that an increased cage size is beneficial to the bird and that the costs are acceptable to the industry and the consumer, in the many aspects in which we consume the products.

I crave the indulgence of the House as I have spoken for longer than I meant to. However, that reflects the importance of those points to the industry, the consumer and the hens.

9.30 pm
Miss Joan Maynard (Sheffield, Brightside)

I believe that in 1965 Britain took the lead in animal welfare when we produced the Brambell committee report. I regret that we did not build on it, as I had hoped we would.

I am opposed to intensive farming. It is cruel to the birds and animals and it is often dangerous to the people employed in the industry, whether they are the farmers or farm workers. It can also often be dangerous to the consumers who eat the food that is produced by the various intensive farming methods.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) spoke about Community standards. But we should be thinking about—tonight and always—the humane standards. The way in which we treat animals who cannot speak for themselves is a measure of our civilisation. I understand that we are also talking about productivity and money. But the drive for profit means putting more and more pressure on animals and birds, which is what we have done in the farming industry.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) who said that we need to spend more money on research into alternative systems. The Select Committee challenged those who said that it would be more expensive to have less intensive systems than the battery system, but they did not have much evidence to back up their arguments. We should make more use of the aviary system, the straw yard system and probably the deep litter system.

History shows that, whenever reforms have been called for, there has always been the problem of cost. There is no doubt that the poultry industry is capital-intensive and the grant system in this country has encouraged that. Whenever people have called for a less intensive farming system it has been said that that would be ruinous for the producers, who would be put out of business. That reminds me of the arguments that were used when we wanted to bring children out of the mines and factories. It was also said that when farm workers were given Saturday afternoons off the farmers would be ruined. Nevertheless, the Select Committee gave some credence to the argument in favour of less intensive systems. It felt that battery cages in their present form should be phased out within five years. Therefore, I find the EEC proposals that will stretch the timetable to 1985 unacceptable.

Again, I put forward a plea for more research, particularly in welfare, and not just on technical developments and economic aspects. More money should be spent on the welfare aspects, and the Government should find the resources for it. They will not come from anyone else but the Government. There has been much talk about how the less intensive systems would push up the price of the product—in this case, eggs. I am not sure that that would be the effect. When we were pressed on the question there was not much evidence to prove that that would be the effect.

There are other costs involved in intensive farming methods—namely, the possible health costs that people could suffer as a result of eating food produced by the various intensive methods. We have also been told that producers are responding to the demands of consumers. The demands of consumers are conditioned by our advertising system. People are persuaded that what they want is being sold. I am not convinced of that argument.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

I am puzzled and interested by the health aspect of battery eggs as at present produced. Does the hon. Lady have a specific point in mind? This is important, as the debate will be widely read and I should not like it to be felt that there was something injurious about the eggs at present produced. Does the hon. Lady feel that some particular practice might be developed, or is there some particular current practice that worries her?

Miss Maynard

I am certainly prepared to defend my argument. I believe that there is less food value in battery-produced eggs than in those produced by less intensive systems. In speaking of the health aspect of consuming foods produced by various intensive methods, I was making a more general statement. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] For instance, a large number of young people in this country are dying of cancer. It should be borne in mind that many hens are fattened by pumping hormones and antibiotics into them. I do not believe that it is good to eat food produced in that way. That is a personal view that I am entitled to hold. Indeed, I believe that I may ultimately be proved right.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The hon. Lady began by referring to the evidence given to the Select Committee, which I have taken the trouble to read. The evidence was to the effect that there was a health risk in deep litter methods due to the excreta and dirt in which the eggs were produced. The hon. Lady has now gone from talking about the evidence to talking about her personal beliefs. She is entitled to her personal beliefs, but she is not entitled to wrap those personal beliefs in a spurious description of the evidence given to the Select Committee which was in fact to the opposite effect.

Miss Maynard

I in no way wished to confuse the House as between my own personal views and the evidence to the Select Committee. I said that I should like to see greater use of aviaries and straw yards and—perhaps—of the deep litter system.

Some people argue that stockmen prefer to look after battery hens indoors. That has not been the experience of my union. We have found that the majority of stockmen prefer to work out of doors. After all, that is why most of them decide to work in agriculture. It is certainly not for the wages that they draw at the end of the week. Most stockmen object to cramming as much stock as possible into the smallest possible area. I appreciate, of course, that density and warmth affect the amount of food needed by the birds and than producers have that worked out to a fine art.

The stockmen consulted by the union asked that considerable thought be given to stocking density. They stated that heat and dust seem always to be present in intensive poultry houses. The dust cannot he good either for the birds or for the men who work there, and it is no wonder that the incidence of respiratory disease among farm workers is increasing. They believe that animals should have sufficient room to move around without treading on one another. They also oppose the keeping of four or five birds in one cage so that it is virtually impossible for a bird to flap its wings without hitting another bird or the side of the cage.

Most farm workers therefore find battery cages objectionable. So do I. The Select Committee was right to ask for battery cages to be phased out over a five-year period. The 14 years proposed by the EEC is far too long a period. I hope that our Minister will veto any such proposal and that the Government will make a commitment today that at least they accept the Select Committee's proposal to phase out battery cages over a five-year period.

9.40 pm
Mr. David Myles (Banff)

I, too, must declare an interest:. I am a farmer and have produced eggs not through the battery system but through the free range system, with hatching eggs, which require the use of the free-range system.

I was also a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture. I was very interested in the manner in which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) switched around the evidence given to the Committee. I do not fully agree with what she said, but I shall develop that in my argument.

Dr. Rose Wegner, from Celle in Germany, said in her evidence to the Committee that the hen's egg was still the most valuable and reasonably priced protein source for human nutrition. this country, 96 per cent. of eggs are produced by the battery cage method. I do not think that the producers of 96 per cent of our eggs are without compassion or are disinterested in animal welfare. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), who spoke of the need for a balance between farmers and welfarists, whoever they are. I am a farmer, and I feel that I have been a welfarist all my life. Therefore, I believe that there is no conflict between animal welfare and farming. I wish to confine my remarks to animal welfare.

Mr. Peter Mills

Does my hon. Friend suggest that there is not a balance now? The balance is right at the moment.

Mr. Myles

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I may have misunderstood him.

The document before us is a reasonable one. It does not start with the promise, as do so many documents, that keeping hens in batteries is cruel. I shall confine my remarks to the welfare of the hen. I could never condone cruelty purely from an economic standpoint. As a member of the Agriculture Select Committee, which studied the subject, I was privileged to hear evidence on this subject from all shades of opinion. I recommend that all hon. Members study that evidence deeply, as obviously one hon. Member has already done, and not simply the Committee's findings. Not only the conclusions are important in that document. There is a great deal of evidence which should be read.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that there was a dearth of scientific evidence to prove or disprove that hens were content in the battery cage system. The only real evidence we heard was that hens laid better and lived longer. That evidence came from Dr. Lindgren from Denmark, who said: "Intensive egg production through the last two decades has experienced a drastic improvement on bird health. This development towards higher productive records and low mortality figures has been coincident with the increasing use of laying cages at the expense of housing on litter. He continues in detail to enumerate poultry diseases which can be caught from excreta, litter and mites.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend has just told us that hens now live longer and feel better, and has attributed that improvement to intensive methods. However, those changes have also coincided with genetic breeding, and they might be attributable to that as well as to changes in the methods of rearing hens.

Mr. Myles

That is not the evidence. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be interested in the evidence. I was quoting evidence on health and the diseases that can attack birds. Caged birds are much freer from diseases than are birds that are kept under other systems. To some extent the health of birds must he important unless it is said that we can have happy, unhealthy hens or that hens are happier if they are naturally unhealthy.

We heard from evidence—I think that the Committee agreed on this—that those entrusted to look after hens and other animals were the most likely to inflict cruelty on them. Battery cage systems for laying poultry eliminate most of the risks of human neglect or inadequacy. Some systems are so fully automated that one man can look after 64,000 birds.

Many people argue that humans would not want to live in such conditions. However, we should not be so arrogant as to assume that we know how a bird feels. Robert BURNS—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—is thought to be one of our most compassionate poets, yet over 200 years ago he said to the fieldmouse— "Still thou art blest compared wi me! The present only toucheth thee; Might it not be that with its brain the present only toucheth the hen? Does not the evidence suggest that nothing could be better than a controlled environment that is automatically kept clean? No other system allows the battery hen to remain separate from her excreta. There is no dreadful smell of ammonia such as is found in deep litter systems. Committee members saw some deep litter systems that made their eyes stream. The conditions were atrocious. Indeed, Dr. Lindgren mentions that aspect.

It is interesting to note that those who advocate the free range system also claim that we should not catch foxes. They seem to suggest that we should allow the fox his natural instinct to pull hens limb from limb, as is its wont. Battery hens are automatically fed and watered and are almost safe from human neglect. If we accept that hens should be kept to provide us with such valuable protein—and I respect the arguments of those who say that it is unethical to keep hens for that reason—we must accept that battery cages come as near as possible to the ideal environment in terms of the birds' welfare. The Select Committee did not hear any scientific or other hard evidence to disprove that assertion.

The document also refers to the size of cages. One of the problems about keeping hens in large numbers is their propensity to huddle together to the extent that many are often smothered. I have seen these hens huddle together, and they do so to keep warm. We must be careful about increasing the size of cages to such an extent that they are no longer able to maintain their natural body temperature.

When we visited Denmark, we found evidence of broken wings when the birds had too much room in which to move. I am disappointed that the document does not mention such evidence. If the birds become entangled in the bars of the cages, they can suffer from broken wings. We must also pay attention to that point.

I do not disagree with the Opposition amendment. It finds the proposed timetable stretching to 1995 for implementing minimal improvements incompatible with the views of the Agricultural Committee the views were not universal; there were certainly divisions of opinion expressed in their First Report of Session 1980–81 … the demands of those interested in animal welfare and the expectations of this House. We need a definition of what is meant by those interested in animal welfare", because I certainly am. There is no reason for not accepting both the amendment and the document.

9.53 pm
Mr. Stan Crowther (Rotherham)

Tonight is the first time that I have heard it seriously argued that hens are put into these appallingly tiny cages for their own benefit. Have the hon. Members for Banff (Mr. Myles) and Devon, West (Mr. Mills) ever offered a hen, which has hitherto been running free, a cage of the dimensions described tonight? I wonder whether it would voluntarily walk into such a cage and spend the rest of its life there.

Mr. Peter Mills

I have done exactly that, and they have hopped back in again.

Mr. Crowther

The hon. Gentleman has not said whether the hen hopped back out of the cage or chose to spend the rest of its life in it.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Is my hon. Friend aware that we saw some of these conditions in Germany? We were told that some of the hens retreated into the cages. We were subsequently told that there were hawks in the vicinity. There was therefore little doubt about why the hens retreated into their cages.

Mr. Crowther

I was referring to a hen that had previously been allowed to run free, whereas I think the hon. Member for Devon, West was talking about a hen that had the misfortune of spending all its life in one of these cages.

The Commission document is pitifully inadequate. Once again, it demonstrates the way in which the Commission can be influenced by powerful commercial interests, not only in Britain but throughout the Community.

The Minister rightly said that the Commission has concluded that a wide divergence of opinion exists on the interpretation of the available information on the behavioural needs of laying hens and on the adverse effects of battery cages. At the end of two years, the Commission has arrived at the amazing conclusion that there is a wide divergence of opinion. That divergence is clear from the debate. It does not need two years of study to find that out.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the industry's views should not be taken into consideration. Is he unaware of the critical state of the industry and the effect that a large increase in capital expenditure, let alone revenue expenditure, would have on it? Surely its views should carry some weight in the deliberations.

Mr. Crowther

I am not by any means unaware of the problems of the industry, and I shall say something about the capital expenditure to which reference has been made.

The Commission is manifestly dragging its feet. It was instructed two years ago by the Council of Ministers, in unequivocal terms, to prepare a report on systems of egg production which would be able to satisfy animal welfare requirements and those of hygiene and of social ethics. At the end of two years, on the basis of that instruction, the Commission has produced a document in which the best it can say is that there is a wide divergence of opinion and that much more research is needed.

How much more research do we need to prove that it is cruel to keep any animal in conditions in which it can barely move, and in which it certainly cannot make the normal movements that it would make in conditions of freedom? If that does not appear to any ordinary reasonable human being to be cruel, I do not know what is.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

It is clear that the hon. Member is against cages. What system does he favour as a means of producing eggs in large volume?

Mr. Crowther

I thought that we were debating the Commission document, and I intend to confine my comments to the document which is the subject of the debate.

We are not making the kind of progress towards removing elements of cruelty in the keeping of hens that the Council of Ministers intended us to make when it gave that instruction to the Commission. I do not need to be provided with much more evidence and research to prove to my satisfaction that it is cruel to keep hens in the conditions which have been described.

Conservative Members may wish to justify this cruelty on economic grounds. They appear to be arguing that it is unfortunate that suffering is involved but that for good economic and commercial reasons it has to be continued. That is an argument that I and many of my hon. Friends do not accept.

If a householder kept a cat or a dog in such conditions in a cage—[Interruption.] If Conservative Members think that this is funny, I strongly disagree with them. I see nothing humorous in cruelty to animals. If a householder kept a dog or a cat in a cage of the proportions that we are discussing, the RSPCA would prosecute, and every hon. Member would applaud it for doing so. But because we are talking here about commercial considerations, apparently different standards must be applied. I totally reject that argument. It is clear from the evidence that has been given to the—

Mr. Freud

The hon. Member is comparing chickens with dogs and cats. Would not he accept that dogs and cats are pretty nice animals by and large? There is nothing remotely charming about a chicken; they are boring and dreary animals. If the hon. Gentleman has ever met a gregarious chicken or a pleasant chicken let him say so. They are very useful for laying eggs and the more uncomfortable they are, the cheaper are the eggs they lay.

Mr. Crowther

If I were invited to select the most outstanding example of mankind's arrogance in relation to the rest of the living world, I could not do better than quote what has just been said.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

On behalf of the Liberals too.

Mr. Crowther

I do not know whether the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) said what he did on behalf of the Liberal Party or the dog food manufacturers. [t is quite clear from the evidence presented by the various bodies representing egg producers that they all have basically the same approach. The theme is that a great deal of capital investment is represented in their existing equipment and their present cages and that moving to a more humane system would cost a lot of money. Therefore, we should either not do it at all, or at least do it very slowly.

I am not sure that there is a lot of money involved. The Minister quoted an amount for the estimated cost of moving towards a very moderate improvement as proposed by the Commission. Unless my mathematics are a long way out, that totals something less than £2 per bird space in capital terms. That does not seem to tie up at all with a figure that was mentioned by one of the Minister's hon. Friends. That hon. Member ought to talk to the Minister and see which figure is right.

I do not believe that capital costs should be a good argument against moving towards a more humane arrangement. I am not greatly moved by the arguments advanced on behalf of the egg producers that it will cost so much money. appreciate that it would be much easier for them if the hens would meet the needs of the cages, because then the cages would not have to meet the needs of the hens. If we proceed like this, evolution will eventually produce a wingless hen with no legs and no feathers and we will not have this problem.

Mr. Myles

Is the hon. Gentleman not at all concerned about the interests of the consumer? He referred to the producer, but surely it is the consumer that we are thinking about. The producer would not produce eggs if the consumer did not want them.

Mr. Crowther.

I grew up eating eggs which were not produced in cages, and very enjoyable eggs they were. I had the great benefit of having relations who were farmers and I much enjoyed the eggs produced by hens which ran loose on the farm. [Interruption.] I am not discussing their political affiliations because I have never asked them, as a matter of fact. To suggest that we must continue producing eggs in these appallingly cruel conditions if we wish to continue eating eggs is nonsense. Of course, that is not true.

I presume that the Danes eat eggs and the proportion of eggs produced in Denmark by what I regard as cruel methods is only 50 per cent. In Britain, the proportion is 95 per cent. The Danes manage to eat eggs, just as we do. I have no doubt that the same market forces operate in Denmark as in the rest of the Community.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

The hon. Member made an interesting point when he said that he had never asked chickens about their political affiliations. I make a perfectly serious point by asking whether it is relevant—it seems to me that he has ignored this—whether chickens are suffering. No hon. Members want to see suffering; we are all against cruelty. Surely the individuals we must consider are the animals themselves—the chickens, and not human beings putting themselves in the position of chickens. Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to that?

Mr. Crowther

The hon. Gentleman is trying to turn the debate into a music hall and I do not intend to join in that. I regard this as a serious matter.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, despite all the criticism from the Conservative Benches, we are arguing over a document in which even the EEC, by its tacit acceptance in 1995—although this is not acceptable to many hon. Members—recognises that this is a practice that should come to an end?

Mr. Crowther

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. That is precisely the point. The Government, by accepting not only the EEC document but by accepting the Opposition amendment, which says that the document does not go far enough, fast enough, agree with the point that has just been made. If there was no acceptance of the fact that cruelty is involved, this debate would not he taking place. That needs to be understood.

I fear that I cannot agree entirely with the kind words used by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) about the British Poultry Federation Ltd. My hon. Friend referred to the federation's paper which says: It must be right, in our view, to ensure that birds are of only protected from cruelty, but also that they enjoy an environment that is as pleasant as we can make it. The words are splendid. What, however, is the federation doing about it? Are the members of the federation doing what they say? Are they making the environment for these birds as pleasant as they can? Do they not really mean to say "as pleasant as we can make it provided that it does not affect our profits"? That is what they really mean.

Many Conservative Members have clearly taken the view—I happily exclude from my criticism the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) who made a splendid contribution—that is accepted by the producers. While they may not wish to be cruel, it is, unfortunately, necessary to be cruel in order to make a profit and to stay in business. That is a position that I cannot accept. The only reason why new capital expenditure needs to be involved in changing the system is that money was invested voluntarily and deliberately in the first place in a system that involves cruelty. Conservative Members shake their heads. They should argue with the Commission that it is wrong. They should tell the Council of Ministers that it was wrong to ask for the report. If hon. Members do not agree that cruelty is involved, why do not they protest that the Council of Ministers was wrong to ask for the report and that there is no need to make changes?

Cruelty is, of course, involved. The question of spending more money arises only because producers put their money originally into the present system. I do not shed tears for people who invest in cruelty. If the egg producers had not engaged in this barbaric system in the first place, they would not now be under pressure to change it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) that one way of measuring the degree of civilisation in any society is the manner in which that society treats its captive animals. This is not a matter that should provoke laughter as some Conservative Members seem to think. It is not a sentimental question. It is a basic moral question. It goes to the heart of our ethics.

Mr. Freud

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Crowther

I have given way enough. I wish to conclude by saying that I welcome the Government's decision to accept the Opposition's amendment, modest though it is. I wish only that I had heard a commitment from the Government that they will legislate to phase out completely this appalling system.

10.10 pm
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther), although I feel that his conclusions rather went over the top of the evidence before us. The Minister, in her explanatory memorandum, correctly stated that if the proposals are adopted most producers who use the cage system must replace their cages within the transitional period.

I cannot believe that the farming community has had such a fine return on capital invested that we can cheerfully contemplate that burden being put upon it without looking at what it will mean. The Commission report states that "in certain cases" the keeping of laying hens in cages leads to unnecessary and excessive suffering on the part of the animal". My agricultural expertise is less than that of my constituents, but I always believed that a hen was a bird and not an animal. Perhaps I shall be corrected later.

The Commission uses the words "in certain cases". It does not go the whole way to say that the battery cage system is cruel, and nor did the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, say that in so many words. Although he was moving towards saying that, he was reluctant to say on behalf of the Opposition that the battery system is cruel. He cannot have it both ways. He said that 99 per cent. of farmers were not cruel. Either they are adopting a cruel system or they are not. If they are adopting a cruel system, they must be cruel people. The hon. Gentleman must clarify his position.

Some Opposition Members said that we can ignore what goes on in Europe and make sure that our system is not cruel. I cannot accept the logic or the humanity of that argument. Either the battery system is of itself cruel—and it is not purely cruel in Britain—or we must say that we accept it. Cruelty does not end at Dover. Surely if we work together within Europe towards a humane system, we shall assist in the ensuring the welfare of birds.

A farmer in try constituency advises me that if he must provide a space of 600 sq cm per bird he would have to reduce the number of his birds by one-third or build more accommodation, with consequent increased heating costs, interest payments and so on, because his cages are on one tier only. It would cost him nearly £100,000. That is the evidence for which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) asked. The hon. Lady seemed to ignore the fact that in this world one gets nothing for nothing.

Mr. Mark Hughes

The hon. Gentleman's constituent is complaining about increasing the size of his cages to 600 sq cm. This piece of paper that I have folded is 20 cm by 20 cm, which is 400 sq cm. Is that the space that the hon. Gentleman wants for each hen in this day and age?

Mr. Alexander

I am not intimidated by that comment. I shall come in a moment to my constituent's view on the condition of his birds. If we impose such costs on the farmer, they will be passed on to the consumer. One gets nothing for nothing. The transitional periods for the farming industry must be reasonable and as generous as we can make them.

My constituent assures me that his birds are comfortable and that within that comfort he gets a reasonable rate of return. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) asked how we know that it is cruel to keep birds in such conditions. I accept my constituent's word—he has been in the industry for perhaps 50 years—that the system gives them a reasonably comfortable life.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Why, then, do birds kept in such conditions have broken wings and cysts on their chests and are defeathered and need de-beaking?

Mr. Alexander

My constituent's birds are not in that condition. He has invited me and any other hon. Member to visit the caged birds to see whether they are in the condition alleged. I should be happy to accompany the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to do so.

Mr. John Carlisle

It is obvious that the birds are happy in such an environment because they produce large numbers of eggs. They would not do so if they were in a poor condition.

Mr. Alexander

That is so. If the hens were in an extremely poor condition, they would not produce profitably.

Whatever emerges from the consultations that my hon. Friend has, I hope, as do many of my hon. Friends, that one thing will be made abundantly clear. If we accept the increase in bird space, our competitors in Europe will, too, at the same pace and subject to the same inspection, policing and controls. We must not in this matter, as we have done in so many agricultural matters, play by the rules but allow the EEC to turn a blind eye to what goes on elsewhere.

10.17 pm
Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Anyone who considers the proposals before the House other than from a narrow, commercial, aspect must recognise that the space provided, even if the Commission's recommendations are accepted, is still woefully inadequate. If the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) discarded the commercial argument, he would not be able to justify the Commission's view, let alone the present state of affairs.

The Select Committee on which I served recommended a minimun of 750 sq cm per bird, which is still gross overcrowding. However, as long as the battery system exists there are problems in further expanding the area for birds without making the system uneconomic. For that reason, the Select Committee finally came down in favour of getting rid of the battery system completely over a period of five years or so on the basis not of emotional choice, as may be suggested, but of the evidence that we considered.

We recognise that instant banning of the cage system would not make sense. We recognise that other systems, in certain circumstances, could be even worse, although I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), in saying that the Pennsylvania system was necessarily worse. We recognise, too, that if we ban cages and the battery system in this country and then import eggs from abroad which are produced in that way, we should achieve nothing. I therefore believe that the Select Committee put forward a responsible view.

The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) and several other hon. Members considered the philosophical implications of welfare and whether a bird in a battery system could be happy. The Select Committee also considered that issue and went into the problem of how far overcrowding in cages actually constitutes cruelty. I wish to express my personal point of view on the matter.

I believe that some birds will not show signs of stress, even in conditions of extreme confinement and overcrowding, but that many birds do. However, we must recognise that it is possible to condition living creatures, even human beings, to live without stress in conditions of extreme deprivation, but that does not justify our doing it. In such conditions, the animals fail to develop even those innate potentialities which remain after generations of domestic breeding. If one keeps an animal in such conditions that it cannot develop naturally even the genetic heritage that it has after domestic breeding, I maintain that the environment in which it is being kept is totally at odds with its nature, and in those circumstances one sees certain results.

Mr. John Carlisle

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wonder how the hens manage to lay eggs at all in these terrible conditions.

Mr. Newens

It is by means of a biological process which will not necessarily be snuffed out, even in the worst conditions. When human beings were kept in concentration camps they continued to perform certain natural functions, but that is no justification for concentration camps. Neither is the fact that hens still lay eggs a justification of the battery system.

I do not accept that in the long run complete subjugation of every principle of compassion to commercial criteria can be justified. I do not suggest that that is being done. I suggest that the logic of certain arguments is that commercial considerations and motives should be given absolute priority.

We do not yet fully know what may be the result of breeding hens so far away from their original nature over many generations. In this connection, I am not relying on the evidence, but I suggest that we should view some of these matters with a certain caution, because we know that in the past certain plants and animals which man has produced have suddenly become subject to serious diseases, and so on. This may yet take place if we commit ourselves entirely to this form of battery production of eggs.

Mr. John Carlisle

Is the hon. Gentleman agreeing with his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) that battery eggs could lead to cancer?

Mr. Newens

I have never suggested that. Not for one moment did I suggest that battery-produced eggs could lead to cancer. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) did either. The hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) should address himself to the arguments. He should not erect windmills which he wishes to demolish, because that shows the weakness of his argument. People who are opposed to the battery system are saying, not that battery-produced eggs lead to cancer—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Newens

I want to pursue my argument because we are getting too far from it.

We have become committed to a battery system, and it seems that it is too costly to develop satisfactory alternatives. There is no evidence to suggest that we have arrived at the perfect system for producing eggs or for keeping hens. Anybody who listened to Conservative Members would imagine that we had arrived at the perfect system.

The Government should step in and reach agreement with other egg-producing countries not only to impose the trivial limits recommended on the worst battery producers but to develop new methods so that the battery system can be replaced, as the Select Committee recommended.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brightside said, nearly every reform approved by the House has been opposed on cost grounds. Some hon. Members who have raised their voices this evening would have been at one with their predecessors who argued against limiting the hours that children were forced to work in factories and with those who wanted children to work underground in the mines. In those days the argument was that it was too costly to get rid of the system.

Mr. Peter Mills

That is absolute nonsense.

Mr. Newens

I am glad that the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) protests. However, that is the logic of the arguments expressed by his hon. Friends tonight. I am sorry that he thinks that my argument applies to him, because it does not. If he thinks that it applies to him I am sorry, because I thought that he had more compassion. Some of his hon. Friends have views different from his.

The Government must step in and take action. We need a prosperous egg-producing industry. Members of the Select Committee made recommendations because we believed that it was possible to have such an industry on that basis. It is wrong to suggest that we are concerned only with compassion—although we make no apology for being concerned with that. We are concerned also to achieve a prosperous egg-producing industry on a compassionate basis. If the Government step in, that can be achieved.

If we take action immediately to ensure that the necessary research is put in hand; if we insist and make use of our veto if necessary in the EEC, it is possible to get rid of the battery system and to produce all the eggs that we require on a better basis. I hope that ultimately every hon. Member will have that as his objective.

10.30 pm
Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I have an interest in farming. I do not make money out of hens. I keep them, and most mornings I feed them and let them loose. My hens are free range and, I regret to say, quite uneconomic. I do not usually fall out with my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), but I thought I heard him say that one could not tell the difference between a battery egg and a free range egg.

Mr. Peter Mills

I did not.

Mr. Body

I am glad. I must have misunderstood. My birds run around the yard and occasionally produce a few eggs. I infinitely prefer to eat them rather than the filthy things which come out of battery cages.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) that there is evidence from the United States that a number of heart diseases can be attibuted to the battery egg, for reasons that have already been given. My hon. Friend suggested that free range chickens give rise to cannibalism and all sorts of vice. If a cock is put among the hens, he soon sorts them out and there will not be any cannibalism or vice. If my hon. Friend is worried about vice, he should get a good cock.

I look forward to progress being made. A dangerous wedge is being driven steadily between farmers and a growing number of the public. That is very bad for the reputation of farmers. All concerned with farming admit that a large part of their livelihood depends upon support from the taxpayer. It is crucial that farmers should retain the good will of the public. If they lose it, they could face a critical time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and others spoke about costs. There is a fallacy in the argument that they put forward. At home we have a large implement building, facing south, with a concrete floor. I was advised that it would be ideal for a straw yard. We contemplated making the building into a straw yard, and we could have kept several hundred birds. It would have cost only a few pounds to adapt the building. We would not have received any Goverment grant or tax allowance. However, had we adapted the building it would have proved uneconomic. We could have produced eggs by a method that every hon. Member who has questioned battery cages would regard as humane. It would have been more worthwhile economically to have demolished the whole building at some expense, erected a new wooden building and put in row upon row of battery cages. That would have been worth our while, although it might have cost £10,000. Our money would have been returned eventually from not the consumer but the taxpayer. The buildings would have been written off over a period and the battery cages would have been written off after 12 months out of tax. The result of our calculations and the advice that we were given was that we did not go ahead with what we had been contemplating.

The battery egg is made artificially cheap as a result of our tax system. The old-fashioned methods of the free range, the Pennsylvania system and all the other systems are made artificially expensive because of our tax system.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

And the grant system.

Mr. Body

Indeed. How would the costings work out if we brought tax allowances to an end? I suspect that the housewife would be paying for a battery egg a little more than for other sorts of egg.

It is agri-businesses and not farmers that have gained considerably during the past two decades from our tax system for farming. That has not been to the advantage of ordinary farmers. Those of us who are more than 50 years of age can remember when hundreds of small farmers kept a number of hens. The surplus eggs would go to market and quite a useful addition to their livelihoods would be gained by the efforts of the farmers' wives. Those days may be gone for ever.

At the same time, we have lost the thousands of farmers who were able with 1,000 or 2,000 birds to make a useful supplement to their livelihoods. That was not a bad form of mixed fanning. I regret that those days have come to an end, largely because of the present tax system. I support what the Community is doing in this sphere.

Mr. Keith Wickenden (Dorking)

My hon. Friend has told us that he had a chicken house on which he had to spend nothing and that it could not be economic. He explained that if he had spent £10,000 and had received tax relief it would have been economic. How can that be right? The tax man gives not a 100 per cent. allowance but one that is based on the tax that is paid. I do not understand how an uneconomic operation can be made economic merely by tax relief.

Mr. Body

I was advised that the tax allowances on the cages themselves would have been 100 per cent. in 12 months and that the cost of the building would be written off over a number of years because of tax allowance. I have forgotten the exact number of years, but others may know. The calculations made it plain that one might be able to make the venture pay on those terms but not by converting building into a straw yard at the cost of only a few pounds. That is the point that I was seeking to make.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Perhaps my hon. Friend has other sources of income against which the tax could be allowed. Are we not talking about farmers who have to live on the income from producing eggs? We are not discussing those who have an income from being Members of Parliament or barristers against which they can offset costs on other activities.

Mr. Body

I hope that my hon. Friend will not talk to my tax inspector. He knows better than I that a person cannot set off his income as a barrister or Member of Parliament against farming losses. I do not wish to be drawn into too close an inspection of my tax affairs. I merely repeat the advice that I was given, which I think was the best advice possible on the subject.

I hope that progress will be made. I fear that it will be slow. If it is, the farmers will not gain. The only people who will gain will be the agri-businesses at the expense of the farmers.

10.40 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I shall make a short speech, because I note that the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) is keen that I should.

The provisions and suggestions contained in the draft directive are useful and they are a modest step forward. We can talk only of a modest step forward, because at this stage I do not believe that there is any real prospect of a major change being achieved. Like other hon. Members who served on the Select Committee and, indeed, many other hon. Members, I have taken the opportunity of looking around many battery systems. Most of us would agree that judged by the standards by which we as human beings judge these matters, they are not terribly attractive. They are too cramped, and so on. Therefore, it is useful to try to enlarge the general comfort of the battery system in precisely the way that is suggested in article 3 of the draft directive.

There are other points that we must also bear in mind. First, we must do the best that we can with the available evidence. I do not believe that there is an alternative system now available for producing the volume of eggs that we need to produce at reasonable cost. We have to face that. It is the present position. It may change, and we hope that it will. Opposition Members, and, indeed, Conservative Members, demand the complete phasing out or abolition of the battery system, but it does not make sense. At this stage, there is no alternative that we can put in its place.

Secondly, all forms of husbandry involve some type of constraint. I cannot think of any form that I have encountered that does not. The idea that one can bring up animals or produce food in the way that our ancestors did 500 years ago is grotesque. We must achieve a balance between humanity and economic production. There are no absolute truths in this matter and hon. Members have failed to recognise the importance of that basic proposition.

I should like to mention two other points. First, before the Select Committee there was a great diversity of opinion as to the extent to which the costs would increase by moving away from the present system of producing eggs. There are a variety of problems associated with that judgment, not least because if there is no viable alternative now it is difficult to assess with clarity what the increased costs would be in producing eggs in a situation that we cannot yet tell.

Does the hon. Member for Durham wish to intervene, or is he just grumbling?

Mr. Mark Hughes

I was just grumbling.

Mr. Hogg

That is very like the hon. Gentleman, but no matter. The point is that unless we can put an alternative before a Committee, the House or another body of assessment, it is difficult to be precise about the increase in cost. The overwhelming body of evidence was that there would be a substantial increase to the consumer and, perhaps more important for these purposes, a substantial increase to the producer. It is nonsense to pretend, as one Labour Member did, that we should simply ignore the interests of the producer. That is a monstrous idea. It is like nationalisation without compensation, which is also put forward from the Labour Benches from time to time and then, of course, denounced.

Mr. Newens

Which Labour hon. Member does the hon. Gentleman mean?

Mr. Hogg

I was referring to the hon. Member who was sitting to the right of the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens). I do not know his name. What is more, he has left the Chamber. But he was there earlier, and he clearly told the House that he did not give a damn, if I may use that word, about the producers, because they had voluntarily put themselves into that position.

Mr. Newens

I never argued that.

Mr. Hogg

No, it was certainly not the hon. Member for Harlow. It was the hon. Member sitting to his right, whose name I do not know, whom I have not seen before in the House and who has now gone away. The hon. Gentleman must not grumble if I cannot identify an absent Member. His opinions, however, were highly offensive, because he told the House that producers who had responded to the consumers' desires were to be punished for so responding because a massive increase in cost would be imposed upon them for which there would be no compensation at all. That is typical of the Labour Party but not, I think, of this country.

If we are to impose upon our producers more rigorous requirements than are at present imposed, we must shoulder the cost. It is we as society who permitted them to do the one thing and if we require them to do something else we as society must finance it. It matters not a great deal whether it is done by grants, subsidies, taxation or higher prices, but the financial burden rests upon us and not upon them.

Finally, I support the modest step contemplated in the draft directive. I believe that in the fullness of time we shall be able to take a more ambitious step forward, and I welcome that. But any step forward that we contemplate and any directive that we support must include a proper system for enforcing the provisions throughout the EEC.

I draw the attention of both Front Benches—after all, in 15 years' time the hon. Member for Durham may have responsibility for these matters—to the provisions of articles 6 and 9. Any directive that we approve must provide for on-the-spot, random inspections. Even more importantly, they must be carried out by inspectors who are not answerable merely to their own national Governments. I do not trust inspectors in Greece, or in Portugal when the time comes, or in some parts of France, to impose and enforce the regulations as rigorously as the inspectors in Lincolnshire. I do not see why my constituents should be treated more harshly than producers in Greece.

That being so, any draft directive that we accept must have a proper enforcement procedure. That means enforcement by inspectors who are answerable not merely to their own national Governments, because we know that many of those national Governments cheat.

10.49 pm
Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) spoke about consumers and producers, but that is a chicken and egg argument. Consumers are entitled to consume and are usually encouraged to do so by producers. Indeed, producers often advertise. Therefore, that is not the argument.

We are discussing whether it is cruel to keep hens in battery cages. Many Conservative Members have said that chickens live in a good environment. However, I would argue about that. They are not in a natural environment. When we forget the feelings of birds, animals and humans, we are well on the way to degrading mankind. It is said that Europe does this or that. However, we should remember that we are Great Britain and at one time we used to make decisions and take a lead. There is no reason why we still should not take a lead and why we should not do so in animal welfare. One of the Sunday newspapers showed how humans could treat animals and birds. A battery hen cage is 500 cm. in size. Can any hon. Member say that it is natural for a fully-grown hen to live in a space that size? It is not. If someone were to tell me that it was natural to stop a hen from carrying out its normal functions of dust washing and socialising with other hens I would tell him that he was wrong.

It is argued that, because we can produce more eggs cheaply, the concept that we must not be cruel to animals must go out of the window. We are in danger of saying that it does not matter whether the production method is cruel. We are talking about turning a live bird into a pure and simple egg-producing machine that is there to produce eggs for 12 months. After 12 months some hens produce artificial moultings. That is brought about by turning off the lights for hours and so on. Hens can then produce eggs like an egg machine for a further 12 months. Therefore, humane treatment goes out of the system.

There are alternative systems. In Marlborough, the Martin Pits farm has a free-range approach. Each hen has its own nesting box. Hens have always produced eggs in a social atmosphere. At the same time, the hen can go into the pen and carry on its normal life scratching about in the grass, pecking and moving about. As for foxes, the system is fenced.

Dr. Sainsbury's straw yard system produces eggs quite cheaply in some cases. Much has been said about the consumer. Let us consider the price of eggs. A five-bird cage works out at 40.1 pence per dozen, a four-bird cage at 42.2 pence, a three-bird cage at 46.4 pence and a deep-litter cage—according to Dr. Sainsbury's idea—at 47.4 pence, or an extra 5 pence a dozen. The straw yard system works out at 47..4 pence. Therefore, the consumers' interests, as well as the birds' interests, are being looked after.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the present system of inspection. I am not naive enough to think that we shall throw out the battery system next year or the year after that. However, I hope that we shall fully commit ourselves to a period of five, six or seven years in which to do away with the battery system. In the meantime, will the Minister scrutinise the methods of inspection, and the times of inspection according to European legislation. According to that legislation, battery hens must be inspected every day. Some of the battery systems have 20,000 or 30,000 birds. As a result, the top and bottom tiers are sometimes not inspected as they should be. I should like an assurance that, until we get rid of the battery system, inspections will be increased with inspectors from our Department as well.

10.55 pm
Mr. Mark Hughes

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say that we have had an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the amendment.

I wish to ask only two questions. Is the hon. Lady satisfied that the Government are able to legislate on animal welfare, as the Danes did, without the agreement of our European colleagues and to take countervailing action if there is an economic disadvantage? From what has been said, the clear strength of feeling is that we ought to do something about battery hens. Can that be done in the context of our membership of the Community? I simply ask for information. Are we permitted to do that under the terms of the Treaty of Accession and the Treaty of Rome on animal welfare grounds along the same lines as the Government are seeking to follow on animal health grounds in respect of Newcastle disease? I do not find a clear distinction between the two.

Secondly, do the Government anticipate that they will be able to accept in the terms of the amendment a five-year phasing out of battery hen egg production?

10.57 pm
Mrs. Fenner

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate.

The concern that we all feel about the welfare of laying hens has been evident throughout the debate. I can appreciate the views of those hon. Members who would like to see more done for these animals, which provide us with such a nutritious source of food. Carefully planned studies are now taking place that will guide us in the future as to the steps that can be taken further to improve the welfare of hens. A move towards this aim is about to be made, and the matter will not rest there.

During this longish debate, hon. Members have raised a number of points and I shall try to comment briefly on as many as possible.

Many hon. Members have referred to points made in the Select Committee report. I know that hon. Members will appreciate that it will be the task of my right hon. Friend to come to the House with a proper response to that important report. There is no way in which I can comment on it tonight. It would be a discourtesy to the House if anything other than a considered and full response were made to that extremely important report.

The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) expressed concern about whether the Government are satisfied that they can legislate, just as the Danes have done in the past. The United Kingdom Government can introduce higher standards in the United Kingdom. However, the Danes did not retaliate on imports when they introduced the 480 sq cm cage.

We are members of the Community, and, although we can debate animal welfare in strong words in this House, it is surely to the benefit of animal welfare if we can succeed in spreading those high standards over a wider area in the Community.

When I was a Member of the House previously there was great concern about the transport of live animals, and we have had success in the Community in securing the sort of standards in which we in Britain believe. I trust that in the present matter hon. Members will agree that it is a good objective to try to secure the acceptance of standards over the length and breath of the Community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott), with his special experience of the Select Committee, emphasised—as have many hon. Members on each side of the House—that in the light of the directive we should be certain that the inspection is equal, and that it is carried out with integrity and with independence. That point was succinctly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). It will be our intention to secure that independent inspection with which hon. Members were naturally concerned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) made the point, in support of what I said, that we should try to secure proper standards throughout the Community. He referred, as I did in my opening speech, to the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. I know that my hon. friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes)—whose work in the RSPCA is very well known in this House and outside—will be aware that there are two officials of the RSPCA on the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and that the council has been set up to give Ministers just that advice in welfare that I am sure we would all want them to receive from experts. I reiterate, as I made clear in my opening remarks, that their advice was in favour of the 600 sq cm.

My hon. Friend the Member for Drake said that we do not want to be locked into a system. I remind hon. Members that in 1979, when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food supported the initiative on the new approach to the question of the welfare of hens in battery cages, he did so in regard to an interim improvement in standards, which is what we are speaking about now. The council also requested the Commission to consider phasing out over a period. The Commission had been charged not only with research in the interim period but with research into alternative systems.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to research into alternatives. The Commission is charged with the task of reporting on this research in 1984. Research is being undertaken in the United Kingdom, and the Commission's research will be a co-ordination of the research throughout the Community. In this research we shall be playing a part. Research in the United Kingdom is being undertaken notably at the Gleadthorpe experimental husbandry farm and at the poultry research centre. The system being researched there, to which hon. Members have referred, is the aviary system, and it was chosen deliberately, being judged on the available evidence to be the most likely to meet certain welfare criteria, while offering a compromise commercially.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) was so intemperate in his remarks about the British Poultry Federation. I assure him that the federation cares very much about research and is allocating £20,000 a year over seven years to assist in that important task.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) showed an understanding of the consequences of distortion of competition, which was also referred to by many of my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) was particularly concerned about the distortion of competition in cage sizes during the interim period. I assure him that, although the original proposals may have given rise to some distortion of competition when cages were replaced during the transitional period, any such potential distortion has been largely eliminated by amendments made to the text during the discussions simply to require that new cages would be capable of complying with the most stringent standards from the later date.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South implied that my acceptance of the Opposition amendment meant an acceptance of the desirability of abolishing cages. I should make it clear that I accepted the amendment on the basis that it was wholly consistent with the policy that we have been following in Brussels.

The hon. Member also referred to an inadequacy of welfare inspections by Ministry vets. That is one of the matters raised by the Select Committee and I have informed its members that we shall respond to the report as soon as possible.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) has not been able to stay in the Chamber. She gave some personal opinions, but she also referred to health hazards in the intensive system. That was unfortunate, because there is no evidence that there is a health hazard in eating battery eggs. Indeed, there is much less chance of a battery egg being infected with salmonella compared with either deep litter or free range eggs. There is also no demonstrable difference in the food value of eggs from battery hens compared with those from other systems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) referred to broken wings in cages. The Community is funding a project in Sweden which has for the past five years examined possible ways of improving cage design. Reports on that work are published annually.

The hon. Member for Rotherham referred to the Danish system. Only 50 per cent. of Danish chickens are kept in cages and the reason for the lower proportion of cage-produced eggs in Denmark is interesting. Until recently it was illegal to use cages in Denmark—yet half the eggs still came from caged birds and most of the rest came from the Pennsylvania system. The hon. Member for Bradford, South said that that system had many disadvantages, but the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) did not wholly agree with that. The Danes have found it necessary to remove the ban on cages.

Many matters were raised in the debate, and I hope that I have covered them. I have even tried to deal with the issues raised by hon. Members who are now absent. It has been an extremely interesting debate. I know that many hon. Members looked forward to it and wished to take part, because they believe that the subject is important. I hope that, from my opening remarks, hon. Members will accept that the Government are supporting the work being done by the Commission, on the Council's instructions, to look at commercially viable alternatives, but in the interim to secure some early improvement, remembering that our standards are not reproduced in many other countries.

I apologise if I have omitted to deal with other points raised by hon. Members. I hope that I have said enough to convince the House that the motion, as amended, should be approved.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8832/81 containing proposals laying down minimum standards for the protection of laying hens kept in battery cages and supports the Government's intention to seek agreement to arrangements which would enhance conditions and strengthen controls in the Community, but finds the proposed time-table stretching to 1995 for implementing minimal improvements incompatible with the views of the Agriculture Committee expressed in their First Report of Session 1980–81 (H. C. 406), the demands of those interested in animal welfare and the expectations of this House.