HC Deb 26 June 1984 vol 62 cc920-7

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mrs. Fenner.]

11.4 pm

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the Bill. It is not a major contribution to legislation in this area, but it is wholly useful and desirable. The first four clauses, amending the Animal Health Act 1981, bring into context certain minor problems that have arisen, particular in connection with the supply of feedingstuffs from grain stores in—for example—Liverpool, the current outbreak of fowl pest and the ability of officials to enter premises. We wholly welcome those measures. In Committee, significant Government amendments on the slaughter of poultry were tabled. I said that we might wish to consider them when we had received advice. I am happy to inform the House that, having received advice, we find these amendments generally acceptable.

However, there are some minor difficulties on which we would welcome clarification. There should be a clear duty on local authorities to execute and enforce the Slaughter of Poultry Act 1967 and any regulations made under it. There should be no peradventure about that. The wording of the new clause and the amendments thereto make that absolutely clear.

The British Veterinary Association asks that, in licensed poultry slaughterhouses, where the law already requires the presence of an official veterinary surgeon to supervise hygiene standards, the responsibility of that official veterinary surgeon should be extended to include welfare.

At this point perhaps I can transgress the strict terms of the Bill. According to press reports, all the evidence from the Harrison committee regarding the slaughter of red meat only reinforces the requirement that qualified veterinary surgeons should oversee the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses. When the regulations are laid, I trust that the Minister will make certain that the powers will be effectively used to make certain that official veterinary surgeons shall have power to include the welfare of poultry. Such a power should extend not only to red meat slaughterhouses but to every aspect of slaughterhouse activity.

I suspect that the small on-farm slaughtering provision caused most difficulty, not only in the House but in Committee. I refer particularly to the relationship between the authorised and official veterinary service and the seasonal and occasional slaughtering of poultry on farm. Clearly, this is a technical as well as a welfare problem. No one wishes to see inhumane slaughtering simply because it is on farm. Nothing should be done on farm which is more disadvantageous to the welfare of poultry than what is done in licensed slaughterhouses.

However, there is a technical difficulty for the operators of small poultry, turkey or hen farms. I hope that the Minister will require periodic veterinary inspection of all such premises, and periodic and adequate veterinary control over the on-farm slaughtering of poultry.

We entirely welcome the tightening up of the current unacceptable practice of selling in markets live chickens which are subsequently sold slaughtered as a gift from the seller. That was the wrong and unacceptable way of circumventing the will of this House.

We welcome the fact that that should now be inhibited.

Clauses 10, 11 and 12 are also important. I have seen many of the problems in the developing countries and the Third world and the power of politicians to control the quality of breeding stock—bulls, rams and so on—and to inhibit the improvement of livestock quality. That no longer applies in this country, and the licensing of bulls and so on must be desirable. The need to bring legislation into line with modern technology on such things as embryo plants must be a step in the right direction.

On clauses 13, 14 and 15, there is a difficulty. I refer to the letter that I received from the Under-Secretary regarding the control envisaged on medicated animal feedingstuffs. Here, I refer specifically to the problem of Northern Ireland. I quote from the Parliamentary Secretary's letter of 25 June: Your first question concerns the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on this clause. That is, clause 13, which is one of the few clauses that applies to Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady continued: No consultations have taken place between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic on the amendment to the Medicines Act. Since the Medicines Act is a United Kingdom statute any import requirements under that statute would apply to imports from the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland in the same way as they apply to imports from the Irish Republic to Great Britain. We have no details of any analogues legislation in the Irish Republic. Like the United Kingdom they are, however, obliged to comply with and implement European Community Directives 70/524 on additives in feedingstuffs and 81/851 on veterinary medicinal products. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider carefully the implications of that in terms of control of animal feedingstuffs in Ulster impregnated with veterinary drugs. Northern Ireland has access to medicinally impregnated feedingstuffs, and although this Bill is supposed to cover Northern Ireland, I have grave doubts as to its efficacy in this instance. I doubt whether it inhibits the use in Northern Ireland of drug-impregnated feedingstuffs that we, on the mainland of the United Kingdom, find unacceptable.

The second concern is the controls envisaged on the importation of medicated feedingstuffs. The Minister's letter says: The second question related to the controls envisaged on the importation of medicated feedingstuffs. The current position under Section 40 of the Medicines Act 1968 is that medicated feedingstuffs may only be imported into the United Kingdom if the medicinal product has been incorporated into the feed in accordance with a product licence, an animal test certificate or a prescription issued by a veterinary surgeon for the treatment of a particular animal or herd under the care of that veterinary surgeon. I regret to say that many in the livestock sector are unhappy about the efficacy of that regulation. I hope that, when the Minister replies, she will assure the House that in the United Kingdom as a whole there is no risk of animal feedingstuffs being used that have been medicated with products that are unacceptable under United Kingdom law. I especially want an assurance that no animal feedingstuffs are available and used in Northern Ireland that are not acceptable under United Kingdom law.

The Eire Government have not implemented the necessary regulations. It would be wholly inappropriate for Eire to have the advantage of growth promoters and all the other elements while farmers in Northern Ireland are inhibited from using them. If the Eire farmers are permitted to use growth promoters and other feedingstuff additives under the pretence that it is simple medication—which is frequently done—that would be a further disadvantage to our Ulster colleague farmers—given all the pressures on them, with dairy closures and so on—vis-a-vis their southern Irish colleagues.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government would be better occupied in consulting the Government of the Irish Republic about practical matters rather than about the constitutional arrangements for part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hughes

It has always seemed to me that the Government would be far better concerned with consulting on veterinary problems and associated matters than on esoteric matters of constitutionality, but that is a strictly private view. Veterinary problems are common problems that must be consulted about on a common basis.

Has the Minister received any information about veterinary surgeons performing illegal operations in the form of either research or quasi-research in the production of what I can refer to only as monsters—hybrid animals that have no hope of progeny. Were she to receive information of such experiments, will she undertake as a matter of grave urgency, to satisfy public opinion that: the veterinary profession is not concerned with experimental practices?

Having said that, on behalf of the Opposition I welcome the Bill as a modest but wholly welcome improvement in the provisions for animal health and welfare in this country.

11.20 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I begin with a somewhat heretical expression of regret. The Second Reading of the Bill was relegated to a Friday morning, with all that that implies; the Standing Committee deliberated for 1 hour 27 minutes; and the messages that have reached me tonight suggest that brevity would be appreciated. I shall comply with that wish, and the consequence will be an abbreviated speech.

I wish to speak about three clauses. First, with other hon. Members, I applaud and welcome the Minister taking, in clause 1, additional powers to seize infected materials from premises on which a notifiable disease has been confirmed. On Second Reading, I was one of those who pointed out that where the industry contributed financially to an eradication programme—Aujesky's disease or Newcastle disease—there must be the closest consultation between the Government and the industry at the point of formulating secondary legislation.

I listened carefully to the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary on Second Reading and in Committee. I have read and re-read the Official Report of what was said and I do not believe that the Government have yet taken on board explicitly the need for consultation in this area of the proposals. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will assure us tonight that the Government appreciate the need for thorough-going consultation between the industry and. Government in relation to eradication programmes.

Secondly, let me turn to what was clause 5 in our earlier deliberations and has now become clause 6. I speak with a degree of trepidation and apology because, in essence, the point I wish to make is the same as that which I made on Second Reading and in Committee, and to which the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) referred a few minutes ago. I raise the matter again because I remain unhappy about it. What happens if, when we move into the licensing era, the small poultry farmer who is basically operating a one-man show falls ill? How does he fare? The same point applies to the larger farmer who goes in for poultry perhaps as a seasonal sideline.

In Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary, when moving a series of amendments to the then clause 5, said: Subsection (2)(b) and (d) will enable us to make exceptions in appropriate cases from any of the provisions in the regulations. She went on: we will give careful consideration when we come to make the regulations to any requests we may receive for special treatment". She stressed that the welfare of animals was most important, and who can quarrel with this? I asked what would happen if a licensed slaughterer fell ill, and my hon. Friend assured me that the powers are wide enough to enable us to take account of those circumstances and we will need to consider the point when the regulations are made".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 12 June 1984; c. 8–9.] I believe that in due course the regulations should reflect the difficulties that may affect the small man and should allow him to retain responsibility but in certain circumstances to second the act of slaughter to someone else. I stress that point again, because we must realistically take on board the small farmer's problems while bearing in mind our wider moral responsibility—if we can call it that—for the welfare of the animals. We should not seek the non-application of these controls. We should allow the delegation of those controls to someone else, despite the indication of disapproval by the hon. Member for City of Durham.

Thirdly, I turn to clause 10. Perhaps I indulged in a little scaremongering on Second Reading when voicing the worries of farmers in my constituency, whose views were, I believe, prompted by the National Farmers Union. My basic question—I still await an answer—was: are people right to think that this clause, and clauses 10 to 12 generally, prepare the ground for the charging of fees for licences and approvals to regulate breeding? If the answer is yes, is there justification for the further belief that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is thinking in terms of £200 or £300 per bull? Those are the figures cited. Such sums would impose a considerable financial burden on the industry. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to comment on that point.

Finally, let me remind the House that I tried on Second Reading to discover whether my hon. Friend had in mind secondary legislation, either giving vets a monopoly on supervising advanced artificial breeding techniques or allowing technicians—they do this now—as well as qualified vets to perform those functions. When summing up on Second Reading, my hon. Friend made comments that were not re-echoed or built on in Standing Committee. She said: I understand that embryo transfer … is already conducted by people other than veterinary surgeons. Whether that should continue, possibly subject to some form of veterinary supervision, is a matter for subordinate legislation, on which there will be full consultation."—[Official Report, 18 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 654.] I was tempted then to probe my hon. Friend's thinking on that matter, but I ask her now whether she has had further thoughts on this matter.

I ask my hon. Friend to deal with these points in due course.

11.28 pm
Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

Naturally, I welcome the Bill and support what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has done.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) about Northern Ireland. As a former Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for agriculture I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture is well able to look after itself. It is probably one of the most efficient Departments in the United Kingdom. When I had the privilege of being the responsible Minister, the Department was extremely careful in its actions with regard to control. Indeed, it was sometimes difficult for me to get done some of the things that I wanted done because it was so keen to isolate itself from any of the other problems and diseases. I can assure the hon. Gentleman—although I should not be winding up, as it were, for the Minister—that I have the highest regard for the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and its ability to deal with such matters. Perhaps that will set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.

Naturally, I welcome the Bill. The need for this measure, particularly the animal health side of it, is increasing all the time. Because of the size of our flocks and herds the dangers are real. One has to accept the stringent measures in the interests of all in the control of diseases. I am certain that farmers are willing and ready to accept them.

The position has changed out of all recognition from days gone by when there were small flocks of birds and small herds of cattle and sheep. Therefore, it is right that we should have such stringent measures. Disease spreads rapidly and the need to protect other herds and flocks is real. The dangers of disease spreading are great because there is immunity for some time and then it breaks down rapidly. I wholeheartedly support the clauses dealing with animal health matters.

There is no doubt that there is great concern in Britain about the slaughter of poultry and humane conditions and practices. I receive many letters on that subject. The problem is that it is a minefield of difficulties. The Government are doing all they can to assist in that area and to be helpful. I think that they are on the right course. However, mass production means mass killing and that is not pleasant. Anybody who has been to a poultry slaughterhouse, where hundreds of thousands of birds are slaughtered a week, knows that it is an unpleasant business. The public do not realise the exact position. They want cheap birds and poultrymeat and yet many of them are not prepared to accept that mass production means mass killing. It is not at all pleasant. We should take real precautions to see that humane conditions and practices exist. I welcome what is being done in that area.

I hope, too, that there will be another look at the need for birds to travel great distances. As the number of slaughterhouses that are able to deal with the mass killing of birds becomes smaller, so birds have to travel literally hundreds of miles. In Cornwall, alone, I do not think that there is a single slaughterhouse for birds. They all have to go to Devon. That means some suffering for the birds.

We should consult producers as well as the vets on this subject. The British Veterinary Association is to be congratulated on its work. It has set up research work in that area and a chair to promote the study of animal welfare. That is right and proper in the age in which we live because of the enormous number of slaughterings that occur. I hope that the Government will support that. As the results are produced I hope that we can rapidly change our methods so that we can assist in more humane conditions in the killing of animals and birds.

I hope that through the Bill we can be flexible about such matters. I am sure that in a few years' time there will be real changes in the methods of mass slaughter so that conditions become more humane. The chair of research set up by the British Veterinary Association will help very much.

This is an excellent Bill, which will assist us in resolving some of the difficult and sensitive problems, although the public still want the food and the protein that comes from the slaughterhouses. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government on their progress in this area.

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

The Bill has received a broad welcome in the House—the Opposition have made that point tonight—and in another place, and I am sure that Opposition Members will not wish to delay the passage into law of what we all agree is a useful package of measures. However, I appreciate that anxiety has been expressed about one or two specific areas and about the implications of the new provisions included in Committee in the clauses dealing with the slaughter of poultry. I hope that I can reaassure those hon. Members who have expressed concern.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) said that local authorities should have a clear duty to implement the provisions of the Bill. Perhaps I can enlarge on what we intend to do to introduce veterinary supervision of welfare. I realise that there may be enforcement problems in Northern Ireland with regard to feedingstuffs, but we must get the legislation right first.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) was worried about formulating regulations and the amount of consultation. In Committee I assured my hon. Friend that the powers are wide enough to take those circumstances into account, and we must consider the matter when the regulations are made. I did not say that we should make exceptions; the powers are wide enough to draw the points that he made into the regulations. There will be extensive consultation before we produce the regulations, which I hope will reassure him.

In Committee my hon. Friend asked about clause 6 and licences. We shall consult before we prepare the regulations to bring into effect the licensing provisions. My hon. Friend acknowledged that we can make exceptions, but we shall make different provisions for different cases, and we have the power to enable delegation of responsibility. I cannot say now how we shall deal with this matter, because we must consult first.

My hon. Friend asked about charges. It is estimated to cost between £200 and £300 to approve a bull, so it is impossible to say now what level of charges can be fixed as a means of reducing some costs. In addition, it may be decided that it is inappropriate to charge the full rate, or any rate, for some activities carried out under the existing regulations.

I welcomed the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) about the need for welfare in intensive farming. I hope that he will agree that the main thrust of the middle section of the Bill is about exactly that and responds to the recommendations made by the Farm Animal Welfare Council about the welfare of poultry at slaughter.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I apologise for taking the hon. Lady back to a previous subject, but I had not appreciated that she would deal so briefly with the points raised by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes). Will she confirm that the Government are ascertaining that the Irish Republic is applying the controls required of it in this respect by international agreements? I believe that that question was specifically asked by the hon. Member for City of Durham.

Mrs. Fenner

As I told the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) in a letter, as a member of the European Community the Irish Republic is committed to the two directives in respect of feedingstuffs and veterinary medicines. If the right hon. Gentleman washes me to confirm that to him I shall try to do so in due course in a letter.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I am most grateful to the Minister.

Mrs. Fenner

What has been said today clearly shows the Government's difficulty in framing provisions to respond to the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council for improving the welfare of poultry at slaughter. On the one hand, there is a case for strengthening our measures to assure the proper welfare of poultry. On the other hand, local authorities and the poultry industry are worried that new measures may create unacceptable extra costs for them.

An area of concern brought to my attention by the poultry industry concerns clause 6, which has been drafted to take into account recommendation No. 35 in the councils report on the welfare of poultry at the time of slaughter, which states that staff employed in the stunning or slaughter of poultry should be licensed. Regulations made under this provision will be concerned basically with achieving humane treatment and conditions for the birds concerned.

On licensing, a previous print of the Bill clearly referred to people, and the requirements were directed at slaughter for commercial purposes, but that did not cover situations in which customers bought live birds which were slaughtered after sale. The provision was redrafted to refer to premises rather than people, but I assure the House that our intentions remain as before.

Local authorities will grant the licences, but the licensing provisions cannot be triggered until the regulations are made and I assure the House that the regulations will not be made without the fullest consultation beforehand. The Bill therefore does not seek to specify the details of any future arrangement but enables the Government to devise a scheme. I regret that this may have led to some misinterpretation of our intentions, but I assure the House that when the licensing regulations are made they will apply to people and not to premises. I felt that I should add that to reassure the industry, which clearly found the position a trifle ambiguous.

Mr. Mark Hughes

I am most grateful to the Minister, but as soon as it applies to people rather than premises, the problem referred to by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) becomes more difficult for the very small producer, because if only one person is licensed and that person is sick, there will be no licensed slaughterer on the premises? Will the regulations be drafted sufficiently widely to get around that.

Mrs. Fenner

Yes, indeed; as I tried to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstone, after consultation the regulations can be drafted in such a way as to make certain exceptions and to deal with particular circumstances. I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham, too, will be reassured by my answer on that.

I assure the House that I know that local authorities and the poultry industry may be worried that new measures will create unacceptable extra costs for them. As I have said several times in Committee, the welfare of the birds is our prime concern. I assure the House that the Government are well aware of those concerns.

I hope that it will be possible to reconcile the two positions. We shall seek to take positive steps to improve welfare in ways that will not impose unreasonable costs on the industry or on enforcement authorities. The details of our proposals will be for subordinate legislation. We shall take carefully into account all the interests concerned before introducing such measures.

I hope that that shows the seriousness with which I take the points that hon. Members have raised, throughout the Bill's passage. The hon. Member for City of Durham and other hon. Members have called this evening for an enhanced role for veterinary surgeons in the enforcement of the welfare legislation. We intend to use the power provided by the Bill to require local authorities to give formal responsibility for the supervision of welfare in licensed slaughterhouses to the official veterinary surgeon.

We shall look carefully at the possibilities of an increased role for veterinary surgeons in unlicensed premises. We have the powers under clause 9 to require local authorities to arrange for periodic inspections of those places by vets. I assure the House that we shall examine that possibility carefully and that we shall consult the organisations representing the veterinary profession before taking any decisions.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke felt that his valuable contribution this evening was circumscribed by the need to be brief. This is a small measure, but it covers several very important areas. I hope that hon. Members feel that they have had an opportunity to debate it thoroughly on Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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