HC Deb 17 July 1986 vol 101 cc1293-8
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 50, line 32, leave out from '1986' to end of line 39.

I am pleased to move this amendment and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for inserting it in his selection of amedments. Amendment No. 19 seeks to delete the definition of "husbandry" in clause 56 which includes any method of intensive rearing of livestock or fish on a commercial basis for the production of food for human consumption. My amendment seeks to delete those words because they refer to intensive farming methods. I have taken expert opinion, and I am advised that those involved in intensive farming methods will get tax allowance benefits as a result of the insertion of those words in the clause.

I looked up the definition of the word "husbandry" in Harrap's dictionary in the Library. It refers to the rearing of animals on a farm. The definition also states: to look after carefully/not to waste … resources". In the context of the good use of resources, that implies care for the animals' health and welfare. Much present-day intensive husbandry does not do that. Animals are denied very basic freedoms—to stand up, lie down with ease, turn around, walk and mix with their own kind. The Government are providing financial inducements to take away those freedoms and encourage intensive farming methods. The insertion of those words in the Bill is another such inducement.

Among the people who will benefit are those who operate battery cages. Those cages measure approximately 18 in × 20 in, and house five laying hens, each hen having a wingspan of about 32 inches. It is an offence under the Protection of Birds Act 1954 to keep a bird in a cage where it cannot stretch its wings properly, but that does not apply to poultry. In addition, the hens cannot indulge in other natural behaviour such as nesting, dust bathing and scratching at the earth. Instead, they stand on wire mesh in their controlled environment housing, and never see the light of day. As the Farm Animal Welfare Council said, the extreme confinement in a physically barren environment denies or seriously restricts the birds' freedom to express natural patterns of behaviour. The birds may be subjected to chronic discomfort. Those who do that will benefit under the clause as drafted.

Those who use veal crates will also benefit. Veal calves are kept in appalling conditions, in solitary wooden crates, in which bedding is denied. The shed is kept in semidarkness. The calves are fed an unnatural diet: a high fat, low iron milk mixture, solely for the purpose of producing white meat.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in 1983 that her welfare code for cattle would get rid of the crate, but it has not. In that same year, Compassion in World Farming, to which I pay tribute for the work that it does, lost a test case in the courts although it showed that some 600 calves were chained by the neck and unable to exercise or even turn round. They could not stretch out their limbs when lying down, had no straw to lie on and were fed on an all-liquid diet devoid of fibre, which is essential to ruminant animals. Although the organisation produced that evidence, it lost in court because the code is not enforceable under the law.

Those who keep pigs in dire and unnatural conditions will also benefit. Straight after birth, the pigs are put into a dark box on a concrete floor with possibly no separate dunging area. The sows are ill-treated throughout their 16-week pregnancy in dry sow stalls or tether stalls. The dry sow stall is a cage with metal bars which is just large enough to hold one sow. In this cage the sow stands on concrete unable to take more than one step forward or one back. The sows are generally tethered by a girth strap or chain. I produce one here to show to the House as an example of the type of horrendous monstrosity that is used. I have the authority of Mr. Speaker to produce it tonight and I thank him for allowing me to show the House this terrible object. Some 2,000 sows are tethered under these conditions. I would not even wish to see the worst Tory Member wearing such a girth and it should not be used on a pregnant sow.

10.15 pm

The sows are kept in a barren environment against their natural instincts and are physically and mentally deprived. The Select Committee on Agriculture stated in 1981 notice should be given that close confinement would be phased out over a reasonable but defined period … financial grants should be so directed as to provide positive support to producers using the small group system; they should not be given to those using the close confinement methods which we have criticised. This part of the Finance Bill flies in the face of the recommendations made in that Select Committee on Agriculture report. What is worse, the Bill actually encourages the opposite. It encourages more farmers to adopt these cruel methods of intensive farming. It is not just intensive farming methods which will receive a tax boost under this clause. Intensive farming relates to the environment. For example, slurry tanks are used instead of a natural mixture of dung and straw which makes up a healthy manure compost. There is no straw in the tanks and the contents of a slurry tank are put on the land, very possibly containing disease and making the local air unbreatheable for local residents. Slurry tanks are known to leak and pollute local rivers and streams.

The system is also bad for human health. As consumers, we eat the food produced on intensive farms. We eat meat which has been pumped with fat and hormones and the animals are more likely to be in a state of ill-health. That ill-health can be transferred to us and is a factor in the excessive rate of heart disease that exists in this country. The public realise this, and that is why the trend is for more naturally produced food. That goes against the prevailing official ideology and the hard sell by producers.

Intensive farming methods, which the clause encourages, are in themselves appallingly wasteful. They are especially wasteful in terms of jobs in the face of the current level of high rural unemployment. Factory farming is essentially a labour saving device. So essentially, through their tax allowances for intensive farming methods, the Government are providing allowances for farmers to set against labour costs which encourages rural employment.

Intensive farming is also wasteful in land use. Much arable land is turned into prairies of barley grown specifically for animal feed. Alongside that, it is wasteful in Third world terms because intensive farming animals do not graze in fields. Their food has to come to them rather than the other way round. Much of that is imported from countries which can ill afford to produce it. In 1984 when the famine in Ethiopia was at its height, the United Kingdom imported £1.5 million of animal feed stuffs to feed the intensively farmed animals in the United Kingdom. That is a scandalous disgrace. On top of that, the meat is subsequently accumulated in the common market food mountains. That is a disgrace.

Many farmers, however, use humane methods. They do not want to use battery cages, crates and stalls. They allow animals in their care to conform to their natural behaviour patterns. Those farmers are true husbanders. They prefer not to practise intensive farming but often find themselves under pressure because of the financial inducements and incentives for intensive methods which are dangled before them. This part of the Finance Bill is another example of that. It is the Government's responsibility or irresponsibility which is the key factor in farmers' decisions in this respect. The Government should encourage natural farming methods through their tax allowances rather than the opposite which is their policy at present.

The Labour party intends to encourage more natural production. A resolution passed unanimously at the last Labour conference states: This Conference calls on the National Executive Committee to draw up a programme to introduce a controlled reduction in intensive farming methods in Britain, and also to start planning a programme of alternative, natural, ecologically acceptable and more humane methods of farming to return more workers to the land, which can realistically be encouraged and introduced by the next Labour Government.

Mr. Gow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cohen

I have nearly finished. I have only one more line to go.

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Gow

Since the hon. Gentleman has given the text of a resolution passed at the last Labour party conference, could he remind the House of how many votes were cast in favour of the resolution and how many against it?

Mr. Cohen

I think that the resolution was passed unanimously, but I can check that immediately.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. That is not relevant to the matter under discussion.

Mr. Cohen

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a worthwhile resolution for a future Labour Government which I hope will be improved on at future Labour party conferences. When it is implemented, Labour Treasury Ministers will not allow their Finance Bills to boost factory farming, as is the case with this Bill.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

The House will welcome the opportunity afforded by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) in his amendment to have a brief debate on these important matters. I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a vigorous campaigner for animal welfare and rights since he came to the House.

Two questions arise when we consider taxation in relation to intensive farming. First, do we wish to encourage intensive farming? Secondly, if we conclude that we do not wish to encourage intensive farming — the weight of evidence is on that side—is it right that the taxation system should encourage it?

Various reports, not merely Government-sponsored reports but also a report of the Agriculture Select Committee in 1981, have been virtually unanimous in their desire to move away from intensive farming. Indeed, the Brambell report commissioned by the Government reported in 1965 and recommended five basic freedoms. They included the freedom of movement, to be able to get up and turn around, for an animal to groom itself, to lie down and to stretch its limbs. We are now 20 years on and none of those is enshrined in statute.

The articles of the European Convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes makes specific reference to the welfare of animals which are kept under intensive farming conditions. Article 3 states: Animals should be housed and provided with food, water and care in a manner which—having regard to their species and to their degree of development, adaptation and domestication — is appropriate to their physiological and ecological needs in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge. A Select Committee report in 1981 recommended in relation to the three main items of intensive farming that there should be an early end to veal calf rearing in crates, measures to end the close confinement of sows and the phasing out of battery hens over a five-year period.

Again, it is fair to say that little has been achieved in relation to those specific recommendations. If one studies the answers to parliamentary questions, even as recently as April 1986, it is clear that in relation to veal crates and battery hens there has been little progress.

It is right to ask the Chief Secretary to explain what are the Government's policies. The Government are not merely signatories to the European Convention. EEC council directives have discussed the welfare of animals which are reared in intensive farming conditions. It is a little difficult not to reach the conclusion that legislation in this respect is long on aspirations but that the Government are short on the action needed to turn those aspirations into reality. The only firm legislation in this area is the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. That set out, as an offence, the causing of unnecessary pain or distress to animals. I should like to know how many prosecutions there have been because of that legislation—I suspect precious few. I suspect that agricultural Ministers are curiously reluctant to vigorously prosecute.

There is a wide body of scientific and public opinion which considers some aspects of intensive farming as unacceptable. The European Convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes is against it. The Select Committee on Agriculture and many hon. Members are opposed to such farming. Indeed, the Government are committed to taking action on animal welfare and intensive farming. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the House and Government's of all political persuasions are committed to action. What should be the taxation position in relation to intensive farming?

At the present time, I understand that there are extra statutory concessions which have the effect of giving capital allowance relief to intensive farming. The purpose of the provisions in clause 56 is to replace the extra statutory concessions with expressed laws written into section 68 of the Capital Allowances Act 1968.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton has legitimately asked whether this is something we should encourage. If capital allowances are given, there is no doubt that it encourages such farming. There is no actual discrimination in favour of intensive farming but it has been pointed out in previous debates that if one was to change from crated veal to grass-fed veal one may buy or rent fields in order to feed that veal yet there is no tax relief available to do so. Such grass-fed veal production is a more acceptable type of farming. There are also taxation allowances available for industrial farming.

The Select Committee on Agriculture and frequent reports on this subject consider that the tax system should play some part in stating what the position of the public should be towards intensive farming. When the Chief Secretary replies, I trust that he will say whether he agrees with the recommendations of the 1981 Select Committee on Agriculture. That Committee asked that the Government should undertake a review of taxation to see if it was possible, through the taxation system, not merely to cease to encourage intensive farming but to find ways of discouraging it.

A short time ago I remember the Chief Secretary told us that it was in the interests of agriculture to diversify — we all agree on that. It is right that the Chief Secretary should state whether, as part of that diversification, he thinks that it is correct there should be a move away from intensive farming and towards a better system of farming which had been recommended on many occasions.

I notice that the Minister of Agriculture is here and that he has been muttering away in the corner. I must point out to him that the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which is a Government sponsored body, has made it quite clear that many of the arguments that we have put forward this evening should have the support of the Government. I find it curious that the Minister should come to the House and mutter against them. We should have some sign of the Government's thinking.

This is a matter in regard to which Government action is lagging somewhat behind public opinion. There are growing consumer pressures, not to mention pressures from the animal welfare lobby, asking for a reexamination of the system of intensive farming and the relevant taxation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton for raising this subject, and I hope that the Chief Secretary will shed some light on it.

10.30 pm
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John MacGregor)

I quite understand why the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) wishes to raise these matters, and I congratulate him on managing to initiate a debate on the Floor of the House as well as in Standing Committee. When we debated the matter in Committee, I warned him that, if we debated this again on the Floor of the House, I should have to focus on the narrow point regarding taxation.

I shall not go into the wider issues which the hon. Gentleman raised, which are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is here and has listened to the debate, because I do not think that I should go into animal welfare, the rearing of livestock and the relevant regulations. These are matters on which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Mrs. Fenner), often speaks in the House, and they are matters for her to respond to.

The hon. Member for Leyton said that, under clause 56, people with buildings that are used for intensive livestock production will get tax relief. He described it as another inducement, as though we are making a change and encouraging intensive livestock production by applying capital allowances to them. That is not true. He is labouring under a misapprehension. There have always been such allowances for these purposes. We are not changing the law in any way in regard to agricultural buildings allowances.

As the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said, there has been an extra-statutory concession for many years. It has applied under successive Labour Governments. When we made a change in the agricultural buildings allowance—we are making a modest change in another direction in clause 56—it seemed appropriate to put the extra-statutory concession into primary legislation, as the House wishes, and not leave it as an extra-statutory concession.

We are merely applying the change in clause 56 and schedule 15 relating to balancing adjustments to buildings used for intensive livestock production, like all other agricultural buildings. We are not giving any extra incentives to intensive livestock rearing. If we accepted the amendment, we should reverse the practice of many years. That was never the point of clause 56 and schedule 15. If we want to debate their purpose, as the hon. Member for Sedgefield suggested, that would be a matter for a different occasion.

We should not make a major change to agricultural practices at this late stage in our consideration of the Finance Bill, and I cannot commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Cohen

The issue will not go away and we will raise it again. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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