HC Deb 09 December 1993 vol 234 cc471-3
5. Dr. Lynne Jones

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans she has to improve the welfare of animals transported from the United Kingdom to the rest of the EC.

Mr. Soames

We have maintained strict national controls to safeguard the welfare of animals during transport both within this country and for export. Further detailed Community rules are being discussed and we are pressing for our own very high standards to be adopted.

Dr. Jones

Does the Minister agree that the export of livestock for slaughter is completely unnecessary and causes immense suffering to the animals concerned? Even if the Minister is not able to ban all such exports, should not she be taking immediate action to ban the export of sheep to Spain until we have a guarantee and are completely satisfied that the Spanish have stopped their appalling slaughterhouse practices, such as stabbing fully conscious animals with screwdrivers and short-bladed knives, as was recently revealed by the RSPCA?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Plainly, the practices that were shown on the RSPCA video from Spain are completely unacceptable. My right hon. Friend has mentioned those matters not only to the Spanish Agriculture Minister but to the Farm Commissioner in Brussels. Banning the export of sheep to Spain is riot possible under the single market agreement. As the hon. Lady knows, we did not allow animals to go to Spain for slaughter before 1 January this year. We have an agreement with the Spanish authorities on a chief vet to chief vet basis that our animals will go only to plants that are known to be fully approved to EC standards. I assure the hon. Lady that no animals go to any plant of the type that was shown in the RSPCA video.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I hope that I can assume that my hon. Friend has read the comprehensive and unanimous report on that subject by the all-party Select Committee on Agriculture. Will he bear in mind two important factors: first, that it is in no one's interest to take live animals any further than is absolutely necessary and, secondly, that it is particularly in the interests of the owners of those animals to ensure that they arrive in good condition? That is a crucial factor in considering all those matters.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is right and his Select Committee made those points clear in its admirable report. This involves not only a humanitarian and ethical issue, which the British people instinctively and rightly wish to support, but the perfectly proper commercial consideration that if animals are improperly and inhumanely treated on their way to slaughter, they will not be in a fit state to be slaughtered when they get there, to the commercial disadvantage of those who wish to sell that meat. We have written to all those involved in the transport of animals reminding them of those important obligations. I assure my hon. Friend, his Committee and the House that at the Agriculture Council in Brussels next week my right hon. Friend the Minister will be fighting for a proper, honourable and sensible programme, which can be enforced, for the welfare of animals travelling here and on the continent.

Mr. Morley

The Opposition support the Minister's representations to the Spanish on those despicable practices, but did not the former Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), give an assurance that British livestock would be sent to only 68 of the best Spanish slaughterhouses—an assurance which was broken in that it was changed to EC-approved slaughterhouses? Is not it also true that, despite the Minister's assurances, there is no way of knowing to which plants in Spain livestock is going?

The Government have rightly agreed a derogation for horses from Britain going for slaughter, thus establishing the principle that the EC regulations can be changed. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that animals from Britain can travel for as long as 60 hours simply to go to a slaughterhouse in Spain?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman and I had a good long canter round this course in Committee yesterday and he knows perfectly well that the Government take these matters extremely seriously. We have full confidence in the arrangements that have been made between Her Majesty's Government and the Spanish Government on the basis of chief vet to chief vet. After the RSPCA video, we took immediate steps to ensure that all the guarantees given to the Government by the Spanish chief vet were still in place and would remain in place, and we are confident that that is the case.

I completely agree that the unsupervised and unregulated transport of animals is unacceptable, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that it is no good parroting on as if the British Government were at fault. The problems occur not in Britain but in Spain, Greece, France and elsewhere on the continent, and it is to continental Governments that the hon. Gentleman should make known his strictures. We know exactly where we have to go and how to get there, but we must take our European partners with us in order to ensure proper enforcement of the rules, without which they are nothing.

Mr. Bellingham

Not so long ago, the Minister told the House that if animals were fit enough to travel, they should travel. Most hon. Members will agree with that, but is my hon. Friend aware that on many journeys animals are not properly watered or fed or given proper rests? Would not it make sense to have a compulsory rest period every eight hours or so?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is right. He is well informed on these matters, so I am sure that he knows the state of play in the negotiations, which are very much concerned with rest periods and journey times. However, those matters must be part of a package. No rules are worth the paper that they are written on unless the countries that are party to the agreement are prepared to enforce, on a proper and decent basis, all the rules to which they have signed up. When we achieve that, we shall have secured a real improvement in the standards of animal welfare, which everyone in Britain rightly wants to see.

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