§ 6. Mr. Jim Marshall
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans she has to improve welfare at slaughterhouses.
§ Mr. Soames
The legislation has recently been extensively updated and codes of practices introduced. The Department now plans to consult interested parties on proposals for the training of red meat slaughtermen and slaughterhouse operators' responsibility for welfare. An EC proposal on the welfare of animals for slaughter is at present under discussion.
§ Mr. Marshall
As the Minister is the old hand of the agriculture team, I might have expected a better response to my question. The Minister is aware that there is concern that the present voluntary codes of conduct do not adequately protect the welfare of animals before slaughter. In the light of that concern, is he prepared to think again about the necessity of legislation to impose minimum stunning currents or introduce European directives that would operate throughout the Community?
§ Mr. Soames
It is a bit late for that—and I am not keeping a diary.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important point and he knows something about this business. The Government have chosen, rightly, to have a code of practice which is applicable to all the slaughterhouses in Britain. The standard of the handling and the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses is a matter of real concern to us. By and large, they are properly and decently handled. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the strength of stunning currents should not be prescriptive as there are too many variables. It is better handled by codes of practice, but I can assure him that my right hon. Friend and I are dedicated to ensuring that the welfare of animals at slaughter is kept very much at the top of the agenda.
§ Sir Donald Thompson
I thought that he was sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord).
Does my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary agree that the codes of practice for the welfare of animals adopted by British farmers are not only models for the whole of Europe, but are copied by the rest of the world?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend is, as usual, perfectly right. The standards that we seek to achieve throughout the European Community are those that we have here. Our negotiating stance is entirely to that end. We are pleased that the new presidency document, which is currently being negotiated, is much nearer that point of view than it was previously and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that point to the attention of the House.
§ Mr. Tyler
May we on the Liberal Democrats' Bench welcome the two recruits to the ministerial team? We are also delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary still in his place. We are delighted to see new faces in the team not least because we hope that they will review and reverse some of the disastrous policies of the previous team, especially in relation to welfare. We hope that the team —[HON. MEMBERS: "What has this got to do with the question?"] Will the Minister give an assurance that when he and his colleagues go to the first Council of Ministers on Monday, they will ensure that the levelling of the playing field is a levelling-up of welfare standards rather than a levelling-down to the standards in other parts of the European Community?
§ Mr. Soames
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He knows perfectly well that the standards in Britain are those that we wish to see exported abroad for the reasons that he states—to have a proper level playing field. There are standards of slaughter in European countries that we wish never to see here. We intend to fight for those proposals and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be successful in so doing.
§ Mr. Harris
Does my hon. Friend agree that the welfare of animals will not be served if a lot of small slaughterhouses disappear completely because of the charges for veterinary surgeons and other practices on 424 which, unfortunately, the Government are making them devote a lot of expenditure? Would he be prepared to meet representatives from the new organisation that has been formed to represent small slaughterhouse operators, especially in the south-west? Would he receive a delegation if I brought one along?
§ Mr. Soames
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful question. We are always prepared to consider receiving delegations. It is perfectly true that the welfare of animals is important during their transport, especially for animals that are injured. It is right that there should be a proper network of rural slaughterhouses throughout the United Kingdom. With great respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think that the picture is quite as black as he paints it. I am certainly happy to discuss the matter with him at any time.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
How can the Minister assure the House that slaughtering codes of practice are being complied with when, on 2 November 1992, on 11 November 1992 and on 11 January this year, Parliament was told, "Information is not available" on compliance with codes of practice? That was an answer given by the Minister himself. Is not it true that although the code of practice requires the use of a minimum of 105 milliamps for poultry stunning, some slaughterers may use only between 70 milliamps and 90 milliamps? Why do not the Government legislate and put all our minds at rest?
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Gentleman is asking a question to which he perfectly well knows the answer. [Interruption.] Exactly. We will study very carefully the Compassion in World Farming report on poultry stunning. We will discuss the report and its implications for the industry before we issue a response. On enforcement, as we have told the hon. Gentleman, and as all my hon. Friends and many Opposition Members who know about the matter accept, animal welfare standards in slaughterhouses are, by and large, of an extremely high standard in this country. The law is enforced by local authorities at district level and Ministry officials investigate, monitor and enforce any allegations of malpractice.
The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that it is not only for humanitarian reasons that slaughterhouse practice should be right. It is also very much in the self-interest of the slaughtermen, because the meat butchered afterwards is always far better if the animal has been properly and carefully handled. We are mindful of the extremely important requirements, and the hon. Gentleman should not try to play politics with an important matter.