HC Deb 08 June 1995 vol 261 cc306-7
4. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has studied the legal opinion obtained by the RSPCA on the export of veal calves and EC law; and if he will make a statement. [25815]

Mr. Waldegrave

I informed the House of the results of my considerations of this matter in my response to a question from the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) on 22 May.

Mr. Mullin

Would the Secretary of State like to publish the legal advice that he has received? He has had a rough time this week, and one way to clean up his image a bit might be to be a little more open on the export of calves to countries that operate the odious veal crate. Further to his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), does he agree that there will come a time when we can ban unilaterally the export of calves to countries that use veal crates? That will make more impression on our allies than simply being nice to them.

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his solicitude, which is very usual from him.

Unfortunately, I am clearly advised that the argument used in the Barling advice, which we studied extremely carefully, does not justify any unilateral action. I believe that we are well on the way to winning the campaign to ban the veal crates, about which the hon. Gentleman and I share the same opinion—most people in the House share that opinion. It would be very unwise to take action that was then struck down by the courts, as that would remove the issue to the European Court of Justice, perhaps for years, just at the moment when we are on the way—if the veterinary report that is coming in to the Community says what I believe that it will say—to winning the argument.

Mr. Knapman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way forward is not to ban veal calf exports, which would have a devastating effect on our farmers, but to ban veal crates in Europe, which is an initiative that we have already taken?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. If we are interested in the animal welfare outcome, there would be nothing especially smart about banning calves that come only from this country—even if we could do it—if they were immediately replaced in the same veal crates in Belgium, or wherever it is, by calves that come from somewhere else.

The object is to get rid of that practice. We have powerful allies around Europe for doing so—Germany is alongside us on that, as are the Scandinavian countries and others—and I believe that we shall win the argument. That would be a far greater gain for animal welfare, without placing our farmers in jeopardy.

Dr. Strang

I assure the Minister that we stand four square behind our commitment to give Europe a lead on that issue by stopping the export of veal calves from this country into continental veal crates. I also remind him that, in January, he declared that the days of veal crates throughout Europe were numbered—I remind him, days. Will he tell us when he now expects veal crates to be banned throughout the European Union?

Mr. Waldegrave

On the first point, I have already explained why I believe that the hon. Gentleman's gesture politics in that respect would set the cause back, for the following reason. If he introduced his unilateral ban—which would be challenged, as the Commission has warned that it would be challenged, straight away—the whole thing would be in the long grass of legal dispute, perhaps for years.

As I said in January, the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the Community will bring its report back to the Council, probably in September or October. We have a majority in the Council if that Committee recommends the banning of veal crates, as I believe that it will, so there is a good chance that the decision will be taken before the end of this year. That is a far greater outcome for animal welfare than the gesture that the hon. Gentleman recommends.