HC Deb 24 March 1995 vol 257 cc647-66

Order for Second Reading read.

1.6 pm

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My Bill could not be more timely, but I said those words six to eight weeks ago. Unfortunately, when my Bill was originally due to receive its Second Reading, it was in a long queue of private Members' Bills and there was not time to debate it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on his Bill, which commands respect in all parts of the House. It won broad agreement on Second Reading and in Committee, and there was support for amendments tabled today. Perhaps a little brevity, however, would have been in order, to allow more time to debate my Bill, which is also extremely important. I regret that the Government wheeled in the praetorian guard to speak at length on amendments to my hon. Friend's Bill.

My Bill is timely, given the widespread public feeling about the transport of animals for slaughter that even the media and the Government recognise. We have seen violence and even tragic loss of life as emotions have heightened, with confrontation replacing peaceful protest. That is a sad reflection on the fact that, as democratic representatives, we do not always arrange our time to ensure that the public's views are made known and acted upon. I do not support violent confrontation but condemn it, yet the House must realise that the transport of animals for slaughter has been an issue for many years and frustration has grown. To many of the sincere people who take part in these demonstrations, violence is anathema.

During Agriculture questions yesterday, the Minister was asked how many items of correspondence she had received on this matter. The answer was: more than 90,000. That is not to say that only 90,000 people are worried. I have been given petitions with more than 800 names on them. Far more people are concerned than have written letters to the Ministry. That goes to show the depth of public feeling about the live transportation of animals for slaughter.

I pay tribute at this point to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I thank it for the help that it has given me with drafting this Bill since I was lucky enough to be drawn in the ballot. We all owe the RSPCA a debt of gratitude for the work of its undercover inspectors. The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming have graphically illustrated severe instances of animal cruelty. One has only to think of the RSPCA video which revealed the appalling conditions in Greek abattoirs.

It is no good closing our eyes and saying that that has nothing to do with us, because the animals of this country are superbly reared by our farmers. Although we may not have a legal obligation, we certainly have a moral obligation to ensure that animals are not transported to such appalling conditions.

The Bill is an attempt to resolve the issue and to give temporary respite to animals involved in the live transport trade and to calves destined for veal crates.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with legislating unilaterally in this country is that it means ignoring what may happen between the time when the animals reach the other side of the channel and their arrival at the Greek abattoirs? Surely the answer is to achieve Europe-wide agreed rules on the transportation of animals, in addition to dealing with the conditions in the Greek abattoirs.

Mr. Olner

I shall come on to that point.

The Bill expresses my constituents' anger and upset, which have been reflected in the floods of letters and petitions arriving on my desk during the campaign. I am sure that other hon. Members have been similarly deluged, and I am grateful for the fact that the Bill enjoys cross-party sponsorship.

Even before my election to this place in 1992 I used to take a keen interest in the welfare of all animals. Two aspects of the live transportation of animals have always struck me as ludicrous. We have all been affected by the frequent scenes of animals suffering which have brought long-distance live transportation into disrepute. It seems mad to ship live animals to somewhere 1,000 miles away and then to kill them within minutes of unloading them at their journey's end. That is not just my view. I have received a letter from the National Association of Women's Clubs—not exactly a far left organisation of the type often mentioned as taking an interest in animal welfare and rights. It describes horrific instances of pigs and sheep being transported for long hours in cramped, dirty conditions without food or water. The association stresses the fact that journeys lasting 30 hours are commonplace for sheep and cattle, and that journeys to Italian abattoirs last for as long as 45 hours.

I have been supplied with the results of a referendum conducted by Worcestershire Referendum Society. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), the Minister of State, Department for Education, is no longer in his place, as he was for consideration of the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Bill. I was given the information by the referendum society after appearing on a television programme in the midlands, during which there was a discussion on the transportation of live animals. The information is the result of a referendum that was held in the Worcestershire area in 1993. People were asked whether they wished the overseas transportation of live animals for slaughter to cease.

The referendum revealed that 88.8 per cent. of those who participated thought that the trade should cease; only 6.3 per cent. were in favour of it continuing. I suggest that, two years on, public opinion has hardened towards the disgraceful trade involving the transportation of live animals and the conditions that surround it.

Like many hon. Members, I am aware of the closure of slaughterhouses. There was such a closure in my constituency, which led to the loss of jobs, trade and expertise. The slaughterhouse had only recently been modernised. It was forced to close not because the company had insufficient money to upgrade it to enable it to obtain the various licences to meet European Community law—thousands of pounds had been invested in the place and it fulfilled all the conditions that it had to meet to enable it to stay open—but, sadly, because of the increase in the exportation of live sheep from this country to the rest of Europe. The closure was not the result of operating conditions or a failure to meet licensing standards.

We are exporting animals in some awful conditions and we are exporting jobs. Slaughterhouse work is being undertaken in the rest of Europe but not in this country. It is—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Hon. Members who wish to have meetings should hold them outside the Chamber.

Mr. Olner

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for bringing the praetorian guard to order. I appreciate that.

Why do more than 2 million animals leave the United Kingdom each year on the most horrendous and unnecessary journey of their lives when they could be transported to a local slaughterhouse, humanely killed and transported abroad as carcase? That is the humane and efficient way of exporting animals.

I am not a softy. I do not think that many people in the UK are softies, but all of us are decent and we respect the rights of animals. We respect the fact that animals can suffer pain. Most of us would rightly speak out against inflicting pain upon them. We know that live animals bruise easily and that carcases do not. We know also that the cost of transporting carcases is a quarter of the cost involved in transporting live animals. The live animals that are transported are subject to severe stress. I feel strongly that our farmers receive a raw deal in some respects. Their animal husbandry is second to none worldwide. The quality of the product is severely damaged when it travels miles across Europe, only to meet its death at the end. We are not giving our farmers the opportunity to market their excellent products in the best possible way.

I do not think that we will ever see the Danes shipping animals to this country crammed in the back of a lorry from Denmark. All their products arrive properly packaged and prepared, and it is a very marketable commodity. I see no reason why our meat trade should not be conducted in the same manner.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I entirely agree that we would all like to see more meat purchased in carcase form rather than on the hoof, but if we were to ban live exports would not abattoirs on the continent simply import live animals from other countries, which have far worse standards of animal welfare than us? Should not we therefore seek a European-wide improvement of animal welfare regulations?

Mr. Olner

If people on the continent buy United Kingdom meat because of its quality, I do not think that a substitute for it would be transported from other parts of eastern Europe, where the quality may not be as good. We have to be a little better in the way in which we sell our meat products in carcase form instead of on the hoof.

The nature of the market has been known for years; it was known before the single market was introduced. The European Union has had the task of agreeing rules that will operate in all member states to promote and protect those animals. There has been a great deal of frustration at the fact that the discussions on the details of the rules began shortly after I was elected in 1992. Yet, to date, no agreement has been reached and the misery continues.

In some respects, we have gone too far on what we would be prepared to accept as maximum journey times. We started from a low point, and in trying to secure an all-European agreement we have gradually increased the hours to such an extent that we cannot go any further. We have reached an impasse. The Bill says that we have waited far too long for European-wide regulations to be introduced.

The Bill will ban the export of animals for slaughter until such time as Europe has rules in operation to protect them. If, as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food claims, the Agriculture Council reaches a conclusion in two weeks time, setting tough new rules to be implemented quickly to protect animals from unnecessary suffering, part of the purpose of the Bill will have been achieved. But if, as I believe, European Ministers cobble together an appalling compromise, with a long delay before introduction, questionable enforcement procedures and, above all, continued long journeys, my Bill will be a signal to Europe that we will not let the suffering continue.

Some people might ask what precedent there is for imposing such a ban. I know that Conservative Members have argued that we cannot unilaterally apply such a ban. Perhaps we have to take a leaf out of our European colleagues' book. The German Parliament announced that it would ban British beef. As we saw when Spanish trawlers were going to amass in the Irish box, a tough stand by one country can have a profound effect and can assist Europe in sorting out matters quickly. That is the impetus that my Bill will bring.

The Bill recognises a growing impatience in our society with this sordid trade and recognises that the public, the ferry companies and even many farmers are disgusted by the treatment of these animals. It was the ferry companies' decision to ban lorries carrying sheep and pigs and other animals that created the hiatus, at which point the people who conduct the trade started to move to other areas such as Brightlingsea where perhaps they thought their trade could continue unrecognised and unseen. The trade was being carried out on ordinary ferries that are used by the public and the suffering of the animals on board turned people from using ferries.

The Bill also recognises that if Europe is paralysed and cannot act, Britain should. It seeks to prevent the exploitation of calves destined for intensive systems that are illegal in the UK. Before I was elected to the House, Parliament set a standard for the veal crate system and individual pens. If Parliament recognised that veal crates were wrong and banned them, it is illogical for us to export calves to be subjected to those self-same conditions abroad. We should act immediately to ban that trade. If our fellow Europeans want to argue with that, let them. The trade is wrong and barbaric and it should be stopped.

I know—the whole House probably does so—that to some extent the trade affects my constituency because planes carrying animals overfly it. People in the Coventry area are concerned that the veal crate trade, with all its associated problems, is continuing at Coventry airport. I hope that the Minister will take a separate note of that and look at the condition of some of those young calves when they arrive at Coventry airport, where they stay before they are loaded on to an aircraft, and at whether proper lairage facilities are provided. I am advised that some of the young calves are taken from their suckling mothers at an extremely early age and are not in a condition or of an age to feed themselves properly. That adds to the misery of the trade.

The issue is not purely one of law but of political will. If the Government believe that EU law prevents them from taking action the Minister should attempt to negotiate for Britain the right to prohibit live exports. There is a precedent for that because for many years Britain has had a measure banning the export of horses for slaughter. That shows that the Government and Parliament can, if they wish, act to protect the rights of animals.

The British public wish to have a ban on such exports and that is what the Bill would achieve. It would also attract not only cross-party but widespread public support.

1.28 pm
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) on his good fortune in securing a place in the ballot? As the Member for Shoreham—one of the ports used for the export of livestock—I am proud to support the Bill from the Conservative Benches, and to be a co-sponsor of it. Like the hon. Gentleman, I made it clear before I came to the House of Commons that I was against the inhumane export of live animals. Since becoming a Member, I have sponsored early-day motion 318 and have supported early-day motions 21 and 1654. I also supported the Shoreham Against Live Exports petition promoted by Compassion in World Farming.

I must make it clear at the outset that the Bill is not an attack on British farmers, who have a record second to none in the world for the care of animals. I can understand that British farmers might feel penalised on account of lower standards of animal welfare in other countries, in particular, the use of veal crates. I myself have protested to the ambassadors of France and Holland against the use of veal crates in those countries.

Britain has led the way in animal welfare. We have banned veal crates in our country, and we have imposed strict animal transport standards. On 23 January, the Government introduced new legislation to make it an offence to depart from a veterinary-approved transport plan, not only in this country but on the continent. The Government have been making strenuous efforts in the Council of Agriculture Ministers to bring European animal welfare standards up to a level that British people consider acceptable.

I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would give a report on the latest state of affairs in the Council of Ministers, and on the great efforts which she and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have been making in that connection. I would also ask her to give the House a report on the efforts which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been making to encourage British farmers to have their produce processed in the United Kingdom, rather than exported. I am sure that all Members agree that it is far better for British meat, rather than British animals, to be exported.

We must also draw the attention of some of our European partners to the practice of importing live British animals, killing them in a foreign country and marketing them as though they were meat produced in that country. That not only distorts the market but, in my opinion, is a fraudulent practice. The Government are well aware of the issues, as are most Members, but we cannot say that about our continental colleagues. I wish that Compassion in World Farming, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others would put more pressure on the legislatures of other countries and on the European Commission.

Mr. Olner

I appreciate the help and assistance of the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for being a sponsor of the Bill. Is he aware that the RSPCA has run advertising campaigns in France to try to bring about a greater perception of animal welfare issues in that country?

Mr. Stephen

I was aware of that, and that is all to the good. I would still like to see more pressure being brought to bear on our continental colleagues.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

My constituency is a few miles from Brightlingsea where many of my constituents are protesting, just as my hon. Friend's constituents are protesting at Shoreham. Does he agree that our constituents would be better protesting to the Governments of other countries in Europe, rather than in this country where standards are higher?

Mr. Stephen

That is so, but many of our constituents do not have the financial resources to protest in other countries. It is fair to say, however, that the animal welfare organisations have millions of pounds at their disposal and could, if they wished, subsidise some people who might wish to protest on the continent.

I ask the House to give its full support to the efforts which my right hon. Friend the Minister is making in Europe, and I encourage all our constituents to put their full support behind him. There has been an unfair attack on my right hon. Friend. He and his family have owned a farm for many generations. There is a public service rule which requires Ministers to relinquish control of all assets which might cause a conflict of interest, and my right hon. Friend did so. The public cannot have it both ways. They cannot then hold my right hon. Friend responsible if something happens in relation to his farm which they do not like.

Efforts in Europe will take time. Rome was not built in a day, and European legislation takes time. Therefore, not only do I support this Bill, but I recently supported a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) which would have imposed a unilateral ban on the export of animals until such time as European rules had been brought up to our standards. I was disappointed by the attitude of the Liberal Democrat party towards that Bill. Its rural affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), said quite clearly that his party was not in favour of a ban on animal exports. Indeed, he called the protesters "naive and hypocritical".

I was sorry that no Second Reading was given to that Bill and at the time I raised a point of order with Mr. Deputy Speaker asking him to make more time available. The press reporting of the debate was, however, grossly distorted. The Bill was not talked out by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), who spoke for only 23 minutes—hardly of filibuster proportions—nor was it talked out by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who spoke for just 16 minutes, most of which was taken up by interruptions. Nor was it talked out by my right hon. Friend the Minister, who could have continued speaking until 2.30 pm, but actually sat down at 2.22 pm. That left sufficient time for the Bill to be moved and voted upon, had that been the will of the House.

In fact, the Bill was blocked by the use of a procedural device by hon. Members representing rural communities who considered the Bill to be against the interests of their constituents. It is a device that Opposition Members frequently use and I doubt whether any hon. Member, from any party, would wish to withdraw from Back Benchers the long-established rights that they hold in this House in relation to private Members' Bills.

I very much regret the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham had his house invaded and damaged. I do not agree with his view—my constituents have a different interest from his—but he is as much entitled to fight in this House for the interests of his constituents as I am to fight for the interests of mine. I hope that if there is any further attempt to intimidate a Member of the House, Madam Speaker will take the matter very seriously and make it clear that the persons responsible will be severely punished. I hope also that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will make it clear that whatever the issue may be, violence and intimidation will not be allowed to succeed in our democratic country. No matter how important any particular issue might be, none is more important than the rule of law and our democratic way of life.

Because it will take time to change European law, I believe that the Government should introduce their own a Bill to impose a unilateral ban on the export of animals. In the meantime, a court has decided that the port of Shoreham has no legal right to refuse animal exports. Back Benchers can support or introduce any Bill they like and I am proud to support this one. However, I understand that Governments must act on legal advice and I know that the Government have taken the best legal advice available. I also know that they have been advised on the provisions of the treaty of Rome—which, whether we like it or not, was accepted by the British people in a referendum in 1975.

When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that she will tell us whether the Government are prepared to introduce a Bill—and if not, why not. If that is the case will she, in particular, explain to the House why, having considered article 36, she thinks that we could not take advantage of its provisions.

1.38 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I say to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) that I am not a member of any praetorian guard. I am here because I represent one of the largest livestock-producing constituencies in the country.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) for his remarks. I did not object to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) simply because I am in some way in favour of animal cruelty; I did so to look after the interests of the many farmers and hill farmers in my constituency who would have been seriously damaged had that Bill been passed.

It is not the job of the House always to go with public opinion. I appreciate that there has been an enormous weight of opinion against the export of animals because the public do not see the difficulties and the nuances of unilaterally banning the trade. It is sometimes necessary for Members of Parliament to stand up against that weight of public opinion, to do something that they believe is right, and to try to achieve better animal welfare across the European Community, which I think is the Government's objective; it is certainly my objective.

There are one or two flaws in the Bill of the hon. Member for Nuneaton. He wants to achieve, as I and most hon. Members want to achieve, a reduction in the live export of animals. As he rightly said, it is nonsensical that we export live animals and not carcases because, obviously, slaughtering animals in this country is not only more humane but, practically, increases jobs and employment in the meat processing industry, which we are exporting to France and to other European countries.

However, a difficulty exists. To have meat and butchery of sufficient quality, we must invest vastly more in modern, up-to-date, multi-million pound slaughterhouses. Such things cost a great deal of money. The proper function of those slaughterhouses, of which there will be far fewer, requires the transporting of animals to them and a throughput of animals to make them economic. That is why animals are transported around the countryside.

Not least, later in the season, as the grass-growing season changes, a slaughterhouse in Nuneaton or in that region must buy lambs, for instance, from Scotland and north England. That is why animals are transported. That is the problem when Labour Members attack the Government over their slaughterhouse policy. That is why my hon. Friend the Minister is trying to achieve high-quality slaughterhouses that can process meat in the way that modern supermarkets demand.

In the old days, everyone used to eat joints of meat. It was no problem if slaughterhouses were unhygienic or inefficient in some manner because meat was sold for roasts, was put into an oven and cooked. Today, meat is sold as a meat product. It is frozen and chilled and hygiene is vastly more important.

Mr. Olner

How would the hon. Gentleman explain the closure of a slaughterhouse in my constituency? Many thousands of pounds have been invested in it, and it is relatively fully automated, yet it closed because it processed only sheep and the sheep trade went to France.

Mr. Atkinson

I have no knowledge of the circumstances of that slaughterhouse. I am aware that, in the United Kingdom, there is a problem of overcapacity in the slaughtering industry. Only some slaughterhouses will meet modern hygiene regulations. Those are not silly, nonsensical European regulations. As I explained earlier, they are necessary because of people's changing dietary pattern and the different ways in which they are buying food. That is why higher degrees of hygiene are needed.

As I explained, Labour Members state in their policy document that they want an eight-hour limit on the transportation of animals in the UK—well, they want that limit everywhere. If that were the position, it would be impossible to shift livestock from my constituency in north Northumberland to the west country or to south England. That would be prohibited unless animals were off-loaded, kept for a couple of days and then reloaded, which we consider to be much worse for animals than transporting them for a reasonable length of time.

Of the 2 million head of sheep that are transported alive out of the country, 80 per cent. go to north-western France—to the Loire, the Vendée, Nantes, Brittany and Normandy. They travel a comparatively short distance. They also go to Belgium and Holland. A few go to Germany. My hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the vast majority of sheep that are transported from this country reach their destination in Europe within 15 hours of setting off from the UK.

The problem is that, when the port of Dover took the unilateral decision not to accept ships carrying livestock, and when the two ferry companies, P and 0 and Stena Sealink, made the decision not to carry the livestock, the best port in the UK, with the most humane transport and the best layering facilities, was closed to exporters, so they were forced to consider Brightlingsea and the port in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham. Those ports would involve the animals in longer sea crossings than would have been the case if they had used Dover.

The United Kingdom is not sitting back and merely reacting to circumstances because the British farming community and the Meat and Livestock Commission have long been trying to get more of our meet exported not on the hook, as we say, but preferably pre-packed for French supermarkets. The commission has been working on that for a number of years.

The export of live sheep to France increased substantially between 1990 and 1993, mainly because the number of sheep available in France declined. Many sheep farmers in the south of France went out of business and the big modern slaughterhouses in north-west France were short of animals to slaughter.

One factor that we hope to change through marketing is that the French housewife still prefers to buys meat stamped "French", a fact mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen). It is bizarre that in France one can buy "French" lamb which, only a few weeks previously, was gambolling around on a hill in Northumberland. The same is true of Scottish beef, although cattle are less likely to gambol as they are too large. It is a curious anomaly under the trade description legislation.

The Meat and Livestock Commission is making a great effort to increase the sale of our products abroad, especially in French supermarkets. The French housewife wants our quality, and our lamb is cheaper than French lamb. For a number of years, the commission has been running shows and exhibitions around Europe with considerable success.

We must move slowly but surely. As the necessity for live exports declines, we can replace the meat that is currently exported on the hoof with meat that is exported on the hook. I urge the hon. Member for Nuneaton and the public to be patient. A unilateral decision would simply drag down farming incomes, especially those of the hill farmers who are not involved in the veal trade but who produce naturally reared sheep and beef. Their incomes will decline as more meat has to be absorbed on the United Kingdom market. I ask the hon. Gentleman and the public to be patient—the trade in live animals will go, but it takes time and understanding, not a unilateral decision.

1.46 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) on promoting the Bill and the House on allowing us to have what I hope will be an even-tempered and reasonable debate on a very emotive issue. I am not the best person to lecture the House on even temper in relation to such an issue, but it is right that, when something is being discussed extensively outside, we should discuss it ourselves. I welcome the opportunity to do so.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a thoughtful speech. Of course, I understand his constituency interest and he is clearly serving his constituents well. I was not completely convinced by his philosophy that sometimes we have to resist public opinion—I should not have thought that this was one of those issues on which such resistance was wise or desirable—but I assure him that I should not be interested in seeing the income of his hill farmers decline if this country were to introduce a unilateral ban on the export of live animals. Public opinion must also face that fact.

One cannot say, "I am going to exercise my liberal conscience, and damn the consequences for someone else's salary or pay packet." I should certainly be prepared to put my hand in my pocket—once I have removed that of the Chancellor—to compensate farmers who might suffer. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has considered those consequences, and the public should do the same. Given the strength of public opinion about the transportation of live animals, I feel as confident as I do about anything that the public would be prepared to foot the bill and ensure that our farmers did not lose out.

I am very open about the fact that I am a vegetarian. It is a pity that we have to kill any animals for food and, like the hon. Member for Hexham and others, I would prefer meat to be exported on the hook rather than on the hoof, if it has to be exported at all.

I give credit to farmers in this country. I believe that our standards of animal husbandry are probably higher than those of any other country; they are certainly among the highest. It is clear from footage produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by Compassion in World Farming that the transport of animals from eastern European countries, such as Poland, Albania and Romania, is disgusting and obscene. I am not saying that British farmers behave like that; I know that this country is at the top of the league.

However, I am not interested in saying just that we are not as bad as other countries. I want this country to be the very best. I want us to set the highest possible standards so that we can be an example to the rest of the world. I see no reason why we should not do that. We could do that within the European Union. Spain, Greece and Italy are not far behind eastern European countries in terms of the lack of standards they apply to animal husbandry. It is right for us to call ourselves a nation of animal lovers. There are many animal lovers in the House, on both sides. However, there are still too many people who ill-treat animals. That is a matter of deep regret.

I accept, as has been said, that we need to try to get international agreement. In an ideal world, international agreement is the best agreement. However, progress is clearly very slow. It is because of the strength of public opinion that Ministers are now showing a greater sense of urgency. Ministers may say that I am doing them an injustice. It is, however, noticeable that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food responded swiftly, following pressure from the National Farmers Union, from farmers generally and from meat exporters, when people exercised their freedom of choice by saying to the ferry companies that they were not prepared to travel on their ferries if animals destined for slaughter on the continent were being kept in the cargo hold. That was an amazing and highly successful demonstration of people power; consumers exercised their muscle.

The anger that followed was understandable. Consumers had done something and it was claimed that there had been a great victory for those who opposed the live transportation of animals. Suddenly, alternative outlets for transportation were opened. Coventry airport, Shoreham and Brightlingsea came into play for the first time. The anger was understandable. I felt angry. People thought that they had won, but found that they suddenly had yet another battle. They had to carry on winning time after time. The anger then started to spill over. Some of it was a little unfortunate, but for the most part, the people demonstrating, as hon. Members who have spoken so far have acknowledged, were not from rent-a-mob. Many were people who had never been on a demonstration before.

I probably get more letters each year on animal welfare issues than any other hon. Member. As I have said time and again, many of the letters start with the words, "As a life-long Conservative voter". Many of the people protesting, perhaps for the first time, are Tory voters. If nothing else does, that should interest Conservative Members. I know that many Conservative Members are interested in the issue, but I also know that votes can often concentrate the mind. It is worth remembering that we are talking about people who have never been on a demonstration before and who consider themselves to be good supporters of the Conservative party, in so far as there are any left these days.

Mr. Stephen

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is not a party political issue in the traditional sense? Does he accept that there are as many Conservative supporters as there are Labour supporters demonstrating?

Mr. Banks

I would go further. There are probably more Conservative supporters in the Shoreham area than there are Labour supporters. Although the evidence is only anecdotal, that is the impression I get. It is not a party political issue. People often tend to think—I do not mean hon. Members present in the Chamber—that anyone on a demonstration is in the pay of Moscow. It is not like that. It is time that some of the less aware Conservative Members realised that there are a lot of their own supporters out there. I realise that I am overdoing the point, but I stress it because many Conservative Members still do not seem to have grasped it.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton and others, I think that the Government must take the initiative. I have heard Ministers say that they have taken the best legal advice under article 36. I always say that the best legal advice is usually that with which one agrees in the end and what one wants. Lawyers come in many guises and if people do not get the advice that they want, I say go and buy another lawyer. It is an arguable point.

The law is uncertain in this area of animal transportation and slaughter. European Court judgments are only really developing now. The precedents are not there as they are in British law, so it is worth testing the judgments. All that we are saying to the Government is why not go for it, prohibit the export of live animals for slaughter and then let someone challenge it in the European Court.

If the Government's initial advice turns out to be correct and a unilateral ban is overturned, at least the Government can say, "Well, we did exactly what we were asked to do by Members of Parliament of all parties and by constituents and we have been turned over." Why should not the Government put themselves in the firing line at this point? They say that they know what is going to happen. Nobody knows for certain what would happen if the issue went to the European Court.

I am quite sure that if the ban on export of horses for slaughter were tested in the European Court, it would be overturned. No one has tested it. Why anticipate a battle which may never have to be joined? Why do not the Government go for it under article 36? I am no lawyer, but I would be quite happy, on the basis of article 36 as I understand it, to mount a defence of the Government's position.

I also draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 893, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Sir A. Bowden), which is signed by members of all parties. It suggests that the Government should press to reclassify animals as sentient creatures at the intergovernmental conference in 1996. If we had been able to do that before, we would not have been involved in this argument now because we would have been able to apply a range of animal welfare legislation and standards to the export of animals.

During Agriculture questions on Thursday, the Parliamentary Secretary said that she had received 90,000 items of correspondence. That is a formidable array of public opinion and shows the degree of public concern. Of course I accept that the trade is lawful, but the Parliamentary Secretary and others must understand that so many people in this country find it unacceptable. Those people have a right to demonstrate against the law and, indeed, if they challenge that law, they will have to take the consequences. People feel very strongly.

Many people who are out demonstrating are prepared to go to gaol. If I were arrested, I would go to gaol—not happily, but I would be prepared to go on the basis that I feel that the trade is repugnant, lawful though it may be. I prefer not to defy the law, but I am prepared to take the consequences were that to be the case. I am not someone who readily makes heroic, useless sacrifices, despite the fact that I am a member of the Labour party.

The Parliamentary Secretary should recognise the strength of feeling outside and inside the House. If she takes unilateral action, she will have the overwhelming support of hon. Members of all parties. Go for it!

1.58 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) always seems to be making heroic gestures or offering to make them. I very much agree with what he has said today. If the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) has done his homework thoroughly—I do not know to what extent he has—he will know my views on this subject. I have always had a principled objection to the export of live animals for any purpose except the conservation of species because I believe that such export is essentially cruel and it is impossible, however hard one tries, to make the moving of animals, especially larger animals over long distances or during arduous passages such as by sea, acceptable and fair to them. I have long held that view. I am not a new convert, suddenly influenced by the strength of public opinion or by having a port in my constituency, which I do not. I have held that view for many years on the basis of principle.

As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West rightly said, the issue goes further than simply taking a stand on principle. We can all wear our principles on our sleeves, and it is sometimes right and proper to do so and I am not bashful about so doing on this subject. But we also have to consider the consequences of our actions and how best practically to pursue our principles. The House has a responsibility to consider those aspects. There are some difficulties and I recognise the problems that the Government face. I strongly welcome the debate and I hope that we shall have other opportunities to return to the subject.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton made a judgment on the previous debate, having been in his place for only about 10 minutes of it. Having been in the Chamber throughout that debate, I can say quite simply that I did not recognise the hon. Gentleman's judgment. Procedures of the House exist to allow hon. Members to raise various subjects and it is invidious to try to measure which subject is of greater worth at any one time. At least we have the opportunity to debate the subject now, which I welcome.

We have heard of the abuses involved in the live export trade. The transport system involves abuses such as long journeys and insufficient watering and feeding. I do not need to go into the detail because that is accepted ground. We have also heard of the problems faced by animals when they are abroad and of their poor treatment in some parts of the continent. We cannot police such treatment as we have no authority to do so. Long-distance travel for animals in this country should be avoided and I am glad that opinion, including opinion within the agriculture and farming sectors, is increasingly moving that way. I accept that it is sometimes necessary to move animals over distances, but the shorter those distances are, the better. We should aim to develop different farming techniques to make such transportation a thing of the past.

I have mentioned popular feeling and there is no doubt that it is strong. Moreover, I believe that it will inexorably grow stronger. Pressure has been brought on past Governments. In 1973 the then Conservative Government banned the export of most live animals in response to that pressure. The only shame was that two years later that decision was reversed. When the ban took place in 1973 it was done on the basis of article 36 of the treaty of Rome and I see no reason why that article should not also form the basis for similar action now. I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that it is something worth trying.

This country could be taken to the European Court over the issue, and we could lose. But if that were to happen, it would be a clear sign of where the blame lies for the people of this country and all who feel so strongly about this issue. Let us put the onus on the European institutions which want to take on the responsibility. If they want to move against the will of the British people, so be it. At least people will know where we stand and to what extent the powers of the institution of Parliament are limited by agreements in Europe—something that I deprecate on constitutional grounds.

The subject will continue to excite great concern among the British people. I believe that it will come to a head at some time, although perhaps now is not the moment. I cannot foretell, but I would be amazed if the people of this country were to forget about an issue which has caused so much concern in recent weeks. Things move in cycles and I believe that there will be further great expressions of concern. What has frustrated so many people—it has clearly frustrated many of my constituents as they have made clear to me—is the feeling that they have lost the democratic right to express their views and have them carried forward by their representatives in the House. Ministers and others say, "We sympathise, but we cannot do anything because of our international obligations"; yet people with strong feelings on the subject have no parallel ability to bring their influence to bear on those international institutions—particularly the European Court.

The people who have participated in recent demonstrations would not normally think of demonstrating, but I know from speaking to constituents that some did so out of frustration. They feel that it is no use coming to see Members of Parliament because they have been rendered powerless to act. That matter is serious in itself.

For all those reasons, I support the Bill's principles, even though I have doubts about some clauses. I hope that action will be taken, under the Bill or by some other mechanism, to halt the trade in transporting live animals, which is unacceptable to this country in principle and in practice.

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

The Government understand the concerns that the welfare of exported animals should be fully safeguarded. We sympathise with the wish that lies behind the Bill—to do more to help to ensure the welfare of transported animals—but it presents legal and practical difficulties. It is not a question simply of legal constraints; the practicalities of implementation are also important considerations.

The topic has generated much comment, but it is only fair to make clear to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) from the outset that the Government cannot support his Bill.

Mr. Olner

I accept that the Bill, which was roughly drafted, might present technical difficulties, but does the Minister agree in principle with its thrust?

Mrs. Browning

I will go into detail, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to the three-hour Adjournment debate recently, when my right hon. Friend the Minister made it clear that the Government attach importance to animal welfare. We will continue to take steps to ensure that welfare is improved—particularly in Europe, to bring it up to the standards that already exist in our country. I want the hon. Gentleman to have as much information as possible about our reasons for being unable to support his Bill. I know that that will disappoint him, but it is the only honest thing to do.

Clause 1 would prohibit the export of live animals for slaughter but includes a repeal provision that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could use if he were satisfied that the Community rules envisaged in directive 91/628, article 13, covering such matters as journey limits, feeding and watering requirements, loading density standards and staging points were in place.

Clause 2 would prohibit the export of calves for any purpose from Great Britain to another country unless that country certified that it had rules on treatment of calves that were at least equivalent to our own. The House will be aware that this country has banned the raising of calves in veal crates.

It is important to repeat the legal advice given to the House, because it is relevant to this debate. We examined carefully the issues of live exports and of veal calf exports, particularly the legal dimension. We recently considered the best legal case that could be made in favour of measures banning the export of calves, or imposing selective restrictions aimed at calves. Selective restrictions of that sort might seek to ensure—as does the Protection of Calves (Export) Bill of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew)—that calves can be exported only if they are destined for production systems that would meet British requirements. Alternatively, they might, as this Bill would, seek more sweepingly to prohibit the export of calves to countries where calves could legally be reared in conditions that are illegal in the United Kingdom.

The conclusion that emerges from the legal advice that we have obtained is that such selective measures could not be justified in Community law. Hon. Members will rightly want to know the reasoning that underlies this argument. I shall set it out, just as my right hon. Friend the Minister did in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on 2 February. My right hon. Friend also wrote in some detail on 1 February to every hon. Member setting out the position in relation to current restrictions on calves. I know that the hon. Member for Nuneaton has received that correspondence.

First, the directive on welfare standards for calves forms part of the Community legislation governing trade in calves, and its terms preclude member states from introducing export restrictions. Article 36 of the treaty can in some circumstances justify export restrictions, on the grounds of the protection of the health and life of animals, which includes animal welfare. Several hon. Members have referred to that, but article 36 is available to member states only where there is no Community legislation governing the particular area. It is not applicable in this case, given the directive on welfare standards for calves, so a total ban on all calf exports would not on any basis be justified under article 36 because it would be disproportionate.

It is also highly probable that measures banning or restricting the export of calves would constitute an unacceptable interference with the operation of the common agricultural policy, as it relates to the market for beef and veal.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said that he would be happy to pay compensation to hill farmers—

Mr. Tony Banks

Not on my own.

Mrs. Browning

It sounded generous, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman was speaking on behalf of a great many other people who might be prepared to pay. It is not, however, just a question of compensating people who can no longer export direct from their farms. Our legal advice is that there could be claims not only from the original farmer but from people right through the production chain, including transporters and businesses on the other side of the channel—in short, all the recipients in the chain of production. There is therefore no quick fix whereby a little extra money to help farmers will resolve all the possible financial implications for the taxpayers of this country, who would ultimately have to pay the bill following any legal challenge that found the Government of the United Kingdom to be at fault.

The aspects that I have already mentioned mean that a selective export restriction on calves destined for crates or for rearing in countries whose welfare conditions do not match ours would be extremely difficult to defend legally and would be at high risk of being struck down in court.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Lady has told us about the legal advice given to her Department, but will she detach herself from that for a moment and tell us who would actually make a challenge? Have there been discussions with other EU Governments to find out whether they are sympathetic to our position, given the strength of public opinion in this country?

Mrs. Browning

It is not just a matter of our being challenged in the court through the Commission if we were found to be infringing Community law. As I have just explained, companies and individuals who felt that they had lost financially because of the United Kingdom Government taking unilateral action that they were not in a position to defend legally could make financial claims against the Government and, ultimately, against the taxpayer. If Ministers deliberately contravene the legal advice that they are given—to the effect that a challenge would be most likely to be upheld in court—they knowingly put the United Kingdom taxpayer in an unfortunate position. There is a great precedent throughout all Government Departments that it would be extremely serious for a Minister, against legal advice, to take such action in the knowledge that ultimately the Department would be likely to fail in court.

It has been suggested that Ministers should tough it out and that legal advice would come from people thinking along the lines of Ministers anyway. Hon. Members will know of the constraints on Ministers in fully publishing legal advice. As I have said, legal advice was taken from more than one source.

Mr. Stephen

My hon. Friend will have noticed that neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on agriculture is in the Chamber. Has the Labour leadership challenged the legal advice that the Government have received, and is the Leader of the Opposition urging the Government to break European law?

Mrs. Browning

I can inform my hon. Friend that there seems to be a variation of opinion between Opposition Front-Bench agriculture spokesmen. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said: We do not accept that the Minister is necessarily correct in his interpretation of the legal position with regard to calves, although we certainly accept the position with regard to sheep."—[Official Report, 22 February, 1995; Vol. 255, c. 299.] The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is also an Opposition spokesman on agriculture, supports the Bill. Confusion reigns.

Mr. Tony Banks

There is no confusion.

Mrs. Browning

It is a matter that the hon. Gentleman should take up with his Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. Banks

I do not want to score points. There is no confusion in the sense that the hon. Lady suggests. The point is that the issue is worth testing. I do not think that the legal case is watertight. That is all that I am saying. The Opposition no more have knowledge on the matter than, I suspect, the Government.

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Gentleman says that the case is not legally watertight, yet in his speech he admitted that he was not a lawyer. I, too, am not a lawyer. As a Minister, I must take advice on behalf of the Ministry from lawyers. When advice is received from more than one lawyer and it is consistent, we must draw the conclusion that it will hold up. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that all Ministers take legal advice.

The same legal objections would apply to a prohibition on the export of live animals for slaughter given the existence of a directive on the welfare of animals in transit. I realise that many hon. Members will find the legal realities unwelcome. I understand the frustration of the hon. Member for Nuneaton. I have no doubt that it will be argued that if the case were worth going for, we should gamble on the result. I understand that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that. He is in a very different position from a Minister who takes legal advice.

Mr. Tony Banks

Make my hon. Friend a Minister.

Mrs. Browning

I invite the hon. Member for Nuneaton to cross the Floor. If he does so, we may consider the matter.

To gamble in the way that some hon. Members suggest could not possibly be defended as a responsible approach for the Government to adopt. I am sure that hon. Members recognise that.

Relating the legal advice more specifically to the Bill, it is evident that a ban on the export of calves to, say, France and the Netherlands would apply not only to calves destined to be reared under systems in countries that would be acceptable to the United Kingdom but to those destined for veal crates. I am sure that the House will be aware that countries such as the Netherlands have welfare-friendly systems and also rear calves in crates. When I have visited countries to discuss veal crates, it has been encouraging to note that their representatives are willing to consider what we are demanding and what the marketplace may ultimately demand in changing from the crate, which we abhor, to other more welfare-friendly systems.

We could not argue that the measure was proportionate, as we would have to under article 36. The legal problems with the Bill are conclusive enough in themselves, but I am afraid that there would be practical problems too. It is important to emphasise that, because it is not just, as Conservative Members have said, a case of our being trapped in some European directive, unable do anything about it. There are strong practical reasons why, even if the legislation were passed, the implementation of such a ban would cause difficulty.

Under clause 2, states wishing to receive calves from the UK would need to interpret our domestic legislation and compare it with their own. The person—we are now getting down to the practical detail of what might happen—responsible for the declaration about the compatibility of another member state's law with ours would be outside our jurisdiction. Given the scepticism that has been expressed in other discussions about the ability of other states to enforce Community requirements, I am not sure that the Bill would necessarily bring any practical welfare benefits. We would have to rely on the authorities of the importing member state to ensure that calves were, in fact, raised in conditions corresponding to those that apply in the UK, and there would be nothing in the Bill to prevent exporters from sending calves to other member states where the practical realities of animal welfare might not correspond to the terms of their legislation.

Some right hon. or hon. Members might be thinking that an alternative approach to that adopted in the Bill might avoid those legal and practical pitfalls. That line of thought might lead us to something like the provisions of the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Carlisle, which would prohibit the export of calves where the exporter was not satisfied that the calves would be reared in their country of destination under a system that would comply with UK requirements. That approach would, perhaps, be slightly more defensible as meeting the test under article 36: measures must be proportionate to their purpose.

The measure would not, like the Bill before us today, prohibit the export of many calves destined for rearing systems acceptable to us, but the other substantial legal objections, which I have just explained, relating to the existence of Community standards for the welfare of calves and of a common agricultural policy market regime for beef and veal would remain. There would be serious practical problems. If it were shown that calves exported from Great Britain had ended up in a continental veal crate system, how would we establish that the exporter in the UK had committed the offence? The exporter would say that he had relied on assurances from his continental customer and that it was not his fault if the rearing system was not in accordance with those assurances or if the customer had taken the calves to premises that were unsatisfactory. We would face an insoluble problem in trying to monitor and control the movement of calves in the jurisdiction of another member state.

The Government have repeated many times that, ultimately, if we really care about the standards and welfare of farm animals and animals in transit, whether they are calves or any other animal, it is vital to have European legislation that can be enforced throughout Europe, because the real problem, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, is not the difficulties of welfare standards in the UK or the good intentions of the vast majority of people who export from UK but ensuring high-standard, uniform enforcement throughout the EC.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am sure that the whole House would endorse those sentiments, but will the Minister tell the House what chance she has of getting that measure of agreement among our European Union partners? I spoke slowly so that she could finish her drink.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being welfare friendly. As I am rested and watered, I shall continue. I shall come to the matter that he raises in more detail, but perhaps I could give a more immediate response to the issue of veal crates.

The responses of other member states, most of which I have visited, have been quite encouraging. I include countries such as Italy, which has a huge commercial interest. However, I do not want to mislead the House. I do not suggest that there will be a quick fix or an immediate solution. Other member states wish to see the matter brought to a satisfactory conclusion and I am reasonably optimistic that there will be some movement.

The issue of live animals in transit is more difficult, but we are determined to try to secure an agreement. There has been some movement by other member states and, as the House knows, we have pressed on two issues that are the nub of the matter and cause the real difficulty—maximum journey times and resting periods compatible with welfare.

As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Minister has had an opportunity to raise this matter in the Council and we hope that it will come before the Council again, certainly before the end of the French presidency. My right hon. Friend will continue to press and negotiate for an agreement on maximum journey time and a suitable period of rest. Perhaps I will deal with that later in more detail.

I was speaking about the difficulties that arise when calves are exported to a purchaser in another European country and about how we would enforce and monitor such exports. We would face an insoluble problem in trying to monitor and control the movement of calves that were in the jurisdiction of another member state. I do not think that it would work. However we sought to reformulate the provision, we would face the same insoluble problem of policing in another member state.

I do not want to drag the House into too much detail, but I want to make it clear that we have given these issues detailed consideration. I have given the House the flavour of that consideration. I emphasise, above all, that the Government, much as we sympathise with the Bill's underlying aims, cannot support the making of legislation that carries a high risk of successful legal challenge and that will not work. That is the basis of the legal problem that faces us.

Mr. Olner

We have been going down this path for two or three years, but the problem will not go away. There will continue to be protests about the conditions in which animals are being transported. I have a simple question for the Minister. If Denmark can ensure that its animal products are exported to the rest of Europe in packaged or in carcase form, why cannot we do the same with our excellent meat products?

Mrs. Browning

We are doing what we can. Several hon. Members have mentioned the Meat and Livestock Commission, whose marvellous efforts to try to get more trade on the hook rather than on the hoof I commend to the House. It has worked hard. For example, French cutters have come here to show how to cut carcases in the way that French supermarkets and housewives like so that more can be exported.

We are certainly in favour of more value-added products in the United Kingdom, but Governments cannot strike deals in the marketplace. It is for the market to determine the proportions of the live and on-the-hook trade. We shall help by the sort of efforts that we have been making with the MLC and by promotions such as the veal seminar that I held only a fortnight ago at MAFF headquarters to try to promote welfare-friendly veal.

Ideally, I would like to see pink, welfare-friendly veal exported to Italy on the hook. That would certainly be advantageous but it must be determined by the marketplace. I hope that the hon. Member for Nuneaton appreciates that although matters cannot be turned around overnight, we are working hard to maximise value added on this side of the channel. I hope that we will be more successful at that in future but even if we are there is a need for live animals to be sent across the channel.

We hope that the stance that we have taken on veal crates will result in a ban on their use throughout the European Community. We are also working hard to raise the standard of welfare of animals in transit, and some progress has been made. For example, it is accepted among our European partners that there should be a licensing system, and that licences should be revoked if transporters do not stick to the rules. If that could be policed on an EC-wide basis, it would be a great move forward.

We are stuck on the question of the maximum journey times and rest periods. Many other matters that have been agreed are waiting to be endorsed once we get over the final hurdle. My right hon. Friend, officials in the Ministry and myself have worked hard during the past month on the matter. If the message going out today from this House was that we in the UK—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 31 March.