HC Deb 06 February 1997 vol 289 cc1129-31
5. Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the progress in the intergovernmental conference on raising the standards of animal welfare across the European Union. [13107]

Mrs. Browning

Discussions continue on our proposal for a protocol on animal welfare, which will place a legally binding obligation on Community institutions. I am pleased to report an encouraging response.

Mr. Brown

I am glad to hear that answer. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is much opposition in this country to the export of any live animals? In recognising that that trade is however, likely to continue, will she assure us that the progress being made in the intergovernmental conference will result in other European countries applying the same high standards on the issue as we have?

Mrs. Browning

That is our exact objective. It would place a legal obligation on the Community to take account of welfare requirements. I believe that we have a very good record in this country on the transportation of animals, which my hon. Friend particularly mentioned. We would like such standards to be applied and enforced throughout the Community.

Mr. Sheerman

When will the Government stop wringing their hands and give consumers a choice? In terms of animal welfare, what consumers want is to be able to walk into a shop or supermarket and buy a product made from an animal that they know has been treated humanely over its lifetime. Whether we are talking about animals or genetically modified food, the Government do not seem to understand that consumers want a good clear choice.

Mrs. Browning

Under new Labour, people probably do not do their own shopping any more—I suspect that they send out for the groceries in Islington now—so I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, if one goes into a supermarket, as most of us do every week, one finds that there is a choice. I am sorry that he has not heard of Freedom Foods, for example, which offers a range of foods and is supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. [Interruption.] First the hon. Gentleman asks for something, then he denigrates those who are trying to provide it. He has demonstrated clearly that he is just making a bit of noise, and does not know what goes on in supermarkets. There is choice, and it is up to the consumer to decide whether to support those schemes, which sometimes add a few more pennies to the price of the product.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my hon. Friend agree that many advances in the treatment of animals—those in relation to veal crates and transport conditions, for example—have been achieved in the teeth of European opposition? Does she also agree that, if we had not been content to be isolated in Europe, we would not have achieved those advances, whereas the Leader of the Opposition is not prepared to be isolated in Europe?

Mrs. Browning

Absolutely. My hon. Friend speaks with the experience of representing a farming community, and he will be aware how important it is to farmers that farm animal welfare and animal transport be considered at a European level. It is not simply a question of what goes on here; we can do things on our own, as we have with veal crates, sow stalls and tethers, but that does not offer much comfort about what goes on over the channel. The Government have pressed for, and achieved, much better standards of animal welfare at the European level.

Mr. Tony Banks

Before the Minister starts patting herself and her colleagues on the head, will she tell me why we are exporting eight and 10-week-old piglets to Spain and France, especially when we know how intelligent those creatures are? What is happening about leghold traps? What progress is being made? I understand that Commissioner Brittan is ensuring that the ban on such traps will not be introduced. What is he doing for animal welfare in the European Union?

Mrs. Browning

I have received correspondence about consignments of piglets. The hon. Gentleman will know that, if people bring to our attention individual cases in which they believe the law has not been applied, I shall investigate them. I looked into the cases concerned, and I am satisfied that the animal welfare conditions were observed.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my hon. Friend make a vigorous protest to the Government of Greece about the fact that, during the recent lorry drivers' strike, horses were kept in horse boxes or lorries without food or water for eight days and then transported 1,500 miles to slaughter? Is it not time the Government of Greece and many other European Governments learned a bit about animal welfare?

Mrs. Browning

Indeed, but when we want to influence countries whose cultural background means that they take a very different view of such matters, it is no good simply castigating them. The Government have spent many hours talking and negotiating with other countries and we have, for example, secured a Europewide agreement on animal transport, which is about to be applied. That will cover Greece, and I assure the House that, once the laws are in place, we shall expect the Commission to apply them, whether in Greece or anywhere else.

Mr. Morley

It is true that most people in this country do not support the live export of animals for slaughter; so it was surprising to hear the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the National Farmers Union annual general meeting defending that practice. Does he not believe that most British farmers want their animals to be slaughtered in British slaughterhouses as near as possible to the point of production, so that value is added to British meat exports, rather than to be exported live for slaughter? The Minister also criticised the Labour party for receiving a substantial donation from the International Fund for Animal Welfare—a donation that we, unlike the Conservative party, made public. As the Conservatives have also accepted a substantial donation from the same organisation, will that donation now be repaid?

Mrs. Browning

On the last point, discussions are in hand. On the wider point, it is in everyone's interest to add as much value as possible to exports on this side of the channel. However, that is very different from the position of some Labour Members who have campaigned for the total banning of live animal exports and who signed an early-day motion on the matter some years ago. The hon. Gentleman will know that we export breeding pigs and, at one time, we exported nearly 400,000 calves—a trade that Opposition Members wanted to ban. These animals are now slaughtered when they are less than 20 days old. We will always need provisions for some live animal exports, and our objective is to make sure that conditions for those exports are good and are enforced—particularly on journeys on the other side of the channel.

Mr. Luff

Is my hon. Friend aware that all the farmers whom I meet in Worcestershire are rightly proud of the high standards of animal welfare that they maintain on their farms? Would not Opposition Members and animal welfare groups be better employed supporting the British Government in their efforts to ensure that the same standards of animal welfare are maintained on the other side of the channel?

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If a person breaks the law either on farm or in transport, he or she must be brought to book. I always welcome people bringing information on any individual to me so that cases can be properly investigated. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that farmers in this country have been the best custodians of farm animal welfare. We have a good message to send, and it is one that we shall try to enforce throughout the Community.

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