HC Deb 14 December 1999 vol 341 cc246-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

10 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I am grateful to the House for allowing me this opportunity to debate what is a very important issue. I am pleased that the rules of the House protect a slot such as this from the time-wasting piffle of the past 25 minutes.

In my office, we took side bets about which Minister would respond to this debate. I was successful in anticipating that it would be the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, that shows that there is considerable doubt, even among those interested in these matters, about who is co-ordinating animal policy for the Government—assuming that someone is. Had I known which Minister was to reply to the debate I would have given details of the points that I intended to raise. However, I hope that the Minister read my helpful article in the Daily Express today, in which I was particularly kind about him.

I wish to draw to the House's attention the lack of co-ordination between Departments on animal issues. I shall also query the Government's commitment to those issues, especially their use of private Member's Bills rather than Government Bills for legislation. Finally, I shall give credit where it is due for the steps that the Government have taken since they came to office.

I mentioned the lack of co-ordination between Departments. It is not clear whether animal issues are dealt with centrally or departmentally. The Home Office might deal with animal experiments, or hunting; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions might deal with non-domestic wildlife, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food might deal with farm animals. The Department of Trade and Industry is interested in animal issues in connection with its negotiations with the World Trade Organisation. The Department of Health is interested in xenotransplantation and related matters. The regional Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also take an interest, while the Ministry of Defence has its own slaughterhouse in Aldershot and runs particularly nasty experiments at Porton Down. That list shows that the Government's response to animal issues is not co-ordinated.

The Minister may say that such criticism is all very well but that there is no problem because each Department knows what it is doing. However, last month I tabled a question on zoo licensing. My question was directed to the Home Office, but I received a letter from the parliamentary branch of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which stated: On further consideration the questions on Zoo Licensing that you tabled to the Home Department and which were subsequently transferred to this Department have been transferred back to the Home Department. This was due to officials deciding, after the questions had been transferred, that the Home Department would be best placed to answer them. That demonstrates that questions can rattle around between Departments, with no one certain about who is responsible. I am pleased that I identified the Department most likely to be able to answer my questions when I went to the Table Office, but the problem is not unusual.

On several occasions, I have drawn to the attention of the Prime Minister the need, because of the departmental spread of responsibility, to co-ordinate Government policy on animal issues. On 2 February, I tabled the following written question: To ask the Prime Minister if he will make it his policy to rationalise departmental responsibilities for animal issues to achieve better policy co-ordination. The response from the Prime Minister was: Ministers with responsibilities for animal welfare are actively considering what new arrangements may be needed for interdepartmental co-ordination on animal welfare policies and their presentation. An announcement will be made as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 2 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 476W.] I asked a question pursuant to that on 22 June. The Prime Minister replied that an announcement would be made "as soon as possible". On 31 July 1998, I asked a question in relation to the performance and innovation unit of the Cabinet Office. The reply was that information about animal welfare would be announced "in the autumn".

In July 1999, I asked the Prime Minister why no announcement had yet been made in respect of the co-ordination within the Government of animal welfare policies, when he expected to make such an announcement and if he would make a statement. The right hon. Gentleman replied: To date, co-ordination between Government Departments has been on an informal basis. However, this will be put on a formal basis this autumn by the establishment of an Interdepartmental Ministerial Group."—[Official Report, 26 July 1999; Vol. 336, c. 29W.] I then asked on 2 November if the group had been established, what its membership was and so on. I was told that work was under way and that an announcement would be made "shortly".

We have had five or six announcements from the Prime Minister—all promising action "as soon as possible" or "shortly". I am not yet aware of any action that has been taken. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten me.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has now asked the Prime Minister about the interdepartmental ministerial group. The answer from the Prime Minister was that an announcement will be made "as soon as possible". We do not seem to have made much progress on co-ordination—despite the fact that the Prime Minister apparently recognises the need for it—in the two years since I raised the issue.

Given the wide spread of responsibilities and the commitment that the Labour party made before the election, this matter should be a priority. It stands out like a sore thumb as needing action. This is not joined-up government.

I am not the only one who is raising this issue. The RSPCA wrote to me this morning to say: Since the last general election the RSPCA has had dealings with ministers, and civil servants, from the Home Office, MAFF, DETR, DTI and the Welsh Office—adding up to over 15 Ministers. Of particular concern is the issue of dog legislation which covers MAFF, the Home Office and DETR, meaning that there is no one stop shop for owners, breeders, local authorities and animal charities.

I hope that the case has been proven that there is a need for more co-ordination. How can an animal welfare policy run smoothly and effectively if Departments do not know their respective responsibilities and are seen to be not co-ordinating?

I wish to query the Government's commitment to animal issues in a number of respects. My theory is that legislation on animal issues nearly always—there are exceptions, such as the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill this Session—seems to be relegated to Back-Bench Bills. There have been 12 such Bills over the previous two Sessions, only two of which have become law. Of course those Bills are easily sabotaged by Members such as those who contributed to the previous debates.

In particular, I wish to refer to the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. On 28 November 1997, Members of this House voted by 411 to 151 in favour of that excellent Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), which was supported not simply by Members of this House but by the public at large. Even a poll in The Daily Telegraph showed that 78 per cent. of the public were opposed to fox hunting. However, the Bill was lost because Ministers insisted that it should be dealt with as a private Member's Bill. Many Bills that have support in this House are stopped and stymied as a consequence of that decision.

If Labour is committed to banning hunting—as it said in its pre-election literature—why is it insisting on using private Members' Bills? Why is animal legislation—unlike almost everything else in this House—dealt with predominately by private Members' Bills? Why is it not dealt with by Government legislation? I hope that the Bill on fur farming in this Session means that that trend has been broken.

I want to ask the Minister which of the pledges in Labour's pre-election document on the matter have been unmet. The document has a fox on the front, implying that we will have a ban on hunting this Parliament. If we do not, I should perhaps take up that matter wearing my consumer affairs hat.

The document says that Labour will ensure that animals are used only when it is essential for medical and other scientific requirements. Yet Home Office statistics indicate that although almost 2.7 million experiments were carried out on living creatures, only 468,000 were required to be carried out to comply with legislation. The others were not necessary. Can that be justified?

The Labour party also said: We will forbid the use of animals in the testing and development of weapons". I admit that some progress has been made on animal experiments, and I will come to that, but some very unpleasant experiments are still being conducted. I refer in particular to those undertaken by the Ministry of Defence. I do not know how far it follows the same procedures as the Home Office.

The National Anti-Vivisection Society booklet dated May to August 1999 contains a description of a particularly nasty experiment with goats under water—undertaken with the consent, no doubt, of the Ministry of Defence or the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. The booklet says: Ten animals were suspended at 200ft for up to an hour before being brought rapidly to the surface. These were killed by lethal injection up to 15 minutes after showing severe reactions such as collapse and paralysis. Seven goats were compressed at 100 feet and held there for 55–60 minutes, then killed before being brought to the surface. None of the goats were anaesthetised during their ordeal. This is an approved experiment which is still being carried out, for reasons which are at best dubious.

I accept that the Government have increased the number of inspectors in this area—but only from 18 to 21, which is not a particularly large increase. The Labour leaflet also said: We will support a Royal Commission to look at animal experiments. Yet within two or three months of coming to office, the then Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said: We do not consider that a royal commission on the use of animals in experiments is necessary at this time."—[Official Report, 30 June 1997; Vol. 297, c. 259.] It did not take long for that pledge to disappear.

In an answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, Ministry of Defence figures indicated that over-breeding of animals destined for experiments is running at about 80 to 85 per cent. Much more needs to be done about animal experimentation.

We know about the appalling cruelty inflicted on captive animals in the Mary Chipperfield case. We know from the parliamentary all-party animal welfare group of the loopholes in the law that allow circuses to be effectively exempt from the zoo licensing legislation, and the problems that occur as a consequence. We know that winter quarters are exempt. Yet there has been no Government action to deal with these problems.

The Labour document says: The conservatives have said that they would not ban live exports even if they could". That is perfectly true, but it implies that the Labour party would ban them. The Government criticise other parties, but although they may have tightened up conditions on export, the trade continues. I am not saying that live exports can be banned, but that the pre-election leaflet contains a misleading statement.

Consumers should be given more information to enable them to make proper choices. I recently tabled a question on labelling, which was answered by the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I asked if the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would prohibit the description "farm fresh eggs" from being used to describe those originally from battery systems. The answer, briefly, was no. Yet last Sunday the Sunday Express published a poll which showed that a quarter of those polled thought, wrongly, that farm fresh eggs meant free range, when normally it means eggs from battery hens—the very opposite of free range. Only 45 per cent. of those polled correctly said that the term meant nothing in particular. So the labelling is not effective in allowing people to make proper choices on grounds of animal welfare. The Government can and should sort that out; I cannot understand why they have not.

There are proven cases of abuse in animal sanctuaries. They are a legal loophole, effectively exempt from proper controls. No one who runs a sanctuary requires inspection or a licence. After I wrote to the Home Office to ask whether the Government would require operators of animal sanctuaries to be licensed, a Minister replied, to put it briefly, no. The RSPCA has highlighted the example of an animal sanctuary in Crewe where 140 dead or decomposing animals were found this year. Yet no crime had been committed, except under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which provides a fall-back position.

Pet shops are also inadequately controlled by the Government. The RSPCA noted a record 68 cruelty convictions over the past year against pet shops. There were only 26 in the previous year. The RSPCA has called for tighter action. An article in The Times two weeks ago—my cuttings are all recent—was headlined "Pet chain staff brutally killed sick animals", and the Minister will be as horrified as I was by that. Tighter regulation is required.

I do not want to be entirely negative. The Government have taken steps, and they have tried hard on farm animals by pushing through controls on battery hens. The Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 was a private Member's Bill that received their support. They have rightly maintained a hard line on whaling. They have acted correctly over animal experiments, and have pushed the sentient beings aspect of the treaty of Rome. They are also reducing fur farming, moving towards the end of lethal dose 50 testing and outlawing cosmetic testing and the use of certain species.

It would be wrong to say that the Government have done nothing. However, they have not lived up to the promises made in their own leaflet, which was well received before the election and which was written by the Minister himself. The action taken has been too little, too infrequent, too unimportant and too disjointed. If the Government would co-ordinate animal welfare policy better, we might have better and quicker legislation which would be to their credit.

10.17 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue and glad that the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) applied for his Adjournment debate. We need to set straight some issues, particularly concerning the hon. Gentleman's article in the Daily Express. His article was kind to me, and I appreciate that; however, it was the only thing that I appreciated in the article. I was appalled by the hon. Gentleman's tone as he accused the Government of a string of broken promises.

No Government have done more for animal welfare in such a short time. That is not only my opinion—the all-party associate group on animal welfare, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member and officer, takes that view. I am delighted that we have been joined for the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), who does an excellent job of chairing the group. The group is considering several issues, and has produced reports on matters, including circuses, which are being considered by the Government. Animal experimentation is among the issues being considered by a wider group of people so that we can review the process.

The attitude expressed in the hon. Gentleman's article is part of what makes people cynical about politicians. It is easy to criticise, particularly when one is a member of a group such as the Liberal Democrats, who are in no position to deliver. I could also offer the gentle criticism that the Liberal Democrats are not unknown for saying one thing to one person and another to another.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had contributed to animal welfare by introducing a Bill on fur farming. He spoke critically, as though the Government had blocked that aim. We did block the Bill—because it would have banned only the keeping of mink. Other animals, such as arctic foxes, are also kept for their fur. Indeed, that applies to a whole range of species. We blocked the Bill because it would not have worked; it was not up to the job.

The hon. Gentleman talked about co-ordination. He must know that when the Government considered introducing measures to ban fur farming, I invited him and representatives of other opposition parties to talk to me about how to advance matters. When he introduced his Bill, he did not talk to me about how it could be made workable. He, too, needs a few lessons in joined-up government.

I am extremely proud of the Labour leaflet to which the hon. Gentleman referred; no party has proposed as comprehensive a programme as that. However, that programme cannot be delivered overnight; it cannot be delivered in one year. Much of it depends on primary legislation, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the difficulties with that. Of the 30 key pledges in that leaflet, 19 have been implemented, eight are being implemented and only three are pending. That is a pretty good record for two and a half years.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for a committee to co-ordinate animal welfare policy. He knows as well as I do that no one Minister in the structure of the Government has overall responsibility for animal welfare; animal welfare is devolved across several Ministries. That is a problem for the Government. It is easy for the Opposition, because they need only one spokesperson to deal with that issue. However, we are considering the establishment of a committee to co-ordinate and overview the presentation of Government policy and to discuss such matters among ourselves. Ministers have already held such discussions. Each Department is working on the delivery of the pledges in that leaflet and on the improvements in animal welfare to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I was also surprised that, in his Daily Express article, the hon. Gentleman stated that the Government had introduced no Bills on animal welfare. However, as he has just pointed out, the Queen's Speech included a Bill to ban fur farming. That is a radical step, which enjoys much popular support. I would have thought that he would have been aware of the measures on animal welfare in the Queen's Speech, but he made factual errors in his article.

When I read the article and heard the hon. Gentleman's speech this evening, I was reminded of the Monty Python sketch, "What have the Romans ever done for us?". The hon. Gentleman was saying something like that. He said, in effect, "What the Government are doing is disgraceful—apart from what they are doing on animal experimentation and on the treaty of Rome". Perhaps he would be interested to hear about some of the steps that the Government have taken in only two and half years.

Measures include changes to the treaty of Rome—to change the definition of animals as sentient beings. In fairness, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that. We have introduced a general directive on farm animal welfare—a UK initiative that applies throughout the European Union. We have promoted an agreement to phase out battery cages—another UK initiative in the Council of Ministers. We have introduced new welfare codes for sheep. Broiler hens are next on the list; new stocking densities will be among the forthcoming measures.

There will be new guidelines on the welfare of animals at markets and new training standards for those dealing with the transport and handling of livestock. We implemented the Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997 and led calls for welfare issues to be considered by the World Trade Organisation, including such matters as labelling. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there should be international and national measures. We have introduced new standards of veterinary inspection for live exports and tighter regulations on such exports. We took the difficult step of refusing to approve journey plans for long-distance transport in the summer. Some of the incidents uncovered by Compassion in World Farming were quite outrageous, and we drew them to the attention of the Governments concerned. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government gave no approval for such journeys in such temperatures—nor shall we do so.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have introduced a Bill to ban fur farming. We have reached agreement on the banning of religious slaughter anywhere except in a licensed slaughterhouse—we are one of the few countries to do that—and we achieved it with the co-operation of religious minority groups. I am most grateful for their co-operation and hope to build on it in relation to similar welfare issues.

We supported a Bill to deal with puppy farms, as the hon. Gentleman noted. The UK promoted an initiative to ban drift nets on the high seas, where they kill dolphins. There is new protection for marine mammals in UK waters. Basking sharks are protected by CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Through the International Whaling Council, we have supported the ban on the use of electric lamps in whaling.

We sent a new circular to local authorities, reminding them of their powers to inspect and regulate circuses. We have increased resources to monitor and regulate animal experiments. We set up a forum to discuss animal experiments with non-governmental organisations, which was widely welcomed. We have banned the testing of cosmetics on animals—we are one of the few countries to do so. We have banned the use of great apes and dogs in testing. We have banned the lethal dose 50 test and tests on animals for tobacco, alcohol and weapons research.

I do not know the details about goats. I do know that some of the research is related to chemical warfare, which of course has implications for civilians as well as for the military. Sadly, it is the type of research that we must take seriously and, although we are always looking for alternatives, in some cases, at the moment, it is difficult to find alternatives to animals.

The Government drove forward agreement in the European Union on a zoo directive. We set up a zoo forum with all the organisations involved—welfare groups, vets and zoos—to raise standards in zoos. We have banned deer hunting on all Forestry Commission land. We have promised drafting support and Government time to ensure that if a Bill to ban hunting is passed on a free vote, it will have the chance to proceed. It is a private Member's Bill because we are committed to a free vote—I believe that, on such issues, it is absolutely right that there should be a free vote.

We have played a key role internationally, in the Council of Europe, on animal welfare, with some success. People look to us for a lead in the Convention on

International Trade in Endangered Species and in the International Whaling Commission, in which we argue for better international protection of endangered species. We are introducing a Bill to strengthen protection of wildlife sites and measures to implement biodiversity action plans.

So—apart from that, what have the Government done for animal welfare?

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

I appreciate the genuine motivation of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) in asking these questions, with no support whatever from the Conservative Benches. However, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is a question not of "What have the Romans done for us?", but of "What have the Romans not done for us?" There is always more to do.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having gone through what I believe is an impressive record for two and a half years, I would not want to give the impression that we are complacent about what must be done. There is a great deal more to be done in our national legislation and in European legislation. I absolutely accept that, but we cannot do it overnight. However, this is action not words—we are delivering on the promises that we made about what we would do on animal welfare. I am very proud of our record, and I am more than pleased to stand on that record and defend it.

No Government in history have attempted to set up a committee for co-ordinating animal welfare policy. We believe that it is important because we want to make progress on animal welfare. We recognise that we have more to do and we do not want to let the momentum drop on animal welfare issues. Much work remains to be done.

The group is intended to draw together those Ministers who have particular responsibilities for animal welfare. Its purpose will be to oversee the animal welfare work of the different Departments and ensure that their activities contribute coherently to the broader Government strategy, thereby advancing animal welfare standards across all Departments. The Ministers concerned are from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Home Office. I pay tribute to my colleagues in those Departments for the work that they have been doing in pushing these issues forward.

The committee has already met twice, informally, to consider the practicalities. An announcement will be made as soon as arrangements have been made for the devolved Administrations to participate, because we want to involve them as well. If we are to have a national policy on animal welfare—and, of course, it is a national issue—the devolved Administrations should have a say. We want to involve them in the committee.

I very much hope that the hon. Member for Lewes—who, I accept, has a sincere interest in animal welfare—will reflect on what he has said and written, because it is unfair and does not acknowledge what the Government have done in delivering major animal welfare progress on several different fronts: nationally, in Europe and internationally. Even while we have been doing that, we have found time for Ministers to liaise informally more widely among themselves than has ever been the case.

We have a very good record. I stress that I am not complacent about it; I fully accept that there is more to do. I also accept that sometimes things move very slowly in Government, for all sorts of reasons—legal and procedural reasons and consultation with different bodies. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that we now have devolved Administrations. However, I can assure him that we shall make progress by setting up the co-ordinating committee. It is all part of our commitment to improving animal welfare and a record which, I would argue, no Government in history can equal.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.