HC Deb 28 June 2000 vol 352 cc968-84 7.26 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 2, leave out 'or other disposal'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in clause 3, page 2, line 22, leave out `or other disposal'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 26, leave out 'or other disposal'.

Mr. Moss

These amendments, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and I have tabled, relate to clauses 2 and 3. Clause 2 deals with forfeiture orders that a court may make if a person has been convicted of an offence of keeping an animal for fur under clause 1. Clause 2(3) states: a forfeiture order is an order for the forfeiture and destruction or other disposal— those are the key words— of the animals. A similar provision is contained in clause 3(3)(b) and (c), where the words "or other disposal" are used.

The purpose of the amendments is to discover what disposal will be possible, other than the destruction of the animals subject to the forfeiture order. After all, by definition, those provisions will not come into play until fur farming becomes a criminal offence, so there can be no question that the animals will continue to be farmed. Although the Bill refers to animals raised for fur, we know that its thrust is against the 13 mink farms that currently exist in this country. Mink are the only animals likely to come within the ambit of the Bill. Mink are not likely to be regarded as ideal pets for anyone.

We want the Minister to explain why an alternative provision exists, other than for the destruction of those animals. Mink are not only unsuitable to be kept as pets, but they are extremely damaging and dangerous animals in the wild, and significant costs have been involved—

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to read the Hansard reports of the Standing Committee that considered a similar Bill in the previous Session? If he has, he will have found that his questions are answered there.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

So what?

Mr. Moss

We want the Minister to tell us why the Bill still contains those words, despite comments made recently in Committee. We recognise that the Bill relates primarily to mink. We know that they cannot be kept as pets and that they create huge damage if they are released or escape into the environment. The only sensible action to take under a forfeiture order will be to destroy those animals.

7.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I speak in support of the amendments, and I immediately assure the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) that not only have I read the Official Report of our Committee proceedings this year, but I can vaguely recall the Committee proceedings of the previous year.

I support the amendments, because we have still not received an adequate answer to a point that we have raised time and again. The hon. Lady and the Minister might recall that when I moved a similar amendment last year to a similar Bill, I advanced the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) has just made. In reality, we all know that there is no alternative to destruction for the overwhelming majority of animals currently farmed for their fur. Because of that, we are entitled to ask why the Bill contains the words "or other disposal".

On previous occasions, hon. Members who support the Bill, and the cause of which it is an expression, have sometimes intervened with the telling word "chinchilla". I would not claim to be an expert on the habitat and the natural habits of the chinchilla, but it has been offered to us as the reason for the three words "or other disposal" appearing in the Bill. It has been explained that in some circumstances chinchilla can become domestic pets.

That proposition is particularly intriguing. Perhaps chinchilla are capable of becoming domestic pets, but what is the welfare ground for objecting to their being farmed? It would seem that an animal that can adapt itself to domestic circumstances can also adapt to being farmed, if that takes place with the due regulations for its welfare in place. The defence of the words "or other disposal" opens another weakness in the Bill. What are the welfare grounds for the criminalisation of the farming of a particular species of fur-bearing animal?

There is another dimension to the amendments and to the inclusion of the words "or other disposal" that puzzles me. As the House will know, the words stem from a forfeiture order made under clause 2(1), which states that a court may make a forfeiture order in respect of any animals of that description. That provision applies to animals that are farmed primarily for their fur, and it refers to those that are kept by that person when the order is made or which come into his keeping during the relevant period. I am concerned by a court's ability to make a decision as to whether the forfeiture order should be for destruction or for "other disposal". What mechanisms are being created or exist whereby the court will have the information that, let us say, 3,000 chinchilla are kept on a farm in England or Wales and are nurtured for their fur? How can a court know with any degree of certainty whether those 3,000 chinchilla can be forfeited for a purpose other than destruction, and if so, what proportion of them does that apply to? That argument may seem reductio ad absurdum, but much in the Bill is capable of such an interpretation. Lawyers will have a field day when, as is inevitable, the Bill becomes law.

The amendments point to a weakness in clauses 2 and 3. The court will not be able to make a sound or reasonable judgment under the existing mechanisms as to whether another form of disposal is possible. That brings us back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. We know perfectly well that when a forfeiture order is made, the animals will be destroyed. It follows logically that the Bill should contain provision only for destruction and that the words "or other disposal", which appear in clause 2(3) and 3(3)(b) and (c), should be omitted. That would make the Bill tidier, and it would be common sense.

Mr. Gray

I wish to add a few words in support of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), to which my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) so ably spoke. I did not have the good fortune to serve on the Standing Committee considering this Bill, or on that considering the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). Despite the fact that I have read the Hansard reports of both Standing Committees with care, I was not quite as up to date with the arguments as she thought I should have been.

The hon. Lady made an odd intervention that seemed to suggest that if this or any other Bill has been discussed anywhere in Parliament, it is in some way improper to discuss it again on Report.

Maria Eagle

I was not suggesting that it was improper to discuss anything that is in order on Report. I merely pointed out that hon. Members had already been given an answer.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

It was not a satisfactory answer.

Mr. Gray

As my right hon. and learned Friend says, it was not a satisfactory answer. However, the Minister will have an opportunity to remind us of the answer, and we shall have the opportunity to scrutinise his remarks. The hon. Lady intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and suggested that his speech was a waste of time because his question was answered during consideration of an obscure private Member's Bill a year or so ago. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the House operates.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not labour that point, because I called him to speak to the amendment.

Mr. Gray

I am happy to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The provisions are important because they appear to have a sinister undertone. If the Bill brings about the end of fur farming, we must be clear what will happen to the 100,000 mink that are farmed in this nation. If we are not, a Bill that purports to be about animal welfare may turn into one that creates a nightmare for those animals. The House must be clear what will happen if we put mink farmers out of business. What will happen to the mink on their farms? The Bill uses the phrase "or other disposal" and that leaves open the possibility that the animals will be disposed of inappropriately.

I am not convinced that the Bill applies only to mink, although they will form by far the largest category of animals affected. On Second Reading, I asked whether a flock of sheep farmed exclusively to produce sheepskins would be covered by the Bill. The Minister may correct me later, but my understanding is that the conclusion was that it would be illegal to keep a flock of sheep purely for the purpose of producing sheepskin rugs. Indeed, under the Bill it would be equally illegal to keep rabbits solely for their fur.

Given the state of market for mutton, if not for lamb, I understand why it might be possible for a farmer to decide that a flock of sheep should be kept specifically for the purpose of selling their skins. We do not want to get into an argument about the precise price of mutton, but that must be theoretically possible. If I were a farmer with a flock of sheep on the uplands that I knew would be worthless on the livestock market and I saw the Bill going through Parliament, I might declare today that my flock were being kept purely for their fur. The compensation that we hope will be available under the Bill may turn out to be a great deal more generous than the price that the unfortunate farmer would earn for his flock of sheep in the market.

Mr. Hogg

I am listening to my hon. Friend's argument, and I have heard something of the kind before. He faces one problem, of course: the word used in subsection (1)(a) is "fur". Whatever else is true of sheep, they do not produce fur. Does my hon. Friend agree, nevertheless, that that argument demonstrates the nonsense? It probably would be lawful to breed sheep exclusively for wool, but not lawful to breed mink exclusively for fur?

Mr. Gray

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point, but he slips up at the end. It is legal to breed sheep exclusively for the purpose of their wool, which is shorn, and the animal remains alive. If sheep are bred exclusively for the purpose of producing sheepskins, the animals have to be slaughtered in order for the sheepskins to be obtained.

Mr. Hogg

The last thing I want to do is to fall out with my hon. Friend, because basically we are in the same camp. However, the word in the Bill is "fur". Whatever else is the case, sheep do not produce fur. They may produce skins and they may produce wool, but fur they do not produce.

Mr. Gray

That is an interesting point of definition, which is at odds with what the Minister made clear on Second Reading, when he said specifically that in the unlikely event of a flock of sheep being bred for sheepskins, which would require their slaughter, that would come under the terms of the Bill. However, my right hon. and learned Friend may well be right. He speaks as a barrister and charges hundreds of thousands of pounds an hour for just such advice. He may be right that the word "fur" cannot be construed as applying to sheep.

Mr. Hunter

Pursuing my hon. Friend's recollection of the Minister's reply on Second Reading, I suppose that that could also apply to ostrich farming. The bottom has fallen out of the ostrich meat market. Now the birds are farmed for their feathers and, for tourist reasons, for their eggs. If the Minister's answer on Second Reading was correct, the Bill has ominous implications.

Mr. Gray

My hon. Friend makes a useful point. When the Minister responds, perhaps he will tell us what the Bill intends. If it applies purely to mink, he must say so. If there is the possibility that ostrich, deer, sheep or rabbits may come under the terms of the Bill, the precise means of disposal of the animals becomes a matter of key interest to those of us who are fundamentally concerned with animal welfare.

We need to know precisely what will happen to the animals. There are 130,000 mink and they are breeding all the time. People tend to forget that the animals breed like mink, and presumably the population will increase. Other kinds of animals, such as ostriches and sheep, may come within the purview of the Bill, and it is only reasonable that before we send it on its way from this place, we should know with great precision and clarity the means by which the animals are to be disposed of. It is worrying that that should be left to an open expression such as "or other disposal".

For the purpose of the amendments, it is reasonable to assume that we are dealing primarily with mink, although I look forward to the Minister commenting on other animals. Let us focus on what will happen to the mink. We must be clear whether the compensation terms that are the subject of the second group of amendments are dependent on the mink being slaughtered, or on a forfeiture order being issued against the farmer.

The winding down of the mink farms over a number of years, which seems to be the intention behind the Bill, may be sensible, but the mechanism by which that will happen has not been spelled out in the Bill or in the explanatory notes to it. The Minister may want to explain how that winding-down process will happen.

If we are to presume that the end of mink farming will mean the slaughter of the 130,000 existing mink in the UK, it is important that we should know precisely what the means of slaughter will be. Various ways of killing mink are used. The most common are gassing by carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. Hon. Members will know that many people commit suicide by carbon monoxide gassing, directing fumes from the exhaust through the car windows. It is said to be a painless way of committing suicide. Carbon dioxide, I believe, is less attractive, but none the less can be used in some circumstances. Another method is by lethal injection, which may occur in some mink farms, although it is difficult to imagine catching the mink in order to administer a lethal injection.

7.45 pm

The reason for those methods of killing is that the perfection of the pelt is important. The only value of the animal is the pelt. If mink were slaughtered by the conventional means used for other animals, the pelts would be damaged. It is important that those of us who care about animal welfare should know whether the farmers will be required to carry out the slaughtering themselves. At present, most slaughtering of mink takes place on the farm, because the transportation of the mink to a slaughterhouse is considered to be a great deal more harmful to them than being slaughtered on the farm. The first question, then, is whether the slaughter will be carried out on the farm.

Secondly, will the farmers be allowed to sell the pelts produced from that slaughtering? I assume so. If that is the case, presumably the slaughtering must occur by means of CO2 CO or lethal injection. Will the Minister tell us which method of slaughtering he thinks will be most appropriate? Will he consider not just adult animals, but the newly born? Will the newly born be killed by the same means? Will MAFF vets be present to supervise the process? What will happen to the carcases? Will there be proper disposal?

What will happen to the pelts? Will they be sold to British fur dealers, or will that be considered immoral? It is the Minister who changed the thrust of the Bill from animal welfare to morality. If the pelts are not sold to British fur dealers, perhaps there is the strange prospect that they will be sold to foreign fur dealers. Once fur farming is abandoned in this country, foreign fur dealers will make all the money out of it.

The Minister must be specific about what he expects to happen in the process of killing and disposing of the animals. He must also be specific about whether the agreed compensation will be paid if farmers carry out the slaughter voluntarily, or only if they are required to do so under the forfeiture orders. In the latter case, presumably, the farmers will do nothing until the forfeiture orders are served on them. That will not necessarily produce the most orderly or humane way of carrying out the slaughter.

We need answers to various questions about how the animals will be killed, the means by which they will be disposed of, and what will happen to the pelts thereafter. Those are the large questions about the slaughtering process which we believe, unwelcome though it is, will be the result of the Bill. If not, the words "or other disposal" become relevant.

What else could be the fate of those 130,000 mink? We are not sure whether they will be killed by CO2 by carbon monoxide poisoning, by having their little throats slit or by being chucked into a ditch. We are not sure what will happen to them. We must be clear about that. If the Minister makes use of the expression "or other disposal", what does he have in mind?

When Lord Burns considers what will happen to foxhounds if, unfortunately, there were a ban on fox hunting in this country, he suggests that the redundant foxhounds could be re-homed, as he calls it. I am not sure whether that is a word. Is the Minister considering the possible re-homing of mink? I hope not. Perhaps he will require the farmers to keep the mink until they grow old and die, in which case what does he propose to do about all the breeding that the mink will do in the meantime? Maybe he is considering releasing them into the wild. That is a solution that has been put forward by a number of his friends—his past leads me to think that they are his friends—in the more extreme animal welfare lobby. They have released mink into the wild with catastrophic consequences. We see on rivers throughout the country what happens when that happens.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

As I have named the Minister, perhaps unfairly, I shall give way to him.

Mr. Morley

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw. I have spoken out on many occasions against illegal activities, including the deliberate release of mink into the wild. That has been my long-standing position, and I have been robust about it.

Mr. Gray

If that is what the Minister understood by my remarks, I withdraw. I would not for a moment suggest that he condoned such illegal activities. I know that he has been robust in saying that they must not happen. I also know that he has a long and distinguished record and career in the animal welfare and rights lobby. My precise words were that his friends in the animal rights lobby do the things that I have described. I was not suggesting that he did. If that was his interpretation of my remarks, I apologise. I know perfectly well that he would not take such action.

Perhaps the Minister would not suggest that mink should be released into the wild, but there are certainly those on the more extreme wing of the animal rights movement who would. If that were to happen, I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House, and those on both sides of the argument, know how catastrophic the results would be for native wildlife. I hope that the more extreme voices will not be heard.

Perhaps mink could be sold alive. There are those, perhaps the farmers themselves, who would say, "There are perfectly good fur farmers 20 miles away across the channel in Calais. I shall transport my 100,000 live mink in cages to Calais." Will that be allowed? We no longer allow the export of live calves. Are we to allow the live export of mink? I do not think that we should. The carrying around of mink in cages on lorries is probably less humane than slaughtering them on the farm. That is the view that has been taken by slaughterhouses. I do not think that mink should be exported, and certainly not to Calais. Even less should they be exported to Russia, where much mink farming continues. Similarly, they should not be exported to Canada.

The words "or other disposal" presumably allow the possibility of live export of mink. I suspect that the Minister should ensure that the wording of the clause is made much more precise so that we know exactly what is intended to happen to mink. On Third Reading, I shall talk about the more general principle, but I am not convinced that there is a moral argument in favour of banning fur farming. There may be an animal welfare argument in favour of it, but I suspect that that can better be answered by laying down regulations for the better protection of the animals in their cages, as we did for pigs, for example, than by the enactment of the Bill.

If the Bill is to become law and if we are to see the 130,000 mink now alive disposed of, it is extremely important that we and others who care about animal welfare should know precisely what the Government have in mind for their disposal. Are they to be carried overseas in ships or aeroplanes? Are they to be slaughtered by humane means or by less than humane means on the farm? Are they to be transported to slaughterhouses to be disposed of? What is to happen to the pelts and the carcases?

These are issues that may be dismissed by those who are interested only in the so-called moral issues, but they are important to farmers and to those of us who truly care about animal welfare. That is why these amendments are more probing than anything else. What does "or other disposal" mean? What lies behind the phrase? What is in the Minister's mind? What other means of disposal could there be? Are those other means of disposal acceptable to a humane society? I suspect that they may not be.

I suspect that the Bill would be a great deal better drafted, clearer, and better from the point of view of the welfare of the unfortunate mink, if the words "or other disposal" were struck out in the three places where they currently appear.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Returning to this subject is rather like the end of term. Several Members now in their places considered the earlier private Member's Bill, served on the Committee considering this Bill, and have also considered it at other stages. It has been rather like a dialogue of the deaf, and now we are all reassembled. My hon. Friends and I are making same old points, which, sadly, have not sunk in with the Government draftsmen, and the Bill is as bad as it ever was.

I shall begin by considering what will be caught by the forfeiture order, and perhaps clarify the matter for my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I suggest that we consider the problems with which magistrates will be faced if the Bill becomes an Act. The starting point is the definition of fur when deciding where the forfeiture order comes from.

Clause 1(1) states: A person is guilty of an offence if he keeps animals solely or primarily … for slaughter … for the value of their fur. I would go to the definition in the Official Journal of the European Communities.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot discuss that matter under the amendments, which relate just to the words "or other disposal". They are narrow amendments.

Mr. Paterson

I am trying to define which animals will be caught by the requirement in clause 2(3), Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are discussing an amendment, not a clause. As I have said, the amendment is narrow. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have a glance at the amendment and then speak to it.

Mr. Paterson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The amendments are clear in that they remove the words "or other disposal" from one place in clause 2 and two in clause 3. Surely it is important to define which animals will be caught by the Bill. There is some misunderstanding about what counts as fur. We must consider the problem of a magistrate who has to interpret this measure once it becomes law. When faced with a possible prosecution, how will the magistrate define which animals will be caught by the Act?

Is it sensible to let the clause stand as it is, and provide for either destruction or other means of disposal? Or, as we suggest in the amendment, should destruction be the only solution? I can refer to a lengthier definition, possibly on Third Reading. The definition of "raw fur skins" means not only the skins of mink and rabbit but those of various types of lamb. Following your instruction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall go into these matters at greater length later in our consideration of the Bill.

There is no problem in disposing of some sorts of lamb by other means. I do not see a problem in selling astrakhans, broadtails or caracals. We can go into that later. A hole in the Bill is that it would be possible to raise a bovine animal for the value of its hide if it had fur on it. The Minister shakes his head. I accept that we have had these disputes in previous discussions. However, as the Bill is drafted, it would be possible to raise a bovine animal such as the belted Galloway, which would possibly have a very valuable hide. That would come under the definition in chapter 43 of the Official Journal of the European Communities. Again, the Minister shakes his head. However, he is wrong. It is an unlikely event, but such an animal could be covered by the Bill.

In any event, I would let the clause stand for the disposal of bovine animals or ovine animals—sheep or goats. I do not see a problem in moving them on. However, we cannot allow mink or smaller farmed animals to be disposed of elsewhere. There is great skill in looking after mink. As we know, there is a huge raft of legislation that binds current farmers. We know that there are only 11 of them. They do their job with great diligence and skill, and there have been very few escapes, apart from unnecessary releases caused by animal activists. It is incumbent upon the farmers to ensure that the animals do not escape. If anyone else is involved, an escape is possible. I have seen horrendous damage done by escaped mink in the borders of Wales where I live. The water rat population has been virtually eliminated and ground nesting birds have been destroyed. This has probably been done by mink which at some stage have escaped from fur farms.

I have great confidence that the 11 fur farmers who remain are highly competent and skilled at their job and well qualified to organise the destruction of the mink. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire discussed various methods of destruction. As I understand it, every mink farmer in this country gases the mink. The process is extremely swift, and dramatically more humane than what we put cattle through, transporting them long distances under the Government's over-30-months scheme, for example. The mink is transferred from its cage to a small box a few feet away and rendered unconscious within seconds. I think that it dies in under a minute. It is a very swift process.

8 pm

Mr. Gray

For the sake of accuracy, may I say that I think that three methods are permitted under the law: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and lethal injection, although I am not sure that any of the farmers use that last method?

Mr. Paterson

My hon. Friend is correct, as always. Those methods are permitted, but all the fur farmers to whom I have talked have said that a carbon dioxide gas box is their preferred method. They are experts and the job is done properly and humanely. The mink hardly know what is happening to them. The farmers have all the facilities for skinning the carcases, retaining the pelts and disposing of the offal and the bodies.

It is most important that those people should be responsible for the disposal of the mink, as transporting them elsewhere and letting less skilled people get involved, however well-meaning they may be, would not be right, because they would not have the necessary experience or equipment.

It is vital for the smaller animals—mink and fox, in particular, although no foxes are farmed here at present—to be destroyed on the spot by those who have looked after them in the preceding years. No one else is qualified, and any other solution could lead to escapes, which can have devastating consequences for the environment, as we have seen.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I want to raise two points that I raised in Committee—people feeling so desperate that they release the animals into the wild, and the sale of animals into Europe where there is no protection and from where the pelts could be reimported into this country. That would be an act of folly involving a great deal of taxpayers' money.

I want to remind the House of what the Bill provides for, as that will set the scene and explain why the people to whom the provisions apply may be in a pretty desperate state. They will have committed an offence, as provided in clause 1(1) and (2); they will have been fined by the court; the court will have issued a forfeiture order, as provided in clause 3; and an appeal may have taken place. The poor mink farmer will have had considerable legal procedures deployed against him by the time that the destruction of the animals is ordered. We need to be sure when we pass legislation that it is crystal clear and nothing is left to chance. The words "or other disposal", which the amendments would delete, leave matters to chance.

When the courts have acted as I have described and the fanner has been fined up to £20,000, as provided in clause 1, he will then, under clause 3, have lost all his rights to the animals, which I assume means that he will get no compensation, yet he will be faced with the costs of disposal. I am very concerned that, under such circumstances, a desperate farmer or his friends may simply say, "Well, we've gone through all this, so let's just let them out."

When some animal rights activists released some mink, the effects on the local wildlife were absolutely devastating. Mink are some of the most vicious animals in this country. I may be one of the few people in the House who has been close to them, and I can tell hon. Members that they are absolutely vicious. When they are cornered, they take no hostages and can do very considerable damage to a human being.

Mr. Gray

I have enjoyed listening to my hon. Friend, but I must take issue with him. I can imagine no circumstances under which mink farmers, who are responsible and sensible people, would release their mink into the wild. He is wide of the mark in suggesting that. The people who would do that are the animal rights activists, who have no conscience and no control.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but a mink farmer who has lost all his rights to compensation, has been fined and issued with a forfeiture order, and will be involved in considerable expense, may well be tempted to let the animals out rather than foot the bill for their destruction.

I was describing the effects on wildlife and the danger to human life that would follow.

Mr. Hunter

I want, with a constituency point, to encourage my hon. Friend to pursue that line. Mink released in the south of Hampshire have made their way north to the Basingstoke canal in the vicinity of the village of Greywell, and the devastation being caused to wildlife there is quite horrific. I was especially disturbed when a well-known animal welfare supporter in the area wrote to my local paper extolling the virtues of mink living in the wild. Some people's attitude on the issue is incomprehensible.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I totally agree. Any animal lover who wants to see mink living uncontrolled in the wild really does not understand them. They are absolutely vicious creatures and will kill other wild animals and pose a distinct threat to any human being who gets near them.

I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), but if there is the remotest chance of the Bill encouraging the release of mink, we should be extremely careful about it. I accept that the Bill's main purpose is to ensure that the farming of mink ceases, so the danger will also cease over a period.

My other fear is that the words "or other disposal" could allow the animals to be sold into Europe, where mink farms exist perfectly legally. The Minister said: I might add that there is nothing to stop farmers winding down their businesses immediately if they so choose. Disposing of their stock will not preclude them from the compensation scheme. He was talking about a time before the forfeiture order is issued. I assume that once the order is issued, farmers will not be entitled to any compensation, but perhaps he will clarify that when he winds up.

The important part of the Minister's comments is: It would certainly be legal to sell breeding animals—abroad, for example—in the winding-down period, although farmers would not be able to claim compensation for the livestock because they would have received money for it. Of course that is right. After the winding-down period, of course, it would be illegal to have those animals.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 6 June 2000; c. 82.] Although it would be illegal to have the animals, farmers would have them—otherwise, the court would not have issued a forfeiture order. The court would have to consider how best to sell the animals and might well decide that it would be perfectly legal to export them to be kept in Europe. It would be totally unacceptable if we used taxpayers' money to compensate for the cessation of such businesses only to find that they were carried on in Europe and that the pelts, either raw or in clothing, were exported to this country.

Mr. Hogg

In fact, the animals would not need to be exported so far. Under the "other disposal" provision, the animals could be exported to elsewhere in the United Kingdom to which the provisions of the Bill do not apply, such as Northern Ireland.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for raising that point, too. Such action is a distinct possibility as the Bill covers only England and Wales.

When I raised the point in Committee, the Minister replied that it would be up to the Scottish Parliament to make provision in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Assembly to make provision in Northern Ireland. There is a distinct danger that unless we get this legislation right tonight, farmers who wish to remain in business will relocate their operations in those provinces. I cannot see any reason why they would not be compensated for going out of business, but could then set up another organisation in Scotland or Northern Ireland for the same animals. A little nonsense is creeping into the Bill and the Minister must say what steps he will take to stop the exploitation of such lacunae.

Mr. Gray

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow for a second time and shall try not to do so again. He has brought to mind a peculiar thing. Hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies will vote to close mink farms in England, yet, as my hon. Friend describes, it is perfectly possible for the same mink to be exported to their Scottish constituencies, where fur farming will continue unless the Scottish Parliament decides otherwise. Is not that absurd?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would rule me out of order if I followed my hon. Friend down that path, but devolution creates all sorts of problems and anomalies. I have described the possible lacunae. Somebody could move their operations, perhaps under another guise, to Scotland or Northern Ireland, and perhaps not claim compensation for the animals because they retained, sold or were deemed to have sold the animals, and nevertheless claim compensation for clearing land, loss of business, good will, loss of earnings and all the things that we shall discuss in the next debate on compensation provisions.

Amendment No. 2 is interesting. The Minister will have to tell us very clearly what he has in mind in including the words "or other disposal". There will be circumstances that none of my hon. Friends or myself has thought of in which animals could be disposed of. I have no doubt that people in desperate circumstances will think of all sorts of ways. They may take advice from expensive learned friends, such as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), and find ways to exploit the Bill. Therefore, it is ever more important that we save them the trouble of doing so and make the Bill clear.

Mr. Paterson

On my hon. Friend's comment that the chances are that farmers will move elsewhere, the only known case is in Austria, where Mr. Pfeiffer moved from lower Austria 30 miles over the border to the Czech Republic.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. It is interesting, if not directly related to the amendments.

The point at issue is that we are depriving people of their livelihood and therefore need a Bill that is utterly fair and clear. Unless it is, there will rapidly be a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights. That is all the more likely if, having drawn attention to the point, the Minister is not crystal clear in his answer. I have no doubt that when the European Court considers whether such a case should be brought before it, it will look carefully at the account of this debate, how the matter was raised, precisely what was said, and the Minister's reply. I look forward with interest to the Minister's reply, and to his response to the amendments on compensation.

8.15 pm
Mr. Hogg

I begin with an apology for arriving late. I was attending the puppy show of the Blankney foxhounds. I wanted to do so in order to show my support for fox hunting. When I saw the puppies and reflected that, if a Bill on fox hunting is ever passed, they will not live their natural lives, I felt absolute outrage.

It is entirely right that the House should press the Minister on exactly what is meant in the Bill. My approach is a somewhat narrow one. I begin by asking myself what we are discussing—it is the forfeiture and disposal order. That relates exclusively to the order that will be made by a court on conviction. Therefore, the question that we need to address is what meaning the court will attach to the phrase "other disposal"? The fact that mink farmers might or might not release their animals into the wild is nothing to do with the clause. The only question is what it means for the court.

The principal forfeiture and destruction order is fairly clear. It is the ability to order the death of the animals. That is not very obviously in the interests of animal welfare. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of mink will no doubt be put down as a result of the Bill if it is enacted. I do not understand how that can be justified in animal welfare terms, but I shall address that matter on Third Reading.

What does the phrase "other disposal" mean? Clause 1(1) determines that the offence is keeping animals for certain specified purposes. It follows that, if a person is keeping an animal of the kind in question other than for those specified purposes, he or she is not committing an offence. Therefore, the phrase "other disposal" is put there to enable the court to make an order disposing of the animals by entrusting them to a person or groups of persons who can hold them otherwise than in breach of clause 1.

I suppose that what is being contemplated is that a court might wish to make an order directing that the animals be held by a zoo, or that somebody might apply for the animals to be entrusted to them to hold them as pets, and in those circumstances an offence would not be committed. Or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said, they might be exported to some country outside the United Kingdom. Those are theoretical options.

We are entitled to say to the Minister that we want to know what is envisaged by the phrase "other disposal". There is a theoretical justification for giving courts such latitude. It may well be that it is sensible to give the animals to a zoo, but it would be helpful for us to be told what is contemplated by the phrase "other disposal". At the moment, other than exporting the animals, giving them away as pets, entrusting them to a zoo or using them for animal experimentation—another possibility on which I should like to hear the Minister—it is difficult to see what is the scope of the phrase, so let us have some guidance.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My right hon. and learned Friend has thought of another possibility—that the animals might be given away as pets. Given what I have said about their viciousness, would not a court be acting somewhat irresponsibly if it were to consider that, because mink are wholly unsuitable for that purpose?

Mr. Hogg

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the Bill does not preclude that happening. The Bill is thoroughly bad and I shall say so on Third Reading, but if we are to have it, it is difficult to see why anything other than a destruction order is available to the court. The phrase "other disposal" admits of too much uncertainty and does not give sufficient clarity to the courts. I hope that the amendments will be accepted and that the phrase will be removed. I doubt that it has an effective purpose and I suspect that it produces a lack of clarity, which we would regret.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) referred to the dangers of the escape of such animals into the wild. As anyone who knows anything about the countryside knows full well, that is a serious point. If the court makes an order for "other disposal"—not a destruction order but another disposal order—that increases the prospect of the animals escaping into the wild. If, for example, the court makes an order enabling a third party to keep the animals otherwise than for the purposes in clause 1, which is perfectly lawful, who is to say that the animals will be safely contained in their new home? They might escape. Or if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold said, the order is for export elsewhere, the animals might do a bunk on route, so we will find ourselves faced with escaped animals.

If I am honest, I am bound to say that this is an odious little Bill. It is political correctness run mad, and I hope that the other place kicks it out. Despite its being an odious little Bill, we must give it serious consideration because it is before the House, but the points made by my hon. Friends on the amendment are sound.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Would my right hon. and learned Friend, who is much more qualified than I am in this respect, care to comment on the last point that I made in my speech—that we need to pass clear legislation in the House, otherwise the challenge in the European Court of Human Rights will be all the greater?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has a point, but I am rather surprised that the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights. I observe that there is a declaration of compatibility, but the Parliamentary Secretary will know full well that article 1 of the first protocol—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are considering the amendments to the Bill, not the Bill in its entirety. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is now dealing with the merits of the Bill.

Mr. Hogg

I was responding to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I should have stopped the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) then.

Mr. Hogg

I should not have given way to my hon. Friend, but it was an enticing question.

I can understand the theoretical purpose for the other disposal order. There may be a theoretical cause for it. The Minister must amplify the theoretical cause with illustrations. Giving the animals to a zoo, transporting them abroad or allowing people to hold them as pets in circumstances not in breach of clause 1(1) are theoretical possibilities, but they are pretty bad ones. In truth, the only appropriate order is a destruction order. If I have the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall speak on the matter on Third Reading, but I am bound to say that this is a pretty awful Bill.

Mr. Morley

The debate was not entirely illuminating. The provisions are simple, and the answers to some of the questions are straightforward. The intention is to give the courts the discretion to deal with the disposal of animals, depending on the circumstances of each case.

Most hon. Members have focused on mink, and they are right that humane destruction would be the most appropriate way of dealing with mink in the circumstances that we have considered. In answer to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), any destruction would be carried out in accordance with current regulations, which already govern the humane destruction of mink. There will be no change to that.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was a little confused. We are considering the time when the Bill is in force, and people who deliberately break the law by keeping animals to farm their fur. We are not discussing existing fur farmers, who have a period in which to wind down their business, and will carry on in the usual way under current regulations, which safeguard the welfare of mink.

The only realistic option for mink is probably humane destruction, but other species may be caught by the provisions, and other options may exist for them. It is therefore appropriate to give the courts some discretion to deal with each case on its merits. They will be advised by Ministry officials from the state veterinary service or the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency about the most suitable option. Some organisations or groups might wish to take the animals.

Hon. Members asked about chinchilla, which could possibly be farmed for fur. Chinchilla can make suitable pets. Their case would depend on the number of animals and the availability of disposal. It is appropriate that the courts should be able to exercise their discretion so that the individual merits of each case are considered.

I remind Conservative Members that one of the problems with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989, which the previous Administration introduced, was that it was too narrow. That Act gave the courts no discretion, or any way of taking individual circumstances into account. Destruction of the animal was the only option available under the Dangerous Dogs Act. We all know the problems that that caused, and why the legislation had to be amended to include the sort of discretion for which the Bill provides. Under the Bill, courts can consider each case on its merits and determine the most appropriate course of action.

It would not be appropriate to export mink that were seized under a forfeiture order. Humane destruction is clearly the most appropriate option in such circumstances.

Mr. Hogg

The Under-Secretary used the words, "would not be appropriate". Does he claim that such action would be unlawful?

Mr. Morley

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the courts. However, I cannot envisage circumstances in which the courts would deem the export of live mink to be appropriate disposal. That does not seem rational, and I do not believe that the courts would consider that option.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The Under-Secretary was courteous in Committee, and he has been courteous now. I cited Committee Hansard, because the Under-Secretary said that it was perfectly legal to sell the breeding animals in the winding-down period. No regulations would prevent their export to Europe in that time. Why, therefore, should it not be legal for the court to make a forfeiture order and have the animals exported?

Mr. Morley

There is a clear difference. It is theoretically legal to export to Europe now—I cannot envisage circumstances in which fur farmers would want to do that—because until the Bill is enacted, there is a winding-down period for existing fur farmers. In that period, the farmers will continue with a lawful business, and in such a business there are no restraints on trade. If fur farmers chose to sell animals abroad in that winding-down period, they would be free to do that. When the Bill becomes law, the keeping of animals for fur will be illegal and it would be illogical to allow the animals to be exported. It would undermine the whole point and thrust of the legislation.

8.30 pm
Mr. Gray

Let us imagine a fur farm in Northumberland with a forfeiture order against it and, across the border in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament have decided not to make the practice illegal. Surely it would be sensible for the English court to decide that the animals should be exported 10 miles up the road to Scotland where they could still be legally farmed.

Mr. Morley

No, it would not be sensible, not least because the Scottish Parliament is introducing parallel legislation to deal with the matter. I understand some of the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), and one or two were sensible. However, some of the points made in the debate drifted into realms of hypothetical fantasy. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, because of the fair points that have been made about the nature of mink, the only option for the court would be humane destruction. However, we should give the court some flexibility to deal with each case on individual merits.

Mr. Moss

The Minister has mentioned only one other species so far—the chinchilla. It was also the only other species he came up with in Committee.

Mr. Morley


Mr. Moss

The Minister is right—he also mentioned hamsters in Committee, but I have not come across anyone raising hamsters for their fur and nor am 1 likely to do so. I am surprised that the Minister has dragged out the hamster illustration again. Let us be honest about the Bill and admit that it is aimed directly at mink farming.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend seeks other examples, but he will know that the Prime Minister has created many peers who wear robes trimmed with ermine. I suggest that one other animal likely to be affected by the Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)


Mr. Hogg

The animal used for ermine—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will sit down when I am on my feet and will not ignore the Chair. He has already been spoken to by the Chair for roaming outside the scope of the amendment, and his latest attempt is a gross abuse.

Mr. Moss

We rule out the hamster illustration, so the only other example cited by the Minister is the chinchilla. As far as I know, there are no fur farms for ermine in this country. The Bill is aimed directly at mink and, with the Minister's assurance that his advisers will always recommend destruction of the mink in the right circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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