HC Deb 15 May 2000 vol 350 cc40-77

Order for Second Reading read.

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

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

The whole history of fur farming in the United Kingdom has not been a very happy one. Since its introduction, it has been dogged by escapes from fur farms that have resulted in very large public sums being spent on eradication programmes. The coypu eradication programme cost about—in today's figures—£4 million. Attempts to eradicate mink after escapes from mink farms, when they were established in the United Kingdom, cost about £1 million. Therefore, about £5 million has been spent on trying to deal with the consequences of escaped animals from United Kingdom fur farms. With the associated escapes have come environmental damage, damage to indigenous wildlife, damage to stock and feeding birds, and the unquantified cost of trying to deal with them by trapping and control.

A range of welfare concerns, about how animals are reared and kept in fur farms, has been expressed by the Government's own advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and in independent research. There are also complaints from people who live adjacent to fur farms about smells, nuisance and flies.

The history of fur farms is not happy. The Government announced the introduction of the Bill on 22 November to fulfil our pre-election pledge to prohibit fur farming.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I acknowledge the strength of what the Minister has said, particularly in respect of the New Forest. The end to that environmental hazard is welcome, as is the end to a cruel practice. However, will he explain why, to achieve that desirable end, it is considered necessary to introduce into law what many of us feel is an obnoxious principle: that it is acceptable to farm for food, but not for pelt or fur? Could not the desirable objectives have been achieved at a lower cost?

Mr. Morley

No. I am well aware of the problems in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As long as fur farms exist, there is no guarantee that there will not be further escapes and further environmental damage for all sorts of reasons. That is why his local authority strongly supports the Bill and is keen for it to progress. The leader of his local council, who is a Conservative, has written to me in support of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Are we to understand that the Government justify their proposals on economic and environmental grounds and that they have abandoned the argument of public morality?

Mr. Morley

The principal reason is public morality. I have been rather generous in taking interventions before I have been able to set out the case and our justification for the ban.

A combination of factors make fur farming a matter of public morality. We believe that it is wrong to keep animals solely or primarily to slaughter for their fur. Fur farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life. Animals should not be destroyed or bred for destruction without a sufficient justification of public benefit. Our detailed consultation and the many representations that we received from the public and other organisations showed that the majority of the public share that view.

Fur farming is distinct from food production. If the primary purpose of keeping animals is the production of food, that provides a sufficient public benefit to justify breeding them for slaughter. That is so even if the production of fur or hide is a secondary purpose to the keeping of the animal. That does not mean that high standards of welfare should not be applied in any rearing system.

Animals are live creatures. It is one thing to breed and kill them for food, because we have to eat to survive. In the balance between respect for the dignity of animal life and our survival, we put our survival first. We do our best to make sure that the animals that we slaughter for food are well treated.

Animals should not be killed for the sake of it or just for the business of stripping their skins off their backs—not in the 21st century. It is not the Government's philosophy. We also share the concern that many have for the welfare of farm mink. That is not our principal motivation for introducing the Bill, but we have sought to ensure the highest possible standards as long as fur farming continues.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Denmark, Finland, Italy and Spain have made observations and France has volunteered a detailed opinion about the Bill. When do the Government intend publicly to reply to those representations?

In the interim, will the Minister cease to advance the public morality argument, in the evident absence of a credible precedent for its use? Would not it be helpful in informing the debate if the Government published the legal advice they have received that apparently enables the Minister confidently to assert that the Bill conforms to the European convention on human rights?

Mr. Morley

I can certainly repeat that assertion. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that it is a convention that the Government do not publish their legal advice—a convention to which Conservative Governments have adhered in the past. The Government's response to the observations he mentioned is imminent, and we shall ensure that the European Union receives that response. While it is true that France submitted a detailed observation, including objections to the Bill, the hon. Gentleman did not mention that the Netherlands has made a submission that supports our position and backs our arguments. I stress that it is the Government's view that the Bill is compatible with the treaty of Rome and the European convention on human rights.

The Bill will make it a criminal offence, in England and Wales, to keep animals solely or primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur or for breeding progeny for such slaughter. It will provide a winding-down period extending at least until the end of 2002, and will allow the Minister to make a scheme providing for compensation for certain categories of loss. I understand that the Scottish Executive will introduce legislation to ban fur farming in Scotland. Consultation in Scotland revealed unanimous support for such a measure.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Minister is responsible for ensuring that a raft of European Union and British law on the welfare of caged animals is properly enforced. How can it be that rabbit A, kept in one cage under those regulations, can be raised and slaughtered for its fur legally, but—if the Bill is passed—the keeping of rabbit B, in an adjacent cage under the same conditions and monitored by the Minister, would attract a £20,000 fine for the person responsible, if he or she were caught? How can that possibly be logical?

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman takes a simplistic view of the matter, which is unfortunately not unusual. It is our intention to end the fur farming of all species in this country. Cases in which the animal is not farmed predominantly for their fur, but in which the fur or hide is a by-product, will not be affected by the Bill. If we argue that we are against the breeding of animals for fur on moral grounds, we cannot have exceptions for certain species. The legislation must apply to all species. In the past, some species farmed for fur have clearly been kept in conditions that were not acceptable under any welfare standards in the modern age. Other species could be farmed in the future in this country, unless we have such a prohibition in place. Therefore, there is a sound and logical argument for applying the Bill to all fur farming in the UK.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The Minister will be aware that because of the current state of the sheepmeat market some sheep are kept specifically for the purpose of producing sheepskin. Will that be banned?

Mr. Morley

I am not aware that sheep are skinned in the production of wool. The skins are a by-product of the slaughter industry, and sheep are not kept predominantly for that purpose. Sheep have no bearing on the Bill.

At present, only mink are farmed solely or primarily for their fur in the UK. There are currently 13 licensed mink farms in England and none in Wales. Other animals which can be farmed for their fur include arctic fox, chinchilla, raccoon dog, sable and fisher.

It is not intended to prohibit the keeping of animals where the primary purpose is the production of meat, with fur production as a secondary purpose, as is generally the case, for example, with the farming of rabbits, as I have already stressed. Nor—in response to the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)—will the Bill ban the production of fur or wool which can be clipped or shorn without slaughtering the animal, for example, the fur of angora rabbits or alpacas.

Mr. Gray

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, and I am sorry that I did not express myself more clearly earlier. I was not referring to sheep that are shorn for their wool, but to the substantial number of sheep that are kept specifically to be slaughtered so that their skin can be used for such things as sheepskin coats. I hope that I have spelt that out sufficiently clearly for the Minister, who obviously did not understand me before. Will that practice be banned by the Bill?

Mr. Morley

I am not aware of any farmer who keeps sheep with the primary or sole purpose of producing fleeces. Sheep predominantly are reared for meat. They are sent to slaughterhouses, and fleeces are a by-product. In that respect, they will not be caught by the Bill.

The import and export of fur products will not be affected by the Bill, as they re outside its scope.

The Bill has seven clauses. Clause 1 creates a primary offence of keeping animals primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur, or for breeding progeny for such slaughter. Moreover, I can tell the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that a sheep farm set up for no other purpose than to produce fleece coats would certainly be prohibited by the Bill.

It is immaterial whether the keeper or another person carries out the slaughter. Clause 1 also creates the secondary offence of knowingly causing or permitting another person to keep animals for the prohibited purpose. Both offences can be committed by a company or an individual.

A person who keeps animals partly for slaughter for the value of their fur and partly for another purpose will be guilty of the offence only if slaughter is the primary purpose for keeping the animals. Under no circumstances that I know of does that happen in relation to sheep.

The definition of "value" is the commercial value of the fur. We anticipate that there will be relatively few cases in which a person is guilty of the secondary offence. An example would be where the director of an overseas company might have caused the company to have committed that offence. For both the primary and the secondary offences, the penalty on conviction is a fine not exceeding £20,000.

Clause 2 gives the court power to make an order for the forfeiture and destruction or other disposal of the animals following conviction for either the primary or secondary offence. A person claiming to have an interest in the animals may apply to the court to resist the making of a forfeiture order.

Clause 3 deals with the effect of a forfeiture order. It provides a right of appeal to the Crown court for anyone claiming to have an interest in the animals being forfeited.

Clause 4 gives a power of entry and inspection to enable the evidence of an offence to be gathered, and gives a power to enter premises to carry out a forfeiture order. Intentionally obstructing or delaying any person in the exercise of either power of entry will be an offence. The maximum penalty for such offences will be a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, which at present is £1,000.

Clause 5 requires the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a scheme for paying compensation to fur farmers who incur losses as a result of the banning of fur farming. The clause also allows the National Assembly for Wales to make a compensation scheme.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister will recall that he and I discussed compensation and other matters in relation to the original Bill. Will he elaborate on that point later in his speech?

Mr. Morley

I can deal with that point now. The original Bill was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I pay tribute to the work that she did in bringing the Bill forward and exploring many of the arguments. The original Bill did not provide for compensation for income forgone. When that Bill was being considered in Committee, I gave an undertaking that the Government would consider an amendment that would not rule out the provision of compensation for income forgone. Provision for potential compensation for income forgone has been made available as part of the detail of the Bill.

Mr. Burnett

Given the draconian nature of Bill, surely it is only fair that people should be compensated on an arm's-length basis? That means that they would receive the market price for a business sold as a going concern.

Mr. Morley

The Bill contains provision to set up a compensation scheme. There will, of course, be consultation with interested parties about the nature of the scheme, and about how it should be constructed. There will also be provision for independent arbitration, and a reference to the Lands Tribunal. I think that that covers the hon. Gentleman's point.

We are trying to be as fair as possible about this. That is why the Fur Breeders Association of the United Kingdom has written to the Government saying that although the abolition of fur farming would not of course be its preferred option, it wants the Bill to progress. There has been an element of doubt and uncertainty in relation to their members' businesses, which, it is quite right and proper, should be addressed as speedily as possible by the House.

Mr. Burnett

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way again and to right hon. and hon. Members for their patience. Some of the dwellings on fur farms are covered by planning conditions restricting the use of those dwellings as ancillary to fur farms or agricultural use. Will the Minister confirm that instructions will be given from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to local planning authorities to allow them to overcome the restrictions and be sympathetic to lifting them?

Mr. Morley

This is rather a detailed point which has to do with the structure plans and planning priorities of local planning authorities. They will have their own views on this matter. There are alternative uses for fur farms, which are agricultural. Therefore, the provision for the house would not change in relation to some of those uses.

I want to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not doubt that once we start detailed consultation on the compensation schemes, planning will be discussed. I will be more than willing to consider and discuss that issue to assist existing fur farmers in diversifying into other businesses. I can give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking.

Mr. Hunter

I recall that in the Standing Committee considering the private Member's Bill last year, the Minister stated that detailed discussion of compensation was under way. Are we to understand that there has been no advance on that discussion in the light of the failed private Member's Bill last year?

Mr. Morley

No, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not recall saying that detailed discussion was under way. There cannot be detailed discussion on compensation without this Bill, which puts in place the mechanism for compensation. This is an enabling Bill: the compensation scheme will follow, after statutory consultation and the laying of a statutory instrument. We cannot have detailed discussion until then. It is certainly true that we have been giving thought to how it will work, but we cannot finalise the details until we have had a chance to have a proper discussion and consultation with those who are affected.

Such a scheme will provide for compensation to be paid, whether or not the fur farmers are still in business when the ban comes into force. The details of the compensation package are not contained in the Bill, as I said, but will be the subject of secondary legislation once the Bill becomes law. Only licensed fur farming businesses in existence on 2 March 1999 will be eligible to claim compensation. Fur farmers were reminded on 30 November 1999 of that cut-off date, which was originally announced when my hon. Friend the Member for Garston presented her private Member's Bill in the previous Session. No compensation will be payable for expenditure on assets acquired after that date. Existing fur farmers have been notified of that.

It is envisaged that the scheme will be used to pay compensation where assets cease to have a use and the investment cannot be recouped by resale. I will decide whether to compensate for income after the consultation exercise, and the form that compensation will take.

Principal assets of fur farming are the land, buildings and equipment, breeding stock and young-stock for slaughter. No compensation should be required for the land, as it has alternative uses. Compensation may be required for buildings and equipment that do not have alternative uses. Compensation may be required for wastage of some livestock over a winding-down period of two to three years. Disputes over compensation claims would be settled by arbitration or the Lands Tribunal.

Clause 6 provides that the power to authorise a person to exercise the power of entry and the power to make a compensation scheme rests with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in England and the National Assembly for Wales.

Clause 7 requires the Minister to make a commencement order for the ban to come into force. That may not be done before 1 January 2003. The Bill will thus provide a winding-down period extending at least until the end of 2002.

Mr. Burnett


Mr. Morley

I think that I may be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's point. The purpose of delayed commencement is to give fur farmers an opportunity to adjust their affairs and wind down their businesses in advance of the ban. In particular, it provides an opportunity to slaughter any existing stocks of animals; to give notice to employees; to make arrangements for future employment and the future use of land on which animals are currently kept; and to avoid incurring new capital expenditure, other than any incurred for the purpose of complying with any statutory obligation.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Would the Minister clear up a point for me? Since neither the eating of meat nor the wearing of fur is essential to human life, what is the moral distinction between the two?

Mr. Morley

Meat is a food source. I recognise that some people do not eat it, but they are in a minority in our society, which depends on meat production as an important food source. There is a clear distinction in that sense.

The power to make a compensation scheme will come into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. The power can be exercised to enable compensation to be paid to fur farmers who close their businesses in advance of the date on which the ban comes into force.

The Government's view is that the Bill is compatible with the treaty of Rome and the European convention on human rights. The Government consider that, although the ban arguably has an equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on imports, it is lawful under European Union law, being justified by article 30 of the EU treaty on the ground of public morality. As I have just outlined, there will be a winding-down period before the ban comes into force. Together with the payment of compensation for certain categories of loss, that will ensure, in the Government's view, that the Bill is compatible with the convention.

Many people have pressed the Government to introduce this Bill. I am glad to be able to move its Second Reading. There is considerable support for it in the country, and the fur farmers themselves want an end to a period of uncertainty. They want us to proceed with this measure in order that they may begin detailed discussions on compensation and phase fur farming out in a reasonable and orderly way.

I am convinced that the keeping of animals solely for fur is not justified on moral grounds in today's society. The Ministry has been involved in prosecutions in relation to welfare problems associated with fur farms. I will be happy to make available to any hon. Member who wants them the details of those prosecutions, including video and photographic evidence.

This reasonable measure has long been awaited, and I hope that it commands support from all right hon. and hon. Members.

4.58 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

The Bill sets a precedent, and an unwelcome one. Never before have a Government proposed an outright ban on a particular form of farming. We do not believe, and our view is endorsed by the National Farmers Union, that any Government should introduce legislation that seeks to criminalise the legitimate farming activities of a section of farmers. The Bill goes far beyond measures taken by successive Governments to regulate and enforce, but not dictate, what farmers can and cannot do in a free society.

The Minister has claimed that the NFU and fur breeders support the Bill. That is not strictly true. Many fur breeders are frankly desperate after years of harassment by animal rights protesters—perhaps a better description is animal rights terrorists. Faced by a Government with a huge majority who are intent on closing them down, those fur breeders are only too happy to throw in the towel, provided—the main point—that there is fair compensation. In no way can their capitulation be described as support. There has been coercion, in tooth and claw.

The Bill does not have the support of the National Farmers Union, either. Most of the farmers affected are NFU members. If there is a legitimate welfare concern, the NFU would support measures to underpin the delivery of high standards of animal welfare through regulation. However, that is not the Government's intention.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment that the NFU would support measures to improve the welfare of mink on mink farms. What measures has the NFU supported to date?

Mr. Moss

It is not for the NFU to introduce legislation to control mink farming. The Government could have introduced such restrictions and regulations, but they have not done so—they have proposed a complete ban. However, I shall develop my argument on that point later.

Mr. Gray

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend, as he may not have the relevant briefing to hand. The NFU strongly supported, among other provisions, the Mink (Keeping) Regulations 1975, the Mink (Keeping) (Amendment) Regulations 1997, the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, and the Council of Europe convention on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, dated 1991. The NFU supported all those measures for the improvement of standards in mink keeping.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those details. The Government have completely ignored the NFU's recommendations.

The Government do not intend to introduce regulations. They hardly bother to justify their actions by reference to the welfare of mink on those farms. They know only too well that conditions are not wholly unacceptable; many farms are operating on lines identical to those of their European competitors. However, if there was an overriding animal welfare case for more stringent regulations and tighter controls, those measures would find acceptance on this side of the House, with the NFU and—I suspect—with fur farmers.

Why do the Government not take that road? One cannot but conclude that they are hung up on some warped ideology and skewered on the peg of political correctness.

The Bill is poorly drafted. Despite warnings during proceedings on the private Member's Bill last year, it is still not clear whether other farmers could inadvertently be caught by its provisions. There is a potential problem for farmers who breed rabbits for both meat and fur; they could find themselves on the wrong side of the law, if—when the value of the fur exceeded that of the rabbit meat—they could be accused under clause 1 of keeping animals solely or primarily…for slaughter…for the value of their fur. That problem could be overcome if the measure specified the species of animal to which it applies, rather than introducing a generalised catch-all. One is left feeling puzzled as to why the Government have not tried to rectify that anomaly.

Not only is the Bill poorly drafted, it is conceptually and legally flawed. Its conceptual flaw is that no reasoned justification has been given—although the Minister had ample opportunity to give one in his opening remarks. Its legal flaw is that it appears to run counter to European Union legislation.

A most telling contribution to the debate, and to discussion of fur farming in general, lies in an illuminating and interesting memorandum, dated 7 December 1999, from the legal experts of COPA—the Committee of Agriculture Organisations in the European Community—and COGECA—the General Committee for Agricultural Co-operatives in the EU—on the legality of national welfare measures from an EC perspective.

The key legal position is set out in Council directive 98/58/EC, which aims to establish common minimum standards for the protection of animals kept for fur farming. Under the directive, a member state can apply stricter provisions for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes within its own territories, but that opportunity is limited—this is the important point—by articles 28 and 29 of the EC treaty, as well as by the general principles of Community law; for example, the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination as defined by the Court of Justice.

Articles 28 and 29 refer to changes in the national production of certain products, including a ban that would influence trade between member states and could thus be construed as having an effect equivalent to quantitative restrictions. As for non-discrimination—one of the fundamental principles of Community law—comparable situations should not be differently treated unless the difference is objectively justified. The Commission's memorandum states: It is difficult to justify objectively stricter national measures or even a national ban when, at European level, scientific evidence suggests this kind of production. Perhaps the most telling judgment in the memorandum is that which refers to proportionality. In the view of its authors: A national ban of a certain type of production would be considered disproportionate if it could be shown to have been "manifestly inappropriate in the aim of animal welfare". Furthermore, the authors point out: Stricter national measures or even a ban motivated by ethical or political grounds, not limited to genuine or justified animal welfare, seem to be incompatible with the principle of proportionality. Those are truly damning indictments. There can have been few, if any, Second Readings of a Bill on which the Minister involved has given such a totally unsatisfactory and poorly reasoned justification for legislation as that given by the Minister today.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

If I have caught the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks correctly, he seems to be suggesting that the Opposition will oppose the Bill. Will he explain why, in the previous Session when I was the Member in charge of a Bill that was almost exactly similar, the Opposition did not oppose it?

Mr. Moss

The hon. Lady will have to wait until the end of the debate to find out what will happen. In the main, we oppose the Bill, but we shall not vote against its Second Reading; there will be a free vote.

Mr. Nicholls

My hon. Friend, whose researches have obviously been legion, will recall that, when I was the Opposition spokesman on this subject, I said that the previous Bill's supporters had to answer a number of questions. To the best of my knowledge, those questions have yet to be answered. Is that not the answer to the hon. Lady's point?

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend's point is well made.

Last year, on the Second Reading of the previous Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, which was promoted by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), the Minister spoke of the Government's determination to end fur farming, primarily on animal welfare grounds. The Government's emphasis now, in justifying this Bill, has been on the grounds of public morality. They have said—the Minister reiterated these points today—that they remain convinced that no moral justification exists for fur farming in the U.K. and that there are over riding moral arguments in favour of a ban and a general public interest in removing this particular source of livelihood. However, as I have pointed out by quoting from the Commission's memorandum, the public morality line—lifted, it would seem, by a rather desperate Government from article 30 of the EC treaty—would certainly be challenged, and would most likely fail, under the tests of non-discrimination and proportionality. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) pointed out, Finland, Italy, Spain and Denmark have written to the Commission about the Bill and sent in their observations, while France, as the Minister confirmed, has submitted a detailed opinion. Because a detailed opinion has been sent, it is my understanding—perhaps the Minister could confirm this when he winds up—that the Government cannot approve the Bill until June. Meanwhile, they are obliged to respond to that French detailed opinion. The Minister confirmed that the Government have not done that yet, so it may help us to know when the Government propose to ask for the detailed opinion from France.

So that there is no doubt as to what is covered in directive 98/58/EC, I make it clear that its definition relates to all animals bred or kept for the production of food, wool, skin or fur or for other farming purposes. However, the memorandum to which I referred earlier points out: With the adoption of Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, a national ban on certain types of production of animal species which are covered by this Directive and covered by common Organisations of the Markets is no longer possible. The Minister's own advisers and the other civil servants in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must have serious reservations about the Bill. If they are so confident that it conforms to European law, why did they think it necessary to notify the Commission about it? Why was it also deemed necessary to include in the Bill a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on his interpretation of the European convention on human rights? That is certain to be tested in court, as the Bill appears to breach a fundamental right guaranteed under protocol 1, article 1, which states: every legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. Of course, in law, possessions include farm animals. The Bill may also breach article 14, on discrimination.

In light of the Minister's failure to address those legal questions, we—along with the National Farmers Union—call on the Government to publish the legal advice from which they concluded that the proposed ban was compatible with EU law.

Given the sheer weight of that legal opinion from the EU, one is horrified and perplexed by the Government's attitude. Why are they blindly pressing ahead with the Bill, which was not a manifesto commitment, although it was mentioned in Labour party dispatches? It will not influence the wearing of fur—which, apparently, is now on the increase—or affect fur farming elsewhere in the EU. The Bill will simply hand an increased market share of fur production and trade to our EU competitors. As I have said, it has already provoked a reaction from other fur-producing countries, which are now committed to taking the Government to the European Court.

If the Bill is passed, compensation to producers—to which I shall return later—will entail a cost to the taxpayer. Sums ranging from £500,000 to £5 million, which could be much better spent on other Government services, will be involved. What are the Government's priorities? What is one to make of a Government who set as a priority for parliamentary time a Bill that will, on the spurious grounds of public morality, rob of their livelihoods 13 innocent farmers who are operating legally—especially as regards EU law?

The issue is no longer one of animal welfare. The living conditions of mink on fur farms are not in question. The Bill demonstrates the Government's fixation with presentation, which they put above substance, and with populism, which they put above the rights of minorities.

Mr. Morley

In my opening remarks, I explained that animal welfare was one of several issues relating to morality. A recent report from Nimon and Broom outlines welfare problems with the keeping of mink, stating: The high level and pervasiveness of stereotypies among farmed mink and the incidence of fur chewing and even self-mutilation of tail tissue, suggest that farmed mink welfare is not good.

Mr. Moss

That is hardly a public morality issue of the kind that the Government seek to use to justify the Bill. Indeed, it is an animal welfare issue, and, as we have just said, animal welfare is no longer at the forefront of the Bill.

We welcome the fact that improvements to the earlier private Member's Bill have been incorporated in the Bill. It is proper that consultation should take place with fur farmers under clause 5(3), and that disputes should be referred first to arbitration under clause 5(4)(b) or for determination by the Lands Tribunal under clause 5(5). Frankly, that procedure is so painfully drawn out and laborious that the provisions are hardly worth the paper on which they are printed.

The restriction in the private Member's Bill excluding losses of income from any compensation scheme has now been dropped, but there is still no guarantee in the Bill that claims for losses of income will be eligible. It is important for all concerned, and in the interests of natural justice, that the Minister, in his wind-up speech, give an assurance that compensation will cover loss of income.

The industry genuinely fears that the Government intend to cheat it. Paragraph 26 of the explanatory notes speaks of compensation costs of £400,000 for assets, and perhaps four times that amount if income were to be compensated. That £1.6 million would be totally inadequate, given the size of claim from one producer alone of some £5 million.

Fair compensation—this point has already been raised—should be the value of the fur-farming enterprise at an open market sale price in the context of a willing purchaser under current European legislation. Anything less will be seen as robbery and a reneging on a verbal agreement given by the Government.

A cynic might well conclude that, having failed in their manifesto commitment to ban fox hunting—effectively caving in to a perceived backlash from the countryside—the Government have cast around for some other issue to satisfy the demands of the animal rights lobby—which, lest we forget, gave £1 million to the Labour party before the election. Bingo, there on the shelf was the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston. It was the only animal rights issue on the shelf.

Mr. Gray

I have a small correction. My hon. Friend gave the impression that there was a Labour party manifesto commitment to ban fox hunting. There was of course no such commitment; there was a commitment merely to a free vote on the issue. Equally, however, there was no Labour party manifesto commitment to ban fur farming.

Mr. Moss

I agree with my hon. Friend's second point.

The real reason for the Bill before us is a Labour party commitment to the animal welfare lobby, from which, of course, it received a handsome payment. It is a pay-off to that lobby, despite the fact that it is certain to be challenged in the European court, will incur considerable costs, and sets out to crush the legitimate interests of a tiny minority. This Government are blundering on with specious legislation because of their vindictive political correctness.

5.16 pm
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I am delighted that the Government are at last taking action to end one form of animal cruelty and to fulfil a pre-election pledge—not before time. It has taken them three years, but better late than never. I have long hoped that such a Bill would become law. Indeed, I tabled an appropriate early-day motion way back in June 1997, which had considerable support from hon. Members. I am therefore delighted at this Second Reading.

Today's debate allows the House to decide whether the welfare implications concerning farmed animals, and public concern over the breeding and killing of animals for no more than fur, are sufficient grounds to outlaw the legal practice of fur farming. Doing so is a responsibility that I take very seriously. Under the United Kingdom's constitution, we may all do what we like unless there is a law against it. That means that, as law makers, we must carefully consider when overall liberty should be curtailed. Having considered that issue, I reached the conclusion many years ago that fur farming should definitely be banned.

I am sure that my view reflects that of the majority of people in the United Kingdom—even, I understand, representatives of the National Farmers Union, who have not asked hon. Members to vote against the Bill. The NFU has certainly not contacted me, even though when it wants something desperately, it normally ensures that it makes contact.

The Government have justified their support for the Bill on the ground of public morality—we have just heard the argument. My support for the ban is based predominantly on animal welfare grounds—and I make no bones about that. The downright cruelty that fur farming generates must be stopped.

At this time of year, mink in fur factory farms are giving birth. After six months of hell in small cages, their offspring will be killed, ultimately by gassing—in order, frankly, that some pretentious person may end up wearing a mink coat. I find that totally objectionable. In this morning's edition of the Financial Times, an article headed, "Attempt to ban fur farming may go to European Court", was accompanied by a photograph of a fur farmer in Finland, showing the cages in which the animals are kept.

Mr. Nicholls

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steinberg

In a minute.

The cages are not even big enough for the animals to turn round. That is absolutely disgusting, and it is one reason why I firmly support the ban.

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Gray


Mr. Steinberg

I give way to the hon. Member from—

Mr. Gray

From where?

Mr. Steinberg

From Teignbridge.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman makes his point about the cruelty caused to animals, well knowing that current legislation could deal with that in any event. Will he comment on the Parliamentary Secretary's remark that the moral distinction between eating meat and wearing fur is that only a minority wear fur? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that analysis?

Mr. Steinberg

Yes, absolutely. I make no apologies for saying that I find the practice of farming and producing animals purely for cosmetic value to be distasteful and disgusting. I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister, but my view is clear as well.

Mr. Gray

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steinberg

No. I shall continue for a little longer and then I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene.

Mr. Morley

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Steinberg

Yes, certainly.

Mr. Morley

I am grateful. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) to misrepresent my remarks. I did not say that the difference between meat and fur was that one was a minority interest and the other was not. Food production is an essential part of our society, but the production of fur in this country is non-essential, because there are many other options.

Mr. Steinberg

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has made the point clear for the Hansard record. As I have said, my view is clear as well. If an animal is produced purely for cosmetic value, that is a disgraceful industry that should be stopped.

Fur farming is not a huge industry in this country. We are all well aware that there are about only 13 farms breeding mink. The animal is not indigenous to the UK, and it needs an environment that is difficult to replicate in the caged conditions of a fur farm. Mink were brought here only for the purposes of the fur trade. Poor husbandry led to inevitable escapes into the countryside, and most hon. Members know that mink cause considerable damage and havoc when let loose.

Concern about the poor standards on mink farms led to mink-keeping regulations being passed by Parliament. Those led to an improvement over the years, but by the 1950s and 1960s the United Kingdom had an established population of feral mink. Such was the Ministry's concern that during the 1960s it financed an attempt to obliterate mink from the countryside. However, numbers had grown so large that the campaign had to be abandoned.

In more modern times, mink escapes have been due to inadequate husbandry and to the actions of various animal rights groups. Their concern about the conditions in which animals are kept and about their ultimate fate is undoubtedly well meaning, but the impact of releases has been devastating in the areas upon which they have been inflicted.

Mink may be here to stay in the UK, and the legacy that fur farming will leave in the countryside will need managing for some time. Ironically, some research shows that mink numbers are being reduced in areas where otter numbers are increasing and otters are reclaiming their natural aquatic environment. The irony is that otter numbers have risen in part because of a ban on their being hunted by dogs. That method has also been used to control mink numbers, but in a rather unsatisfactory way, because of the damage caused to sensitive riverbank environments. It is an argument for another day, but it is worth noting that mink have been better controlled by a ban on hunting with dogs than they were by the other legislation.

It is the semi-aquatic environment needed by mink that is so difficult to provide on a mink farm. Indeed, there is no attempt to provide it. We have all had the opportunity to see footage of the conditions in which mink have been kept in this country. They have been inadequately housed and there have been poor welfare standards. There are signs of cage madness in their behaviour, and even cannibalism. It is not a pretty sight, and it is unacceptable.

I expected Conservative Members to ask, "Have you been to a mink farm?" The answer is that I have not. However, no one can deny that the conditions that we have seen on film are wrong. Nor can the fairly recent convictions for cruelty on fur farms be disputed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), who chairs the parliamentary group on animal welfare, is in hospital, but he hopes to come to the House tonight for the vote. He debated the point on Radio 5 with a fur farmer. I remember him asking for the opportunity to visit the farm. He was told by the fur farmer that he could come by all means, but only if adequate prior notice of his visit was given. That tells us much about fur farms in the United Kingdom.

Some hon. Members will undoubtedly argue that if the problem is one of standards, we should pass legislation to deal with it. I cannot agree. I do not believe that adequate standards for creatures such as mink will ever be in place in fur farms.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does not the hon. Gentleman see an inconsistency between admitting that legislation on fur farms is already in place and has led to convictions in some cases, and supporting a Government who allow the free import of meat from many parts of the world, including other parts of Europe, where animal welfare standards are abysmal?

Mr. Steinberg

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I only wish that the Government had the power to prevent such meat from coming into the country. We do not have that power, but we have the power to prevent mink farming. That is within our jurisdiction. If he wants to introduce a private Member's Bill to stop the imports that he describes, I shall support him vigorously.

Mink farmers have had the entire 20th century to meet the standards, and have not done so. That answers the hon. Gentleman's point. Under existing legislation, convictions for cruelty still take place. Clearly, that legislation has not worked.

Mr. Gray

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is a tragedy that many people in Britain are cruel to their pet dogs. Plainly, the legislation to prevent cruelty to pet dogs is not working. Would he argue that we should ban the keeping of pet dogs, because some people are cruel to them?

Mr. Steinberg

I would certainly ban some people from keeping pet dogs. Again, if the hon. Gentleman wants to do something about that, I shall support him. I entirely agree that there are many people in this country who are irresponsible and should not be allowed anywhere near a dog, let alone be allowed to keep one.

Every chance has been given to stop cruelty to mink, without success. The end product is by no means a necessity. It is not a by-product of a farm that is producing food or fulfilling any useful need. I cannot support the continuance of what might be described as vanity farming, considering all that the animals go through so that what some people consider a superior item of clothing can be produced.

Over the years, there have been many campaigns on the issue, with many memorable slogans. Perhaps the one that most people remember is that fur coats are worn by beautiful animals and ugly people—a powerful statement, but perhaps a little unfair. It should say ugly, naive and uninformed people, but the general point is strong.

As for compensation, I have heard the argument that there should be none, as fur farmers have exploited the animals for long enough and made enough money out of it not to be compensated. However, I do not accept that. If the ban is successful, there is a legitimate need to compensate those who will lose their livelihood as a result of the legislation. All fur farmers are entitled to compensation, but it will not be automatic. The Bill should make it automatic.

I understand that some kennel owners wanted compensation after the introduction of the passports for pets scheme, but were unsuccessful on the grounds that that was only part of their business. For some fur farmers, that is their entire business. Compensation will help them to get out of the industry or to diversify into some other form of farming or trade.

For many people in this country, fur farming is an awful, unnecessary trade. However, those who undertake it are currently entitled to do so by law. They should therefore be reimbursed accordingly. I understand that even the Fur Breeders Association wants the law sooner rather than later, because the current uncertainty makes life hard for those who are left in the business.

I hope that hon. Members will support the Bill. It is said that the extent to which a country is civilised can by judged by its treatment of animals. In many ways, we should be ashamed of ourselves. Let us consider my part of the country. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently conducted a survey, which found that some people in the north-east of England treated animals disgracefully. I wish that we could stop all cruelty.

Tonight we have a duty to show an example and make it clear that animal cruelty cannot be condoned in any form, regardless of where it takes place. I am confident that hon. Members will support the Bill vigorously, and that it will not be long before we are back again to abolish another obscenity—fox hunting. We are a civilised country; I presume we are a civilised House. Let us prove that by walking through the Lobby together tonight and ending the awful, unnecessary trade of fur farming.

5.31 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the fact that the Government have finally found a slot in their timetable to discuss the Bill. I introduced a measure to outlaw fur farming in the 1997 Session. It was vetoed by the Labour Whips, allegedly because it was badly drafted. However, they made no attempt to improve it.

We are considering an issue that affects few people in this country. Mink were first introduced to the United Kingdom by fur farmers in 1929. Forty years later, there were more than 600 farms. However, several high-profile campaigns and a clear change in the public mood meant that, by 1982, there were only 68 farms. Now there are only 13.

Public disquiet is not felt only by animal welfare "terrorists" as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, rather unwisely and unfortunately called them. The majority of the public—75 per cent. in the most recent MORI poll—believe that fur farming should be banned. We must take that view into account. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, which is the advisory body to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, condemned fur farming and refused to issue guidelines for the welfare of the animals.

Our debate is not about the fate of 13 individuals or fur farms. Thirteen is such a small number that the Treasury should be able to find sufficient compensation for those farmers. I hope that the Bill will provide for proper compensation. The farmers are currently undertaking a legal activity, which they will be unable to continue when the Bill is passed. They should therefore be compensated.

The debate is about when it is right to ban a legal activity. Parliament should be careful before taking such a step. We are considering when it should be right to impose such a ban. That gives rise to genuine philosophical divisions, not necessarily on party lines. The Minister made an interesting distinction, which I have not heard him make previously, between animals that are reared for food production and those that are reared for what he described as non-essential production. On that basis, the Government should introduce a Bill to ban fox hunting and other forms of hunting. If that is the Government's basis for outlawing fur farming, we must ask why they are not introducing a measure to ban hunting. If they want to be consistent, they should. They have not done so, but if they do, I imagine that those who run hunt kennels will be compensated. Our approach to such matters should be consistent.

Mr. Hunter

I, too, am fascinated by the Government's argument, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could widen his thoughts. Why should a distinction be drawn between what is essential and non-essential only in farming? For example, I am tempted to say that homosexuality is non-essential, so why do not the Government ban homosexuality?

Mr. Baker

The Bill does not have 28 clauses, so I shall sidestep that intervention, which takes us a long way from fur farming. I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I attempted to deal with that point.

The genuine debate is about the extent to which animals have rights. People talk about animal rights or animal welfare, but they are not quite the same. Animals have rights and we, the human race, have to ensure that our behaviour does not remove their basic freedoms. I fully respect the fact that that is not the view of other hon. Members.

Mr. Bercow

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that rights are always and everywhere the converse of obligations?

Mr. Baker

I think that I would, if I fully understood the legal term that the hon. Gentleman uses, but rights apply to those who are in charge of a situation and to those who are subject to it. Therefore, our role—and subsequently that of the courts—is to balance that. If we accept that animals are not the same as agricultural goods, we have to deal with them differently.

Animals were defined as agricultural goods in the treaty of Rome, but that definition was subsequently changed so that they are now classed as sentient beings. I am very glad about that change, which was the result of pressure from a range of people, including members of my party. Animals should not be regarded in the same way as potatoes, so it was unfortunate that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire suggested that animals are possessions. That is out of line with EU definitions.

We should recognise that animals can feel and that they suffer if certain basic requirements are not met. They are not the same as inanimate possessions, so we are in different territory, which is why it is right to consider banning activities that are detrimental to animals and why I favour a ban, even though it is not the natural Liberal inclination to ban things. This is a difficult conundrum, but it is clear that such a ban is justified.

I have mentioned public perception. The latest poll shows that, as well as 75 per cent. of British people thinking that fur farming should be banned, only 4 per cent. ever wear fur and 85 per cent. think that the trapping of animals for fur should be banned. We should take account of public opinion, and it is clearly on one side of the argument.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made some interesting points on the legal position and I hope that the Minister will reply to those genuine questions.

Mr. Nicholls

The polls show that between 65 and 80 per cent. of the British public want capital punishment to be reintroduced. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

Mr. Baker

I agree that Parliament must always give weight to public opinion; it is not the determining factor, but it must be taken into account when decisions are taken in the House.

I understand that Britain is not alone in introducing such legislation. Switzerland effectively ended fur farming in 1978, bar allowing animals such as mink and fox to be kept only under zoo conditions. In 1998, the Netherlands began a 10-year phase-out of fox and chinchilla farming. The last mink farm in Austria closed following a ban in 1998. If that is the case in the Netherlands and Austria, I should be interested to know—I hope that the Minister will tell us—whether the bans in those countries have been challenged by other member states. According to the Conservatives, there is a plethora of objections to the United Kingdom proposal, so it is odd that we have heard nothing about the situation in the Netherlands and Austria, where bans have already been introduced.

There is slight inconsistency in the Conservatives' approach to the EU—there generally is—in that they suggest that other EU countries are clamouring to register objections to the Bill, presumably because they want our fur farms to continue. However, they also said that the Bill will provide a wonderful opportunity to take our business, which is a slightly odd juxtaposition of arguments.

Mr. Gray

It may be worth clarifying the precise position of foreign countries. The hon. Gentleman may not have realised that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, so it does not come into the argument. No other European country has banned mink farming. The only exception is the Netherlands, which has banned fox fur farming. A number of provinces in Austria and Germany have banned mink farming, but I think that I am right in saying that no country has banned it outright.

Mr. Baker

I have explained the advice that I have been given, and I shall wait for the Minister to give us his version of events. Even if provinces of Austria and Germany have banned mink farming, they are subject to the same EU rules as the country as a whole, so that is a red herring. Fox and chinchilla farming are covered by the Bill, so that is also a red herring. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

I mentioned the philosophical dimension to this issue, which is perhaps the most important, but there is also an animal welfare aspect. That is why interest in this matter has built up over the years. It is accepted by both sides that mink are wild animals and should not be kept in cages. No one has defended that, but perhaps someone will do so tonight. They are solitary animals and should not be kept in groups. They defend their territories through patrolling, scent marking and aggression, and unfamiliar adults put in the same cages have exhibited that aggression.

In the wild, mink reside in a large territory and have a larger range in which to hunt: it can be up to 22 acres. The best animal welfare conditions in our mink farms have not provided solitary mink with 22 acres each, or anywhere near that. They have much less territory, so their natural behavioural patterns have been severely curtailed by farming.

Mink are semi-aquatic and need water in which to swim, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) said. Studies show that they spend much of their time in or close to water, and they often hunt and play in water. They have semi-webbed feet, which shows that as they have evolved they have spent a significant amount of time in water. They have no opportunity to swim in fur farms, so that environment is hardly ideal for their welfare.

By all means let hon. Members have the philosophical debate, but the welfare conditions in which mink are kept are clearly out of line with their requirements, and it is difficult to see how even the most conscientious mink farmer in the country could change them to make them satisfactory. That is probably one of the thoughts underlying the legislation.

Other aspects of fur farming must be considered, including the strains of mink. Captive mink can display a wide variety of pelt colours, including rarer colours that reach a premium price. The colours are controlled by a sequence of 18 genes that can be manipulated by selective breeding. It is possible that financial pressure on mink farmers has led them to produce rare colours. Breeding has concentrated on the colour of the coat and not on the other implications, including the health of the animal. The white coat is produced by a line of mink who are congenitally blind.

Killing methods also leave something to be desired. Animals are harvested without spoiling their pelt. The most widely used method of killing them is by gassing. Carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide is supposed to reduce the availability of oxygen to the animals, and lead to unconsciousness followed by death. Carbon dioxide is a colourless gas, but has an acrid smell. It is claimed that 100 per cent. carbon dioxide can kill mink in 19 seconds, but it is also shown that the mink react to its presence and suffer extreme stress by being forced into such an environment. Being semi-aquatic, mink can hold their breath for extended periods, so it is not a particularly quick death. Of the 15 mink farms in the United Kingdom in 1997, 14 used gassing—10 of them with carbon monoxide and four with carbon dioxide—and one used barbiturate injection.

When we consider animals, we must bear in mind their five freedoms and consider to what extent existing and proposed future practices conform to those accepted freedoms. They have been proposed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I think that they are generally accepted without dispute. They are freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, freedom from the need for appropriate comfort and shelter, the prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury, disease or infestation, freedom from fear, and freedom to display most normal patterns of behaviour.

Those conditions should be met in any activity that we permit involving animals, and we should measure existing practices against them to see how far they are met. If they are not being met, we should raise standards. If they cannot be met, as I am not sure they can be in mink farming, we should ban mink farming. There is also a debate about whether it is right to use animals at all—or, as some might say, exploit them—if they are not being reared for food purposes. The Minister made that point at the outset.

The Liberal Democrats believe that fur farming and trapping animals for their fur cause unnecessary suffering, and we shall therefore support the Government if there is a vote.

5.46 pm
Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

I am particularly pleased to speak. As the Member in charge of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill presented in the last Session, I have more than a passing interest in the fate of this Bill, and am even more determined than usual to ensure that the Government get their business through as soon as possible.

I congratulate the Government on their wisdom and good sense—although I would say that, I suppose—in supporting the arguments put to them by me, and by a number of my Bill's supporters, at the end of the last Session, when it became clear that the Bill would not proceed beyond Report. It would have been easy for the Government then to think of it as a small measure, and to let it drop. I am grateful to them for picking it up and turning it into a Government Bill. Let me say in parenthesis that I am even more grateful that it will not be my job tonight to protect the legislation, and to ensure that enough Members turn up to vote it through.

I appreciate that it is never easy to persuade a Government that an essentially small measure such as this, affecting a limited number of people, merits their full attention and deserves to be included in their legislative programme—especially, I suspect, when it requires public expenditure. I am glad that my small Bill has survived those pitfalls, and I am certain that that is partly due to the eloquence and persistence of my hon. Friend the Minister in arguing against doubters who must have suggested that other measures should have a prior call on both parliamentary time and public spending.

I believe that the fact that the Bill is before us again constitutes a recognition of the essential argument of principle, and of the moral case that can be made that seemingly small Bills can be symbolic, important and worth pursuing. The argument that I think goes to the heart of the Bill is the animal welfare argument, namely that it is unjustifiable, cruel and obnoxious in a civilised society such as we purport to have to allow wild animals to be kept in extremely small cages that prevent them from exhibiting their natural behaviour, to their evident distress, merely to collect the commercial value of their fur, which is something that we can all do without.

I believe that that practice is so obnoxious and repugnant that it should be stopped, and that it is appropriate for the law to be used to stop it. That is why I support this Bill, and why I presented my own Bill. I am sure that the strength of the argument helped my hon. Friend the Minister when, along with the rest of the Government, he claimed that the Bill should constitute a priority.

Mr. Nicholls

On Second Reading of her Bill, the hon. Lady said that she had not had time to visit a fur farm. I think we all accept that that is fair enough, but, given what she has said about animals' inevitably being in deep distress and therefore presumably being incapable of being handled, has she yet had an opportunity to visit a farm?

Maria Eagle

My aim was to visit more than one, but I could not visit more than one, partly because some farmers' advisers at the time were preventing access to the more notorious farms. However, I was able to visit one during the last Session, after Second Reading of my Bill, and found it extremely informative and interesting—although it did not change my basic view that it was not appropriate to keep wild animals in small cages.

It is surely right that one way in which we may judge the extent of our civilisation and the quality of our society is to look at how we treat our fellow sentient creatures. Do we respect them? Do we do our best to avoid treating them with unjustifiable cruelty, or do we view them merely as a commercial opportunity to be exploited for the fullest profit that may be extracted from them, to the exclusion of all but the most extreme considerations of humane treatment?

I, the Bill's supporters and the Government say that it should be the former. The British Fur Trade Association—which purports to represent the fur farmers, but which, in fact, does not—and many members of the Conservative party who oppose the Bill say that it should be the latter. They are willing to put the freedom of people cruelly to exploit wild animals above any obligation to show humanity and avoid excessive suffering, which keeping wild animals in small cages inevitably causes.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) that it is impossible to devise humane standards in intensive farming for the keeping of mink. In fact, the Farm Animal Welfare Council came to that conclusion 11 years ago when it refused to set standards that could be called humane for the keeping of mink.

The Bill extends to all fur-bearing creatures, but in practice it is mink farming that we are concerned about. The hon. Gentleman has already made some remarks on the basic facts about mink farming. There remain 13 mink farms in England—there are none in Scotland or in Wales—down from some 700 in the 1960s. The market for fur has declined in Britain by 99 per cent. since 1980. Despite what certain elements of the industry say, all the evidence is that the market is still declining.

Mink are not indigenous to Britain. They are essentially wild, which, indeed, is a key part of my argument for the Bill. If they were domesticated, it might be possible for humane welfare standards to be introduced, but when the wild animal is solitary, territorial, ranges over territories of one to three miles and is semi-aquatic, it cannot be right for it to be kept in cages that are no longer than a person's forearm. The cages are no longer than a person's forearm because the mink retreat when anyone approaches the cages—they must be no longer than that, or they could not be fetched out of the cage.

It is a fallacy to argue, as it was argued on Second Reading of my Bill, that a species can be domesticated in only 70 years. A wild indigenous animal cannot become a domestic animal in only 70 years. Most of our domestic animals took hundreds or thousands of years to become domesticated.

The key argument that suggests that mink are still wild is that, when they are released—however that may happen—they immediately become feral. They are immediately able to cope, to live and to thrive in the surrounding countryside without any trouble. That is why there are feral populations of mink thriving around all but one of the remaining fur farms in England, destroying indigenous wildlife such as voles and certain birds. Therefore, it would not be possible to devise acceptable standards to keep such creatures in intensively farmed conditions. The animals are denied their natural behaviour and respond by showing clear signs of distress. They become apathetic and resort to performing repetitive, stereotyped movements. They mutilate themselves and others. They may even kill their young.

As I have said, 11 years ago, the Farm Animal Welfare Council made it clear that appropriate standards could not be set. That is still true today. In those circumstances, the only alternative that takes account of animal welfare considerations is a ban.

It is not only in this country that the debate is proceeding. Scotland has already decided to legislate. It took the decision in December last year and a Bill is expected. In Northern Ireland, action was being considered prior to the suspension of the Stormont institutions. One hopes that, if and when they are restored, consideration can be resumed.

Fur farming is effectively banned in Austria. It is not actually banned. The Austrian Government increased the standards of welfare expected to such a level that all the farmers went out of business. Where we have a small and struggling industry that could not possibly adapt and start to put in pools and three-mile territories for all its mink, rather than drive them out of business by increasing welfare standards, it is right and proper to compensate them for leaving the industry.

A Bill before the Italian Parliament offers aid to fur farmers to convert to other forms of agriculture. In Sweden, the agriculture minister has signalled her intention to ban mink and chinchilla farming. Fox farming has already been banned. In the Netherlands, where there are many fur farms, fox farming is being phased out. The Dutch Parliament has voted to ban mink farming. The debate is going on throughout Europe. We can give a lead by taking the decision and supporting the Bill tonight.

My Bill last year did not simply facilitate a debate about the issues of principle. It promoted negotiation between the fur farmers and the Government that has resulted in agreements in several areas.

Private Members' Bills, as anyone who has had the fortunate experience of coming high in the ballot will tell the House, always require consensus to proceed. That is probably the biggest lesson that one learns as a Member in charge of a Bill with sufficient priority. I spent at least as much time in the previous Session trying to broker an agreement between the Government and the fur farmers as I spent trying to overcome the hurdles that were placed in the path of my Bill to get it through its parliamentary stages.

The Government Bill as currently drafted reflects a number of agreements between the Government and the fur farmers on time scales and principles of compensation, for example. As far as I am aware—the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—those agreements still stand. As a result of those, the fur farmers themselves are content for the Bill to proceed. So is the Fur Breeders Association of the United Kingdom, which represents all the fur farmers that remain in the industry. So is the National Farmers Union, which does not oppose progress of the Bill. It represents some of the fur farmers who remain in business.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who has now left the Chamber, also asserted that the NFU was not opposed to the legislation. That is not quite correct. The letter says: It has been asserted incorrectly that the NFU supports this legislation. On the contrary you will appreciate…that we strongly dislike the principle of introducing a…ban.

Maria Eagle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the letter with him. I know from my discussions with the fur farmers, and the NFU represents them, that they do not oppose the progress of the legislation. That is what I have been told by fur farmers, who presumably give their instructions to the NFU because it represents them. Similarly, the Fur Breeders Association of the United Kingdom, which represents all the remaining fur farmers, has made it clear that it wants the Bill to proceed.

The British Fur Trade Association, which is sometimes taken as representing fur farmers, is vocally opposed to the Bill and becomes more strident as time goes on and the closer the Bill gets to the statute book. However, it no longer represents any of the fur farmers. That is because every one of them, I am told, resigned from the association after they formed the view last year that it did not have their interests at heart, so its views should not be said to reflect the wishes of the farmers; they simply do not.

I wish the Bill to proceed as speedily as possible because, since last year, conditions in the industry have deteriorated. The price of fur fell by 31 per cent. at the Copenhagen auctions last year. Another fur farmer is being subjected to a private prosecution in the English courts for cruelty. Last year, one of the farmers was found guilty of 15 counts of cruelty and fined £5,000, with costs of £15,000, yet he still farms mink.

Despite claims to the contrary, in the past year, one of the only remaining fur retailers in London has closed and one of the very few remaining fur processors is in liquidation. The industry is dying. We should help it on its way. The sooner the Bill is enacted, the better. I commend it to the House.

5.59 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I have listened to the debate so far, just as I have listened to the wider debate on fur farming, with growing incredulity. No one, let alone the Government this evening, or the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), has yet convincingly complained why it is wrong to farm animals for their fur, but acceptable to farm them for their meat. I think the reason why we have not yet heard that convincing explanation is that there is none. There is no moral distinction whatsoever; the practices are essentially the same. On that most fundamental of all points, attempts to justify the Bill fail.

We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) intervene on the Minister. Opposition Members, at least, understood the Minister to say that the Bill's justification included the fact that meat farming supplied a majority demand, whereas fur farming supplied only a minority demand—

Mr. Morley


Mr. Hunter

The Minister later corrected that and said that, contrary to our understanding, he had in fact said that the Justification for criminalising included the fact that fur farming was non-essential. If I have incorrectly reported his comments, I shall give way.

Mr. Morley

No; in his latter comments, the hon. Gentleman has made the position clear. I should like, however, to make the point absolutely clear. As tomorrow's Hansard will reveal, when I mentioned minorities, I was referring to vegetarians.

Mr. Hunter

I did not catch the Minister's last word, but I believe that he is sticking with his belief that there is some justification in criminalising an activity because it is non-essential. Such a position is mind-boggling.

The simple truth is that there are no scientific or welfare grounds for criminalising fur farming. Fur farming is highly regulated. Fur farmers are bound by regulation. As with all animal husbandry, regulations can be tightened and made more demanding if there are sound reasons for so doing. Most significantly, in this case, the industry readily and willingly agrees with that. If changes are needed, the way to proceed is through tightening or making more demanding regulations.

As we have heard, last year, the Government supported the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Garston, which sought to criminalise fur farming on spurious animal welfare grounds. I played a small part in opposing the passage of that Bill, and I am glad that I did. The animal welfare-based argument made last year in support of criminalisation was fundamentally and inherently flawed, as is the Government's argument this year.

Both nationally and as a European Union member state, our approach to animal welfare is well established. Acceptable standards of animal husbandry are established in both primary and secondary legislation—by statute, order or regulation. When it comes to the welfare of pigs, for example, we do not criminalise; we introduce legislation that bans tethering. When there is outcry about the export of live animals, we do not criminalise; we improve standards of transport and encourage other countries to do the same. That is the agreeable and sensible approach.

Today, the Government and the hon. Member for Garston have yet again totally failed to explain convincingly why the criteria used systematically in regulating every other aspect of animal husbandry cannot be applied to fur farming. The proposed ban on United Kingdom fur farming will eliminate a sector of agriculture that is not only legitimate and responsible, but highly regulated. If objective, properly researched scientific analysis concludes that welfare standards should be more demanding, that is the way forward. The industry agrees with that and will comply.

The European Union farmers federation, the EU farm co-operatives federation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said, several other organisations and individuals have demonstrated that criminalisation is very probably contrary to EU law. The Commission's own Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare is drafting a report on welfare, preparatory to producing a directive providing for the future of fur farming. The Government themselves fully supported the June 1999 Council of Europe recommendation on the keeping of farmed fur animals.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said, it may very well be that the Bill breaches the European convention on human rights, despite the Bill's declaimer—which I suspect, and hope, will be contested in the courts. It will be argued that the Bill is contrary to Council directive 98/58, on the protection of animals kept for farm purposes, and to articles 28 and 29 EC—formerly articles 30 and 34—which rule on freedom of movement.

The Bill is little other than an expression of prejudice and intolerance. It is an unjustified and extreme measure. Among other things, it establishes a potentially dangerous precedent for criminalising other farming activities for no good reason. The Government's justification of "public morality" is a truly terrifying concept, and I wonder whether Labour Members have really thought it through. I suspect that some of them may not have done so.

The Bill justifies the persecution of minorities and minority interests to satisfy a prejudice of the majority, thereby taking political correctness to terrifying limits. That the Government should decide what is publicly moral, pronounce what is morally acceptable or unacceptable, and criminalise accordingly is truly terrifying. It offends every liberal instinct and principle and undermines the concept and practice of individual liberty. It is a repugnant denial of freedom.

For the Government to criminalise on the basis of public morality is highly dangerous. It echoes the ugly intolerance of Calvinist theocracies, and—for a fictional parallel—it has undertones of Orwellian thought-police. It is also strikingly inconsistent with the position that the Government adopt on so-called moral issues—on which they seek to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. The Government have become ostentatiously permissive in matters of personal and private morality. In this Bill, however, morality is reduced to fashionable posturing. Where is the morality in destroying the livelihood of a small group of hard-working, successful farmers operating in a viable, unsubsidised and well-regulated sector? We wait in vain for a credible answer to that question.

As other Opposition Members have already said, what is happening is that the Government are bowing to an animal rights lobby—which, shortly before the previous general election, in the form of the political animal lobby, donated £1 million or thereabouts to Labour party funds. As we learned from the Ecclestone and Formula One saga, we have now moved firmly into the era of cash for legislation.

I have no particular constituency interest in any aspect of the fur trade, and I certainly have no personal interest, pecuniary or otherwise, in it. I happen to believe that the Bill is an ugly, dreadful measure. By all objective criteria of judgment, it is at fault and it fails. It is a vile expression of hypocrisy, intolerance and prejudice, and we should have nothing to do with it.

6.9 pm

Angela Smith (Basildon)

I shall not speak for long. I feel as though I have been here before, having spoken on Second Reading of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) some time ago. That was also an excellent Bill, which had the overwhelming support of Members of Parliament and should have become law.

I am particularly pleased to speak again tonight because this is a Government Bill, which fulfils a long-standing Labour party commitment to animal welfare. The Bill was a Labour pre-election pledge and I hope that it will send a message to all those who campaign on animal welfare issues that there is a point in engaging in political processes, lobbying Members of Parliament and making representations to the Government, because that is what brings about change. That success brings great rewards. The comments of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) from the Conservative Front Bench about animal rights protesters and terrorists did him no credit. We should encourage people who protest to make their point through the democratic process. That is what is happening tonight.

The reappearance of the Bill tonight also shows that Labour Members will not be diverted or put off by the nonsense that we saw in the House on 19 January. I would be ruled out of order if I suggested that anyone had been filibustering on that occasion. We had riveting debates for hours and hours, which included discussion on the meaning of the word "and". We will not be put off and we will come back time and again to ensure that we have proper welfare standards and meet our responsibilities to wildlife.

The Bill is also a tribute to the attitude to animal welfare of Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In a busy parliamentary Session, it sends the message that the Government have listened to those who want fur farming to be banned. Even though it is a small measure that will not change the world overnight, it is an important step forward. Fur farming is cruel, outdated, unnecessary and an incredibly unfashionable way to service the fashion industry. It should be banned.

We all have our reasons for reaching that conclusion. My main concern is animal welfare. I am concerned about the way in which mink are farmed. It is an insult to farmers who are genuinely concerned with animal welfare to describe the way in which mink have been kept as farming. When we consider the behavioural characteristics of mink, it is difficult to see how the conditions in mink farms could be less appropriate. With the best will in the world, it is not possible to replicate the conditions that mink need to ensure that they are treated humanely.

In the wild, mink swim for up to 60 per cent. of their waking time. They hunt live quarry, they climb, they dive, they travel between two and five dens, sometimes as much as 2 km apart. In fur farms, they are kept in rows of small wire cages approximately the size of the Dispatch Box in front of us. In those conditions, they cannot replicate any natural behaviour.

In those wire cages, mink spend a quarter of their waking hours performing endless, repetitive motions. They mutilate themselves with pelt and tail biting. They cannibalise each other. Mortality among the young mink—the kits—is high. They carry out what is known as sham feeding, including rising up and head circling. In the words of leading mink expert Dr. Nigel Dunstone, they are confined to a life of "sedentary torture". I object to the keeping of wild animals in small, barren cages.

A University of Cambridge study that examined the social behaviour of mink said that if mink farming were to continue, a radical rethink on housing would be needed. As I said on Second Reading of the earlier private Member's Bill, the conditions prevalent in mink farming would not be allowed in a zoo, where they would be under public scrutiny. I find it incredible that Conservative Members defend those conditions, but suggest that we could pass legislation to improve them. They are suggesting that mink farms should be forced to make such enormous investment that they would be put out of business. The Bill is honest and straightforward in allowing compensation. The aim is not to ban mink farming by the back door. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) talked about morality. We should be proud of the honesty of the Bill.

The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 specifies that mink should be provided with space and furniture sufficient to allow such exercise as is needed for the welfare of the particular species. Where in a fur farm do we ever see items such as nesting boxes, pools or branchwork to aid natural behaviour? In a natural habitat, mink would have at least a 40 sq m pool. Where do we see that in a fur farm? Where do we see natural soil or sand and gravel? Where do we see the hollow logs and rocks that would at least be an attempt to recreate a natural environment? If those basic minimum requirements were provided, it would not be economic to breed mink for their fur and the industry would collapse. Is that what Conservative Members are arguing for?

I have never been described as a fashion victim. Dedicated followers of fashion do not need animals to suffer for their style. The only fashion victim in this case is the mink.

Given the average age of Members of Parliament, I suspect that we have a few Doris Day fans in the Chamber.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Angela Smith

The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Doris Day has said how embarrassed she is when she looks back at her films to see how often she wore fur. She now campaigns against the breeding of animals for fur. I hope that that does not spoil the right hon. Gentleman's fantasies.

The Bill will ban fur farming—not just the keeping of mink, but the possibility of a return to arctic fox fur farming. It is a measure whose time has well and truly come. It has been delayed for far too long, during which time more mink have suffered and been killed as a result of the actions of the House. This a modern, compassionate move that will be warmly welcomed across the country. It will have the support of the majority of Members of Parliament and of people outside the House.

6.17 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The Minister's speech deserves a wider audience. Let me save him at once from any embarrassment by saying that I did not mean that as a compliment. When I asked him to explain the moral distinction between farming for fur and farming for meat, bearing in mind that neither was essential to sustain life, he said, in effect—we will not have an argument about this, because Hansard will show what the Minister said and he will have to live with it—that the eating of meat was a majority habit, whereas the wearing of fur was a minority habit. Anybody with even the cursory knowledge of history that one might expect of a Labour Member of Parliament knows that parliamentary democracy developed in this country not by extinguishing minority rights, but by protecting them.

In contrast, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) made a much better speech. I agree with her approach, although I disagree with some of her conclusions. The Bill is an animal welfare measure or it is nothing. If mink cannot be farmed humanely, that is the end of it, because the wearing of fur is not essential. In the same way, if animals raised for meat could not be farmed humanely, that would be the end of it.

Had the Government argued that there was nothing wrong per se with the farming of mink, any more than there is anything wrong per se with the farming of animals for meat, but that they wanted standards greatly improved, we could have understood. That would have enabled us to look at the issues in more detail. We hear stories about how mink are in deep distress when they are being farmed. Like the hon. Lady, I took the trouble to go to a mink farm. I deliberately went to the best one that I could find, because I wanted to see what could be achieved when the best was being adhered to. I saw animals that could be handled and were not in deep distress. They were no worse to handle than a ferret. They appeared to be content with their captivity. The argument that an animal cannot be domesticated in 70 generations is supported by the fact that when they go back to the wild, they adapt, but so will an ordinary domestic cat if it is entire when it goes back to the wild.

We need to get into the detail of that. If the Government had examined the issue and decided that higher standards were necessary, even if those standards put fur farmers out of business, I would have said "So be it". If humane conditions cannot be achieved, the practice should stop.

I really do wonder when I hear people talk about the fact that prosecutions take place and say that that is justification for abolishing the industry. The point has already been made that the convictions under the present legislation show that it is up to the job. If we need enhanced legislation, let us have it, but that is not the argument that has been made.

The Bill will have another practical consequence. At the moment, when Ministers go to meetings in Europe they can talk about the conditions in which mink farming takes place in the EU. They have a contribution to make. If Ministers simply say that we have abandoned mink farming, what standing will they have in the EU to discuss the subject? We should aim for higher standards, here and abroad.

The real motivation behind the Bill has been revealed time and again this evening—although not by the hon. Member for Garston, because she learned the lessons of her first attempt—and just a moment ago, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) offered us her views on fashion to justify banning a legal activity. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) had the naive gall to say that he found the wearing of fur pretentious. I find a group of new Labour glitterati wearing ill-fitting but expensive Armani suits unbelievably pretentious, but that is no reason for abolishing them. When the argument is reduced to that level, it is easier to understand the motivation.

The Bill is an animal welfare measure. We should have been listening tonight to an argument that justified the Bill because mink cannot be farmed humanely in any way. Instead, we have heard a load of guff about some convictions that, it is claimed, have contaminated the whole industry. Every now and again, the seeping class prejudice leaks out from Labour Members to try to justify this thoroughly illiberal measure. If the cause of animal welfare had to depend on that analysis, God help the animal kingdom, because this Government will not.

6.22 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I hold no candle for the fur farming industry. There is none in my constituency, my wife owns no fur and, indeed, I own no fur, although I wish that I was rich enough to do so. I would happily do so if I could afford it. However, I am concerned by the fundamental illogicality of the Bill and the worrying principle that lies behind it.

I would understand it—although I would disagree—if the Government said that they believed the wearing, trading, farming and production of fur was immoral, wicked and distasteful, and that they intended to ban it. That would be a logical position, and indeed that is what many animal welfare activists would like the Government to do. The activists think that the wearing of fur is disgraceful and they are prepared to slash people's fur coats to prove it. They want the selling and farming of fur to be banned. That is a logical position, but not one with which I agree.

It would be equally logical to argue that the standards of welfare on fur farms should be raised to an acceptable level. If that cannot be done, as Labour Members have argued, the industry will disappear, not only here but in all those countries with which we have trade relations. However, there are 1,200 mink farms in the USA, which operate in the same way as ours. The US industry has 1,400 retailers, which turn over £1.5 billion a year. The United Kingdom trades 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. of the world's fur in London. It would be logical if the Government were trying to ban the trade, but they do not propose to do so. It will be legal for me to buy mink pelts in Calais and to sell them to retailers in this country and abroad. That is the first fundamental illogicality in the Bill.

The second was highlighted by the case of a farmer in Austria. He took the compensation offered by the Austrian Government for closing down his farm, and moved it some two miles down the road to the Czech Republic. He still uses the same cages, animal welfare methods and production method as before. In the same way, the effect of the Bill will be to export the animal welfare considerations about which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and others are so concerned. We will have high standards of animal welfare here, but what about the situation in Mongolia, which I visited recently with the Inter-Parliamentary Union? That is where most of the fur comes from. What about the situation in Russia, China, the US, France, Germany and Ireland?

Maria Eagle

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that we legislate for this country, not for Russia and Mongolia.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Lady is right, and I said the same thing when we legislated on pig stalls and tethers. We have put our pig industry out of business, but in Calais they use the methods that we are banned from using and export pork to this country. That is what will happen under this Bill.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he strolled into the Chamber at a late hour, presumably to try to get a mention in his local paper. We will export to Calais the animal welfare controls that we should have here. We should argue for high animal welfare standards for mink farms before the world, but just to ban fur farming here is as logical as the socialist borough of Islington going to some length to ban fox hunting in the borough. There has been no fox hunting in Islington for 300 years, but the socialists on the council wished to ban it for politically correct reasons. The Bill is equally politically correct.

The Bill will not improve the lives of mink anywhere in the world. It will not improve animal welfare standards at all. It will put a few people out of business, but it will not reduce the amount of mink sold in the world. I would not mind if there were no mink farms in the UK, but the Bill will not do what Labour Members want it to do. All they are interested in is the opportunity for some politically correct posturing. They can say, "We are brave animal welfare activists and we are going to ban 13 unfortunate farmers from making a living." However, hundreds of millions of pounds worth of fur will still be traded in London. Fur will still be worn here. We will still be able to buy fur from Mr. A1 Fayed in Harrods. It will still be legal for hon. Members to wear fur coats in the Chamber, if they wish to do so.

All the Bill will do is ban the farming of fur, but it will still go on 22 miles across the channel and everywhere else in the world. That is illogical and illiberal. We are taking a politically correct, holier-than-thou stance. I mentioned earlier the issue of cruelty to pet dogs, but the hon. Member for City of Durham, who is no longer in his place, misunderstood my point. Some people are cruel to their pet dogs, and it is important that we have legislation to prevent that and under which we can prosecute the perpetrators. However, we do not say that because some people are cruel to their pet dogs we will ban the ownership of pet dogs. The Bill is the equivalent of that, and I shall seek to oppose it in the Lobby this evening.

6.28 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I apologise for leaving the debate shortly after the Minister began his speech, but I had to attend a Select Committee. I am sorry that I missed some of the arguments, but I remember the debate on the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). We have not moved on from the extraordinary illogicality at the heart of the Bill.

No one has to kill an animal for anything. None of us has to eat meat to survive, because we could survive on grains and vegetables. Indeed, we would save much agricultural activity, because it takes seven kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef. We eat meat because we enjoy it. It is as simple as that. If people enjoy wearing fur, as another by-product of animals, I do not see any logic in differentiating between that and eating meat.

A raft of legislation has been passed in connection with the industry—for example, the Mink (Keeping) Order 1992, the Mink (Keeping) Regulation 1975, the Mink (Keeping) (Amendment) Regulation 1997, the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulation 1995, the Council of Europe convention on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, and the EU directive on farm animal welfare.

The Minister is the man responsible for implementing UK and EU directives on animal welfare. If there has been cruelty in mink farms, or if high crimes and misdemeanours have been carried out in such farms, that is his responsibility but, as in earlier debates, he has completely failed to answer my simple question.

I said earlier that, under the raft of existing regulation, it is possible to rear rabbits to maturity and that, under the Bill, a rabbit could still be kept in a cage and legally killed for its meat. However, the Minister has never explained why its owner would be fined £20,000 if the rabbit in the adjacent cage were killed for its fur.

In fact, there is no real need to kill either rabbit. We do not need the protein from rabbit meat, or the warmth from rabbit fur, as both commodities can be found elsewhere. Keeping rabbits is not a necessity but if it is legal to keep them for one purpose, should it not be legal to keep them for another?

Assertions have been made about cruelty. I have spoken to people from Scandinavia who are involved in the business, and the Dutch Government have undertaken research into the matter. I refute what the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) said about cruelty. Dr. Georgia Mason of Oxford university's zoology department has said that, compared with other intensive farming practices, mink farming is the best example and gives the least cause for concern.

There is no logic to the Bill, but it is even more dotty that, on a day when we could have had a proper debate today about Sierra Leone, where British soldiers are engaged in a serious expedition to a troubled part of the world, the House should be discussing 13 fur farms, owned by 11 fur farmers. There are 6,000 fur farms in the EU, including the UK. Britain produced only 160,000 skins last year, compared with global output of 25 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pointed out one of the nonsenses of the Bill. He described how, when a farm in Austria was closed, the owner moved the cages a few miles down the road to where he lived and in fact doubled the size of his operation. It is extraordinary that the Government should devote this precious parliamentary time to a measure that remains thoroughly unsatisfactory.

I managed to catch some of the opening remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). I agree with him that the Bill sets an appalling and dangerous precedent, in that the whims of an urban Government can decide how people can make a living in the countryside.

Another dangerous precedent is that the compensation remains unclear. The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill suggest a figure of £400,000, but I regard that as mythical. In the Austrian case that I described earlier, the Austrian Government had to pay about £400 per pelt to the man whose business was closed down. The Government can expect many millions of pounds to be claimed in compensation as a result of the Bill.

Today, I have spoken to Torben Nielsen, the managing director of the Copenhagen Fur Centre, and to Wim Verhagen, the chairman of the European Furbreeders Association. They are convinced that the Bill is in clear breach of European regulation 827/68, which covers the common organisation of the market in certain products listed in annexe II of the European treaty. They also consider it to be in breach of European Council directive 98/58, concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes. They think that it breaches the general EU law principles of the right to property and the freedom to pursue a trade or business. Most importantly, they regard it as being in breach of articles 28 and 29 of the European convention on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes.

The industry is a significant one in Europe—for example, it makes up 4 per cent. of Denmark's gross domestic product—and those who oppose the Bill are determined to take it right through the European courts. The cost to the British taxpayer will be enormous.

So what is the Bill all about? What lies behind its introduction now? The Labour party took £1 million off the International Fund for Animal Welfare before the election. There are clear signs that the Government remain in cahoots with animal rights activists.

The trade has been trying to find out when national fur day would be held. It was held yesterday, in fact—interestingly, the day before this Second Reading debate. That information has been available on the internet site of the animal rights activists for two months. That simple fact explains why we are debating this extraordinary measure tonight.

The Bill will not increase the sum of mink happiness, as mink farming will simply move abroad. It will entail considerable expense, as the British taxpayer funds compensation claims and huge legal fees. The mink farmers are sure that they will win their case, and so even larger amounts in compensation may have to be paid.

The Bill is thoroughly flawed. It sets the unhappy precedent that farming enterprises should be closed down for so-called moral reasons, even though no moral case can be made. Finally, the compensation provisions are a disgrace: it is not clear how people will be compensated, and the amounts proposed are inadequate.

The head of the European fur farmers' organisation has said that people should not be able to buy legislation, but that is what has happened with this Bill, which I oppose.

6.37 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I shall be brief, but I begin by declaring an interest. I am a member of the National Farmers Union and of the Country Landowners Association, and I am also a consultant to the Countryside Alliance. In addition, one of my constituents, Mr. Peter Harrison, is a fur farmer.

The Minister has engaged in an extraordinary amount of ducking and weaving to get the Bill on the statute book. He said that his motive was predominantly one of public morality. However, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) made a good speech—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Right name, wrong constituency.

Mr. Atkinson

I beg the hon. Lady's pardon, of course I meant to refer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I disagreed with what she said, but at least she made her views clear. Every Labour Member who spoke in support of the Minister based their support on the animal welfare argument. I believe that the Minister cannot use that argument, as to do so would cause him to fall foul of the European Court of Human Rights. That is why he has used article 30 of the European convention referred to earlier, which deals with public morality, as his main justification for the Bill.

My hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) have dealt with that, and I shall not pursue it. However, I want to ask the Minister to give some details about compensation.

Why could not consultation and discussion have started before the Bill came before the House? It is common practice to have an outline of a scheme before a Bill reaches this stage. My constituent Mr. Harrison has been described as one farmer who would be happy to take the compensation package, as he has been harassed by animal rights protesters for years. There have been court cases and arrests, and armed guards at one stage had to be stand guard over his mink farm.

Mr. Harrison is happy to leave the industry, but he does not know whether he will receive a paltry few thousand pounds out of the £400,000 on offer, or whether he will leave on the terms enjoyed by the Austrian fur farmer about whom we have heard. The Austrian received a substantial payment and was able to open another farm a few miles away in the Czech Republic. If fur farmers were to be compensated at the Austrian rate—based on the number of breeding females that they own—the Government would face a bill of £8 million or £9 million, compared with the £400,000 estimated in the Bill.

What happens if, as is inevitable, the Minister loses his case in the European Court of Justice? What happens if that court rules that the UK has acted unconstitutionally in this case? Will the fact that they have been put out of business illegally give fur farmers the right to seek further compensation?

Finally, it is a pity that the Minister will not be publishing the Government's legal advice. It is not always the case, but legal advice is sometimes placed in the Library. What will happen if the Minister loses that case? Will he resign?

6.40 pm
Mr. Moss

We have had a good debate on the issue, although we have covered much of the ground that was covered before in the Standing Committee considering the previous private Member's Bill. Without question, the argument has been won on this side of the House.

The Minister sought to justify the Bill on the basis of public morality, but I do not remember one other person supporting him on that basis. Most Labour Members returned to the old arguments of animal welfare. There is no question but that Conservative Members would support animal welfare provisions to improve the lot of mink on mink farms. The Government are not bringing forward legislation to provide for that, however—no, they are going the whole hog and imposing a ban.

As I said in my opening remarks, the proposed ban has no roots, that we can see, in European legislation. It was wrong for some hon. Members to refer to other countries having introduced a ban. Switzerland is not a European Union member, so that is irrelevant. Austria may have implemented the ban before it became a member and regional bans are not the same as a national ban.

The ban must have proper legal underpinning. We have already had submissions from other European Union countries that are going to take the matter to the highest court in Europe. It is likely, based on the legal advice that I and other right hon. and hon. Members have received, that the Government will find themselves with egg on their face. They will be forced on to retreat because they have not done their homework on the legal process.

Mr. Morley

Not true.

Mr. Moss

The Minister says "Not true" from a sedentary position, but he gave the House no justification of the legal basis for his public morality position. I submit that when this comes before the European Court of Justice, based on current EU legislation, this legislation will not reach the statute book. We will have a free vote on the Bill this evening, but our opposition to the Government is deeply felt, and we want the Minister to justify his stance in Committee.

6.43 pm
Mr. Morley

Some good points have been made in the debate, as well as some poor ones. I will address the more reasonable questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members on detailed aspects of the Bill.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) spoke about compatibility with European Union law. I repeat that the Government are confident that the Bill is compatible with EU law, and we have taken the appropriate advice on that. The hon. Gentleman was quoting from EU law that is not relevant to this legal point. We are talking about morality, but he was talking about EU law on welfare. The Bill deals not with animal welfare standards but the wider question of public morality. Directive 98/58/EC, which he quoted, is about welfare standards, and the legal opinion quoted is therefore not relevant to the Bill. On proportionality, if the aim is to stop the breeding of animals for fur, no less proportionate response could be introduced. I cannot see any element of discrimination on the ground of nationality in the way in which this is being applied as a United Kingdom measure.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) said that a number of countries had taken action on fur farming. In answer to his question, I am not aware of any challenge taken against those countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) spoke eloquently on a range of aspects in relation to fur farming. She argued her case very well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg). He made a sophisticated speech and dealt well with interventions—indeed, his rebuffs were devastating.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) put forward some quite strange arguments. If I understood him correctly, he was arguing that the Government cannot get involved in any issue of morality, and should have no role in introducing legislation on matters of morality. I do not know how that attitude squares with issues such as paedophiles and pornography. They are issues of morality on which the Government have a view in relation to protecting public morality and responding to the views of the people who put them forward. That argument was entirely spurious and should be rejected.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, spoke about visiting fur farms. Well documented research on fur farms demonstrates that welfare issues need to be dealt with. The Government are arguing for a ban on the basis of public morality, but in my opening remarks I outlined a range of issues that are a part of public morality, including welfare, the effect on the environment and the cost of dealing with escapes. Many other issues are part of the wider issue of public morality, which is the overriding argument for banning fur farming.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a number of perfectly reasonable points on behalf of his constituent. I acknowledge that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House represent fur farmers. We must address the question of compensation, and how it will apply. During the process of my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill, we discussed these issues with the National Farmers Union and with individual Members of Parliament who contacted me to talk about their constituents, which is a proper democratic function of the House. I argued in Committee that we ought to take into account the issues raised in amendments. My hon. Friend worked very hard to bring together the different sides on this matter.

The Government are committed to bringing forward the Bill; it was outlined as a pre-election pledge on animal welfare. We have delivered on the majority of our pledges. Our policies on fur farming were published long before the donation from the political animal lobby was given. The political animal lobby decided that it would donate to the Labour party because it believed that the Labour party had the best policies on animal welfare and was committed to implementing them. The lobby was quite right in that respect.

As part of discussions that my hon. Friend had with the NFU, changes to the Bill were made in Committee. The hon. Member for Hexham, who served on the Committee, will be aware of that. In the course of that Bill's progress, I gave some clarification on the details of compensation and of the issues that we would take into account such as the costs of demolition and legal advice that fur farmers may have to take. Every assurance that I gave on behalf of the Government to the NFU through the offices of my hon. Friend has been incorporated in the Bill. I have stuck to every assurance that I gave in Committee, even though this is now a Government Bill and we are not obliged to incorporate everything that was discussed in the Committee considering my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill. Nevertheless, we have stuck to our principles. Where we gave assurances, they have been written into this Bill.

I am a little disappointed in the NFU's response. I do not think that its representatives kept to the spirit of what they said to me in the course of those discussions. While it is certainly true that the NFU is not in favour of the Bill—I have never claimed that it was—it made it clear to me that because of the interests of its members, it is not opposed to the Bill progressing. Even in the brief quoted by hon. Members, which I have read, the NFU does not call for a vote against the Bill or say that it wants to stop the Bill.

Many of the fur farmers are having a difficult time financially. The Bill gives them an opportunity to exit from the industry with some compensation. A great many of them would depart anyway without that financial support. It seems hard-nosed of Opposition Members to imply that we should set standards that would bankrupt fur farms rather than dealing with them as reasonably as we are.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Is it not in everyone's interest that the trade should cease as soon as possible because of the uncertainty and risks involved? Does the Minister intend that compensation may be made available before January 2003, or does he hope that a war of attrition will make constituents such as mine give up before it is available?

Mr. Morley

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that. Any fur farmer who chooses to leave the business before the date on which the Bill is enacted will find compensation available as part of its second stage.

The hon. Member for Hexham asked why we had not begun consultation with the affected fur farmers about the details of the scheme, and the answer simply is that there cannot be detailed discussions on compensation before the statutory consultation period, which may substantially change the nature of the compensation.

The Bill is an enabling measure, putting in place powers to make the compensation scheme. Consultation will take place on the nature of the scheme and the income lost. It is difficult to specify great detail about compensation at this stage. Some wild claims have been made about the compensation required, and it would be wrong of the Government to paint ourselves into a corner before we have considered the implications and the way in which compensation would be calculated. As soon as the enabling powers have been enacted and the consultation period begun, we will arrange for accountants to talk with individual fur farmers about income and profits. Then we can consider the nature of the scheme.

I have no doubt that there is wide public support for a measure of this kind. Public morality comes into that, and we are taking account of the views of the public. We have consulted a wide range of professional and welfare organisations to ascertain their views. We received 88 responses, only two of which were in favour of retaining fur farming. All the others, some from organisations that represent many people, made it clear that the most appropriate way forward was a Bill banning fur farming. That is what we have done.

We have made our intentions clear. We have been questioned about the morality of our approach. Morality is important when it comes to the treatment of animals. I shall repeat our view on the morality of fur farming. Fur farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life. Animal life should not be destroyed in the absence of a sufficient justification in terms of public benefit. Nor should animals be bred for such destruction in the absence of sufficient justification. That is the essence of our argument for applying morality to a Bill of this kind, and for justifying it under article 30 of the EU regulations. We are entirely entitled to do that, and the advice to the Government is that we are within our rights. We are confident that our measures are fully compatible with human rights legislation and the requirements of the single market.

Some Conservative Members have argued that the Government must justify the application of morality. I have done so. However, those Members should justify their argument that this is not an issue of morality. They should consider that animals are kept in intensive conditions, in cages. We know that there are issues of poor welfare. Some animals are being kept simply so that their skins can be removed from their backs to make clothes for which there are many alternatives.

Mr. Baker

Given the Minister's strong commitment to public morality, on which he has based this Bill, can he explain why the Government are not introducing a Bill to ban fox hunting?

Mr. Morley

That is a matter for my hon. Friends at the Home Office. The Government have, however, already given a commitment to investigate the matter, and the Prime Minister has given a commitment that hon. Members have a free vote. The question is how we take the issue forward, but that is a matter for the Home Office.

Mr. Steinberg

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) compared the pretentious wearing of fur coats to the wearing of Armani suits by Labour party poseurs. Can the Minister tell us how many Armanis it takes to make a suit, and how they are killed?

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes a good point, although I have never heard of an Armani being skinned to make a suit.

We have heard a lot about morality, but where is the morality in Conservative Members arguing that the Government cannot introduce a Bill such as this because it would offend some people in other countries? Where is the morality in arguing that we cannot introduce a Bill because some people with a vested interest might take the Government to court? Where is the morality in treating animals in a way that simply is not needed in modern society? Those are not the standards that people expect in the 21st century. The Bill is long overdue, it commands popular support and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).