HC Deb 06 November 2001 vol 374 cc111-3 3.33 pm
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I beg to move. That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit journey times in respect of the transport of animals to slaughter; to promote the establishment of a network of local slaughterhouses; to limit the frequency with which animals may be brought to market in any twenty-day period: and for connected purposes. The purpose of my Bill is to implement a series of practices that will improve safeguards against the spread of contagious diseases such as foot and mouth among farm animals. It is also designed to promote responsible purchasing practices among supermarket chains, and better working practices among cattle, pig and sheep farmers and dealers. Both would reduce significantly the possibility of a further epidemic.

Eight months on, Government, farmers and scientists are still speculating over the causes of the current foot and mouth outbreak with no one apparently having proof positive of the specific origin. Despite that uncertainty, it seems very likely that the rapid and extensive spread of the disease was due to multiple journeys and lengthy journeys. Animals were transported in quick succession in and out of markets and elsewhere by dealers looking to maximise their profit on each animal, which simultaneously exposed the greatest possible number of animals to any infected ones.

Lengthy journeys to slaughter became widespread in the meat and livestock industry in the 1990s. As well as the obvious and real implications for tracing a subsequent outbreak of a contagious disease, multiple journeys and long trips to slaughter have serious consequences for farm animals' welfare. Long periods of travel lead to fatigue, dehydration and distress. One does not need the brains of a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scientist to realise that consistently exposing an animal to a cramped, hot and noisy environment is intrinsically traumatic, and can lead to a compromised immune system and greater vulnerability to contagious and generally debilitating diseases.

A factor in the upsurge of such commercial practices has been the centralisation of supermarkets' distribution networks, which they present as driven by consumer demand for cheap food. Disingenuous claims such as those prolong the use of questionable methods, which the supermarkets frequently practise outside the gaze and perception of the consuming public.

In the United Kingdom, 80 per cent. of the market is now controlled by the five largest retail chains, including Wal-Mart, whose recent arrival is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Government to enact coherent legislation regulating the movement of animals to market and slaughter, and the location of that slaughter. My Bill helps in the formulation of such legislation.

The provision in the Bill to impose a maximum limit of eight hours on the transport of animals to slaughter is, as Compassion in World Farming points out, rather limited, but it is, regrettably, the shortest limit that the European Union allows member states to impose on journeys to slaughter. CIWF believes, as I do, that those journeys should be as short as possible. Not only does that accommodate farm animal welfare considerations but, from commercial and public health perspectives, it improves the quality and integrity of the product.

Extensive and ever increasing journey times have followed the closure of hundreds of local abattoirs. The network of abattoirs is shrinking, and in the past 15 years in England alone over 60 per cent. of abattoirs have closed, leaving barely 300, with all the attendant adverse impact on animal welfare. Producers and dealers have often ignored using local abattoirs in favour of the marginal increases in profits gained from those larger abattoirs that have the seal of approval of supermarket chains, despite the distances involved in getting the animals to slaughter.

The second part of the Bill is designed to promote the continuance, or in some cases reopening, of a network of local abattoirs. The spate of abattoir closures in the 1990s coincided with tougher EU meat hygiene laws, which smaller operators found expensive to comply with. That extra cost was compounded by the supermarkets' decision to source their meat from a handful of large remote abattoirs whose prices had not risen as significantly as those of smaller local ones.

Further closures of local abattoirs need to be arrested and some that have closed must be encouraged to re-open. In order to achieve that, the Government must examine ways of providing financial assistance to them, through EU structural funds perhaps, and stimulating investment in local abattoirs. The Government should also enter into negotiations with our EU partners to secure a revision of EU meat hygiene law that creates a better balance between high standards of hygiene and ensuring the economic viability of more local abattoirs.

Farmers should be encouraged to use local abattoirs. One possibility may be to make a proportion of their subsidy dependent upon the use of local abattoir facilities. Supermarkets should be encouraged to relax their policy of sourcing from a few large abattoirs and to buy meat from local producers. Their present, no doubt efficient, centralised distribution networks raise serious health and welfare concerns. Supermarkets need to be persuaded to adopt a more holistic approach to the communities to which they sell goods and in which they carry out their business. Whether that change of direction is best achieved by fiscal inducement or legislative constraint is a matter for a future debate.

The third provision in the Bill would place further restrictions on the movement of farm animals in the UK market and auction network. When an animal has been brought to market, it could not again be brought to that or any other market for a period of 20 days.

If any good has emerged from the foot and mouth disease debacle, it is that the transient spotlight of political concern has focused for the moment on the transportation, marketing and dealership of sheep, a multi-sale culture that the RSPCA believes should be substantially reduced or, better still, eradicated. The 1997 RSPCA survey of 200 livestock markets showed starkly that the vast majority were failing to adhere to legislation in some key welfare areas.

The adverse impact on animals of repeated loading and unloading, the potential for spreading disease, and their welfare track record calls into question the whole future role of markets. Poorly trained and supervised drovers, inadequate animal holding areas, few if any drinking facilities and serious overcrowding: does not that litany of market abuses merit the immediate action that the Government were swift to take in other markets?

In the internet age, is not a thorough review urgently needed of the archaic and often cruel system that we use to buy and sell animals? My Bill takes a worthwhile step down the road of reform. My suggested movement control is hardly a provision pitting the country dweller against the urban masses. Even the Livestock Auctioneers Association has called for a 20-day moratorium on the movement of animals to market.

The practice of purchasing cattle, pigs and especially sheep at market and then transporting them speedily to another or to several different markets to increase the profit made on each individual animal has to be checked, and swiftly. The final part of my Bill would, I believe, make an important contribution to arresting the culture of multiple market journeys that has taken root in the live animal industry in this country.

Animals are sentient beings. They are a type of stock very different from the intangible ones moved around by the barely animate lads in eccentric jackets and loud ties—but one would not always think so. Animals have a right to far better treatment from us. Like us, they have feelings, even if they do not have reason and language. If we, ourselves animals, have rights, then it is both logical and moral to extend them to other animals.

We should respect those rights. As the present dominant species in the natural world, we have the right to use its resources, but only if we balance that with our duty of stewardship over that natural world, and with a duty of care to and for other animals. That duty includes protecting them from unnecessary physical pain, emotional distress and commercial exploitation.

If foot and mouth disease has taught us anything, it is that neglect and abuse of sentient beings in the pursuit of maximum commercial gain can have the most serious consequences, in both welfare and economic terms.

Compassion in World Farming has described my Bill as a vital weapon in the fight against infectious animal diseases". I hope that the Government agree with that assessment, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by David Taylor, Mr. Adrian Bailey, Colin Burgon, Mr. David Drew, Paul Flynn, Judy Mallaber, Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mr. Gwyn Prosser, Bob Russell, Dr. Howard Stoate and Mr. Mark Todd.