HL Deb 28 March 1973 vol 340 cc1043-7

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention has been drawn to an article in the News of the World of March 18 reporting gross cruelty to British cattle in the course of their export to Europe; whether they can confirm the accuracy of this grim and detailed report; and, if so, what action they are taking or propose to take in. it is hoped, the immediate future.


My Lords, my attention has been drawn to this Press article and a full report was received on March 22. Her Majesty's Government are urgently seeking the co-operation of the Belgian Government in investigating this most disturbing report. Any action called for on our part will be taken as soon as these inquiries are complete.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for that sympathetic reply. Would he not agree—and I am sure as a well-known East Anglian farmer he would agree—that the whole subject of the export of animals for slaughter should now be tidied up once for all? Would he agree that there should be a complete ban on the export of all animals on the hoof, with the obvious exception of those required for breeding purposes on the Continent?


My Lords, I have much sympathy with the views of my noble friend. The Government will be extremely concerned if the facts in this report should prove to be true. I cannot agree entirely that a complete ban on the export of cattle is desirable, unless it can be proved—as it was in the case of sheep—that in all circumstances the Balfour Assurances were being broken. We have no evidence at the moment that that is the case with cattle.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that when I asked a similar Question on the export for slaughter of cattle on the hoof he told the House that this trade was only, I think, 2 per cent. of the total export trade? Would not my noble friend agree that for the sake of 2 per cent. of exports it is hardly worth carrying on with this trade in view of the fact that extreme cases of cruelty may occur?


My Lords, the figure was not 2 per cent., but 1 per cent. I do not agree entirely with my noble friend. Agriculture, like any other industry, is perfectly entitled to export.

The export of agricultural products is to be commended. I agree with him if his question is: Should there not be safeguards? We have safeguards; the safeguards are the Balfour Assurances. If those safeguards are broken then action should be taken. The Government are making sure that the newspaper reports are correct.


My Lords, are Her Majesty's Government aware that the Minister of Agriculture has for some time been receiving fully documented reports from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on these evils? These are not only the evils which are dealt with by the Balfour Assurances, but concern the non-implementation of our own safeguards in this country. It has been admitted that our veterinary service have not sufficient resources to enforce those regulations.


My Lords, there were two reports of infringement of the Balfour Assurances prior to 1972. Those during 1972 have referred mainly to sheep. That is the reason why action was taken regarding sheep.


My Lords, we are worried not only about the Balfour Assurances, but about our own regulations being properly enforced at this end.


My Lords, if the noble Baroness has any evidence that these regulations are not being properly enforced at this end, I will take the matter up if she will let me know the details.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that such evidence has been sent to the Ministry of Agriculture, and is still being sent to them? It is no good asking for information when Her Majesty's Government already have it.


My Lords, I fully take the point. I will investigate the matter. I can only repeat the offer, that if that information has been sent and nothing is being done if she sees that the information is sent to me I will see that it is dealt with.


My Lords, surely the noble Earl will agree that the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer of the R.S.P.C.A., dated October, 1972, proves without a shadow of doubt that the original Questioner's remarks are absolutely correct, and this export should stop at once.


My Lords, will the noble Earl tell the House, if he is satisfied that there has been cruelty to sheep, why should not the same people be cruel to cows?


My Lords, it was not a question of cruelty to sheep, but that the Balfour Assurances were being broken in so far as sheep were being re-exported from the country to which they were sent. In all cases exporters were found to have infringed this law. That is the reason why the Department of Trade and Industry refused to issue any more export licences for sheep.


My Lords, has my noble friend seen the important letter in to-day's Times, pleading for an inquiry into this whole question of export, and will the Government give the matter raised in that letter the most careful consideration?


Yes, my Lords; I have seen that letter, and it is a very interesting one. Of course, it has been published only to-day and it is too early for me to give a considered opinion upon it, but I certainly give the noble Lord the assurance that this matter will be considered very carefully. I would add only this. The Government are just as concerned as are noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon that animals which are subjected to slaughter are subjected to it in a humane manner. We wish to see this done. If the regulations which are in process for this to be achieved have been broken, it is our desire to see that some form of alteration should be made.


My Lords, would Her Majesty's Government not agree that, now that there are refrigerated trucks and refrigerated containers, the need for the export of cattle live on the hoof is absolutely gone?


My Lords, I could not agree that the need for export is absolutely gone, because it is the business of this country to trade and to import and to export. Provided that that trade is done humanely I can see little to be objected to. The objection arises when it is done inhumanely, and the Government are just as keen as is my noble friend to see that it is not done in that way.


My Lords, is it not possible to trade just as efficiently in carcases as it is on the hoof?


I dare say it is, my Lords, but it does not mean that the one excludes the other.