HL Deb 23 March 1978 vol 389 cc1945-65

12.25 p.m.

Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are now in a position to make a Statement on the export of live farm animals. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. My Question asks whether the Government are able to make a Statement on the subject of the export of live animals. I do not expect to get the sort of Statement that I had in mind when I put down the Question, and indeed I am not inviting that kind of Statement today because the situation has obviously changed with the publication this morning of the Yellow Paper—which is perhaps a new colour in discussion documents in Parliament. Nevertheless, there are a few points and questions which I can put on this subject. Other noble Lords may wish to add to them.

First, can my noble friend, when he comes to reply, give the House any idea of the Government's programme with regard to the discussion of this Paper and the interval that is to elapse before conclusions can be reached? The second question is whether there will be an opportunity for a debate on the report in this House before the Government reach conclusions. I think both of those questions are important. I hope that, on a subject of this kind, it will not be regarded as sufficient for a debate to take place in another place only. We have a close interest in this subject here.

My next point regards the composition of the working group of officials who compiled this report. I take this to be a welcome sign of more open government. I think it is a genuine contribution to placing before Parliament and the public the considerations involved in a difficult and sensitive subject, often attracting a great deal of emotion, so that we can consider the facts calmly and closely before a decision is reached. That is far better than the Government making a Statement on their conclusions and saying that a Paper is in the Vote Office this afternoon. For the Government to listen before reaching conclusions is better than that they should not listen after they have reached their conclusions.

May we, at some suitable point, be told who comprised the working group of officials, merely so as to know what are their credentials and whether there were veterinary officers among the working group. After all, this is an anonymous group presented by the Ministers concerned to Parliament and to the public. It is an advantage when a report of any kind is produced for which the Minister is not taking ministerial responsibility. He has received a report and says, "Well, let it be published and let the public judge, let Parliament discuss, and then we will reach our conclusions." Therefore, I do not think it unreasonable to ask to know who were the working group officials. Recently, when there was a report on dogs and society from an inter-departmental working party, the names of the chairman and other members of the working party were published along with their report. I think that that is quite a reasonable thing to ask.

I come next to the size of this problem. It is obviously much greater today than it was some years ago. In Annexe B some figures are given which, as regards sheep, for example, do not tally with the figures published in The Times newspaper on 16th March, which I understand were given by the Meat and Livestock Commission. The numbers have risen significantly, the export of calves going up from 249,000 in 1976 to 394,000 in 1977. In Appendix B, the numbers given for calves do not differ significantly from the figure I have quoted, but, as regards sheep, there is a considerable difference. According to the figures given in The Times as coming from the Meat and Livestock Commission, the numbers of live sheep went up from 32,000 to 356,000, whereas Appendix B gives 200,000, so there is a big difference there.

In any event, the numbers are large. Apparently the Commission said that they did not think exports of sheep would rise again in 1978, partly because of the greater restrictions expected against British meat for sale in France. Difficulties on that head are referred to in the report. At the moment, I am simply indicating points which the Government should study before we come on to the subsequent debate.

I come to the welfare side referred to in the report relating to EEC regulations. It may be that the reply given by Commissioner Gundelach in the European Parliament on 16th March is later information than that contained in the Yellow Paper before us. I am indebted to Caroline Jackson, Press Officer of the European Conservative Group, for an abbreviated account of the reply given by Commissioner Gundelach, who said that the Commission was about to propose implementing regulations to tighten controls on transport and was also about to propose an action programme for animal protection.

That, incidentally, was in reply to a question put by Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, a Member of the British House of Commons, who is a Member of the European Parliament. Commissioner Gundelach said that the Commission was quite satisfied that, in general, the conditions of slaughter were adequate in the Community, but that it had started proceedings into instances. Then he went on in the summary which I mentioned—and this is important— On the other hand, the Commission was not satisfied about the conditions for the transport of live animals and it was for this reason that they were concentrating on the proposed legislation and action programme.". That rather suggests that, notwithstanding the recitation in the Yellow Paper of the regulations in the EEC, there is still some disquiet there about conditions of transportation and the need apparently to tighten up controls and have an action programme for what Commissioner Gundelach described as animal protection. That may be an important development too.

Another development is that, in order to protect their own industry, the French have imposed a still higher import tax on sheep and lambs going into France, with the result that there is likely to be a greater diversion of exports from this country via Holland to escape the imposition of this additional tax. So not only may the figures change but the destination of considerable numbers of sheep and lambs may also change. Nothing is up to date for more than about five minutes at a time in the world of today and therefore any report which is dated March 1978 almost requires one to ask on what day in March 1978 the report was concluded so as to know whether it is really up to date. Apparently, two things have happened since the completion of the report.

I come to another point which I believe is important: We should avoid the attitude of the animal welfare organisations being misrepresented. On page 8, we read: Views of the animal welfare societies: The animal welfare societies remain opposed as a matter of principle to the export of live food animals from the United Kingdom to the Continent". I suggest one has to be very careful when using the words "of principle". This is not marriage or divorce or euthanasia, where people have very strong principles based on convictions which are not open to argument or discussions. The welfare organisations are not, I submit, in the position where they do not listen to what the facts may be or what the arguments are. Really and truly, the welfare organisations are opposed to something happening where the conditions under which it is happening are unsatisfactory; that is, where some cruelty may be imposed upon animals.

It may be that the animal welfare organisations in general concede to animal life rights which many human beings do not concede, and believe that animals can claim to have some rights of their own in the living world, in the environment and in their association with human beings. That may be, as a matter of principle, a rather different attitude towards animal welfare to that which many people have. I do not want it to be thought that the animal welfare organisations are just stubborn and unreasonable, are not open to argument and will not listen. It is not a matter of a closed mind based on some conviction which is unshakable; it has to do with the facts and what is happening.

On this matter of welfare, there was an interesting development recently when a meeting of port workers' shop stewards was held in Birmingham on 11th March. It was convened by the shop stewards of the Hull port workers and there appeared in the newspapers a report saying that the shop stewards from the ports were to recommend to their members that they should ban the export of live animals from British ports. That was a very significant decision for port workers' shop stewards to take; they must have some very strong grounds for disquiet if they go to the trouble of holding a special meeting on a Saturday to consider recommending such a ban to their members. I shall not dwell on the aspect of industrial relations involved in any such decision. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that these workers obviously have very strong feelings about the subject, otherwise they would not have convened a meeting for that purpose and would not have made such a recommendation to the port workers. That is a development of considerable importance.

Along with the question of calves being exported, a good deal of publicity was given to the visit of two Members of another place, and that visit—the visit of Mr. Mills and Mr. Hicks—is referred to in the report. The details appear in paragraph 50 and, after indicating what their experience was, the report ends: They have, however, suggested that exports of live animals for slaughter should be phased out". That was quite an important conclusion for those two Members of another place to come to, bearing in mind that they both represent considerable agricultural constituencies. We can also welcome in the report the reference, in paragraph 46, on page 12, to the fact that the National Farmers' Union, the RSPCA, and the British Veterinary Association are getting together on an informal basis to form an export welfare group, which I believe will contribute greatly to a rational approach to this problem.

In general, my question mark about the report is this. While it is good in dealing with what has been suggested, and good in expressing the views of the various bodies consulted, I do not find in it any indication of close examination by the committee of the actual facts of welfare and of the observance of regulations. I have here voluminous papers, though I do not propose to refer to them in the few minutes more that I shall occupy the House, but it has been put to me that those who know about this will say that wide-spread disregard of the regulations is almost endemic in this trade, because, it is claimed, if one complies with the regulations fully, then, the competition being what it is, along with the steps taken by the French to keep one out, they lead to an uneconomic transportation industry of live animals. I do not see any evidence in the report which supports any conclusions about welfare. It is fairly obvious that when the numbers have risen to the extent they have, supervision and enforcement are bound to be more difficult than they were before. There cannot be a rise in the numbers I have quoted without very great strain being put on all the resources, on the veterinary officers and all concerned with the supervision and enforcement of the regulations.

It is an extremely useful report, and I congratulate the Government upon adopting this method of dealing with this difficult problem. There will be many questions asked about it. There will be probes into the basis upon which it reaches certain conclusions, but I hope that, in the end, we may have a combination of compassion, as well as realism, in reaching final conclusions.

Looking at the economics of exploitation of animal life in this particular regard, we all remember that when the bans were lifted, after the O'Brien Report of 1974, we were all very concerned with the balance of payments. We were ready to give up home consumption of food produced here if it would help our balance of payments. That situation is substantially changed now, and I do not think that the economics of this matter really relate to any problem about the balance of payments. They may relate to the balance of trade, but not, in present conditions, to any serious problem regarding the balance of payments. That aspect of the matter is, I believe, very different indeed. I saw the noble Lord, Lord O'Brien of Lothbury, in his place a little earlier, and I was hoping that he would remain for this debate and, if necessary, say something on the subject. His committee, in 1973–74, devoted itself very earnestly to what must have been to him, and to the other members, a strangely unpalatable task. This now is the second chapter in that consideration. I hope that we shall be given adequate time not only to study it but to debate it in this House.

12.44 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he would reply to a suggestion I wish to make to him. In his closing remarks he referred to the opportunities we would have to debate this important report, and I would draw his attention to the fact that as the report has been available in the Printed Paper Office only from 10 o'clock this morning, as he himself said earlier, your Lordships have been placed in a somewhat difficult position to debate it on a day when we are about to rise for the Recess—together with the fact that the report is somewhat lengthy, running to 44 pages. Does the noble Lord feel that it may be possible to take a further opportunity to look at this matter on some more suitable occasion, and that your Lordships may do better not to proceed with this Question at the moment? Would the noble Lord—


My Lords, I am sorry; I was looking at my papers as the noble Lord was speaking.


My Lords, if the noble Lord is consulting his papers and considering this matter, perhaps I may continue with my remarks. I believe that we are under a particularly difficult set of circumstances, and while recognising most fully the public interest in, and the urgency of, this matter, I feel that this Unstarred Question merits much fuller consideration and investigation by your Lordships before we discuss it in the depths to which your Lordships are accustomed. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has anything to say at this stage. If he has, I should be only too happy to resume my seat—


My Lords, I see that there are present other noble Lords who were hoping to contribute to the debate on my Question, and I think that we should have at least a preliminary reply from the Government on the first point I mentioned, on procedure.


Very well, my Lords; I am only too happy to continue.

The noble Lord has raised a particularly important subject, from the point of view of both the agricultural industry as a whole and, further, the very wide interest in the European Convention, which is to come into effect in August 1978. I should like to go over a little of the history leading up to the report, and further to comment upon it in relation to the O'Brien Committee Report, because I believe that the two are most intimately linked. With your Lordships' permission, I should like to go over some of the history of recent years, because it may benefit some of us to refresh our memories upon it.

Your Lordships will recollect that there was a suspension of trade in 1973, and the appointment of the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord O'Brien of Lothbury, took place in July of that year. The committee investigated most carefully the circumstances of the trade, and it reported on 27th March 1974. Its report was considered, a debate took place in another place on 17th January 1975, and the resumption of trade occurred almost immediately. Since the trade was suspended a number of things have taken place, and I believe that it will be generally recognised that what has happened since 1975 has been, overall, to the benefit of the conduct of the trade in all its aspects.

But certain other factors had entered into the situation. In the first place, the numbers of fat cattle being exported have dropped, and the numbers of calves have been greatly increased. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, referred in particular to the very substantial number of calves. I shall not repeat the noble Lord's figures, but there was an increase in the past two years, between 1976 and 1978. Further, the transport arrangements have changed quite substantially. The introduction of roll-on/roll-off ferries has become almost universal for part of the trade with Europe; and there has also been a growth in the air transport of calves, especially to countries as far afield as Italy and North Africa.

The European Convention for the Protection of Animals during international transport is a Convention to which the signatories have given great consideration, and the charge made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is one with which certainly I most heartily disagree. He said—and I quote his words—that "widespread disregard of the regulation is endemic in the trade". This is a serious charge, and I think we ought to consider it in some depth.

At this point, I should like to refer back to the key paragraph in the report to which I referred earlier; that is, the O'Brien Committee Report of 1974—and I hope I shall not be trespassing on the indulgence of your Lordships if I read it. It occurs at page 22 of the O'Brien Report, where they say (and they begin, "If"): If we had come to the conclusion that the trade was inhumane, we should have had no hesitation in recommending a ban on that element of the trade which is carried on in live form. We have not come to such a conclusion, however, and we are therefore proposing a system of controls which we consider will safeguard the welfare of animals in the slaughter trade". My Lords, they do not stop there, for in their consideration the O'Brien Committee went on to say this: We believe that by allowing the trade to continue under strict and respected conditions we could set a practical example to those other nations which trade in livestock, and thereby contribute to a general raising of standards. I believe that that was the spirit of the O'Brien Report. They weighed the evidence most carefully, and they came to a considered verdict upon it. If it is the fact now, in the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that "widespread disregard … is endemic in the trade", I hope that, in a future debate, he will be able to lay before your Lordships his evidence to this effect, because I think it must be manifest that a very considerable improvement has taken place in standards generally, both in Europe and to the further shores of North Africa, since the ban took place. I think that the example set in introducing these regulations in this country, and the initiative taken by the Dutch in implementing their own legislation, has had some effect in improving standards generally.

I should now like to refer to one particular aspect which I know that those with much greater knowledge than myself, especially my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood, would like to draw to your Lordships' attention. It concerns the basic need for an export trade of this sort. I go back to the summer of 1976, and to the drought that occurred during that year. That drought occasioned a very serious situation in the farm-feed world. It occasioned a rise in price of feedstuffs, especially hay, which doubled and in some cases increased a little more than that, during the course of the autumn of 1976. A very serious situation could have occurred—it had occurred in other years—when there were something of the order of 14½ million cattle and calves in this country to be wintered on fodder, and feed for only (and I quote figures roughly) about 13 million. It would have been a most unfortunate situation if the industry had been unable to feed those cattle within our shores, and therefore there was an excessive amount of slaughter of cattle, to the depression of the market and to the flooding of the trade generally. So, my Lords, this export of animals gives a breathing space in a situation such as that which I have described.

Other circumstances must also be catered for, and it is surely the whole spirit of the Treaty of Rome, of which this country is a signatory, that we should be able to trade with our partners on an equivalent basis. Your Lordships have earlier drawn attention to the fact that there is an unfortunate situation in relation to the export trade between Ireland and France and between France and this country. I believe, and I am sure my noble friends believe, that it is a matter of great importance that we are ironing out the differences between all member nations of the EEC, to the benefit of trade between us all. This European Convention, to which attention has been drawn, comes into effect on 1st August, and the interim arrangements meanwhile, we must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, have been unsatisfactory, largely because the signatory countries felt they were unsatisfactory within themselves. They are now willing to concede that the Convention itself would be a more manageable system, and I believe that, as there are only four months which have to elapse between now and 1st August, the period involved is a relatively short one.

My Lords, I refer back to what the noble Lord said in regard to the shop stewards' meeting at the Port of Hull; and I believe that one should consider what the O'Brien Committee reported in regard to that situation. I believe that, in their considerations, the O'Brien Committee took account of a great deal of evidence, both from respected official bodies and from other welfare organisations in this country. I believe that we ought to investigate with great care the report which has been published this morning. I have penetrated only one-half of the report so far, but I noted that on page 18, in paragraph 70, there is this remark under the paragraph headed, "On the ferry". I quote the first sentence: It has been alleged from time to time that animals have been carried in excessively bad weather, but there has been no evidence that animals have suffered on these occasions. I do not believe that that is a wholly accurate statement because, of course, there has been evidence in the past that live cargo carried by vessels travelling to the Continent and other destinations has suffered on occasions. Nevertheless, the situation has improved within the last few years.

In closing, I believe we should give much closer consideration to this report, and I would welcome the opportunity to do so if the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, can arrange with the usual channels for a debate to take place after the Recess.

12.59 p.m.


My Lords, knowing very well that most of your Lordships are waiting impatiently for the House to rise for the Easter Recess, I shall be as brief as I possibly can be. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for having raised this Question; and, as I think some of your Lordships, at least, may be wondering why both he and I take up the time of your Lordships with what may be considered an unnecessary and unimportant matter, let me say that it is not an unimportant matter. To cause unnecessary suffering to creatures who are unable to defend themselves is morally wrong. It is just as bad with animals as it is in the case of small children. We heard during yesterday's debate a plea for better conditions for the mentally subnormal pace the noble Baroness, Lady Stewart; and very rightly, too! But it is every bit as bad to cause unnecessary suffering to animals who are unable to protect themselves. Therefore the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and I will go on as long as it is necessary.

There is one question that I should like to ask. When are the Government going to take some steps to rule out this quite hypothetical distinction between animals exported for immediate slaughter and those exported for further fattening. There is no distinction whatsoever between the two. The great point is that eventually they are both going to be slaughtered in Continental slaughterhouses. That is the fate from which we are trying to protect them.

A great deal of emphasis has been laid on the question of transport; but, although it can be very bad, transport is by no means the worst of the evils. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, has quoted from the O'Brien Report but, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord and also to Lord O'Brien, a great deal has been discovered since publication of that report that they were unable to have access to. That knowledge has been made available to us by responsible people whose opinion one must take seriously.

As president of one of the societies which consider particularly this matter that we are discussing this morning, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for what he said about the welfare societies. I can say that we are very careful indeed never to make any statements that are not absolutely provable in fact. We are very careful to keep the emotional side—which unfortunately is only too ready, with some societies, to creep in—outside our calculations. But one cannot deny facts that have been proved by those who have seen them. Some of the conditions in Continental slaughterhouses are absolutely unspeakable—even since the EEC regulations which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys.

I welcome those regulations but there is very widespread evidence that they are disregarded. I am afraid that some may think that this is a serious charge, and in fact the noble Lord himself called it so. Well, so it is; but it is, unfortunately, a true one. I am not speaking from personal experience. I have never seen them myself—and thank goodness for that!—but the conditions in some slaughterhouses are completely outside the regulations and are unspeakably awful. Therefore, I hope that this entirely hypothetical distinction between the two will be withdrawn. I will not take up the time of the House further, but I hope sincerely that the time will come before long when the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and I and others no longer have to keep on taking up your Lordships' time on this matter.

1.4 p.m.


My Lords, I shall be very brief because we are all hoping to get home. I am possibly the only farmer to speak in this debate and the only person who is the chairman of an auction market where we have representatives from the welfare societies. We have a slaughterhouse. I do not run one, but we have one which is used by all the farmers and which is quite near.

May I assure the noble Lord, Lord Somers, that the improvement in slaughterhouses in this country has come about largely as a result of the EEC regulations. The standard has gone up considerably, for the houses have to spend a great deal of money in bringing their standards up to the EEC Commission standards. I do not know about the French or the other foreign ones; but here it is true that, if you are running a slaughterhouse, you are not allowed to have it operating unless it fulfils the standards insisted upon by the EEC. Whether they insist upon those standards in France or in Holland, I do not know; but I can only tell your Lordships of what happens here. That is a fact. I would hotly deny that our slaughterhouses are thoroughly bad. Those in this country are extremely good. I do not believe that the Continental slaughterhouses would be allowed to function if they were not up to the same standards.


My Lords, I never raised a word against slaughterhouses in this country. I know that they are excellent because our own society does regular inspections of them. They are of a very high standard.


My Lords, the standards have had to be raised—and that is my point—since the EEC Commission so decided. The noble Lord the Leader of the House will hear me out on this because he was in on the regulations which were originally started in this matter.

My Lords, I have had only a short time to read this report, but I should like to say that paragraphs 89, 90 and 91 are very much to the point in that the trade does depend on selling both carcass meat and live meat and that it is important that we should be able to sell live meat to the Continent because it is quite often the live bidding in auction markets which enables one to sell one's animals at a proper price. This is something which is really vital to the trade.

The French market is very important. Speaking now for the farmers in the hill country where we produce store sheep and store cattle, I may say that the amount of sales very often depends on whether or not the French market is open. Many a time I have been to the auction mart selling my own lambs and the word has gone round that the French market is open. Everyone knows then that the price of animals will be considerably better than if the French market were not open. One could say that about other EEC countries; but France is the biggest importer of our mutton.

I drew attention in my speech in the agricultural debate on Monday to the fact that, at the moment, the French market seems to be being operated in an entirely arbitrary manner. The French allow Irish sheep into their market free and they levy sheep that come from this country. I understand that the Government have, rightly, protested hotly about this and telegrams and letters have gone between the Minister of Agriculture and the EEC, where the French are represented. I hope that that will produce some satisfactory result; but, in fact, it is most important for the trade that these foreign markets should be available to us. One of the reasons that we are in the EEC is in order to be able to trade on an equal basis with the markets in Europe.

The paragraph in the report which refers to the question of backdoor methods is, I think, one that we must ask should be explored. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, I do not think that it is right that, in order to get our animals into the French market, they should have to go via Holland. That is breaking EEC Commission regulations. I hope that the Government will be very tough about this. I am sure that they will, because the Ministry of Agriculture is obviously well aware of these matters and I am sure that the Minister will be anxious to do what he can to stop this kind of arbitrary method of operations.

I have only had a very short time to read this document but I think it is very fair. It puts the case for those who are against the export of animals as well as the case for those who are in favour of it. I look upon this as a matter which is vital to the operation of agriculture in this country. It would be most unfortunate if we cannot export. I am sure that it is the right to export, otherwise we shall find ourselves without a big enough market. This is not because we are trying to keep our sheep or cattle away from our own people, but simply because they cannot buy all that we can produce in certain lines. We import a lot of food; but the fact that we can export commodities that are needed and wanted in Europe is vital to our trade. I am sure that the Government will back us up on this. I am speaking for a large proportion of meat and livestock producers and I am quite sure that we shall have the support of the Government. I hope that this document will be a help and not a hindrance in these matters.

1.12 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, my name is not on the list of speakers and I do not intend to make a speech. I should like to ask my noble friend who is to reply two questions. First, in view of the fact that it is obviously not possible for your Lordships to debate this afternoon a report which was published only this morning, and in view also of the fact that interest has been shown in all quarters of the House in this important subject, will the Government do their best to facilitate a debate after the Easter Recess?

My second question—to which I do not expect an answer now—is this: Will the Government consider whether, if, as the O'Brien Report said in 1954, there is still a surplus capacity in our slaughterhouses at home, this could be used to "accommodate"—if I may use that word—at least some of the live sheep and cattle now exported to the Continent?

1.13 p.m.


My Lords, I also apologise because my name is not on the list of speakers. I suppose that for the past five or six years I have been more closely connected with this subject than most other noble Lords. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for raising this matter. It is an extremely important issue, one that is often debated in various ways. I agree with him and hope very much that there will be a full debate in your Lordships' House because in this type of debate we tend to talk more sense than some other places.

I should like to ask the Minister whether he will do his best to speed up consideration of this problem as well as perhaps helping us to have a debate fairly soon. One matter is absolutely clear in this whole business of exporting, whether it is goods or animals. It is tremendously important to build up exports on a sound and firm basis. One of the reasons why the numbers have increased so much in the past year is because conditions have been looked after much more carefully. The trade have gone into this much more thoroughly. They have built up their contacts and the trade has grown in a way that I believe is broadly satisfactory to almost everybody.

I have two or three short matters to raise. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, about the comment in the report of what a good thing it is that the NFU, the British Veterinary Association and the RSPCA should have got together working closely on this matter. This is not new. I set up an exactly similar operation about three years ago and it began to work extremely well.

It may well be that the present situation regarding the balance of payments position is not as serious as it was when the noble Lord, Lord O'Brien of Lothbury, made his report; but this is not really the key to the question whether or not live exports should continue. The problem is much bigger than that. If the balance of payments problem is less, the problem of profitability on the hill farms and the farms that produce the sheep and the calves, in many cases from the hills, and also from the dairy industry, has become much worse. So on balance there are at least one or two arguments to be made.

Before I sit down I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Somers, that it is not just himself and his noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby who are keen to prevent unnecessary suffering—I think he expressed those words—to animals being exported or handled in various ways. Those of us in the business are all, for very good reasons, just as keen as other noble Lords to prevent unnecessary suffering. If one thinks of the auction marts to which my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood referred, they receive a much worse price if the stock they are selling is not properly handled. The farmer, if he does not look after his stock properly, gets a worse price. Also the butchers get bad carcasses. So everybody who is concerned in this trade is just as keen as the two noble Lords to prevent unnecessary suffering. This is a point worth making because some of the letters the noble Lord, Lord O'Brien of Lothbury, received—and certainly some that I used to receive—seemed to indicate that anybody who farmed did not care in the least how their animals were treated. The truth is the exact contrary. If one did not take that trouble there would be very few animals to look after.

1.17 p.m.


As the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, has said, the report which is the subject of this short debate was published only this morning. As the noble Lord said, he has had the opportunity to read only part of it. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said the same. My noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby seems to have read the report completely. I must congratulate him on this. He has probably taken a rapid reading course and therefore has the advantage of many noble Lords. I cannot help agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, that the debate is somewhat premature. My noble friend was critical of the colour. He did not like the yellow. I can assure him that there is no significance in this colour. We wanted to avoid a political colour such as red. We also wanted to avoid the usual green. Apart from that, there is no significance in the colour of the report.

I thought that the noble Lord was a little disparaging about those who took part in the Committee. He asked me who they were. The group comprised administrators and veterinary surgeons employed in the State service. I should like to pay a tribute to them for their report and for the immense amount of work that they put into this. It may be helpful if I remind the House of some of the background to this report. Noble Lords will remember that the Government of the day—I think a Conservative Government—appointed the O'Brien Committee in 1973 to inquire into the exports of live animals for slaughter and to consider whether the welfare of such animals was properly safeguarded. The Committee concluded that a permanent ban on live exports was not justified on either welfare or economic grounds and that the most economic way to safeguard the animals' welfare lay in the implementation of common European measures, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys.

Following a free vote in another place at the end of 1975, the Government decided to allow the resumption of the trade under close veterinary control. Since that time, there have been a number of improvements to the welfare safeguards as a result of common EEC measures. In 1975, the EEC adopted a directive which required that animals must be stunned before slaughter. Last year, another directive was adopted which will give the force of Community law to the existing European Convention on the Protection of Animals during International Transport. This latter directive comes into effect on 1st August next. The United Kingdom has played a leading part in the Community's work for animal welfare, and I agree very much with the concern expressed by my noble friend and by the other speakers in this debate.

Criticism of the live export trade has, however, continued and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided in July last year that he would give close and detailed consideration to all aspects of the trade and would study the views of the principal organisations involved. The agricultural Ministers therefore set up a working party of officials, and they have produced the report which is published today.

The report, which is comprehensive and straightforward, provides essential information to enable Ministers to reach a decision. The report is the result of detailed study which has taken place over the last eight months and which has involved consideration of evidence from 36 organisations and individuals and also visits by officials to those countries to which live food animals are permitted to be exported. Noble Lords will see in the annexe to the report the number of societies and organisations who gave evidence, including, I am glad to say, the RSPCA and the National Farmers' Union.

It is a comprehensive and clear study of the welfare, economic and legal aspects of the trade. It rehearses the evidence and arguments which were put forward by the welfare interests and also by the exporting interests; and it discusses them in depth. It sets out the relevant legal considerations and it concludes that on the welfare aspects there are considerations both for and against the continuance of the trade and that there are ways in which control of the trade could be extended further.

The conclusion on the economic aspects is that the weight of advantage to the United Kingdom lies in continuing the trade. The legal advice is that difficulty would be experienced in justifying a ban on exports under Community law. The publication of the report is an earnest of the Government's intentions to introduce more open Government, since the report is an example of the material supplied by civil servants as a factual basis which Ministers may wish to use when taking a policy decision. The Government thought it right and useful for the report to be published.

Before the Government make their decision, particularly on a subject of such wide general interest as animal welfare, Ministers consider it necessary to allow time for Members of this House and of another place, the many interested parties and the general public, to consider the facts collected in this most useful and far-reaching report, together with their implications. The report considers that the considerations are complex and that the answer is by no means obvious.

I have listened with the greatest interest to the various points raised by my noble friend and by other speakers and I am sure their first reactions to this report will be carefully noted by Ministers. It is clearly much too soon to do more than welcome this publication this morning, and Her Majesty's Government will need to take account of the points of view expressed today and in the coining weeks before they reach their decision on this important subject.

I was asked by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and by other noble Lords, when a decision would be taken. As I say, it will need time to study the various implications, but it is hoped to make a statement in due course. With regard to a debate, as my noble friend the Leader and my noble friend the Chief Whip are sitting behind me on the Front Bench, and the Opposition Chief Whip is also present in the Chamber, I am sure it will be discussed between the usual channels. As I say, I am grateful to noble Lords for expressing their views, in so far as they have been able to do so, on this report. Those views will be carefully noted.