HL Deb 28 November 1978 vol 396 cc1175-89

5 p.m.


My Lords. I beg to move that the draft Welfare of Live- stock (Intensive Units) Regulations Order 1978, a copy of which was laid before the House on 1st November, be approved.

The matter before your Lordships today is that of farm animal welfare, a subject over which this House has always shown deep concern. We are, my Lords, already a signatory of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes which was opened for signature by member States of the Council in March 1976. The Convention, which was drawn up by the Council's Committee of Experts on the Protection of Animals, sets out in general terms principles for the welfare of animals kept for farming purposes with particular regard for animals in modern intensive stock-farming systems. The protection of animals kept for other purposes falls outside its scope. Its principles have been framed in such a way as to be precise enough to prevent completely free interpretation, but wide enough to allow for different needs.

In addition to the United Kingdom, nine other member States of the Council have signed the Convention and four have taken the further step of ratification. The Convention came into operation on 9th September last, when the pre-condition of ratification by four member States of the Council had been fulfilled. To be able to ratify the Convention, member States of the Council have to establish that their national law on farm animal welfare is in conformity with its provisions.

I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that our legislation in Great Britain, as contained in Part I of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, conforms with the Convention in all but one respect. The exception is that our law does not specifically require, as does Article 7 of the Convention, the daily inspection of livestock and equipment in intensive units. The regulations we are now considering will fill this gap. The legislation of Northern Ireland also has a gap and similar regulations will be made to fill it.

Only those countries which have ratified the Convention will be able to become full voting members of a Standing Committee which, under Article 8 of the Convention, the Council is required to establish once four members have ratified the Convention and brought it into force. The Standing Committee will have the important task of producing detailed provisions for the implementation of the principles set out in the Convention and will be expected to make recommendations to the contracting parties to the Convention. It will be required to facilitate settlements of disputes between contracting parties concerning the implementation of the Convention and to give advice when contracting parties seek it. The Standing Committee has no executive power—the contracting parties do not have to accept its recommendations—but these recommendations and its advice will nevertheless carry great weight in a wide international forum. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the United Kingdom should put itself in a position, through making these regulations, of being able to ratify the Convention so that, as a contracting party, we may play a full and rigorous part in the work of the Standing Committee.

The draft regulations before your Lordships rely, of course, on powers in Part I of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 under which it is an offence to cause or knowingly allow farm livestock on agricultural land to suffer unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress. Your Lordships will know the Act requires that we consult the interests affected by these proposals. This we have done and some modifications to the proposals originally circulated have resulted from the consultative process. Our Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee has also been consulted. I am pleased to tell your Lordships that these consultations have revealed that daily inspection of livestock and equipment in intensive units is already a normal practice in this country.

I will now turn to some of the details of the draft regulations. Modern intensive methods of stock-keeping have come to rely more and more on equipment much of which is operated automatically and on which the animals kept in this way may depend for their lives. Therefore, the welfare, and indeed the survival, of livestock in these intensive units depends on the effective running of this equipment It also depends, to a considerable extent, on high standards of stockmanship being observed. These factors are recognised in Article 7 of the Council of Europe's Convention, which stipulates that stock and equipment in intensive livestock units should be inspected at least once daily and that any defects in the equipment should be remedied with a minimum of delay. If there is a defect which cannot be put right at once, all measures necessary to safeguard the welfare of the animals are required to be taken immediately. The definition of "intensive unit" in the draft regulations now before your Lordships recognises the dependence on automatic equipment of animals kept intensively, and defines "intensive unit" in terms of the extent to which the welfare of livestock kept in this way depends on such equipment.

Regulation 2 sets out the requirements that stock and equipment in intensive units, as defined, should be inspected at least once daily, and that if the stock show signs of being other than in a state of well-being, or if defects are found in the equipment, all necessary measures to remedy the situation are immediately taken.

I feel sure that your Lordships will acknowledge the very real concern shown by the British farmer and his stockman, in the great majority of cases, for the welfare of the livestock in their care. Our consultations with interests on these regulations, as I have already said, have confirmed this concern by revealing that daily—and sometimes more frequent—inspections of stock and equipment in intensive units is general practice in this country: these inspections are an important part of good husbandry practice and the need for them is reinforced by the natural concern of the farmer for the source of his livelihood.

I hope I have been able to explain why the Government propose to make regulations which require those keeping livestock in intensive units to act in a way which is already normal practice. We need these regulations, which were passed by another place last Friday, to enable us, through ratification of the Convention, to become full and active participants in the Standing Committee of which I have spoken earlier. In this way we shall be able to play a full and constructive part in the development of European policy on farm animal welfare. My Lords, I am confident that the House will approve these draft regulations. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Welfare of Livestock (Intensive Units) Regulations

Order 1978, laid before the House on 1st November, be approved—(Lord Strabolgi.)

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for explaining in such detail the draft regulations. Indeed, it will be especially grateful because on examining the Hansard of another place for Friday last, I was unable to discover that any discussion took place. Therefore, the opportunity for a fuller discussion in your Lordships' House is particularly welcome.

I should like to stress from this side of the House that we support the regulations which fill the gap which the noble Lord set out. There are four questions which I should like to ask the Government and of which I have already given prior notice. The first problem which occurred to me when reading the regulations was the definition and meaning of the phrase "intensive unit". We read in the regulations that: 'intensive unit' means a building in which livestock is kept under a husbandry system". I should like to ask the noble Lord whether the definition given in the regulations excludes intensive grazing units or, indeed, intensive agisting units as regards grazing in a situation outside the holding concerned?

The second problem arises in regard to the question of the right of entry. The Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, to which the noble Lord drew attention and which of course is the source from which these regulations draw their authority, contains a section which deals with the penalties for refusing admission. Let us imagine circumstances in which an official of the Ministry of Agriculture is refused admission to a holding by a member of the staff of that holding. Under Section 7(2) of the Act the penalty on summary conviction for doing that is a fine not exceeding £20. I hope that the Government will examine this situation because it is one which gives rise to public concern. There may be reasons for a member of staff refusing entry to an official making an inspection. Indeed, we all know only too well that a few years ago inspectors may have carried foot and mouth disease from one place to another. Of course, they always take the greatest possible trouble, but can they be 100 per cent. certain? That is the second point that I should like to raise.

Thirdly, can the Government identify the operative date of the regulations? Our understanding is that it will be in the very near future. And fourthly, can the noble Lord say what consultation has taken place with interested parties to these regulations?

5.14 p.m.


My Lords, certainly we should like to welcome these regulations, although I very much doubt their value except as a standby in the case of people who are either very rich or very foolish. One can invest a great deal of money in an intensive system, and I assume that one of the main objects of the regulations is to deal with the intensive system whereby hens are kept in cages and the food travels round to the hens instead of being in front of them all the time. Personally, I think that it is appalling to see the poor brutes jumping up and down waiting for the food to arrive and then, presumably after it has come, settling down to lay an egg before it comes round for a second time. Tremendous distress could be caused if such apparatus were to break down and I think it right to have regulations to deal with people who are foolish enough to neglect it. However, the investment is such that they must inspect these systems, in my view, two or three times a day. Certainly as regards the ordinary system of keeping cattle, my cattle are never inspected less than three times a day. Therefore, I hope that the regulations will enable foolish and cruel people to be caught, but in general I should have thought that the cruelty regulations would have covered the situation. However, if it is necessary to have these regulations to subscribe to the convention, then obviously that is what we must do.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, there are two important debates to follow this one and I fully understand that I must not trespass unduly on the time of the House as regards these regulations. Nevertheless, Parliamentary experience teaches me that one must grasp opportunities as they come, to deal with matters about which one feels deep concern. Therefore, I shall try to confine my remarks as closely as possible to the regulations before the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, raised the question of what is an intensive unit. That seems to be set out fairly fully in the regulations. I thought that the noble Lord was going to read on from where he stopped because it says: a husbandry system that, for the purpose of providing for the care of the livestock, relies on automatic equipment to such an extent that failure of that equipment will cause the livestock to suffer unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress unless the failure is rectified or other provision is made for the care of the livestock". That is the significance of the matter with which we are dealing. We are concerned with animals which rely upon automated care. The figures given by the Ministry in another place indicate that about 90 per cent. of eggs and broiler chickens are housed in intensive units. A very high proportion of farrowing sows, young and growing pigs and many calves—although probably not the majority—are also housed nowadays in these intensive units. That makes the condition of this very large proportion of our livestock a matter of considerable concern to all those who are studying the welfare of animals.

The draft regulations have been explained by my noble friend with his customary clarity. We have gathered that they are narrow in scope and probably of little practical consequence. We are gratified that the conditions under which animals are to be kept in intensive units in this country conform, under our existing legislation, with the Convention of the European Council with the single exception that up until now we have not had regulations which require a stipulated frequency of inspection. These regulations propose that there should be an inspection at least once a day.

Frankly, I should have thought that any farmer or stockman who does not inspect stock at least once a day under these conditions is not fit to be in business. Indeed, my noble friend has confirmed information that I have received from other quarters that generally speaking stockmen in this country are not content for only one inspection a day—indeed, the British Poultry Federation, whose Director-General I consulted on this, said in a letter to me: In practice we would regard these regulations as an absolute minimum. We would expect our membership to inspect far more frequently than once a day". He went on to say: I would be very surprised if our members insisted on less than three visits a day to stock under any circumstances". That is very welcome information. Therefore, this regulation, so to speak, underwrites the more favourable practice which is prevalent in our intensive farming industry.

I believe that under the Agricultural (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 which is reproduced in this order, there is a weakness with regard to enforcement. Regulation 3 says: A person who fails to comply with the provisions of the preceding regulation shall be guilty of an offence under section 2 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968". But, as I understand it, the principal Act itself does not contain anything very frightening with regard to penalties. One would assume from the provision in the regulation which I have just quoted that severe treatment would be meted out to anyone who fails to comply with the regulation. But that is not so, because if we turn to the 1968 Act we find that: Failure on the part of any person to observe a provision of a code for the time being issued under this section shall not of itself render that person liable to proceedings of any kind". What it does do is to expose such a person to a presumption of guilt if he is charged with causing unnecessary suffering to livestock and it is found that he failed to comply with the code. If I am wrong in that respect, no doubt my noble friend will correct me. But sometimes we suggest that dire penalties will be imposed for non-compliance when in fact that is not the case.

I do not want to be disparaging about this matter, but could any regulation provide for less than this? It really is the smallest improvement in existing conditions; in fact, it is not an improvement in existing conditions, it is merely a reinforcement of the very minimum that reasonable stockmen and farmers observe in their daily practice. I should not like to say that it is not worth the paper it is written on, but in practice it will not make very much difference to the conditions of the battery hen, the imprisoned calf or the battened-down sow. I shall not dwell on the conditions of these animals, which are brought up under intensive conditions. All I shall say is that I have yet to meet a human being who envies a battery hen. None of us can be absolutely sure what pain and suffering living things endure under the conditions which we impose upon them.

Of course, the Minister could have gone further than this. There is nothing under the proceedings in the European Convention which would have prevented him from making some improvement or at least embarking on steps which might lead to some improvement. Many years ago we were pioneering in this field, but we are no longer doing so. Therefore, these regulations are really a formality. It is a formality to complete the ratification of the regulations by the British Parliament and so to qualify for membership of the Standing Committee which is provided for in Article 9 of the Convention. As my noble friend pointed out, the committee shall be responsible for the elaboration and adoption of recommendations to the contracting parties. That is a good thing to be in. We shall be taking part in the evolution of improved regulations and conditions for livestock kept in these conditions.

What happens next? My noble friend did not carry the discussion any further than the simple explanation of the contents and implications of the regulations. I do not complain about that. In his official position he cannot make a bid for reform quite so freely as I can. However, if we are to take part in this Standing Committee, I think that we should be considering how we shall use the opportunity to bring about more improvements.

There is one article in the convention which I think is suggestive of the line of consideration for the future. Article 3 of the convention says: Animals shall be housed and provided with food, water and care in a manner which—having regard to their species and to their degree of development, adaptation and domestication—is appropriate to their physiological and ethological needs in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge". That is an aspect of animal care to which I do not think we have given very much attention.

I shall conclude with a more general reference to the problem of the controversies which always surround regulations and consideration of animals kept under these conditions. I think that on occasions like this it is a pity that producers and consumers always appear to be thrown into opposite camps. On one side of the controversy there is the "industry"—and there are publications such as the Poultry World and other trade papers—implying worthy, conscientious, kindly people working for the public good and in all respects entitled to consideration and appreciation. On the other hand, we have this new section of the community called the "welfarists'', implying a breed of emotional do-gooders whose hearts rule their heads and who are a bit of a nuisance. It is a pity that the discussion is developing in this sort of way.

I commend to my noble friend and, indeed to your Lordships, a very constructive lecture given by Dr. David Sainsbury recently to the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare and which is summarised very fully indeed in the issue of the Poultry World of 18th November this year. If I may, I shall conclude by saying that he has put forward, quite briefly, some proposals which he sees as the only way in which to try to replace the often extreme stances taken by those on both sides of the frequently acrimonious argument. I think that that is something we all want to see, but it requires much more investigation into this very important matter of so-called factory farming than appears to be on foot at the moment.

I therefore leave the thought with my noble friend that there ought to be some place, apart from the statutory and nonstatutory advisory committees of experts to which he referred, in which the industry and other experts, and the so-called "welfarists", may come together to study what are the welfare as well as the economic and other aspects of the industry. That, I think, would offer some hope for the future. If we go on as we are, and every time these orders come up there is a denigration in some quarters of the "welfarist" and an acrimonious attitude towards the industry by those who are very keen indeed on getting greater welfare in the care of the animals concerned, that I think is a constructive idea that I can leave with my noble friend.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the order, and apologise to the noble Lord that I was not here at the beginning of his speech. Many people who eat their boiled eggs in the morning are not aware that there is a 95 per cent. chance that they will have been laid in a battery where the hens will almost certainly be bare of feathers as they peck each other four to a pen, and, when they eat their bacon, that the pigs may not have been able to turn round for long periods at a time.

I should like to ask two questions. First, does the noble Lord not feel that the regulation of acceptable cruelty in the management of battery or factory animals is reduced each time a new machine is produced which is proved to be the most efficient way of keeping those animals? Secondly, approximately how many inspectors, in relation to the number of units in the country, are there at the moment, and how many will there be in the future? Is there any likelihood that the number of inspectors at the Ministry can in any way cope with the number of factory units in the country?

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, as on previous occasions when matters concerning animal welfare have been before your Lordships we have had a serious and useful debate, and I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part, and particularly, for his constructive and helpful approach, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby who, I know, feels strongly on these matters. I can understand the views of noble Lords who feel that perhaps we ought to be doing more for animal welfare than provided for in these draft regulations. But, as I explained, they are of a technical nature and designed to enable us to ratify the European Convention on the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes.

I can assure noble Lords that the Government intend to continue a policy of making sound provisions in this sensitive area when there is a clear need firmly based on scientific knowledge. In this we shall be aided by full participation in the work of the Council of Europe which ratification of the convention, and membership of the Standing Committee, will bring, since this will enable us to benefit both from a closer knowledge of the work of the other European countries concerned and to offer them our own valuable experience. In framing our approach to subsequent work in this field we shall continue to draw on the invaluable advice provided by our Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, I think that that is really the justification for this order, to enable us to play our full part.

Noble Lords have asked a number of detailed questions, which I shall do my best to answer. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, referred to the other place and said he could not find anywhere any reference or account of the debate in Hansard. The regulations went to a Standing Committee last Wednesday and only came formally before the full Chamber of the other place on Friday, but they were fully considered in the Standing Committee, and I would suggest that he gets the Hansard covering the deliberations of that committee. The noble Lord also asked about an intensive unit, which, of course, in the regulations means a building. I can confirm that only a building is intended. It was not the intention to include such systems as zero grazing, referred to by the noble Lord, and hopper systems, as these are not sufficiently automated to come within the scope of the definition of an intensive unit.

The noble Lord also referred to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, and the question of the fine for an offence of refusing to admit an inspector which, as the noble Lord said, and rightly, is only £20. The noble Lord asked, as he was fully entitled to do, whether this should be reviewed. The offence involved, of course, is one of obstruction. This offence occurs widely in legislation, so alterations to the level of the fine would have to be considered centrally as a single issue. I shall, however, draw what the noble Lord has said to the attention of my right honourable friend. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, asked when the operations would come into effect. This will be on the 1st January next year. With regard to the number of organisations we have consulted, I am glad to tell him that this is about a hundred. I have a list of them and I shall arrange for this to be put in the Library of your Lordships' House.

My noble friend Lord Houghton raised a number of points. He asked first about enforcement. The Ministry's professional veterinary staff are authorised to enter land for the purpose of checking on observance of Part I of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 and any regulations made under it. The Veterinary Service visit livestock units to check that the Act and regulations are being complied with.

The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, asked about manpower. The State Veterinary Service is already responsible for checking compliance with the livestock provisions in Part I of the 1968 Act, and will also be able to carry out the inspections required by these regulations, so no extra staff is likely to be involved. I am afraid that I cannot tell him the exact number of inspectors. I can write to him if he wishes to know, but it is thought that the number is sufficient.

My noble friend Lord Houghton asked about penalties for neglect of stock. The draft regulations provide that a person who fails to comply shall be guilty of an offence under Section 2 of the 1968 Act. Section 7(1) of this Act, as amended by the Criminal Law Act 1977—I am glad that my noble friend asked so that I can spell this out—provides that a person guilty of an offence under Section 2 of the 1968 Act shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding £500, or both.

The noble Lord also raised the general question of whether there should be more consultation between the different interests, and I am glad that he did. I may say here that the Government are considering setting up a Royal Standing Commission, or a similar body, on animal welfare. This is a far-reaching suggestion, the implications of which are extensive, and time will be needed before a decision can be reached, but we take note of what my noble friend has said.

My noble friend also referred to Dr. Sainsbury's article. The agriculture Departments and the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee recognise that knowledge of farm animal welfare must be increased. The agriculture Departments have introduced arrangements under which suitably qualified experts monitor work at research stations, universities and experimental centres. Livestock husbandry projects with a welfare component will be identified. This information will be supplied to the advisory committee so that it can frame its advice to Ministers accordingly. The idea of concentrating all animal welfare research at one centre, which has recently been ventilated, would in our view be disadvantageous. Work is already undertaken by a number of specialist teams in the various institutes and agricultural colleges and on Ministry experimental farms. The co-ordination and direction of these wide-ranging activities must, we believe, continue to be exercised by the agriculture departments.

My noble friend also referred in general to the whole question, including the ethical question, of intensive units. The House will recall that the Brambell Committee, which reported in 1965, stated that intensive systems as such should not be regarded as objectionable and might often benefit the animals. We still have not found an alternative way which is economically viable to produce sufficient supplies of these relatively cheap proteins—eggs, poultry and pig meat—and thus the battery cage may well have to be with us for some time yet.

In the controlled environment provided for in intensive systems, optimum levels of feeding, temperature, ventilation and lighting can be maintained which, coupled with high standards of management, should ensure that the animals thrive. By contrast, under the free range system animals could be subject, and indeed often are, to the vagaries of the weather, attacks by predators and the risk of suffering disease unobserved, and I note what the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, said in this connection.

Clearly, what animals lose under intensive systems is the degree of freedom they would experience under the more traditional extensive farming methods. However, there is as yet no means of understanding whether animals feel deprivation if kept in intensive systems. We know, however, that under good stocksmanship they thrive if kept intensively. In the view of the Government the way forward is to continue to develop scientific knowledge on animal welfare guided by the advice given to Ministers by the valuable Farm Animals Advisory Committee and, at the same time, to ensure through inspection and advice by the State Veterinary Service that animals kept intensively do not experience unnecessary pain or distress. That will be our continuing aim.

On Question, Motion agreed to.