HL Deb 21 December 1983 vol 446 cc791-6

3.31 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the Animal Health and Welfare Bill be now read a second time. This Bill affects a wide range of legislation on the control of animal disease, veterinary medicines, artificial methods of livestock breeding and the welfare of poultry in slaughterhouses. In some respects the Bill simply brings existing legislation up to date; in other areas it clarifies the legislation; and in others it introduces new provisions to reflect areas of concern which have developed since the original legislation was made.

I should like to describe the clauses which amend the Slaughter of Poultry Act 1967. In June 1979 the Farm Animal Welfare Council was formed by the Government. Since then the council has done much valuable work and I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the members of the council who, I know, devote a great deal of time and effort to their work. In January last year the council reported on the welfare of poultry at the time of slaughter. The report makes a number of very important recommendations for improving the way poultry are looked after while awaiting slaughter and at the point of slaughter. Clauses 4 to 7 of this Bill are a result of those recommendations.

The most radical change is that the Slaughter of Poultry Act 1967 is to be extended so that it will apply to all slaughter, and not only, as at present, to slaughter for sale for human consumption. This is achieved by Clause 4. The background is the increase in sales of live poultry direct to the intending consumer at markets and in certain shops. Although the majority of poultry sold in this way are in fact slaughtered on the seller's premises, they are, technically speaking, slaughtered after sale. I am sure your Lordships will agree that birds slaughtered in these circumstances should have the same protection as birds slaughtered before sale. There are however certain circumstances where the normal methods of slaughter provided for by the 1967 Act are inappropriate—for example, where birds have to be killed to stop the spread of disease, in the course of an authorised experiment or by a vet acting in his professional capacity. In all these cases adequate safeguards already exist to protect the welfare of the birds, and the Bill therefore provides an exemption from Section 1(1) of the 1967 Act in these circumstances.

Clause 5 of the Bill enables regulations to be made requiring that people who carry out certain tasks in poultry slaughterhouses should be licensed by the local authority. This reflects one of the most important recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Workers in red meat slaughterhouses have had to be licensed for more than 50 years now, but there has been no such requirement in poultry slaughterhouses. Clause 5 enables conditions to be specified which would have to be satisfied before a licence could be issued. This will enable us to provide, among other things, for adequate training, on which particular stress was laid by the Farm Animal Welfare Council and by others with an interest in this subject. There will, of course, be full consultation with the poultry industry and with other interested organisations before any regulations are made.

Clause 6 provides for the preparation of codes of practice on the humane treatment of birds in slaughterhouses. The Government consider that this is the most effective way of ensuring compliance with many of the detailed recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, particularly the recommendations directed at slaughterhouse operators. Although the codes would not themselves be directly enforceable in law—this would run contrary to the essence of a code, which is flexibility—they could be used as evidence in a prosecution for a contravention of the Act or of regulations made under it.

Clause 7 provides powers of entry to officers of the agriculture departments or of the local authority on premises where the commercial slaughter of poultry takes place. Powers of entry already exist in the 1976 Act, but it is necessary now to take account of the fact that many more premises will become subject to the Act once it is extended to cover slaughter for purposes other than sale for human consumption. Many of the premises covered now for the first time are very different in nature from the normal poultry slaugher house, and a rather different power of entry is therefore necessary.

I turn now to those clauses which amend the Medicines Act 1968. That Act controls the production and supply of veterinary medicines as well as human medicines, and Clauses 11 and 12 of this Bill deal with two separate aspects of the way veterinary medicines reach the animals for which they are intended.

Clause 11 deals with medicated animal feeding stuffs. The sections of the Medicines Act dealing with medicated animal feeding stuffs were, I think it is fair to say, added at a late stage in the passage of the 1968 Act and have proved extremely difficult to interpret and to operate in the 15 years since the Act was passed. During those years, however, the administration of medicines through feed has become much more widespread, particularly in pig and poultry farming. I believe that your Lordships would agree that this sort of medication of food-producing animals should be carefully controlled.

Clause 11 deals with two separate problems which have caused difficulty over the years. The first problem is the instructions which manufacturers of medicated feeding stuffs receive from veterinarians. Before the Medicines Act was introduced, medicated feeding stuffs were controlled under the Therapeutic Substances Act 1956which required a veterinary surgeon's instructions for the feeding stuffs manufacturer to be in the form of a written direction. Subordinate legislation contained detailed provisions as to such matters as the content and period of validity of the written direction. In the Medicines Act, however, the term "prescription" was used and no powers were taken to lay down the formal content of the prescription.

The absence of a specified form of instructions brought in by the 1968 Act has caused difficulties in the trade and representative organisations have been unanimous in asking for a return to the use of a "written direction" so that manufacturers receive instructions in a clear and standardised form. Clause 11 provides for this in the new Section 40(2)(b).

There have also been ambiguities over what actually constitutes a medicinal product in respect of medicated feeds. Clause 11(2) therefore takes power for these ambiguities to be resolved by order. Such an order would be made, of course, only after consultation with all of the appropriate interests. At the same time we shall also reconsider the licensing of medicinal products used in the feeding stuffs sector with the aim of ensuring that those with a high level of medication are incorporated into feed under carefully controlled conditions. Where conditions cannot be so carefully controlled, only products with an appropriately lower level of medication will be available. The powers to do this are already available to the Government.

Clause 11 also provides for a system of registration for manufacturers and distributors of medicated feeding stuffs. The necessary powers appear in the new Section 40(7). The Government envisage that a manufacturer or dealer who wishes to register for the purposes of the regulations to be made under this provision will be required to sign an undertaking that he will comply with a code of practice which the Government will adopt, covering such things as record keeping, storage of medicinal products and the avoidance of cross-contamination. Our intention is that the code of practice should be drafted by an organisation representing the trade associations whose members are involved in the medicated feed sector. By this means we hope to achieve an improvement in the standards of manufacture and distribution of medicated feeding stuffs without proposing requirements which are unrealistic or unworkable. I emphasise that the provisions of Clause 11 are, in general, enabling powers. I assure your Lordships that before any subordinate legislation setting up the new arrangements is introduced, there will be detailed consultation with all interested organisations.

Clause 12 clarifies Minister's powers to require the registration of agriculture merchants selling veterinary drugs and enables fees to be charged for registration. We have recently reviewed the operation of the Merchants' List Order and have decided that agricultural merchants should be able to continue to sell merchants' list products to farmers but that there needs to be some improvement in the handling and distribution of the products through merchants' premises. Here again a code of practice is the method by which we hope the necessary improvements will be achieved. The code of practice is being drafted by the Animal Health Trade Associations Group which represents the trade organisations involved in the distribution of merchants' list products, in consultation with the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and the agriculture departments. The code is almost complete. An undertaking to comply with the code of practice will be one of the conditions for registration in regulations which we intend to make under the new Section 57(2A) contained in Clause 12.

Controls of artificial breeding are included in Clauses 8 and 9. Government controls of artificial insemination have existed since the 1940s when the technique first became commercially viable. Section 17 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1943 introduced enabling powers for the agricultural Ministers of Great Britain to make regulations for controlling artificial insemination and also imposed control over imports of semen through a system of licensing. Thereafter a series of regulations was made relating to cattle and pigs. The twin purposes of the controls were to prevent the spread of animal disease through the distribution of semen and to limit the use of animals of poor or unproven merit so as to avoid diluting the quality of the national herds.

Since the introduction of artificial insemination a number of other techniques, such as embryo recovery and transfer in cattle and cloning, have been developed and are now well established. There are, however, no statutory powers available to us at present to control the use of such techniques in artificial breeding, although the potential for the spread of animal disease and for the use of poor quality donors is only slightly less than in the case of artificial insemination. Clause 8 allows such controls to be introduced by providing for regulations to be made for the purposes of controlling the practice of artificial breeding of specified livestock. Such regulations may prohibit the carrying on of any specified activity in connection with livestock, semen, ova or embryos except under the authority of a licence or approval. Importation of breeding products may also be regulated. The controls over artificial insemination would thus be maintained and extended to cover the use of ova and embryos.

In addition, the clause provides for regulations to determine fees for the issue of licences and approvals. The cost of veterinary tests and inspections has risen considerably over the years, and if forms of artificial breeding other than artificial insemination are to be controlled, a further large increase might be expected. It is considered that in the future at least part of this cost should be recovered, though at this time it is not possible to say at what level fees might be fixed.

May I briefly say a few words about natural breeding. The Improvement of Live Stock (Licensing of Bulls)Act 1931, and the Horse Breeding Act 1958, were passed to prohibit the keeping of bulls and stallions of a prescribed age for natural service, unless they were licensed. As with artificial breeding, the object was to improve the quality of the stock. However, the operation of the 1931 Act was suspended in 1976—I think that that was at a time when the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, was a Minister in the ministry—as it was considered that the advantages of good husbandry practice were widely recognised, and that standards were considerably higher than when the Act was introduced.

As for stallion licensing, the rising cost of licences encountered opposition from the horse industry. The horse breeding organisations themselves strictly regulate the standards applicable to stallions accepted for registration in stud books, and they had no objection to ending stallion licensing. An animal is very unlikely to be used for breeding purposes if refused entry to the stud book, whether or not it is licensed under the Act. In 1982 the age at which a licence was required was raised from two to five years, thus effectively suspending stallion licensing for a number of years. So Clause 10 repeals those two Acts and formally ends controls on natural breeding.

I wish, finally, to turn to the first three clauses of the Bill. Your Lordships will have seen that these clauses provide for changes to be made to the Animal Health Act 1981. The first of these changes—in Clause 1—extends the powers which exist for the seizure of material to prevent the spread of disease. The House will be well aware of the serious implications for the agriculture industry should there be in this country an outbreak of a disease such as foot-and-mouth. Fortunately, we have an excellent record in terms of freedom from disease, and this is in no small part due to the framework of legislation upon which disease control work is founded. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. There is continuing need to look at our controls and to adapt them in the light of changing circumstances.

In the particular context, the last few years have seen significant technological advances which have led to an increasing use and movement of animal semen, embryos, and ova. As your Lordships will fully appreciate. these could transmit disease, and there may be circumstances which would necessitate the seizure of such material in the face of an outbreak of a serious disease, so that the risk of spread could be minimised. It is with that especially in mind that wider powers are sought, because at the present time they are not contained in existing provisions. Your Lordships will observe that before these powes were exercised Parliament would have the opportunity to examine the subordinate legislation, which would set out in detail any specific proposals for seizure.

Specifically, Clause 1 extends the enabling powers for the seizure of material under Section 35(1) of the 1981 Act, so that it can include anything. whether animate or inanimate, by which, or by means of which, any disease might be carried or transmitted. Additionally, Clause 1 amends Section 36 of the Act, relating to compensation for seizure, so that where the Minister seizes anything which is obtained from, or produced by, a diseased animal, he will pay compensation if the Ministers have made an order to that effect.

Clause 2 seeks to extend the powers of entry contained in the 1981 Act. I am well aware of the sensitivity which accompanies this subject, and your Lordships may be assured that the Government would not propose increasing powers of entry without being completely satisfied that this course was necessary, and that the Veterinary Service, whose record on this is very good, will whenever possible continue to reach agreement on entry. Currently powers are available which allow veterinary surgeons of the state Veterinary Service to go on to farms to determine whether disease exists, without there being any previous suspicion of disease. This power relates only to foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever, and pleuropneumonia. It does not extend to other diseases, some of which, in particular those which have recently emerged, are extremely difficult to identify. It is therefore important that as part of disease control and eradication measures it is possible in certain circumstances to enter premises, without there having been suspicion that disease exists, in order to carry out investigations. Clause 2 therefore extends the powers of entry in Section 63(9) of the 1981 Act to all notifiable diseases.

Finally, with Clause 3 we have taken the opportunity offered by this Bill to make sure, for the avoidance of doubt, that our powers to make orders protecting the welfare of animals in transit may be used in relation to that part of the journey to or from ports or airports in Great Britain which takes place in or over our territorial waters.

I must apologise to your Lordships for the lengthy explanation of the main provisions of this Bill, but it has aspects which are both technical and detailed. If it would be for the convenience of your Lordships I will put copies of the Notes on Clauses into the Printed Paper Office to prepare for the Committee stage.

I hope your Lordships will agree that this Bill provides real improvements in the legislation and takes account of the concerns of those affected by it in one way or another. I trust that it takes account of the concerns of the House also. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Belstead.)