HL Deb 23 February 1984 vol 448 cc948-59

9.55 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 5 [Licences]:

Lord Belstead moved Amendment No. 1: Page 3, line 45, after ("prescribe") insert ("subject to any exceptions")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 1, which follows an undertaking which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, during Committee stage that I would ensure that the Bill gave powers to make exceptions to any licensing system that may be introduced under Clause 5. The amendment provides a general power to make exceptions, since until we have a clearer idea of the nature of the licensing system we will not know exactly what exceptions we ought to make.

The noble Lord will appreciate that I cannot give a firm commitment here that the exception which he has sought will be made, though I can assure the noble Lord that we have taken note of his concern and will have it very much in mind in preparing legislative proposals. Our first concern, as many of your Lordships acknowledged during the Committee stage, must be the welfare of the birds. But I give the noble Lord an assurance that we shall be consulting widely before preparing new regulations, and I repeat that we very much have in mind the concern which the noble Lord expressed in Committee. I beg to move.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, after a frustrating two hours earlier in the evening, it is a great pleasure that the noble Lord has at last given way on something, although in a small way. I quite see the point that he makes that adding the words "subject to any exceptions" is probably as far as he can go at the moment. But I am sure that when the time conies he will see the necessity, particularly in the case of small domestic killings of birds on a farm, of making an exception. I thank the noble Lord very much for what he has done.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I always want to agree with my noble friend and I do so on this occasion, though I hope that the Minister will not fall over himself to make exceptions. I uttered a cautionary word at the Committee stage on the possible size of these farmer slaughterings that might be undertaken. Having taken advice on the matter since, it is as well to say that these exceptions should be restricted to what is common sense and should not be given too freely.

Otherwise, some farmers who are poulterers and slaughterers will be exempt from licensing, when other establishments slaughtering for commercial purposes—and we are talking of slaughtering for commercial purposes—might have to be licensed. So there is need to be a little careful about this. I agree that the Minister should have general powers, because at the moment it would be impossible to particularise the kind of point at which the licence might be dispensed with. So I am quite content with this and hope that my noble friend will agree with my comments on the Minister's pleasurable acceptance of the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 6 [Codes of Practice]:

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 2: Page 4, line 34, after ("it") insert ("or on any matter relating to fire prevention or control on premises to which section 7 applies.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is merely a follow-up from another point which I mentioned on Second Reading—and probably in Committee, too—about fire precautions. One reads of some dreadful lire disasters in livestock rearing premises of one kind or another. I know that the code of conduct, which applies to other livestock rearing premises, probably does not apply to those places where birds and animals are kept temporarily for slaughter. This may be an oversight, or it may be that there is thought to be a reason for differentiating between livestock rearing premises and slaughtering premises. However, I notice that in the guidelines on lire training and fire fighting in emergencies in livestock rearing premises there is also a recommendation that the livestock should be held in such conditions that they can quickly escape in the event of fire. I do not think that slaughtering premises are those from which live animals or birds could quickly escape, which is all the more reason why prevention should be the keynote in the approach to this hazard.

I know that the Minister does not like too many additions to codes of practice. I am not sure why. Sometimes what he may do is particularised, while at other times it is either taken for granted or assurances are given that a particular matter will be covered. I should be satisfied if the Minister could say that special attention will be given to fire hazard in slaughtering premises which have to be licensed and where the birds have to come first. I hope that my suggested addition will be accepted or that the Minister will give an assurance that it will not be overlooked when the code of practice is drafted. I beg to move.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I understand entirely the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. The noble Lord raised the matter at Second Reading. However, I understood that on that occasion his remarks were directed to the concern which he felt about fires in intensive poultry units. That is, I believe, what the noble Lord was mainly concerned about on Second Reading, and I share his concern. There is indeed a distinction between premises where poultry are reared and premises where poultry are slaughtered. So far as intensive units where poultry are being reared are concerned, the present welfare code for poultry makes recommendations designed to reduce the risk of injury to birds in fires, and the Farm Animal Welfare Council has put forward proposals for amending the code in order considerably to strengthen it. The Government are currently considering the amendments which the Farm Animal Welfare Council has proposed. We fully share the view of the Farm Animal Welfare Council about the need to strengthen the code in this respect.

As for slaughterhouses, which is what this part of the Bill is about and to which I believe the noble Lord was directing his remarks on this amendment, fire prevention in those places is covered by the Fire Precautions Act 1971. Fire in slaughterhouses is, I am very glad to say, very rare. Of the three cases in recent years of which the Ministry is aware, none of those fires involved any live bird casualties. Therefore I feel that the noble Lord's concern expressed at Second Reading is covered by the Farm Animal Welfare Council's proposals for amending the code on fire precautions. I have given the noble Lord an assurance that we are considering these proposals and that we fully share the council's view of the need to strengthen the code.

So far as slaughterhouses are concerned—to which this amendment is really aimed—they are covered by the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which requires fire departments to approve arrangements in those places—which is of course a very much stronger legislative precaution, if I may say so, than the effect of the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Probably I had become a little mixed up between the places where birds are reared and where they are slaughtered. It is not always possible to trace hack how different conditions affecting the same livestock are covered, in respect of some hazards, by different Acts of Parliament or by different regulations. I am quite content with the explanation which the noble Lord has given and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 4, line 35, leave out paragraph (b) and insert— ("(b) revise any such code by revoking, varying, amending or adding to the provisions of the code.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, some of my advisers are equipped with what is called a toothcomb. They tend to read through Bills and hark hack to previous legislation to identify any differences—and if there are differences, they study their meaning, if any. We all know that legislation is about words. More and more, legislation has come to be about forms of words. We see from different Acts of Parliament that certain words and phrases which have stood the test of time, which have been shown to be foolproof, to give the Minister all the protection he requires and all the elbow room he would like, are used time and again. That is done because advisers on legislation can then assure the Minister that the words are all right.

When my advisers and I examined the Bill, we found on page 4, relating to codes of practice, the proposed replacement of a section of the 1967 Act. We noted that the Minister should have the time and the opportunity to change the codes of practice. But what made us reach for our smelling salts was the word "withdraw". We thought, "Good heavens! He now wants the power to withdraw a code". This is a new word in that context. Clause 6 states that there shall be inserted the words withdraw any such code or revise it in such manner as the Ministers think fit". Some noble Lords know that the words, as the Ministers think fit always create some resentment in my mind, because I think sometimes that the words "as the Ministers think fit" are a concession to the belief that Ministers think.

Actually, anybody who has been in the Government knows that the chief qualification for a Minister is not to think but to reach decisions. Very often, the decisions he reaches are not what he thinks. In this context, the programme "Yes, Minister"—a burlesque—pushes the truth far enough to make it very funny and even hilarious. But when I read C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers, I find that his conferences between civil servants and Ministers come much nearer to my own experience of what actually happens; they are very grim affairs. They are a different kind of civil servant altogether from "Sir Humphrey", I may say.

That is an aside, and we would probably have enjoyed it more if the hour were not quite so late. I am now suggesting to the Minister that he has to explain why in this clause of the Bill he has departed from a form of words, regarding his powers relating to codes of practice, which has appeared in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 for so long and which has evidently worked so well.

I have just copied from the 1968 Act into the amendment the words that were put there at that time. That alone is, I think, sufficient recommendation; there is nothing like a precedent in all these matters, especially one that has stood the test of time, and here we have it. So I am asking the House to accept the replacement in the Bill of the shorter version, with its possibly startling implications, by the form of words used in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. I beg to move.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I must admit that I looked at my noble friend's amendment and wondered what the difference was. The wording is different but the meaning seemed to me the same. I had not his line toothcomb to extract the word "withdraw". I should like to come to the Minister's help here, it I may, in that I can quite see there may be occasion when the Minister might have to withdraw a code. If the straw burning Bill sees the light of day again and we are forbidden to burn straw, there would he very little use for the straw burning code and it would need to be withdrawn. If by any chance we are stopped from keeping animals on slats—and there was a very strong move to do that—we should need to remove the code governing keeping animals on slats. I felt that my noble friend is going a little too far. I quite see the point that he wants to hamstring Ministers as much as he can. With those few words, I leave it to the Minister and will hear what he says.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, must be absolutely right. If what you now mean has been expressed previously in certain words in legislation you ought always to use those very words, because the moment you depart and use different words you will have lawyers arguing that Parliament must have meant something different on this occasion because if they had meant the same thing they would have used the same words as they used before, You may, through not having used the same words as before, get futile arguments raised by lawyers when your meaning is the same as the meaning you were intending before.

10.12 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, criticises the wording in this part of the Bill because the effect is to give a power of withdrawal of a code. But, of course, withdrawal may sometimes be necessary when a code is to he revised, and we should not normally withdraw a code without putting anything in its place.

I should like to assure your Lordships that, in framing this provision slightly differently from the comparable provision in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, the Government were seeking only to simplify the drafting While retaining similar provisions. However, despite the help which the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has so chivalrously offered, I think perhaps I ought to come down on the side which is advised by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, says that Ministers are paid not to think but to decide. I think nonetheless that there is advantage here in adhering to the precedent set in earlier legislation, and I decide that I have great pleasure in accepting the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I have now broken my duck on this Bill and my score is equivalent to that of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. We have not yet finished and one never knows, there might be more to come. However, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I am happy that the proposed new form of words will be included in the Bill.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Belstead moved Amendment No. 4: Page 5, line 22, after ("printed") insert ("and distributed").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment follows my undertaking to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in Committee. Very simply it makes mandatory the distribution of codes of practice but leaves Ministers free to decide whether or not they ought to be put on sale. May I make it clear that the reason for this amendment came entirely from the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, even though we are meeting it by putting down a Government amendment. I think that makes the score about oneand-a-half to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, and only one to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. This clause adds to the criminal law and I think it is very important, whenever this is so, that people who are liable to be affected shall have access to information about it so that they can keep themselves out of trouble. This amendment ensures that people will have access to the information about this addition to the criminal law, and I am grateful that the Government have found my suggestion acceptable.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 5: After Clause 6, insert the following new clause:

("Duties of official veterinary surgeon.

( ) The duties of the official veterinary surgeon appointed by the enforcing authority under this and other Acts shall include attention to the welfare of birds on premises to which section 7 of this Act applies, and shall require him to report to the enforcement authority any breaches of regulations made under section 5 or codes of practice under section 6 of this Act")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is a little more substantial. It deals with the position and functions of the official veterinary surgeon. This was referred to by my noble friend on Second Reading, in col. 803 of Hansard. The noble Lord the Minister replied to it in the course of his speech later, in cols. 808–9. That was on 21st December and I think the impression that we gained from what the Minister said was that there was something happening and that we would probably hear more about it later. There has been a complete silence since then.

I do not have a mole in the department; all I have is a little bird that flies about outside it and I am told that the Minister wants to make an announcement about this but would prefer to do it in another place. That might be quite unfounded, but I know that sometimes Ministers like to take the credit for things that they are proud of and reserve them for announcements in another place rather than leave it to one of their supporting Ministers in your Lordships' House.

Whether that is so or not, probably something can be said by the noble Lord the Minister about the prospects of action being taken to implement the rather important Recommendation 37 of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. My amendment seeks to do what the Farm Animal Welfare Council suggested; namely, to provide for the official veterinary surgeon to have welfare within his terms of reference and not only the rather narrower scope or function of the present arrangements.

I am advised that one of the drawbacks of my amendment is that it would mean that the official veterinary surgeon, the man or woman, would have to spend longer on the premises because of the additional and extended duties he or she would have to perform. This would impose an additional expenditure upon the industry. I was surprised to learn that, although local authorities are responsible for appointments, the cost of the veterinary surgeons concerned is borne by the industry, and probably by the enterprise. The longer the veterinary surgeon spends on the premises, the more expensive it will be. Indeed, I understand that in some cases it might mean the appointment of additional veterinary surgeons to carry out the wider duties that my amendment provides for. I always take the Minister at his word. At column 809 he stated: our priority, first and foremost, must be the welfare of the birds", [Official Report, 21st December 1983; col. 809.]

He repeated that only a few minutes ago.

I would not wish to impose the additional costs of the veterinary services that might arise under this amendment on the industry. Cruelty to animals and birds comes under the criminal law as a matter of public policy. It is the duty of representatives of the public to carry out the wishes of the public in matters of this kind. When cruelty is outlawed, enforcement becomes all-important. Different forms of enforcement are needed to safeguard the interests of living things which are in the hands of people for one purpose or another.

Any extension of the duties of the official veterinary surgeon under this amendment should fall on public funds. I hope that the Minister will look at the proposal in that context. Anyway, it is one of the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. I again stress that recommendations coming from such a quarter, after such lengthy consideration, should be fully respected when they come to your Lordships' House.

That, I think, is all I can say in support of this amendment. I hope that it will commend itself to the Minister. If he could give an assurance that Recommendation 37 is not dead and is still under active attention, I should feel disposed to withdraw the amendment. I know that at the present time, when public expenditure is under great pressure and when local authorities are not all that kindly disposed towards the Government, a matter of this kind may receive rather less than adequate attention for reasons other than the merits of the case. I beg to move.

10.23 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords. I am afraid that I am not quite in line with my noble friend here. Whoever pays for the services of the veterinary surgeon, it costs money. I always remember the late Sir Stafford Cripps demanding an economic survey. He had a wad of stuff and he said, "For goodness sake, give me something that I can read quickly". It was reduced to four pages; and he said, "Can't it be on one page?". The desperate official then said to him, "There's no such thing as a free lunch". That is an economic theory that we should remember. Whoever pays for the veterinary surgeon, it costs money.

Veterinary surgeons are scarce, particularly the good ones. I think that to give them this duty would be a mistake. The amendment states that the provision: shall include attention to the welfare of birds on premises". That would mean a tremendous amount of work to go through poultry premises to find that out. It seems to me to be too much to ask busy veterinary surgeons or the official veterinary surgeon—whoever it is— to do that type of work. I am afraid I could not support my noble friend here.

Lord Belstead

I have listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said and also to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. I can perhaps steer a course down the middle which I seem to have spent most of this afternoon doing with some success. I shall try to do it again. May I first give an assurance to the noble Lord that we are indeed considering very carefully how best we might respond to the Farm Animal Welfare Council Recommendation No. 37. I can go further and say that we most certainly intend to table an amendment. The drafting of the amendment is not really a simple matter. As has become evident already from the discussion, there are different points of view. We feel that we must take account of the situation in the large number of poultry slaughterhouses that are not required to be licensed under the Poultry Meat (Hygiene) Regulations and do not therefore have supervision at the moment by an official veterinary surgeon.

If I may say s, I do not think that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, quite fits the bill for some drafting reasons. For instance, it does not deal with the point that I have just mentioned. In addition, I am bound to say that we believe that if our guidance on time spent in the plant for hygiene purposes is followed there should be time for official veterinary surgeons also to attend to welfare. We shall wish very much to take account of the views of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the local authority associations and the veterinary profession who have been consulted on the matter by my right honourable friend. If therefore I say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—as I do—that not only is this matter under active consideration but that we will almost certainly table an amendment—not necessarily in this House, because time may not allow, but before the Bill finally passes into law-I hope the assurance will meet the particular question that the noble Lord put to me.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am quite content with his answer and therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 6: Page 6, line 2, after ("situated") insert ("who may be a qualified veterinary surgeon appointed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment relates to a clause in the Bill dealing with the right of entry. This is a very delicate subject in all cases where the right of entry is provided by Parliament, by statute. It is not a proposal for the right of entry of inspectors of the RSPCA but the right of entry of qualified veterinary surgeons appointed by the RSPCA. At this point, I should say that I have not been prompted by the RSPCA. It has not asked me to do this and I am not being sponsored by it. On the whole, the RSPCA does not like me. I am too militant for it, would you believe? I am doing this off my own bat because I think that it is something that the RSPCA, as a voluntary organization, should have in its armoury against undesirable practices in establishments where cruelty may occur.

The amendment raises the old question of the care that must be exercised in adding to the growing list of the right of entry into premises in the name of the law. Attitudes towards rights of entry vary a great deal according to what the entry is for and what it is to discover. Some people would rush in if it is pornography. They would let other people go in if children were involved. They would hold you back where animals are concerned and say you were a lot of busybodies. In reading the account of the National Farmers' Union conference in the Farmers Weekly, I was rather distressed to read of the hostility of a number of members of the NFU towards what are scornfully referred to as welfarists. Welfarists are not some undesirable members of society. We are not crackpots or cranks. We are just people with normal feelings, who are trying to express them and to get them accepted as part of the attitude of the community generally and embodied in the law where it is suitable for that to be done.

Nevertheless, the right of entry is a very important power to give to anybody, whether it be state officials, the police, officers of voluntary organisations or others. I have my reservations—and I have expressed them more than once, and I shall probably do so again—on the right of entry, because wherever the right of entry is given there should be a question mark as to why it is desirable and whether it is justified.

I do not hold the view that some people hold that, if one resists the right of entry, one has something to hide. I do not believe that at all. Some people resist the right of entry on principle, because they say that it is an invasion of their privacy or their rights—especially their property rights. So those who say that they do not want the right of entry may not be hiding anything, but may be just old-fashioned liberals like me, and object on principle. I have always held the view that any incursion upon liberty, any intrusion upon privacy, anything that interferes between the citizen and his freedom, should be examined and not taken for granted, and certainly not passed as a matter of course.

Why, then, am I proposing that a veterinary surgeon appointed by the RSPCA should have the same right of entry as the veterinary surgeon appointed by the local authority? The reason is enforcement. The criminal law should be enforced by the police, but unfortunately—and I am not attributing blame to anybody—the laws relating to cruelty to animals are not enforced with the same vigour by the police as laws relating to other fields of criminal activity. That is why we have voluntary societies like the RSPCA which undertake prosecutions—as it is their right to do—in the place, in many cases, of the police. Frequently, when the public complain to the police about what they believe to be acts of cruelty, the answer from the police is, "Go and see the RSPCA".

There was a case in my former constituency where a person observed something going on in the garden next door which he thought was very cruel to a dog. He telephoned the police and said that they ought to come and look at it. The police came to look and said, "You ought to call in the RSPCA". The prosecution was undertaken by the RSPCA and the evidence was given by the police. This is an extraordinary situation. No wonder the RSPCA spends over £100,000 a year on prosecutions. There are hundreds, if not well over a thousand, prosecutions every year and one wonders why they have to do it. They do it because the opportunity and, indeed, the duty to do it is there.

I have tried on occasion to find out by questioning the difference between the prosecutions undertaken by the police and those undertaken by the RSPCA, but the figures are hard to conic by and the distinction between the two is very difficult to discover. So this amendment is put forward to supplement the enforcement of the provisions in Clause 7 of this Bill by permitting the entry, on equal terms with the veterinary surgeon appointed by the local authority, of an equally qualified veterinary surgeon appointed by the RSPCA. If this amendment gives rise to some attention being given to why the RSPCA should be called upon to undertake so many prosecutions and have an inspectorate going all over the place looking at cruelty cases, instead of the police whose job it is, then I shall be glad that this subject has been opened up because I think that it is a matter of some importance.

The hour is late and I do not propose to occupy any more of the time of your Lordships' House on this amendment. I appreciate the difficulties of accepting the amendment right off the cuff tonight, but I hope that at least some of the points that I have mentioned will be borne in mind when looking at the adequacy of provision for enforcement in these very difficult cases of premises where animals can be knocked about and cruelly treated and where it is difficult to get inside to see what is actually going on. I beg to move.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, as a matter of principle the Government believe that powers of entry should be granted only to officers acting on behalf of central or local government. Naturally, we welcome the cooperation and advice of the voluntary bodies which are active in the field of animal welfare, including of course the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Royal Society's record in the field is an admirable one. However, I do not think that it would be right to break with such a well-established principle now.

The local authorities and members of the State Veterinary Service make regular visits to slaughterhouses in the course of their work to check on compliance both with welfare and with hygiene legislation. It is in that context that the noble Lord is asking to have the extra power for RSPCA vets. It is the noble Lord himself who put the libertarian point—the Englishman's-home-is-his-castle point. I think it is a fundamental issue that central and local government are, of course, accountable for the actions of their officers to the elected authorities of Parliament or the district council, as the case may be. It is important in a democracy to ensure that those with a right to enter private property ought to be accountable in this way.

Therefore, I do not feel very enthusiastic about this particular amendment. I do not depart at all from what the noble Lord has said about the important work of the RSPCA, not at all. However, we are dealing with this absolutely fundamental point of right of entry, and I think that there we ought to draw the line that the officers concerned are those accountable either to Parliament or to the council concerned.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I should like to ask a question on this point. If I remember rightly, if something is reported to the RSPCA, that society then approaches the person concerned and if its officer does not gain entry by agreement, he then reports the matter to the police. Is that not the procedure?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I rather think that that is precisely the procedure. The noble Lord is right.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, for the present I think that I am persuaded. I do not wish to pursue the matter further at this time of night or, indeed, in this particular debate. I believe that wider issues arc involved here which it might be more suitable to ventilate on another occasion. It would have to do with enforcement of the law in relation to cruelty to animals, which is not by any means as good as it ought to be. I shall not say any more, but beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 7: Page 17, line 41, leave out first ("and")

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 7 and at the same time speak to Amendment No. 8 standing in my name. Amendment No. 8: Page 17, line 41, after ("geese") insert ("and quails") Here I seek to add to the list of birds which are covered by this Bill. I am advised that quails are now in the area of being reared for slaughter along with geese, ducks turkeys, chickens and the rest. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will agree that we can bring quails into the protection of the provisions of this Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I have listened to the brief argument which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has put forward. I am convinced by his argument, and I have much pleasure in accepting the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 8:

[Printed above.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes before eleven o'clock.