HL Deb 26 March 1987 vol 486 cc326-36

5.38 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft codes of recommendations which were laid before the House on 9th March be approved. With your Lordships' permission it would be convenient to take all four codes together; that is, two entirely new codes, one for ducks and one for rabbits, and proposed alterations to the two existing codes for turkeys and for domestic fowls.

In addition to the material before us for debate, we have placed in the Library of the House for information, complete texts of all four codes with the introduction which Ministers propose to include in the versions which will be printed and distributed to farmers.

I am sure that most noble Lords are familiar with the welfare codes. They are made under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 and their primary purpose is to promote good welfare by making an authoritative body of advice available to farmers and stockmen. But they are not just advisory codes. They have the important legal status that a breach can be cited in a prosecution under the 1968 Act as helping to establish the guilt of the accused. As the House will know, codes for the main species have been available for many years and form an important plank of this and previous governments' policy towards farm animal welfare. Members of the state veterinary service, among their other duties, make specific welfare visits to farms to check on compliance with the codes.

Of the four codes before the House today, those for ducks and rabbits are, as I have said, entirely new and will meet a need which has developed with the growth in the farming of these species. Domestic fowls and turkeys have, of course, been farmed since time immemorial but since the codes for these animals were issued back in 1971 more information has been gathered, both scientific and practical, about their needs and about ways in which they should be kept. In the revisions that we propose, it has been possible to make more specific recommendations than in the previous codes and, in all four codes, attention has been drawn to the behavioural needs of livestock. The other areas given greater emphasis are the need for technical and managerial skills where specialist buildings and complex mechanical and electrical equipment are used, and the importance of protection against fire and other emergencies. Above all, these codes, and the prefaces—which, although not part of the codes, have also been tabled for information—draw attention to the major importance of stockmanship in the welfare of farm animals.

I do not intend to dwell on the detail of the codes but I should make one or two points on the code for domestic fowls. Possibly the most important development since the last fowls code has been the adoption within the European Community of a directive on the welfare of laying hens kept in battery cages. We are at the moment looking at the views of the industry and other interested parties before putting draft regulations to implement the directive before the House. Those draft regulations should be laid in the next few months but we have taken care to ensure that nothing in the draft code will conflict with the provisions of the directive. It is for this reason that we have excluded from the code any recommendations on space allowances for battery hens. These will be covered by the regulations. I assure the House, however, that the printed version of the code when published will make a clear reference to the requirements of the forthcoming regulations.

Another aspect of the fowls code, and those for ducks and turkeys, that I should mention is the advice they contain on the disposal of unwanted day-old chicks. At the end of last year the Farm. Animal Welfare Council informed the Agriculture Ministers that the council considered the most humane method of disposal for these chicks was to use a source of 100 per cent. carbon dioxide. I am pleased to say that this is the method used by most of the industry already and the council's advice is really confirmation of the correct and current practice. We have, however, made it clear in the codes that this is the method that should be used whenever possible and we shall be backing this up by issuing an ADAS advisory leaflet giving detailed advice on how it should be done.

The Government intend, as in the past, to issue printed versions of all four codes to keepers of the relevant species identified through the agricultural census. Printing and disseminating the codes is neither a cheap nor a simple operation and it will be two or three months after parliamentary approval before we are ready to issue the full text. When they are issued, I strongly advise everyone involved with these species to read them carefully and to follow the recommendations contained in them. We believe that it is in the industry's own interest to be seen to embrace these codes with enthusiasm to show that farmers are just as concerned as everybody else about animal welfare.

Finally, let me say that the documents before the House reflect a great deal of work by the Farm Animal Welfare Council over several years. I must pay tribute to the careful consideration which the council has given to this task laid on it by Ministers. Its members give up much time to the council's work and both the Government and this House owe them a debt of gratitude. But I am not just presenting the work of an advisory body. The Government have sought the views of interested organisations on the many difficult issues covered by these codes and believe that the documents before your Lordships represent a balanced view, taking account of all the relevant information. I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Ducks laid before the House on 9th March [15th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Rabbits laid before the House on 9th March [15th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Revised Code No. 3—Domestic Fowls—laid before the House on 9th March [15th Report from the Joint Committee]; and the Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Revised Code No. 4—Turkeys—laid before the House on 9th March [15th Report from the Joint Committee] be approved—(Lord liesketh.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Lord for putting forward the four codes so quickly and succinctly. They are necessary. As we all know over the years animal production has changed immensely and the old-fashioned ways have disappeared. With batteries, deep litter, slats and goodness knows what, it is necessary to give guidance.

However, I sometimes feel that the guidance is a little tactless. A good stockman will open the code and read that food and water must always be available. He will say, "Is that what we have to read about? We all know that food and water must be available all the time", and he will get fed up with the rest of it. I once gave a code to a stockman and that was his attitude. It is a small point, but I think that it is important that stockmen should be aware that the code is something that they should read. The obvious matters should be kept in one part and the new guidance in another.

I am afraid that I am completely out of touch with ducks. Much has been said in the various codes about density, but all that I can say is that irrespective of the density one gives to a duck, it will make a mess of it anyway. There is no doubt that ducks require more space than other birds. I have never seen ducks on slats or wire floors. I do not like them and I hope that they are not inflicted on ducks.

As I understand it, farming of rabbits as domestic animals is increasing. I do not like to eat rabbit. When I was a young man in Aberdeenshire in the late 1920s, I had a housekeeper who gave me rabbit to eat three or four times a week. When I married, I made a stipulation that that would stop. Thank goodness that myxomatosis came along and the reason for not eating rabbit is now even stronger. I have never tasted rabbit since. However, it is necessary to introduce the code because of the expansion of rabbit husbandry.

The other two codes have been in existence for a long time but, as regards poultry, the production of free-range eggs has been gaining ground. It is necessary because I believe that many people had forgotten about free-range eggs over the last dozen or so years. During that time, battery cages have been an economical way of producing eggs: it is not a particularly nice way, although I had a battery many years ago. In 1927 I started a poultry unit of free-range hens. I was intrigued to learn that some of the suggestions being made by the animal welfare people are the same as were my plans at that time: rotating around a central house in four acres of land.

The land required per 100 hens is difficult to estimate. The point is made that we have a damp climate but the EC figures are rather too high. Our climate is different in various areas. In the part of Essex which I farm there is a rainfall of 21 to 22 inches, while it is double that in the West Country and even more in other places. It is not as easy to arrive at those figures, as one would have thought.

Today land is bought at up to £2,000 per acre and is rented at up to £50 an acre. I calculate that if one decreases the number it can make a difference of as much as 21 pence per bird. The profit on eggs is quite low—it is pennies per hen—and I believe that one must look at the economics of this matter very carefully.

I believe that the same points apply to turkeys as to hens. Glancing through the new codes, they are acceptable as far as I can see. Although my noble friend Lord Houghton may have a little more to say, I think that we should agree that the codes are necessary, especially the two new codes, and give them our blessing.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I apologise for having missed the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh. However, I am glad that he is casting his munificent eye over ducks. I cannot say that I am an expert on ducks, but I live on a farm where I am glad to say there is always a duck or two about.

I should like to point out that members of the party opposite are constantly accusing the Alliance of a lack of policy. That is a most extraordinary accusation, as policy runs out of their ears. I have tried to discover whether there is a distinctive Alliance policy on ducks: luckily there is not.

I welcome the codes if they benefit ducks. To make a pun, some of them seem to me to be in the category of teaching our grandmothers to suck eggs. Nevertheless, they contain some rather touching items. We are asked to recognise that ducks like the company of other birds, particularly of like kind. That is true up to a point, but I notice that ducks often take a strong aversion to other ducks and are not always kind to other birds. I am not sure that ducks in the farmyard—charming and delightful as they are—are always pleased with too much company from other birds. It is also said that we must look out and prevent vice in ducks which, odd though it may seem, has been known to occur. Ducks have a very beady eye and every now and again I have noticed that they vent their spleen, occasionally on each other and sometimes on other birds.

The recommendations show a certain knowledge of ducks and duck psychology, and for that I welcome them. There is one very obvious point, but perhaps as these codes are full of obvious points, it is worth mentioning. A lot of people who keep ducks more or less casually appear to think that they can feed themselves. Up to a point and in suitable circumstances they can do so but they are rather large and greedy birds and it is not always sufficient simply to turn them loose and let them get on with it. Perhaps if we are putting those obvious remarks into these kind of regulations we might remind duck keepers that ducks very often need food and in these days of agricultural surpluses it is not so very difficult to obtain a little grain to give the ducks.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I hoped that I would be in entire agreement with the codes, but I am afraid that I only received them last night and therefore I have only been able to study the one on poultry. However, I should like to make a few criticisms. For one thing these codes are all very well but, for all that the noble Lord says, they are unenforceable. Those farmers who have consideration for their stock will no doubt already be doing what the code suggests. Those who do not have consideration for their stock will not be able to be penalised. Therefore the codes are not a good method of ensuring good treatment.

As regards the code on poultry, I welcome the recommendations on the size of cages and that the bird should have room to move round, spread its wings and so on. I hope that that will be enforced because it is most important. However, I was disappointed that from the beginning the whole code took it for granted that the enclosed intensive method would be used. I hope that many farmers will not take that as being the normal method and that it will eventually be possible to phase it out because it is far from either humane or satisfactory for the consumer.

Then there is the question of light. The code recommends good light during a certain period of the day, but it does not say daylight. There should be daylight. Articificial light is totally unnatural to a bird in a cage. Therefore, by providing glass panels in the roof, it is perfectly easy and a good deal cheaper to provide daylight. I hope that that will be noted.

So far as I can remember, there is nothing else in that particular code that I wish to criticise. However, I am sorry that the whole idea has been concerned with the intensive method rather than natural farming which of course is not so productive financially to the farmer but produces much safer and more satisfactory products for the consumer.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, intensive animal husbandry is really no longer any part of farming; it is part of our industrial production. Living things are the raw material of the industry. Ducks, especially lame ones, always arouse considerable amusement. They are freely quoted as examples in our political life but are not very pretty to see in real life.

I concentrate on the domestic fowl because that species is by far the most numerous of the feathered world which has been turned into intensive production. Whenever I approach the subject of intensive animal husbandry, I cannot help but feel that man's relationship with the animal kingdom is mostly to capture, to confine, to imprison and to slaughter all species other than his own and at times quite a number of his own. That is the price that those species pay for the benefit of mankind.

I could never believe that God created man in his own image, nor do I believe that the Fall contained any divine inspiration for the ascendancy of man. This is something innate in human nature. It is part of the instinct and outlook on the world of the human species. This evening we are dealing with part of this activity turned into the use and service of man. The day may come when there is a more humane approach to this problem, but at the present time we shall deal with it by increasing by square centimetres the space that may be allowed to a fowl kept in almost semi-dark conditions.

The noble Lord who introduced the codes must know the criticisms that can be made against them. I am sure that from his brief he must have a pretty good idea of what I am about to say. First, this is the first main code dealing with the welfare of the domestic fowl for 15 years. Secondly, the code now before your Lordships' House was last updated by the Farm Animal Welfare Council five years ago.

Those two dates surely suggest that the Farm Animal Welfare Council could be excused if it resigned en bloc, impatient with the scant attention that its work receives from time to time. It took us four years after the report of the Farm Animal Welfare Council to get the codes agreed for the conditions of poultry at the time and point of slaughter. Now we have these wider regulations in prospect, so long after they have gone through the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Since that council last saw them five years ago they have been updated in only one respect. Of the several new systems that have been introduced only the free range system is included in the present draft code.

In the past five years new systems have begun and new techniques and new approaches to the manufacture of eggs and meat for human consumption have been introduced. I really think that when an order springs from the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council it ought at least to have an opportunity to have another close look at the order when five years have elapsed since the last occasion.

There is a further complication, which is the. EC directive to which the noble Lord referred. An EC directive has made its appearance in more recent times and this is referred to in the introduction which is to appear, when these orders are printed, over the signature of the Secretary of State. I shall now read from the introduction which is to be included in the eventual document: An important development since the publication of the previous Code has been the adoption of an EC Directive on the welfare of battery hens which will provide, for the first time, a statutory minimum space allowance of 450 square centimetres per bird. In view of this the present Code cannot make any recommendation on space allowances for battery hens. Nevertheless the Government believes that a European standard of about 600 square centimetres would be more appropriate in welfare terms and we will be seeking improvements when the review of the Directive, due in 1993, takes place". My Lords, 1993! How many birds will live to see 1993 in more spacious conditions? I do not expect to live that long myself.

The importance of this directive is that although it contains some recommendations which have been included in the code, it also contains a number of recommendations which have not. But the EC directive must become statutory regulations. That is the important distinction between giving effect to an EC directive and giving effect to a code of guidance for conduct. I welcome anything that is statutory in the essential conditions of animal welfare. I think too much can be left to codes, especially as there is so little difficulty in escaping compliance with them on the part of those concerned, without any serious risk of trouble.

However, the important thing about the EC directive is that the uniform space allowance for the battery hen, which is to be 450 square centimetres per bird, is lower than the amount of space included in the codes in this country in the past.

I should like to refer noble Lords to an assurance given by the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Prior, in 1971. I shall now quote from Col. 1021 of 30th July 1971 in the Official Report of the House of Commons: Both before and after joining the Community, we should be free to do anything which did not go against the Community's directives or regulations. But certainly we are determined that our Codes shall he a starting point for us, and that nothing will be done to go back on them. I can give the honourable gentlemen an absolute assurance about that. I am rather proud of the fact that Britain is the first country to have Codes of practice in this respect. Certainly we shall want to move forward from them rather than the other way". This EC directive for 450 square centimetres per bird is below what was recommended in the code of 1971. No wonder the Secretary of State says that next time round they will press for about 600 square centimetres, when at the present time between 500 and 600 is the standard requirement under British conditions. That is a very important weakness in the present situation and it is why you will find a blank in the code for the space to be allotted to birds in Britain, because while the European directive is, as it were, waiting to be attended to, as the noble Lord explained, no statement can be made in this code about the space to be allowed per bird for the future. We must await the implementation of the directive. But what it looks like is that the directive will say that 450 square centimetres is the statutory minimum.

However, what will it say about the desirable standard margin between the lower space allocation in the European directive and that provided for in our own code up to now? That is my criticism of these orders. It is unfortunate that they are being brought forward so long after the Farm Animal Welfare Council last reviewed them and before the Government are able to settle finally what they will do about the EC directive upon which they have to reach a conclusion, I understand, within the next three months. It is therefore a pity that we are dealing with this order tonight when a few months hence at least the Government's position on the EC directive will be clearer and it would have given time for the Farm Animal Welfare Council to have another look at the codes.

Finally, I am sorry to have taken a little time, but when one can speak on this important subject only once in five years I think one can trespass on the time of the House a little more than usual. The overriding question here is always the difference between codes of practice and statutory regulations. What we would like to see is more statutory regulations on the essential points. I am sure that has been the view of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, on which I shall make my concluding observations. The status and the scope of activity and responsibility of the Farm Animal Welfare Council should be uprated. I know that this was reviewed and the Farm Animal Welfare Council strengthened and made more effective since the present Government came in in 1979. It was one of the election pledges of 1979 and it was fulfilled. Yet what we have in the field of animal scientific procedures under the Act of 1986 is a procedures committee of a new standing, with new responsibilities which I feel sure should be extended to the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

The procedures committee under the laboratory animals Act of last year has the right of initiative, the right to have its recommendations published when put to the Minister, and if the Minister declines to accept them his reasons are to be published. There is to be more open consultation with government in that field. Although it is essential in that field I believe it to be essential in this one also. The public cannot rest content, it seems to me, unless the watchdogs who are appointed expressly to look at these things from an independent standpoint are given the fullest respect and their recommendations implemented so far as possible by the government of the day.

But we know what vested interests there are lurking around this subject. Of course there are vested interests lurking around the laboratories too. We have the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry and the profession of science. We have all the vested interests. Whatever you do with animals there are vested interests. The time comes when the public has to ask for those vested interests to be weighed against the public intention to have more humane treatment of the animals that we use for our service, our enjoyment and our recreation too.

I sincerely hope that we are going to get a change in the next Parliament in the standing and powers of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It is amazing the amount of unpleasant work that that council does. Fancy parading all round the slaughterhouses of Britain to look at ritual slaughter as well as red-meat slaughter and poultry slaughter. Why should members of committees of this kind submit themselves to this grievous and heartrending experience for the sake of the public at large, when the Government treat it as just another incident in the life of their administrative responsibilities and let it ride for five years while they consult with others? It is shameful that there should he this kind of delay on nearly all the reports.

We have a number already in the pipeline. We know they are controversial and difficult, but they have to he dealt with at some time. I fully believe that the public mood will be behind any government who wish to humanise the treatment of animals notwithstanding economic interests and the consumer interests. We must not make the consumer king in a field of this kind. Other species have their rights on earth along with our own, and that is becoming more and more recognised. I think that is quite enough to be going on with, but I promise that there will be more to follow when the time comes.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should like to underline what my noble friend Lord Houghton has said. Many years on the British Standards Institution taught me that the only useful standards were the mandatory ones. The voluntary ones would be carried out by people who were going to do the right thing anyway, and the people who were going to do the wrong thing had nothing to fear because it was voluntary. That is why I am disappointed that these are only codes of recommendation.

Like so many of your Lordships, travelling along the other day I saw the most appalling sight—I think en route to Nine Elms market—of these unfortunate creatures pushed together in a space in which they would have been quite incapable of moving their wings and their bodies at all. This immediately reveals as utter nonsense the space allowance that we read about here.

Incidentally, speaking as an ex-teacher of maths, when did we ever have square centimetres? It seems to be a contradiction of the imperial measure and the metric. But we must emphasise that at some stage these must go beyond codes of recommendation. They must be codes of practice which are mandatory, and they must be enforceable. Who enforces them? Who sees what happens to these unfortunate animals in transit?

I am bound to say that anybody who travels on the London Underground at times would like to see some kind of practice about space allowance there. There is no excuse at this stage, as my noble friend has said, for not having something that is at least enforceable. This is a step in the right direction, which we welcome, but I should like it on the record that we want to see codes of practice which carry with them some mandatory implications.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, with permission, I shall do my best to respond to the points made in the debate. As might be expected, the debate has thrown up a number of differing views on farm animal welfare. The Government in tabling the documents before the House have tried to reach a set of judgments balanced between the views of those who press for radical action to alter livestock farming practices and those who see no need for further rules about what happens on farms.

Many of the issues are complex, and in many areas neither scientific knowledge nor practical experience can give us final answers. But I firmly believe that the draft welfare codes now before us represent the best judgment we can make in the present state of knowledge.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, mentioned his deep distrust of ducks and his dislike of rabbits. It is possibly, I suppose, slightly disturbing for those who see rabbits as an alternative crop that already one consumer has said no. But I am grateful for the comments that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, made, and I believe that he sees that the Government are trying to do the best in a difficult situation where there are contrasting interests.

The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, mentioned the Alliance policy towards ducks, or lack of it. I shall bring that to the attention of my right honourable friend the Chairman of the Conservative Party. I am sure that the prospects of the ducks in the Orkneys are well served by the great care, attention, and love that the noble Lord probably gives to them.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, showed a concern for battery hens and their conditions. He showed a concern also for the codes themselves. I must remind the noble Lord of what I said at the start. They are not just advisory codes; they have the important legal status that a breach can be cited in a prosecution under the 1968 Act, and as such are a useful tool in ensuring the protection of livestock.

The noble Lord also mentioned the problem of light and asked particularly why could we not have daylight. Part of the problem is that bright sunlight can be harmful to birds, particularly if they cannot move away, and it is not practicable to provide a housed system where it is possible to provide for the mobility of the chickens.

Lord Somers

My Lords, that is really rather skirting the problem. It is perfectly easy to arrange for daylight which is shaded from the sun.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point, and will pass it on to my honourable friend. With regard to the future of the battery cage, which I suspect is what the noble Lord is on about, at the moment there is no practical substitute for the battery system which has yet been developed or properly tested. Free-range and other semi-intensive systems certainly have a place in commercial egg production, but much more work needs to be done before we can even consider their exclusive adoption. The Government have gone to great lengths constantly to monitor and update what we are doing in this field.

I probably will disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. not only in his industrial view of farming but on the Christian approach to it as well. When he says that intensive agriculture, and particularly intensive livestock rearing, are just an industry I must say that I have met many farmers who have a real and true concern for and love of their stock. The success of any agricultural enterprise depends on a happy and a high state of welfare of the livestock.

Lord Somers

My Lords, if that were true, they would not keep them like that.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I fear that I shall have to agree to differ with the noble Lord.

The difficulty over the Common Market regulations was brought vividly to our attention by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. The Government have made no secret of their view that it would have been better for a Community directive to have aimed at an eventual harmonised level of 600 square centimetres per bird—even if this is not an imperial measure. But 450 square centimetres was the best compromise available last year, and we shall return to the charge when the directive is reviewed in 1993.

The noble Lord made great issue that 1993 is a long time away and that 450 square centimetres was, in his opinion, not good enough. But on the basis of intensive poultry systems in Europe, for many European chickens this is a great improvement and something where the British influence is bearing for good in Europe.

The noble Lord. Lord Houghton, went on to discuss the Farm Animal Welfare Council and the fact that nothing has happened in the last five years. But that is not quite so because the Farm Animal Welfare Council completed its study on the free range aspects only last year. The code was held up to take account of the forthcoming European directive.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, also raised the point that we are putting the codes into practice tonight, three months ahead of the European directive. The point is that it will be for the benefit of animal welfare, so there is no reason to delay it. I can only say that it has been a most interesting debate. The only area where I would disagree finally with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is that when I was a very small boy I was always taught that speciesism was a dangerous medieval heresy, so I suspect we shall not be able to agree on the difficulties of this problem.

It has been a most useful debate. In conclusion, I acknowledge that these new or revised codes may not be perfect and may not contain all the advice that noble Lords might wish to see, but they are the result of careful thought and contain the best advice and guidance currently available to stock keepers. If followed by stock keepers I believe they will make a significant contribution to improving the welfare of our farm livestock and I ask the House to give them its approval.

On Question, Motions agreed to.