HL Deb 28 February 1995 vol 561 cc1404-6

2.56 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in persuading relevant member states of the European Union that veal crates should no longer be used in the rearing of calves exported from the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, it would not add to the sum of animal welfare to require calves exported from the UK to receive different treatment from calves from other member states. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been pressing hard for the abolition of the close confinement veal crate system across the Community and, with the support of many other member states, has secured the advancement to this year of the review of the current EU rules. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had encouraging reactions to her programme of visits to EU capitals to enlist support for a Community-wide ban.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. While my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture clearly made determined efforts last week to improve travelling conditions for farm animals, is there any early prospect of an agreement being reached among the countries concerned aimed at freeing calves from their close confinement during the weeks and months which they spend abroad?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he said. The Government take these issues very seriously indeed. Negotiations in Brussels have certainly not been easy but if we are to secure real welfare benefits progress is essential at Community level. As I said, my honourable friend Mrs. Browning has been undertaking a number of meetings in other EU capitals to set out the basis for our objections to the close confinement veal crate system. Reactions to her visits have been most encouraging. Meetings of the scientific experts, which constitute the first step in the Commission's review of the current EU rules on the welfare of calves, have already begun. My right honourable friend the Minister asked about progress with the review at the Agriculture Council last week and I am pleased to say that in response the Commission confirmed that the results will be made available to the Council as soon as possible this year.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, is it not quite cruel enough to confine a calf in a crate for the whole of its life? Is it not even more cruel to give it freedom to roam on an English farm and then send it abroad to be confined in a crate for the rest of its life, having known freedom?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is suggesting that the UK should implement some kind of unilateral ban. I suggest to him that that idea is not a route which we should take up. The legal advice available to Ministers indicates that a unilateral ban on live exports, whether a blanket ban or indeed a selective ban relating only to calves, could not be reconciled with Community law; nor would it be feasible to make a unilateral ban stick. If we really want to improve animal welfare across the Community we need Community-wide legislation.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the furore over veal crates has managed to entangle three quite separate problems? The first is the problem for British dairy farmers of disposing of half a million calves each year; the second is the humane transport of live animals of all species; and the third is this detestable business of the use of veal crates which mainly occurs in France and Holland. Does the Minister agree that each of these problems needs to be dealt with separately? I must say that so far the Government have not had much success in dealing with any of them.

Earl Howe

My Lords, to pick up one of the points which the noble Lord made, our estimate is that of about 1.2 million male dairy calves born each year the majority—perhaps three-quarters of a million—are used for beef production.

I endorse the overall sentiment expressed by the noble Lord. There are three distinct issues, on all of which the Government are energetically engaged. But in everything we do we must bear in mind not only the welfare of farm animals in the UK, which is very important, but also the welfare of animals across the Community as a whole. That is why the UK is playing a leading part in bringing pressure to bear on the Commission and other member states.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, when my noble friend says that this country is not free to go its own way in this matter because of Community law, is he in fact confessing that once again we are the victim of the qualified majority vote?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend is always quick to advance arguments for subsidiarity. Subsidiarity does not mean that there is never a case for Community law. It is a question of actions being taken at the most appropriate level. The best interests of animals are not served by different rules in different member states.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Earl gives the House the impression that he wants to do something, notably the right thing, but European law prevents him. Why does he not go right into the heart of Europe and do exactly what other member states do? When it suits them they break European law and, indeed, they make their own laws. Why should we not follow their example?

Earl Howe

My Lords, because by acting unilaterally we would lose the leverage that we are building up in the Community negotiations, quite apart from the legal considerations I mentioned. We would also risk handing the whole trade to other countries, some outside the Community, with less stringent rules on welfare than our own. That would benefit neither farmers nor the cause of animal welfare.

Lord Gray

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we are very short of time. If my noble friend will allow, we should move on to the next Question.

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