HL Deb 12 February 1996 vol 569 cc387-9

2.42 p.m.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will press at the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference for animals to be given a new status in the Treaty of Rome, as sentient beings, replacing their current status as goods or agricultural products.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as announced on 6th February, we will be asking our European partners to use the opportunity of the Inter-Governmental Conference to add a new protocol to the Treaty of Rome. That protocol would place a formal legal obligation on the Council of Ministers to give full regard to considerations of animal welfare in the exercise of its powers on agriculture, transport, research and the single market. Our proposals for the precise wording of the protocol are still under consideration.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth:

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that most encouraging reply. Will he agree that to include in the protocol or, better still, in the treaty a new classification for animals, from being "agricultural goods" to being what they are— living creatures which know fear and pain— would greatly hasten the move towards the elimination in the Community of many inhumane methods of production? Could it also mean the end to journeys for livestock which are far too long?

Lord Lucas:

My Lords, a new protocol along the lines which we suggest would help. In a way it would mark the general progress towards better animal welfare throughout the Community, through the efforts of voluntary bodies and others. It would provide a basis on which the Community could not so much push forward in the vanguard but ensure that its regulations accord with how people in general in the Community are now wishing their food animals to be treated.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the Minister agree that animals should be treated as sentient beings? Alternatively, is he saying that the present classification can stand, that live animals are treated as being the same as the insides of animals? I believe that that is spelt out as guts, bladders and other pieces of animals. Should not the Government take a firm stand on the classification, whatever means they choose to reach their objectives?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the question of the wording is difficult. In the dictionary definition, the word "sentient" means "possessed of senses". In other words, if something is capable of feeling touch, then it is sentient. However, the word has drifted a good deal to mean "possessed of emotions" and even "possessed of intelligence". It is a difficult word to define in English, let alone in the other Community languages.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Almighty created animals as well as human beings? Although animals have not eaten the fruits of the tree of good and evil, we who have should give due consideration to them.

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is encouraging to hear the Government say that they are prepared to put forward a proposal amending the Treaty of Rome? Is he further aware that, notwithstanding anything that the Government ultimately succeed in incorporating in the treaty as a protocol, there will still have to be a proposal from the Commission in order for it to have any effect? What undertaking has the Minister received from the Commission that, if the protocol is inserted into the treaty, the Commission will bring forward a proposal? Otherwise, no action can be taken.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not believe that we are talking about a proposal being imposed on the EU by Britain and then imposed on the EU by the Commission. It will happen because of the general will of the people of Europe and I am sure that the Commission will follow it.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the Minister take particular care and obtain advice from biologists as to the wording of the proposal? It ought not to be the case that if you swat a fly you are in breach of an international treaty.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I absolutely agree. But not many of us think of flies as food animals.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter:

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we eat oysters alive? Would the proposal interfere with that?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, in the old and proper sense of the word, oysters are certainly sentient beings in that they have senses. I can remember my father teaching me that, "Any kind of noise annoys an oyster, but a noisy noise annoys an oyster most".

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, on this side of the House we welcome the proposed protocol and recognise that both its enacting and its implementation will take some time. Meanwhile, can the Minister say whether United Kingdom meat exports on the hook are being vigorously promoted and will continue to be vigorously promoted? Will he also say where responsibility now rests for such promotion? We believe that it would make a major contribution towards the growing concern about the way in which animals are treated, once they are exported from this country.

Lord Lucas:

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I find myself in complete agreement with the Benches opposite. This is a very important matter to promote and the Government and the Meat and Livestock Commission are doing their best to push it. I believe that we now export 80 per cent. of our meat on the hook. The more butchering we do here, the more value we add in this country and the more jobs we provide, let alone the implications for animal welfare. We shall push to promote this and will give help, encouragement and advice in order to achieve it. We hope that we will continue to do better, as we have done in the past.