HL Deb 10 December 1997 vol 584 cc227-32

8.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 19th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 19th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committed]—(Lord Donoughue.)

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I wish to intervene briefly to put to my noble friend one or two small remarks on the order before it is approved. These are not particularly pleasant little animals. We cannot eat them. They have only one purpose which is to provide pelts. When they escape they have a devastating effect on local wildlife and in captivity they are kept in, what is for them, totally inappropriate conditions. They are semi-aquatic, but they are kept in confined and barren spaces with very little access to water or exercise. That could be described as cruelty and for what purpose? Are they so economically valuable that we should allow this trade to continue?

I know that my noble friend is merely seeking to extend licences which already exist, but I hope that he can assure the House that in future the Government will look closely at the need to continue what I consider to be a totally unnecessary and rather cruel trade.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, perhaps I may echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. I shall not trespass on the welfare aspect except to say that I much prefer to see furs on the backs of the animals rather than on the human. I suppose that it is preferable to kill the mink humanely on fur farms; it is certainly preferable to the leg-hold trap which is still used in other parts of the world. Can my noble friend confirm that the British Government will maintain the position that they have adopted as regards that matter?

The main purpose of my brief intervention is to say that I entirely endorse the order. It is essential that there is a degree of regulation of the fur farms. As a conservationist, can I be sure that having been given a licence a mink farm is subject to adequate inspection? I say that because both sides of this House and the other place endorsed in 1981 the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which sought to ensure that alien species were not freed, released or allowed to escape in this country. Alien species really have no place in Britain. They can distort our ecological wealth. There is even a species of crayfish which is now playing havoc with our native crayfish in my own county. The House will be well aware of the damage that the coypu has done to the banks of the waterways on the Norfolk Broads. It escaped from fur farms in East Anglia rather a long time ago.

I would like to think that in addition to having tight conditions as regards the licences, the establishments, while they exist, will be subject to inspection which could well consider the welfare point my noble friend made. They might also take great care to ensure that escapes become impossible.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I note that this order is made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 which provides for the keeping of non-indigenous species of mammals to be either prohibited or controlled by licence on the basis of their destructive habits. The order is thus concerned solely with the security aspects of the keeping of mink and not with whether mink should be farmed or with the welfare aspect of the keeping of mink.

Indeed, if the order were not to be approved, the result would be, not a prohibition on mink keeping, but the absence of any controls on the keeping of mink including the crucial security requirements.

I take note of the fact that fur farming in the UK is regulated and monitored by MAFF's veterinary advisers, with regular farm inspections by the independent State Veterinary Service.

I turn now to the text of the 1997 order and its accompanying amending regulations. My first point relates to paragraphs (1) and (2) of Article 1 which state that the order shall have effect for three years instead of the five years which has been the practice for previous orders. Can the Minister explain why the five-year period has been abandoned? Is there any significance in this for the future of the fur farming industry? Do the Government have plans to phase out the industry and, if so, would they make an announcement which could assist those engaged in the industry to adjust their business plans accordingly and consider what other action they may need to take?

I understand that when members of the British Fur Trade Association and the Fur Breeders association met the Minister, Mr. Elliot Morley, on 17th July he gave assurances that existing farms would be allowed to continue. Is that still the case? The Minister will not be surprised to learn that, as a result of Mr. Morley's comments in July, existing fur farms have already implemented investment plans.

My second point concerns The Mink (Keeping) (Amendment) Regulations 1997 which are linked with this order. They increase the cost of the licence fee charged to those who keep mink. In the case of those who keep mink for scientific research the increase is from nil to £185 in England and Wales and £60 in Scotland. In all other cases the cost of the licence fee has been increased from £115 to £630. Can the Minister explain why the licence fee cost has been increased in real terms so substantially? Was consideration given to the damaging effect that this large increase could have on smaller family firms? Was consideration given to phasing in the increase over a period, and if not, why not?

We continue to believe, as we did in government, that it is essential that where mink are kept it should be under licence and under secure conditions designed to prevent escapes. This order meets those objectives and we on these Benches therefore support the making of the order.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, everyone agrees that this order must be passed because mink must be contained. They do an immense amount of damage when they get loose and they only too often do so. Mink are to blame for a crash in the population of common terns along a 1,000-kilometre stretch of coastline between Mallaig and Campbeltown. Numbers have fallen there from 1,839 to 1,023 breeding pairs over the past 10 years. That is equivalent to a 4.5 per cent. reduction in the total British population of terns. In the same area between 1989 and 1996, breeding pairs of common gulls have dropped from 1,138 to 799, and pairs of great black-headed gulls from 630 to 303.

In the latest issue of Bird Study (volume 44), published by the British Trust for Ornithology, it is pointed out that the populations of these species have marginally increased at sites where mink are absent but steeply decreased where they are present. On 15 inshore islands populated by mink, numbers of seabirds have decreased by more than 90 per cent. or have disappeared altogether. Mink cause such devastation because, like hyenas, they sometimes kill far more than they eat. They can kill 100 chicks in one night. They are also strong swimmers and have no natural predators in Britain, other than humans.

Conservationists at Oxford University also blame mink for the virtual disappearance of water voles from most English rivers over the past 15 years. An unpublished study of the Thames, Soar and Amber Rivers by the university's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit warns that mink, can be associated with drastic local reductions in numbers of water voles within one year. and their effective extinction within two years". At this time of year we should remind ourselves that that refers to Ratty.

There is an absolute need for this order to be passed. but it should not need to be passed because the Labour Party's pre-election document, which I noticed was not mentioned by those on the government Benches, stressed that the party was totally opposed to fur farming and that it would take action to end that cruel method as soon as practicable. If it had been ended as soon as possible. we would not need to be passing this order. As it is, we have to pass it and, as a result, we must look also at its welfare effects.

My information is that, in spite of the fact that mink farms are subject to inspection, many are of a very low standard and animal welfare is neglected. It is not difficult to see how that position arises, because mink are highly active, semi-aquatic animals which. in the wild, maintain territories a mile or more in length. Keeping such animals in small, barren cages, as is the norm on mink farms, poses serious welfare problems for them. As long ago as 1989, the Farm Animal Welfare Council stressed: the Council believes that the systems employed in the farming of mink do not satisfy some of the most basic criteria which it has identified for protecting the welfare of farm animals". We support this order. We are glad that it is being imposed for only three years this time, as opposed to five. We hope that such an order will never again have to be moved because we hope that fur farming will have been abolished by that time.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are taking this discussion in a rather more original manner than I had anticipated but, given the competition of both television and another place, it may save us a little time.

The Mink Keeping Order before this House is made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932. This Act is concerned with the control of mammals which are not indigenous to this country and which pose a threat to the environment because of their destructive habits. The order is concerned with ensuring that mink are kept securely to prevent their escape into the wild. It replaces the existing order which expires on 18th January 1998.

As I am sure that noble Lords are aware, the Government's position on fur farming, as stated in our pre-election leaflet New Life for Animals, is to prohibit fur farming as soon as is practicable. Earlier this year, the Government reviewed the various options available to prohibit the keeping of mink and other species for fur, and a public consultation letter seeking comments on the way we proposed to proceed was issued on 5th August.

The overwhelming majority of responses to the consultation letter supported the Government's position that all fur farming should be prohibited. As I have indicated, the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 allows only for a prohibition on the keeping of non-indigenous mammals to be introduced for the purpose of protecting the environment. The Government have now concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that existing arrangements for keeping mink significantly contribute to the problems caused by feral mink. Therefore, in the absence of this evidence, it is not possible to introduce an order prohibiting the keeping of mink for fur under the 1932 Act. However, I can assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to implementing our pledge to prohibit fur farming as soon as practicable and we are urgently considering how this can best be implemented.

It has been suggested that the UK's participation in negotiations aimed at updating and strengthening the Council of Europe's recommendation on the welfare of animals kept for their fur will in some way inhibit our ability to bring in a ban. I can assure the House that this is not the case. We are taking an active part in the discussions so as to ensure that those European countries which do continue to permit fur farming apply the highest possible welfare standards.

In the meantime, the Mink Keeping Order 1997 will need to be renewed. Here, I hope that I am dealing with the concerns raised by both my noble friend Lady Nicol and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. If the order is not renewed, the keeping of mink for fur would be totally deregulated; the agriculture departments would not then have the power to enforce the stringent security conditions required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. Such a situation would not be acceptable to the Government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, about the dangers and horrors of mink and I thank him for his otherwise general support for the order.

The Government are making one change to the Mink Keeping Order 1997. Previous mink keeping orders have all been valid for five years. However, in view of the Government's intention to implement our pre-election pledge to prohibit fur farming as soon as practicable, we have proposed that the Mink Keeping Order 1997 should be limited to three years. I hope that that deals with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and I thank him also for his otherwise general support for what we are doing. The order will therefore expire on 1st January 2001, by when we hope that fur farming will have been prohibited absolutely in the United Kingdom.

As with the previous order, the Mink Keeping Order 1997 prohibits the keeping of mink absolutely on any offshore island other than the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Arran (and neighbouring Holy Island); and in the Caithness and Sutherland districts of the Highland region of Scotland. These are areas which have neither mink farms nor a feral population. The purpose of the continued absolute prohibition on the keeping of mink in these areas is to maintain this situation and prevent the establishment of feral mink populations. In all other areas of Great Britain the keeping of mink is prohibited except under a licence.

To qualify for a licence to keep mink, fur farm operators need to comply with the Mink Keeping Regulations 1975. These regulations prescribe the manner in which mink must be kept and the strict precautions that must be taken to prevent their escape. Currently there are 16 licensed mink farms in England. There is none in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

I should, perhaps, explain that the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 deals only with the need to prohibit or control the keeping of non-indigenous mammals by reason of their destructive nature. The welfare of mink which are being farmed for their fur is covered by separate legislation.

In closing, the Mink Keeping Order 1997 is essential to ensure that the Ministry has the power to enforce the stringent security conditions required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. To fail to renew it —I trust that the House will support the Government in this matter—will result in deregulation, with all the dangers that that involves. I can assure noble Lords that, until fur farming is prohibited, applications for licences will be considered fairly and will be issued where the required standards are met. Equally, where licensees do not comply with the required standards, firm action, including prosecution where justified, will be taken.

My noble friend Lord Hardy referred to inspections. Under the Mink Keeping Order we shall increase inspections from one to two, and the second will be unannounced. As regards leg-hold traps, the Government have supported moves in the European Union to ban their use for wild animals. They will continue their opposition in the current European Union negotiations with the United States. Referring to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, it is in relation to those extra inspections, and because the original pool of funds has been exhausted, that we are raising the licence fees. The costs of the inspections will be met from licence fees.

I hope that I have dealt with the points that have been raised and that the House agrees that these regulations should be passed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before nine o'clock.