HL Deb 09 April 1998 vol 588 cc850-2

11.15 a.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to persuade the United Kingdom's European Union partners and the other World Trade Organisation (WTO) contracting parties of the need to reform the WTO so that it does not prevent countries from adopting measures which are genuinely aimed at securing improved standards of animal welfare.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the WTO does not prevent countries from adopting measures to improve animal welfare within their own territory. However, it does not allow them unilaterally to impose standards on their trading partners. It is one of our EU presidency objectives to initiate discussion on how the Union might seek to widen the international consensus on animal welfare.

Baroness Nichol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that Article 11 of the 1994 GATT prohibits bans on imports and exports for any reason? That prevents member countries from applying ethical standards. Is it not possible that in future the European Union is likely to back away from any more measures to improve animal welfare because of the ban? Will my noble friend seek, in the forthcoming ministerial conference in Geneva in May, to air this subject so that at least this country can make its views known on the need for greater protection for animals?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the Government are entirely sympathetic with the broad approach she takes. We are committed to improving animal welfare standards in this country, in Europe and throughout the world. The problem appears to focus on the WTO. But it is not the WTO: it has 130 members, and there is not a majority consensus for the kind of welfare reforms and the raising of welfare standards that we seek. That is why we are working through the European Union to argue with the WTO to raise standards. We will be arguing for that at the May conference and we have a working party of chief veterinary officers already looking at this subject. I should point out to my noble friend that, as a lead department, it is for the DTI to take the lead, though MAFF will be involved in the preparations.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, will the Minister join with me in recognising the value of the work done by the Farm Animal Welfare Council? Perhaps he can be enticed to be a little more specific in the aims he outlined for the work at the May council. Can the noble Lord say also that at that meeting of Ministers in Geneva the Government will press for the establishment of EU and WTO equivalents of the Farm Animal Welfare Council? And, if not, why not?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I share the noble Baroness's support for that council. Indeed, MAFF provides the secretariat and the running expenses. It would certainly help us if all other countries had a similar council. I shall look seriously at the matter and discuss with the department whether that can be an item on the May agenda.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the point raised by my noble friend Lady Nicol is a good illustration of the far-reaching powers and authority in the hands of international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (which will soon be strengthened by the multilateral agreement on investment), the IMF and other such global bodies? Does he agree also that, because of the far-reaching ramifications of many of the policies made by those bodies, there is a need within Parliament to introduce systems for systematic scrutiny of what is being done in such institutions and what is being said on our behalf by officials who represent this nation on such bodies?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend has made a perceptive observation and a most constructive suggestion. More and more of our affairs are discussed, conducted and decided on a multinational and at times a global basis. The degree of accountability in that respect and the opportunities for Parliament to exercise its influence are limited. The progress towards globalisation is irresistible; indeed, it is part of the development in the world. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that we have not caught up with it in all areas so as to ensure that for our national interests and accountability the decision-making and discussions of those bodies, especially at official level, are sufficiently accountable. I thank my noble friend for this suggestion.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will accept thanks for the action being taken by the Government. However, will he ensure that our parliamentary representatives in all relevant international fora are adequately briefed so that the level of attention and debate can be raised? That will ensure that, as far as concerns animal welfare and ecological considerations, the lowest common denominator does not apply.

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords; that is a danger with all this pressure to reach agreement. Indeed, on questions such as animal welfare, it is extremely tempting to reach an agreement at the lowest common level, which in animal welfare would achieve little and be very unsatisfactory. We do our best to ensure that those representing us are well briefed. This Government have raised the importance of animal welfare and made it a priority. Indeed, it is one of the stated priorities for our presidency of the EU.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that there will be a need for him to keep an eye on this exercise? I ask that question because I have seen a letter from the DTI dated 6th April to a Member of the other place which says that there are no current plans in the EU to raise farm animal welfare standards at the WTO ministerial meeting in May. Therefore, it will be necessary for my noble friend's department to apply some pressure in that respect.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we welcome that because we try to keep an eye on other departments; indeed, the DTI is one department in particular on which we need to keep an eye. I should point out to the House that I only dared say that after having checked that my noble friend from that department was not present in the Chamber. However, there will be interdepartmental discussions and we shall make that department aware of our priorities. But, of course, that is the department which is currently involved and its priorities are based on competition.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is also a problem of transparency? The example that I shall give the noble Lord in that respect is leg-hold traps, where one part of the Commission reached the point of legislation, only to be stopped by DGI at the last moment because the WTO had suddenly woken up to the implications involved. I do not know what finally happened but I do know that there was a most splendid muddle, which was caused partly because not only did our Government not know what was going on but neither did the Commission.

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords; I think that I will probably accept that description of what happened. It was unfortunate as regards leg-hold traps, but it was a lesson in not being too optimistic and pushing too far ahead without being absolutely clear about what can be achieved at the WTO level. That is why we are now cautious in our approach. However, we will be working through Europe to build a consensus for a better position.