HL Deb 14 July 2000 vol 615 cc545-50

5.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th June be approved. I shall speak at the same time to the draft code of recommendations for the welfare of sheep.

Our presidency of the Council in 1998 enabled us to get a key measure adopted on animal welfare in the shape of Council Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes (the so-called "general" farm animal welfare directive).

We recognised early on in drawing up implementing regulations for the directive that it would be very difficult to amend the current Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 without making them extremely difficult to follow. We decided that the 1994 regulations should be revoked and replaced by new ones which would combine the new EU requirements with our existing rules in a logical way. In drafting these implementing regulations we followed five basic principles.

The first is user friendliness. We are conscious that a wide variety of people will need to use these regulations. It was clear that they needed to be structured carefully. We decided to set out in Schedule 1 the requirements that apply to all animals. The schedules containing further, species-specific requirements then follow.

On our second principle, we have tried to ensure that we depart from the wording found in the present EU legislation only when it is sensible to do so. In one particular case, relating to tail docking of piglets, this has meant abandoning the wording used in the predecessor Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 and adopting the wording of the parent directive on the welfare of pigs.

Our third principle was to retain our national standards where they go beyond EU requirements. The noble Baroness spoke earlier of the way in which we lead the world in animal welfare. This applies, of course, to stalls and tethers bans for pigs, as well as to other areas.

Our fourth principle, which again relates to the debate we had earlier, was to keep the burden on industry to a minimum. It would appear, on the face of it, that a new raft of measures applying to all farmed animals would involve a cost to our industry, but I should make it clear that this is not the case. In fact, the measure represents good news for our own farmers because it will have the welcome effect of requiring their counterparts in some parts of the EU, who have hitherto not been subject to such welfare rules, to come up to the mark and thus to help to create a level playing field. The noble Baroness sitting opposite knows that that is of deep concern to farmers.

I move to the last of our five principles; that of ensuring that the new requirements are in line with the Action Plan for Farming announced by the Prime Minister last March. When we originally went out to consultation last June, we proposed building in three additional provisions. However, since then, Regulation 11 relating to the first principle allows for a formal notice with a specific time limit to be issued, requiring a person in charge of animals to take necessary action to resolve welfare problems. In consultation, this was welcomed on all sides as a positive measure. We are proceeding with it because it will ensure effective, but not more burdensome, enforcement.

As regards the second issue in relation to well drained lying areas, it is anomalous that the existing law requires these for animals kept indoors, but not for animals kept outdoors. We thought that we should rectify this and give legal effect to a provision which was already in our welfare codes.

We decided, on reflection, to leave out of this set of regulations the third of the extra provisions that we proposed at the outset; namely, the provision prohibiting the beak trimming of hens kept in cages. Beak trimming is not a practice which the Government in any way support. However, we shall return to the question of how to deal with it in cage systems shortly, in the forthcoming consultation and implementing exercise on Directive 99/74 on the welfare of laying hens.

I now turn briefly to the code of recommendations for the welfare of sheep. Our present sheep welfare code was drawn up in 1990. Since then, there have been many changes in the industry, and the Farm Animal Welfare Council has produced a report on the welfare of sheep. It is therefore time for the code to be updated.

The new sheep code that is before the House gives farmers useful advice as to how they can go about ensuring that their animals' ethological needs are met, in accordance with the guidance principle that underlies the directive. Unlike the existing sheep code, the revised code will apply in England only. Similar codes are being produced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The code contains detailed advice on important matters such as the prevention of disease, construction of buildings, and the provision of food, water and bedding. We hope that it will not be a burden, but a positive help to the industry in relation to some of its current concerns. For example, if the advice in the code is followed, it will help reduce the incidence of sheep scab.

On that basis, as the code is the first of a series to be updated in this way and will be of benefit to sheep farmers, I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hayman.)

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for putting forward the regulations. In general, we welcome them. She and I—indeed, I seem to have been talking about animal welfare standards nearly all day—have reflected our desire for high animal welfare standards in this country. I am sure the Minister appreciates that I have no wish to drive the standards down. We are right to have high standards.

However, there remains a "but". We raise animals to sell them, and we must do so in a competitive market. I share the Minister's appreciation that the regulations will benefit our farmers within the EU, because other EU farmers will have to meet the standards that are set in some of the regulations. But there is another "but". We compete also with countries outside the EU, and we must be wary of that. We compete within a global market.

Basically, I welcome the regulations. We are grateful for the recognition given by Elliot Morley in Standing Committee in another place. He said: If we introduce new, higher standards, we must give thought to how that will affect our farmers compared with European farmers".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee, 12/7/00; col. 4.] I am glad that that is recognised.

To follow on from that logic, we welcome, too, the establishment of the farm tractor as a logo. It does not mean that the produce marked with the logo is British, but it sets British standards. That helps the consumer. At the end of the day, the high animal welfare standards that we set are fine; but we raise animals for consumers to buy. One of the problems that we have discussed in this House in recent months has related to the way in which we try to make sure that the consumer knows what he or she is buying. So if we require that our farmers raise their animals to a higher standard, that premium should be obvious for people to see and should add value to the product on offer. I still have slight reservations on that matter.

The noble Baroness referred to the docking of pigs' tails and the practice of beak-tipping. I accept that we are to return to those matters at a later stage.

As in the case of the IPPC, perhaps I may put the same questions to the noble Baroness. Do other EU countries implement these directives at the same time as the UK? Currently, how many have done it and how many have not?

The Minister said that the costs were negative. However, the debate in another place indicates otherwise. While I accept that the figure is not immense, I believe that there will be some costs. I should be grateful for clarity on that matter. Later in the debate in the other place her honourable friend Mr Morley said the UK should compete not only on high standards, and ensure that it did not drop to the lowest common denominator—I appreciate that—but on quality, which includes welfare, production methods and other various inputs. We agree. We are anxious that any further legislation that is introduced looks at this matter not only from the European point of view, as in the case of these regulations, but also from the wider perspective. We trade globally, not simply within Europe. With those comments, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the regulations. I shall not delay the House further because I am aware that another debate is to follow. I make one point and ask one question. The link which the Conservatives make between high standards and consumers being aware of them is an important one. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, welcomed the tractor logo. We also welcome it. However, at the moment the link is very much between larger producers and supermarkets. Often smaller producers are in a better position to pay particular attention to the welfare of their farm animals. We hope that the excellent production methods of small producers continue to be highlighted in a similar way to other initiatives, such as farmers' markets, and that this one will not be limited simply to large supermarkets which, commendably, have worked with the NFU to introduce the logo.

My question is related to paragraph 27, in particular zoo-technical treatments. As the notes make clear, the particular reference is to hormone treatment. In the light of the findings of the Scientific Committee of the EU that hormone substances used in the United States in beef production have proven carcinogenic links, does the Minister believe that at the moment sufficient scientific studies are being conducted so that paragraph 27 can be put into good effect? Given the speed at which the technology advances, are sufficient trials being conducted to enable us to be sure of our own scientific advice? Will the Minister ensure that her department receives as much advice on this issue as is available world-wide? That problem is likely to be a much harder one to tackle than the size of cages and the condition of bedding, important though those matters are.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her explanation of the recommendations for the welfare of sheep. I apologise to my noble friend for not reading the code of practice. My failure to do so makes me feel very sheepish.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, as to the code, I should like to ask a number of questions, of which I have given my noble friend notice. What is the legal status and force of the code? It is referred to as a statutory code. Can my noble friend explain exactly what that means?

Secondly, the document applies to England and Wales at present, but I understand that there will be a specific document for Wales. Can my noble friend explain when and how such a code will appear?

I speak as a landowner, on a very small scale, in Wales. Is not tail-docking prohibited on lambs by a European directive placed in legislation in this country? That is believed by upland farmers in Wales.

Lastly, do the Government expect my neighbours in Wales to read this code in detail and understand it?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome given to these regulations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is right to point out that while the regulations help us to create a more level playing field within Europe, we have to recognise the international dimension of trade. The noble Baroness will be aware that we have been working to ensure that there is greater recognition than in the past within the WTO of animal issues. We are seized of the need to take the regulations into account at an international and European level.

We consulted industry on whether the regulations would impose any new costs. These put into legislation the good practice codes that the majority of UK farmers already follow. In the responses to the consultation, no new costs were identified. That is discussed in some detail in the RIA which accompanies the new regulations. There is a copy of that document in the Library. I understand that no issues were raised about additional costs.

Implementation was due by 31st December 1999. Therefore (to mix metaphors) I feel somewhat like pot or kettle before casting stones about other countries. It is for the Commission to ensure that they are properly implemented. However, if we have further detail on stages of implementation in other countries, perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister imply that she does not have those details?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not have the details with me. Whether we have them collectively within the ministry, I am uncertain. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness. The implementation was in 1999. It is a Commission responsibility.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raised the issue of zoo-technical treatments—for example, hormones. What is set out in the regulations reflects the policy within the directive and the state of scientific knowledge throughout the EU. Through our licensing procedures for veterinary medicines, we have to ensure that the advice Ministers receive about licensing is the most up-to-date. The noble Baroness is right to point out that it is a fast-moving field. We very much rely on the expertise of the members of the VPC and our own Veterinary Medicines Directorate.

My noble friend Lord Williams asked me several questions and I am grateful to him for giving me prior notice. The legal status of the welfare code is that it is a guideline which may be used in evidence in the event of a prosecution. The best analogy would be that of the Highway Code.

As I mentioned, separate codes will be brought forward in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I understand that in Wales that is in hand but the exact content and timing is a matter for the devolved administration. I was asked about the perception of a ban on the tail-docking of sheep. Directive 98/58 regulates rather than prohibits the tail docking of sheep. One of the code's advantages is that it sets out certain issues such as the minimum length.

I was also asked whether we expected sheep farmers to read the code. The simple answer is yes. I do not think that it is anything new but it replaces an existing code. The provisions entail responsibilities that need to be met. As I hope I made clear, we do not believe that the code imposes a tremendous burden. We have done everything that we can to make it helpful to farmers and to all those involved. On that basis, I commend the provisions to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.