HL Deb 06 November 2000 vol 618 cc1238-43

3.8 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Offences relating to fur farming]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 5, leave out ("or primarily").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as most of your Lordships were not able to be present at earlier stages of the Bill—not least because the Committee stage was held in Grand Committee in the Moses Room—it may help if I explain the background to the amendment.

Within the past couple of years the Government have formulated a novel doctrine; namely, that it is morally and politically correct to kill animals for meat, however expensive and esoteric that meat may be; it is morally and politically correct to kill them for the purposes of scientific research; to kill them for their musk glands from which expensive scent is manufactured; and to kill them for the leather from which expensive shoes, handbags and furniture can be made; but it is politically and morally incorrect to kill them for fur—although fur is rather less expensive and luxurious than many of the other items I have mentioned—unless the fur is a by-product of meat production. In other words, it is all right to sell rabbit fur provided that most of the profits from rearing the rabbits come from the rabbit meat. But what happens when, as in France at present and possibly other countries, the value of rabbit meat slumps and the value of their pelts rises?

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, posed just such a question in Grand Committee to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, replied.

It would be for the courts to decide on the meaning of 'primary' in particular cases'.—[Official Report, 17/10/00; col. CWH9.] She went on to imply that one could reliably count upon the courts to interpret the law in a sensible manner. But is it wise to base the creation of a new criminal offence upon such optimistic assumptions? Surely it would be more sensible to avoid ambiguity and the possibility of unintended consequences by restricting the draconian new law to cases where the animal is bred solely for fur and nothing else. I beg to move.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we had a debate in Grand Committee which reflected some of the fundamental arguments on the Bill to which any Member of your Lordships' House could have contributed had he so wished. We also had a debate at Second Reading about the basis on which the Government believe that it is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life to allow the slaughter for their fur of animals kept specifically for that purpose. That is the fundamental basis of the Bill. Whether it is appropriate to outlaw that form of farming on grounds of public morality and ethical standards is an area of fundamental disagreement among some Members of your Lordships' House and another place.

There has been great debate about it. There are disagreements. However, the Government are firmly of the view that it is justified and that the arrangements in respect of those farmers affected have been made on the proper timescale with the appropriate compensation arrangements. At the urging of noble Lords, during passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House, we have considered that issue carefully. We have taken on board the issues raised by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of your Lordships' House. We have amended the Bill to ensure that the compensation arrangements cover income as well.

However, we cannot accept the amendment. It would undermine fundamentally the purpose of the Bill. It would remove from the scope of the Bill any animals kept primarily for slaughter for the value of the fur where there was any by-product. It would not matter what the nature of the by-product was—for example, whether it was meat for human or animal consumption, or animals kept for show, or stud animals, or those kept for oils or fats for cosmetics, lubricants or any possible usage. If there were any byproduct it would mean that the animal was not being kept solely for its fur. In effect, a coach and horses would be driven through the main purpose of the Bill. The size of the loophole that the amendment would create is not acceptable to the Government. It would undermine the primary purpose.

I accept that the noble Lord and others may genuinely believe that this primary purpose is not a correct one. We have argued that out. I believe that we have had proper scrutiny of what we are doing. The Government have taken on board the concerns expressed. I believe that now the National Farmers Union and the affected farmers believe that appropriate steps have been taken. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not unexpected reply. I think that she fails to appreciate that in this country mink—I believe that they are the Government's target—have no usable by-products. In the United States I understand that after the fur has been removed, mink meat can be used for fertiliser and possibly pet food; and mink oil, for some reason, is extremely valuable. I was told this morning that Jerry Hall uses it on her hair—which gives food for thought. If the amendment were accepted, it would still not prevent the Government from banning mink farming. However, I do not think that I shall move the Government or the House. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 2: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, leave out ("£00,000") and insert (level 5 on the standard scale").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this simple amendment is the most important amendment of the day. In a nutshell, it would reduce the maximum fine for infringement from a vicious £20,000 to £5,000, although that latter figure would tend to rise with inflation as fines on levels 1 to 5 do.

It is not a wrecking amendment. Some might wish that it were; but it will not have much practical effect since no one is likely to rush out and start a new, illegal fur farm on the basis of slightly lower maximum penalties. The amendment would provide the first opportunity for either House of Parliament to stand up and be counted, to demonstrate their distaste for this illiberal Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept, as the noble Lord says, that this is not a wrecking amendment. It looks at the appropriate level of maximum line that should be available to the courts on the offence being proved of keeping animals for their fur.

First, I make clear that, if there were successful convictions, the maximum of £20,000 is per offence of keeping animals for fur and not per animal kept. It is the Government's view that the effect of the amendment—it would reduce the maximum fine to £5,000—would not act as sufficient deterrent to the keeping of animals for slaughter for their fur once the ban is in force. I understand that the number of mink kept can range substantially from a few thousand animals up to 30,000 or more per farm. Each animal is worth approximately £20 and in the Government's view a maximum fine of £5,000 would not act as a sufficient deterrent.

I should make clear that £20,000 is a maximum fine and the court would have the discretion to impose a lesser penalty if it deemed that to be appropriate. I suggest to the House that it is sensible to leave that as the maximum, appreciating that the courts would take a proportionate view according to the scale of the business conducted. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her, as always, considered and emollient reply. I do not thank the Official Opposition for their silence. It is extraordinary that a party which professes to oppose political correctness sits firmly glued to the Bench when there is a chance to demonstrate its professed aims. None the less, it is a matter for that party.

I should dearly like to divide the House. However, there are no more than 25 noble Lords in the Chamber. The remainder have not heard the arguments for and against the issue. It would be foolish, therefore, to divide the House now. I shall postpone pressing the matter until the next stage when the House will be full for the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill and the national press will be present in force. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 3:

Clause 7, page 4, line 16, leave out subsection (2) and insert— ("(2) Subject to subsection (3), sections 1 to 4 of this Act shall come into force on such day as the appropriate Ministers acting jointly may by order appoint. (2A) Different days may be appointed under this section for different purposes. (2B) No order shall be made under this section—

  1. (a) before 1st January 2003, and
  2. (b) unless, in the opinion of the appropriate Ministers, those persons engaged in fur farming in Great Britain, when taken as a whole, have failed to meet the then applicable Recommendation Concerning Fur Animals adopted by the Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes.
(2C) In reaching their opinion under paragraph (b) of subsection (2B), the appropriate Ministers may seek advice from such persons as appear to the appropriate Ministers to have knowledge or experience of animal welfare. (2D) If the appropriate Ministers propose to make an order under this section they shall lay before each House of Parliament a document setting out the reasons for doing so, and no order shall be made until the expiry of the period of sixty days beginning with the day on which the document was laid.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment has two purposes. First, the Government constantly affirm their determination to harmonise our laws and practices more closely with those of other EU nations. Acceptance of this amendment would demonstrate their commitment to such harmonisation. Secondly, nearly all noble Lords, including myself, deplore avoidable cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, a number of noble Lords have been supporting the Bill in the wholly mistaken assumption that its sole purpose is greatly to reduce such cruelty. If that were the case, the Government would accept the amendment. I suspect that they will not do so. We shall wait and see. I beg to move.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that I was not asleep on the Bench, but, having heard the Question earlier this afternoon, I did not want to repeat my speech three times.

I have every sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Lord, as my comments at Second Reading and in Grand Committee clearly show. However, I have discussed the three amendments with the National Farmers Union, which represents the 12 fur farmers who will be deprived of their legitimate livelihood by the Bill and who have been unable to trade sensibly or develop their businesses over the past two years. The NFU has assured me that it is satisfied with the state of the Bill as it stands, including the Government's commitment to adequate compensation. We therefore do not support the amendments.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, on these Benches we support the swiftest possible passage of the Bill through the House. As far as we are aware, the amendment would merely delay the process and would be costly and bureaucratic. We therefore cannot support it.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is correct about the technical aspects of the amendments. They would add unnecessary time and process to the business of implementing a measure that has been fully scrutinised and carefully drawn up, with implementation dates that are appropriate to an orderly run-down rather than a precipitate one.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, went to the heart of the issue, which is whether the Bill is aimed solely, or even primarily, to use the terms of the Bill, at animal welfare issues. Those who have kept up with the debate as the Bill has passed through the House know that it is not the Government's contention that the aim of the measure is to implement high animal welfare standards. Those are within European competence. We work with our colleagues in Europe to ensure that the welfare of farmed animals is properly protected and that there are high standards of animal welfare. Those provisions extend to fur or rabbit farming just as to other areas of farming.

The Bill is not about the level or implementation of animal welfare standards; it is about whether, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is appropriate to keep animals with a view to their slaughter solely or primarily to exploit the value of their fur. That moral issue goes over and above welfare considerations. In our view, fur farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life, and there is insufficient public benefit from the activity to justify destroying that life or breeding animals for that purpose. That is why we believe that it is appropriate to strike at the root of fur farming rather than simply to take action on welfare conditions. We shall continue to work nationally and in Europe to ensure high standards across the range of welfare concerns for farmed animals.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for confirming that the purpose of the Bill is not to implement high welfare standards and that it is essentially doctrinal—I can think of no better word.

I take issue with the Minister's assertion that the Bill has been fully scrutinised. A Bill that has been examined only in Grand Committee in the Moses Room, when very few noble Lords turn up, cannot be said to have been fully scrutinised.

I am aware that the NFU and the core of beleaguered fur farmers who have been attacked by sinister individuals in black balaclavas year after year favour the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Luke, said. They see no other end that would give them even the slightest justice. However, the interests of the NFU and the fur farmers are not automatically the same as the national interest. The Bill sets a terrible precedent. The Government could decide that a certain practice of which some Ministers—not necessarily all—disapprove is morally unacceptable and they could ban it by using their massive parliamentary majority.

The Opposition have been short-sighted in concentrating solely on what the NFU says. I agree that the amended Bill is a reasonable answer in the short term, but the precedent that it sets is dangerous for the longer term. However, in the absence of any support, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.