HL Deb 27 June 2002 vol 636 cc1507-9

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to ensure that their aim to improve the welfare of laying hens in the United Kingdom does not result in egg production moving overseas to countries with lower welfare standards.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the directive on the welfare of laying hens applies to all member states of the European Union and we directly transposed it into English legislation only last Friday. Any further proposals on the welfare of laying hens will be subject to public consultation. As regards the application to third countries, the EU has been successful in getting animal welfare firmly written into the Doha development agenda. The labelling of eggs has a vital role to play, and improved labelling from 2004 will help consumers to decide.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am pleased that the Government are going out to consultation on this issue. Liberal Democrats fully support improving the welfare of laying hens. However, the Government may decide that regulations in Britain should be imposed in such a way to bring about the end of cages altogether for hens. Surely, the Government have a greater responsibility to promote the excellence of British food so that British people buy a far greater proportion of eggs of free-range hens. At present, I believe, that proportion is only 80 per cent. Can the Government take steps to ensure that public procurement bodies, which buy eggs for school meals, hospital meals, and so forth, take account of animal welfare issues in their specifications?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government—in particular, this part of the Government—spend a considerable time promoting the excellence of British food, including the produce of the British poultry industry. I agree that we should continue to do so and try to persuade British consumers of that excellence. However, at the end of the day we operate a free market and there is consumer choice. The labelling regulations will help in this matter.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, I am totally baffled by the Question and the argument put forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, seems to advocate that any time there is an effort to improve animal welfare, it has to be stopped because someone overseas might take away trade. Surely, that cannot be the position of the Liberal Democrats?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot answer for the Liberal Democrats. The position of the Government is that so far as possible such regulations should be conducted on a European basis. However, there may be areas in which we believe the British regulations need to be slightly different. In general, we shall not be gold-plating within Europe. Beyond Europe, this becomes a trade issue, which is why I referred in my Answer to the Doha round.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, does the Minister accept that bringing forward the timing of the abolition of the inhumane method of egg production, which the battery cage represents, will be much appreciated by a number of welfare organisations and many individuals such as myself?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, for those noble Lords who were not present on Friday, I can confirm that the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, gave an effective speech to that end. I indicated then that we were in the process of transposing the regulations and that there would be more consultation on whether to bring forward any further the abolition of cages and how to deal with enriched cages.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, we on these Benches believe strongly in the promotion of animal welfare, as I am sure does the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Our farmers have led the field on that issue, as perhaps the Minister would acknowledge. Can I press further on the consultation period? At present, DEE RA has commissioned scientific research into the cases for enriched cages or non-enriched cages. I understand that such consultations are going ahead before we have the scientific evidence, which is of concern. Surely, that is the wrong way round. We should wait for the research to be completed before going out to consultation.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the issue of what is public opinion and what is the view of the industry is one aspect; the research is another. We have indicated that we are seeking the views of the public and the industry. There will be the normal I2-week period of consultation. The research may well eventually inform the final decision.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the Minister telling the House that the Government are prepared to take action against the importation of eggs produced by hens abroad which are not kept to the same welfare standards as hens in this country?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I indicated in my original Answer that animal welfare in this area as a whole is an issue that the EU put on the table in the discussions in the Doha round. I also indicated that in order that consumers can better distinguish between the methods of egg production—wherever they are produced—we have introduced labelling regulations which will come into effect from 2004, so that consumers can decide.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no point in introducing these regulations if we simply export cruelty to other countries?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, British consumers and the British public expect certain minimum standards of production within the UK. However, it is also right that if one simply transfers consumer demand to the import of foreign goods where the welfare standards are not so good, one is in part defeating the object. That is why we want to move largely on a European basis and why we believe that animal welfare should feature in the trade negotiations.

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