HL Deb 15 May 2003 vol 648 cc361-4

3.1 p.m.

Lord Kimball

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made over the compensation payment to fur farmers.

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

My Lords, the Government introduced a compensation scheme through the Fur Farming (Compensation Scheme)(England) Order 2002. Following a challenge by fur farmers, the order was quashed by the High Court on 13th March 2003. The Government have been granted permission to appeal. The appeal is listed for hearing between 31st October and 27th November. In view of the current litigation, the House will understand that I may be somewhat constrained in the answers that I can give hereafter.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, I can hardly thank the Minister for such a reply. Has he no sense of shame? It is grossly unfair that for the past four years fair compensation has been denied to the fur farmers. The High Court found defects in the compensation scheme. The Government come out of this as really bad losers. Surely the proper thing to do is to rectify the defects and draw a line under that unhappy conclusion.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the courts found some defects in the balance of the scheme, but it did not of course deal with its quantum, which is what really lies behind the fur farmers' concern. Until we receive the result of the appeal and any implications for a future scheme, I cannot really go further in stating the Government's intentions.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, although one cannot comment on the legal situation, does my noble friend accept that the argument in favour of compensation was to ensure that mink were not released or allowed to escape as the businesses were properly wound up? Were there any such escapes or releases? We must ensure that no further mink enter the wild and do enormous damage to British wildlife.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is well aware that there were releases into the wild while we were discussing the closure of the mink fur industry. However, I am unaware of any such escape or release that related to closure as a result of legislation, which was conducted responsibly.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, when the Bill went through the House, we supported it because we believed in ending fur farming. However, I made the point that it was imperative that compensation should be fair, transparent and quick. When she replied, the Minister said that it would be transparent and fair, but that some time would need to be taken to negotiate what was fair. When supporting the Bill, we did not believe that it would take so long or that the Government would take an attitude that does not now seem to be very fair.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, without straying into the subject matter of the litigation, the Government believed that our proposition was fair and would be quick. The reason that it has not been quick is that it has been challenged. We must therefore await the outcome of the full legal proceedings before fur farmers will receive their compensation.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern

My Lords, is the Minister aware how pleased I am personally—others may share my delight—at the respectful way with which he has spoken of a judgment in which his department was found to he wrong?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I shall pass on the noble and learned Lord's comments to my colleagues.

Baroness Gale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the passing of the Act to end fur farming in this country was carried out on moral grounds? Is he further aware that people who care about animal rights and animal welfare greatly welcome its passing, and that the only reason that fur farming was carried out in this country was to appeal to the vanity of many women in the fashion industry?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there was clearly a great deal of feeling in the country about mink farming, which is why the Bill was introduced in the first place. The Government shared the view of those behind the ban that the cultivation of animals solely for their fur, when the animals had to be killed to obtain that fur, was not an appropriate activity in this country in our society today. That is why the ban was introduced, and why it received widespread support in the House and outside.

Baroness Byford

But, my Lords, does not the Minister accept that we find ourselves in a disgraceful situation today? It is four years since the Act was passed. Compensation was due to be paid; it has not been paid. Obviously, until after the next court hearing—until November—no money will be paid. I do not think that the Minister is at present constrained by litigation; no court case is under way at present. Will the Government consider making some modest adjustment to help those who have lost their livelihoods by dint of the Government's deeds?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some compensation was paid. The court's judgment was that the basis of that and pending compensation was unreasonable. We are now appealing against that. Strictly speaking, one could argue that the Government should have sought to recover the compensation paid under our formula. The Government have not sought to do that, but it would be unreasonable to expect the Government to pay out further compensation until the appeal court has made its judgment.

Baroness Golding

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there can be no morality if people are deprived of their jobs without proper agreement that they should receive compensation? Does he not recall that there were many efforts to reach agreement before the Act became operative? What does he have to say about that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government always accepted that there would need to be compensation; its range covered not only loss of profit but many changes to their business premises that fur farmers would have to implement. We felt—and still feel—that the structure of compensation that we put in place was fair. As I said, that has been and will continue to be a matter for the courts' judgment, but I certainly accept that compensation was appropriate at that time. We tried to reach agreement with fur farmers on the basis of that compensation, but we continue to argue that what we did was appropriate.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what is the state of play with regard to the appeal? When does he anticipate it happening? Has any attempt been made to expedite it and, if not, why not?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is not really for the executive to determine the dates on which the judiciary take cases. As I said in my initial Answer, the date has been provisionally fixed between the end of October and the first week in November.