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Live Animals (Export)

Volume 79: debated on Tuesday 21 May 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

12.4 am

I feel that I should be speaking from the Opposition Dispatch Box as this is a matter that both major parties have refused to take seriously and to deal with properly. They have been sadly reluctant to get to grips with it and to introduce legislation to solve what many people consider to be a barbaric and inhumane way of treating animals.

I should like to pay tribute to those who have been involved with me in a campaign to ban the export of live animals for further fattening and slaughter—Mrs. Hilda Homes, Mrs. Kay Reid, Mrs. Eillen Bazeet and Mrs. Hunter. They have all worked tirelessly in the past decade on behalf of the animal rights movement to motivate people to support their campaign and that of countless thousands of others who want the Government to act as they suggest.

The history of my involvement in the city of Portsmouth goes back five years when the city council of Portsmouth instigated a Portsmouth City Council Bill to ban the export through its own ferry port of animals for slaughter and further fattening. That got as far as Second Reading when Mr. Speaker intervened and ruled it out of order, and the Bill failed. It was a great disappointment to the thousands of people at that time and, indeed, to the ratepayers of Portsmouth as a whole who put aside about £30,000 to finance the passage of the Bill. There was no blowing in the wind—as it came from Portsmouth, it was very much a real commitment to ensuring that something was done. There was bitter disappointment that the Bill did not succeed in its passage through Parliament and become law.

We come then to what the Government's attitude has been. At that time, the then Secretary of State and, indeed, junior Ministers in his Department, said that there was insufficient and inconclusive evidence that cruelty had taken place or that anything was wrong with the law. I am glad to say that that can no longer be said to be the case.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in the recent document which it submitted to the EEC Commission for it to evaluate and act upon, gives ample evidence to support two points. First, as the RSPCA says, it has never tried to prove cruelty, and the Government have tried to hide behind that. The document proves conclusively that there is something wrong with the existing legislation, and that United Kingdom laws do not take account of EEC regulations. They do not cover the export and transportation of poultry, rabbits and, in some instances, dogs, and they do not give sufficient cover for those animals such as pigs and calves which are transported abroad from this country.

There is evidence now that the trading of these vehicles on the continent leads to great abuse and to much cruelty. In my own city, I have witnessed a lorry transporting animals which has lost a two-week-old calf out of the top tier when it has gone round a bend off the motorway at great speed. These animals, when they have come out of the truck, have had to be humanely destroyed at the roadside in the city of Portsmouth. This is a disgrace to any society. We should all be ashamed of these occurrences. That was not a one-off event by any means.

I have correspondence from people who have travelled on ferries from this country to the continent. They all express concern about the way in which animals have been treated during the various journeys that they have undertaken. A Mrs. Deadman of Burgess Hill in Sussex wrote that her distress was such that she could never again experience a Channel crossing from a ferry port if she thought that animals might be travelling in the same boat. She said:
"The distressed nature of the animals was something that had to be seen to be believed."
I have another letter from a Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds of Hull:
"My husband and I recently returned from our holiday in northern Brittany. It was a most enjoyable trip, but was marred by the sight of what greeted us on our way out of Britain at the ferry port in Portsmouth — lorry-loads of young calves crammed tightly into huge two or even three tiered transporters waiting to be loaded on to the ferry. Many of these calves were clearly distressed, some of them climbing on top of others trying to eat the dirty straw that was hanging down from the floor level above. Others were straining to poke their noses through the bars, trying to catch the droplets of rain that were falling outside the wagon on to their tongues. Is this sort of scene really necessary? Are we not, after all, supposed to be a civilised nation?"
So the letter continues. There are hundreds of other letters from people similarly affected by what is a disgrace to this country. None of us should be proud of that.

For present statistics of the numbers of animals exported, again I quote the experience that I know best, in my city. About 42,000 calves were transported from the ferry port last year alone. Many other animals have passed through, many in bizarre situations, to say the least. The way in which some of the animals are transported leaves much to be desired.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware that at present lorries come over from France empty, and tout their services round the country, picking up animals from market town to market town. After they get a full load, they return to France. Some of the animals will have been on the vehicles for the best part of a week. That is not an uncommon occurrence for poultry. The Minister might shake her head, but I am sure that if she were to speak to senior officers in the RSPCA they would readily clarify the matter for her. It is a regular occurrence. The same can be said of rabbits.

Those who want the campaign to come to fruition want a total ban on the export of those animals. I should like to see the trade stopped once and for all. I should like to see the Government take a stand against the EEC. I do not want to hear the argument that we cannot opt out, in a form of UDI. Of course we can. If something so opposed to our nature as cruelty to animals to this extent is going on, of course we have a every right as a nation to act.

The facts about the expense speak for themselves. It is not easy for people who would like to see the trade persist to argue that it is cheaper to export the animals from here alive only to see them further fattened and ultimately slaughtered. There is now substantial evidence that people in this country can rear animals for the veal trade, have them slaughtered here and subsequently transported to the continent, and make substantial profits. There is no legitimate argument on expense. We should not have to try to hide behind such an argument when we know that something is so blatantly wrong. It is not a legitimate point for any Government of any party to suggest that they want to see scenes such as the ones depicted in the recent RSPCA booklet, in which one sees animals straining their heads, when they have been restrained by bars to prevent physical movement. It is a disgrace to all of us. We should all want something to be done about it.

The Portsmouth City Council Bill was supported by a majority of the city council. I hasten to add that it was a Conservative-controlled city council, which was enlight-ened enough to see that there was so much public clamour for action to be taken that it responded magnificently by promoting the Bill. It was the council's intention to ban the trade once and for all because it felt that the citizens of Portsmouth did not want it. I believe that the majority of people in the country do not want the trade to continue.

On 3 December last year, I was present with a group of petitioners from south Hampshire who presented over 30,000 signatures to the Prime Minister at Downing street, urging her to step in and take action on their behalf. If we were to poll in other parts of the country, I do not believe that the response would be any different. There is massive and overwhelming support for the view that something needs to be done. What do we get? We get answers such as one recently given to me by the Minister concerning what the Government intend to do about legislation:

"We have no plans to introduce further implementing legislation. I consider that our current legislation fulfils our obligations under these directives, and so protects the welfare of animals in international transit within our jurisdiction."
It is no good to suggest that one can opt out just because the animals have left this country. In the main, they are travelling in British vehicles, with British drivers, and have emanated from British farms and British markets. To suggest that it does not matter what happens when they get off at the other side is sticking one's head in the sand and pretending that nothing is wrong. It is disgraceful for anybody to suggest that it is all right that that should persist. I urge the Minister to take the first steps of many that will lead me to believe that there will be a more enlightened and humane attitude towards the welfare of animals.

I hope that the obvious evidence makes it impossible for the Government to neglect their responsibilities. I plead with them not to argue against the case of the RSPCA, which is conclusive and has been corroborated by people who have followed similar trails to those of the RSPCA and members of the media who have been sufficiently enlightened to show the British public what is happening. Those letters and the response from those who travelled on the ferries are but the pinnacle of the pyramid of disgust that we allow this trade to persist.

I plead with the Government not to suggest that adequate legislation is available outside the United Kingdom to ensure that animals are properly catered for. Those of us who care and have looked into the matter know that that is not true, but is nonsense. We know that animals are not watered or fed at the appropriate times, and that they travel great distances on the Continent when they leave the ships at the ports of entry. We have it in our power to do something. If we do not, it simply means that we are prepared to allow animals to continue to suffer, and that the good name of this country will be dragged down. It also means that we are prepared to ignore the consistent clamour for positive steps to be taken to eradicate the trade.

It is no good suggesting that all those involved in animal rights are middle-class do-gooders, animal lovers and vegetarians. No one is suggesting that animals should not be used to feed people who choose to eat meat, or that we have a bigoted outlook towards others' actions, life style and feeding habits. We merely seek to point out that there is sufficient evidence and enough going for us as a nation who care about animal welfare to start taking positive steps to introduce legislation which will tighten existing rules and abide by the directives laid down.

I hope that the Government will have sufficient courage to say that they are not prepared to let the trade continue. By the end of the Parliament, I hope that the Government will have been courageous and responsive enough to take action and place proposals before the House, which will permanently outlaw from our shores the exportation and transportation of live animals for further fattening and, ultimately, for slaughter. Only then will they be seen to respond to our natural trait to care about fellow creatures on this earth.

We should do that because it is wrong to allow the trade to persist. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself if he does not share that view.

I hope that the Minister will respond in a way which will lead me to believe that I have not wasted a journey tonight, and that this cruelty will not be with us for much longer.

12.18 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I welcome this opportunity to reply on behalf of the Government about our policy on exports of live animals. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) made many points, and I shall try to deal with them as briefly and as comprehensively as I can.

All matters relating to the export of live animals from Britain touch an immediate and raw nerve among much welfarist opinion. The House and, indeed, the country are properly interested in a wide range of farm animal welfare topics, ranging from the protection of animals on farms, their welfare at markets and in transit, and measures adopted to safeguard them on export. My diet has been completed by hon. Members' interests in frogs' legs and pate de foie gras.

However, a common thread through all of those topics —welfare protection on export is no different— is the widespread misunderstanding about the legislative controls that apply, the Government's record and interest, and the true—rather than exaggerated—position about animals and their welfare. It is perfectly understandable that emotions run high, but I am troubled that a central core of fact is missing from the debate. In the next few minutes, I wish to outline the present position in law and practice on the export of live animals.

Several hon. Members may have seen the press and television items in recent weeks about the export of calves to France. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South referred to them. Although I appreciate that he has been worried about this matter for some time, it was obviously those items which sparked hon. Members' interest. Since that first feature on BBC television news, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South has asked several parliamentary questions, and has now moved this debate.

What the BBC report about calves going from Portsmouth to St. Maio failed to make clear was that the calves filmed in that news item—like all food animals exported from Great Britain — travelled under the protection of detailed statutory controls which apply to livestock in international transit. Those measures are laid down in Community legislation in two major council directives of 1977 and 1981. Both directives follow and build upon the earlier Council of Europe convention on the welfare protection of animals in international transit, which was signed in 1969. We took an active part in the development of the convention, and pressed for and secured the Community implementing measures.

It is also a pity that the BBC programme failed to explain precisely what Britain does to implement its Community obligations. We apply a series of welfare controls before the animals leave the country. That is why it is difficult to believe what the hon. Gentleman said about lorries coming to Britain and then travelling back with animals that have been on board for a week. First, before they travel abroad, all food animals are rested for a minimum of 10 hours in an export lairage. We approve and license all of those export lairages, and they are all close to the ports of departure. Secondly, when they are in the lairages, animals must be suitably fed and watered. We require certificates to show that that has been done. Next, all animals intended for export must be inspected by one of the veterinary officers in my Department. No animal that is considered unfit for export may form part of any consignment for export. Three-tier lorries are banned.

Is the Minister saying that those directives cover poultry and rabbits, and that international law is implemented in the same way as for calves and horses?

There are regulations relating to poultry, but I am referring to calves, since they were the subject of the BBC programme.

Does the Minister agree that they do not cover poultry and rabbits, and that lorries touting for poultry pick-ups can carry about 3,000 birds at one time?

No. We have regulations relating to poultry transit, and perhaps I may send the hon. Gentleman a note so that he is aware of the facts.

In 1984, for example, my veterinary inspectors rejected about 3,200 animals, including more than 2,800 calves, because they concluded that the welfare of those animals could be at risk if they were to travel. The veterinarian then issues a certificate of fitness to accompany those animals which may go. Finally, loading for export is supervised by an official who checks on the transport conditions.

Our veterinary staff and the marine superintendent are active in advising exporters and their hauliers on matters such as the design of lorries and their equipment, and on the accommodation to be provided for animals so that the international requirements of the directive can be met. There is a good deal of detail covering such matters as ventilation, the provision of adequate space and so on. This is important since—as hon. Members will know—nearly all of the exports of live animals from this country go via roll-on/roll-off lorries on ferry boats.

The final stage at this end is the formal recording on the international welfare certificate of the time of loading. The certificate, issued by us in the form of an export licence under the Export of Animals (Protection) Order 1981, accompanies all animals on their journey abroad. In this way, it is possible for the veterinary and other authorities in the countries of transit and destination to enforce the measures laid down in Community law concerning feeding and watering intervals.

Those, then, are the measures that we take at our end to comply with the directives as an exporting country and to enable their provisions to be met abroad by importing countries.

Let me turn now to the measures abroad. I must stress at the outset that it is a matter of legal fact as well as sheer practicality that the responsibility for the animals' welfare abroad is for the country which imports them or through whose territory they are moved. Some hon. Members may wish otherwise, but they would do well to recognise this central fact.

The Community measures, which all member states are bound to apply, set out extensive provisions about transport conditions. These govern a number of key requirements such as feeding and watering intervals. Since there has been a good deal of public interest about the exact provisions on feeding and watering animals in transit. I shall say precisely what these are.

Community law states, first, that during international transport, livestock must be fed and watered at "suitable intervals". Secondly, the same law requires that animals must not be left for more than 24 hours without food and water but this period can be extended if the journey to the point of unloading can be completed within a reasonable period thereafter. This may seem to some hon. Members a fairly flexible provision, but in the view of international veterinary and scientific opinion it is what is needed to protect animal welfare. Some flexibility is clearly sensible because the need to feed and water animals will depend critically upon the individual circumstances of their journeys. The need will vary according to the age, species and sex of the animals, the prevailing temperature and humidity, the stocking density and the length of journey onward to the final destination.

The working of the directives, as I say, reflects what international veterinary opinion considers is necessary to protect the animals' welfare. It is intended to ensure that animals are not caused suffering either by unduly lengthy deprivations of food and water or from the disruption and undoubted stress that they could suffer from being unloaded in circumstances where it would be better from the welfare viewpoint for them to be taken straight on to their final destination.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South has made several suggestions. I understand his concern on these points. But—as is evident from what I have just said—the variety of different factors involved rules out, in my view, the possibility of, for example, establishing limits for suitable intervals for feeding and watering that could suitably be enshrined in legislation for universal application. However, I believe that the member states of the Community should collaborate to observe transport conditions and to compile the best possible advice, based on experience, on what is needed for the various species in particular. Co-operation of this kind is indeed envisaged in the directives in any cases where there appear to be welfare problems in transit.

A number of the recent press and TV items have given the impression that we are indifferent to the reports produced by welfare bodies such as the RSPCA, which I have studied at some length. The society has sent us over the years copies of some 140 of its "trails" of consignments of animals exported to the continent, the majority of them dealing with exports which pre-dated the introduction of the 1981 directive. We have given copies of the society's reports, as and when we have received them, to the veterinary authorities in the countries concerned. My officials have had meetings in Paris with the French veterinary authorities and with their counterparts in Rome. All sides remain in close and constant contact. The French authorities, in particular, have carried out extensive inquiries on aspects of the society's claims about our shipments of calves to France. But its analyses and reports to us bear no relation to some of the recent headlines.

First, the French authorities concluded that the directives have not been contravened in any of the cases reported. They were perfectly satisfied that the animals reached their destinations without welfare problems, that they were in excellent shape and that they developed well on French farms. These conclusions do not bear out the extreme inferences about animal suffering that some have drawn from the RSPCA trails. However, this is not surprising when one considers that the RSPCA trails—despite some claims that are made — do not contain observations about the physical condition of animals that might suggest that their welfare suffered through lack of feeding at "suitable intervals". Nor does the RSPCA's information on journey times in itself point to contraventions of the feeding and watering requirements of Directive 77/489/EEC.

That is the general picture that emerges. Many more specific points have been raised, particularly in relation to the trail that was followed by the BBC. I must say, having studied that film in some detail, that I would very much doubt whether there were welfare problems with the consignment concerned. It involved an onward journey of about 70 miles from the French port of St. Malo, to the final farm of destination. I think it very doubtful that the welfare interest of the calves would have been served by their being unloaded en route for feeding. I am not sure whether the RSPCA has submitted a report to the French veterinary authorities. As yet, we have not received representations from the society on the particular export consignment portrayed in the programme.

The television report also carried reference to calves going to Italy without feeding and watering. Indeed, at one stage the reporter said that the calves that he was following, off the Portsmouth to St. Malo ferry, were lucky not to be going on to Italy without nourishment—again, more confusion. Calves going to Italy—and we have exported about 7,500 since the policy change in January 1984 — would be going through Le Havre or Calais not St. Malo.

As regard the trade to Italy, we shall continue to maintain extensive contact with all the companies and hauliers taking calves overland to Italy. As I have previously explained to the House, we have set up monitoring arrangements so as to gather information on the welfare conditions of animals sent to Italy overland. This has involved the fullest co-operation of the French and Italian authorities, who have been most helpful. On selected consignments, with minimal pre-notification, we arrange for our veterinarians to accompany shipments of calves and other animals from ports here all the way to foreign farms. Again, the results that we have been obtaining show that there are no significant welfare problems, the animals travel perfectly satisfactorily with appropriate food and rest at approved lairages in France en route, and that they develop and fatten well.

I should perhaps now mention the RSPCA's complaint to the European Commission. This has been given some media coverage—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock.