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House of Commons Hansard
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Farm Animal Welfare
03 November 2009
Volume 498

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I intend to highlight the importance of public sector food procurement and the role it has to play in improving animal welfare standards for meat and poultry in the United Kingdom and abroad. I will concentrate on one key area of public procurement—eggs—although the argument could equally apply to pork or any one of a number of factory farmed products. I call on the Government to introduce legislation that will prohibit the public sector from buying eggs produced by caged hens and encourage the purchase of eggs produced to higher animal welfare standards, progressing on a sliding scale from barn eggs, to free range to organic, including eggs that are purchased individually as well as those used as ingredients. In doing so, I wish to make a larger point about public sector food procurement, which is that fine words and lofty sentiments are not enough. The Government must take the lead by introducing mandatory health and sustainability standards for all public sector food. I place on the record my thanks to those estimable organisations, Sustain, Compassion in World Farming and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for the part that they are playing in helping to achieve this goal.

There are four legally recognised categories of eggs: caged, barn, free range and organic. Caged eggs are produced to the lowest standards of animal welfare, from hens in cramped, tiered cages with sloping mesh floors. Each hen has an equivalent living space of 550 sq cm, which is less than an A4 piece of paper. The strength of public opposition to cage-produced eggs resulted in a decision by the European Commission to outlaw the sale of caged eggs by 2012. Barn eggs, free range and organic eggs are reared to considerably higher standards: they come from hens that have access to litter and to the nest site of their choice. They can flap their wings, exercise and explore their environment.

History shows that achieving real improvements in the health and sustainability of public sector food is only possible by introducing mandatory standards. The Government’s success in revolutionising school food was achieved because legislation was passed to introduce mandatory nutritional guidelines monitored by the School Food Trust. Indeed, the problem with public sector food has not gone unnoticed by Government. There has been a rash of activity, which no doubt the Minister will tell us about in a moment, aimed at improving the nutritional value and sustainability of public sector food by voluntary means. Although well-intended, such projects have failed precisely because they were introduced as voluntary initiatives and missed out on the concrete benefits that would have been achieved by introducing mandatory standards.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on such initiatives. The £40 million spent on the better hospital food initiative in 2001, for example, which introduced new menus for hospital food devised by a celebrity chef, did not achieve a step change in the nutritional quality of hospital food. A more integrated attempt to improve public sector food under the six-year public sector food procurement initiative, managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which was introduced in 2003 and wound up this year, is another example of good intentions that did not lead to real change—at considerable cost to the taxpayer. An evaluation conducted by Deloitte tactfully concluded that

“take-up of the initiative was limited.”

Both schemes had some short-term successes, but they were expensive and did not achieve long-term change. The moral of the story is clear: voluntary schemes do not work; real change depends on introducing mandatory standards.

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My hon. Friend is focusing on egg production, but chicken meat and other areas are just as important. The Minister, who is a decent and able man, may respond by saying that Departments are required to seek best value, from which we infer that they obsess to an extent on price. Does my hon. Friend agree that husbandry, locality and quality should be incorporated within that best-value concept and that that will drive up nutritional standards, as well as the welfare standards in respect of the animal products we use?

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Yes, I agree. I will touch on some of those points later.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that price has to be important, because we are talking about public bodies? One reason we have price inflation is because the consumer—the bulk of those purchasing foodstuffs in this country—is unable to differentiate between products that are produced to our own high welfare standards and those that are produced elsewhere to a standard that falls far short of that. Would it not be best if we were able to give consumers proper choice? If that happened, the competitive disadvantage of our own producers would be, to some extent, erased and one would hope that prices would fall as a result, generating a win-win situation for both public sector bodies and animal welfare.

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Yes, I am in general agreement with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, price is not the only consideration. I have always believed that we have to take into account the consequences of our actions. As all those hon. Members who have taken an interest in factory farming know, it involves some disgusting practices that many farmers deeply regret; in fact, many farmers feel forced into pursuing such practices by the continuous drive to the bottom that occurs if price is the only factor. The hon. Gentleman is right: there is no point making the reforms here if imports produced in countries that do not observe the same standards are dragged in. We have to bear that in mind.

Procurement standards across the public sector vary widely. Some public sector organisations have made tremendous progress in buying healthier food from sustainable sources. Lancashire county council, for example, must be credited for its decision to go cage-free. The council uses more than 500,000 eggs a year and has changed its supply to free-range eggs for its schools and care homes, which will liberate more than 2,000 hens from battery cages every year. So far, about 40 local authorities, out of a total of 468, have followed Lancashire’s example and committed to going cage-free. Were others to follow suit, it would surely have a powerful impact on the welfare of hens and would help lower costs and prices and would, therefore, encourage the private sector to do likewise.

I am pleased to report that numerous schools, hospitals and universities are also switching. Other taxpayer-funded organisations are going cage-free, including the BBC, the British Library, Transport for London and the House of Commons. However, caged eggs continue to be served across the public sector, in schools, hospitals and care homes. There is a postcode lottery in public sector food procurement. The missing ingredient required to address that is compulsion. I fear that further voluntary initiatives, such as the healthier food mark, will simply use more public funds on ineffective interventions that will achieve neither better quality food, nor healthier consumers.

The public are ready for change. There has been a huge increase in consumer awareness of the appalling animal welfare standards involved in caged egg production and a significant increase in sales of eggs that meet higher welfare standards. Nearly half of all eggs sold in UK supermarkets now come from higher welfare systems. So we have made considerable progress.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the market driving improvements in animal welfare, with 50 per cent. of eggs sold in supermarkets being free range. Surprisingly, all the eggs served by McDonald’s, for instance, are free range now. That is a testament to the power of the market.

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It certainly is because, as we know, McDonald’s is ruthlessly moved by the power of the market, and where it goes the public sector should surely be able to follow.

Last year, concern about the link between intensive farming and the emergence of virulent forms of flu, including swine flu from pigs, has increased pressure on meat and poultry producers to examine the conditions in which their animals are reared. In the poultry industry, the unhealthy and overcrowded conditions endured by intensively farmed chickens may have contributed to the creation of virulent strains of avian flu. Such concerns have, in part, influenced consumer opinion, which has begun to swing resoundingly against caged eggs. Witness the fact that Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op have already taken action and banned the sale of caged eggs in their stores. Commercial operators are subject to the whim of their customers, and decreasing demand for eggs reared in caged conditions represents public feeling. A MORI poll in July 2005 showed that a majority of UK consumers believe that cages are cruel and should be outlawed. It is time that the public sector caught up with what has become best practice in a large part of the private sector.

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Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the problem is that the EU has dragged its feet and that, to be fair, the UK Government would have gone further and faster? Limitations must be properly constructed to ensure that third country imports of poor quality produce do not come here. Otherwise, people will be cheated.

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I absolutely accept that, and I touched on it in my response to the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). Perhaps I should also have said that consumers are entitled to much better information about where their meat comes from, which requires proper labelling.

It has not been possible to calculate the exact percentage of caged eggs purchased in the public sector, but it is a matter of record that the dreaded race to the bottom in public sector food procurement—where organisations are required to find the cheapest price for food products regardless of other considerations—often results in the purchase of the least healthy and least sustainable food option available. That is no fault of public sector caterers, but merely reflects the environment in which they must work. Progress has been slow. Only 40 of 468 local authorities have followed the example of Lancashire county council. Sadly, it remains the case that the overwhelming majority of eggs purchased in the public sector are caged eggs. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) said, that is at a time when companies such as McDonald’s, Subway and Starbucks buy free range eggs.

The trend towards free range and organic eggs has resulted in a strong supply base for those products. Market results from last year show that 47 per cent. of the UK’s egg market is for non-caged eggs, and that sales of free range eggs have increased by 12 per cent. since the previous year—a trend that is expected to continue.

If the fact that the commercial sector is leading the way on higher animal welfare standards for eggs is not sufficient motivation for the Government to prohibit the purchase of caged eggs, there is a simple business case for doing so. Prohibiting public sector procurement of caged eggs would bring down the cost of barn, free range and organic eggs over time by achieving economies of scale secured by long-term public sector contracts.

Compass Group, the biggest contract catering company in the world, has already expressed support for the introduction of mandatory standards for the procurement of public sector food. In evidence to the Council of Food Policy Advisers, a body created by the Minister’s Department, Compass stated that mandatory rules would simplify the procurement process, bring more local suppliers into the supply chain, and bring down the cost of food that meets higher sustainability criteria, including animal welfare standards.

Abundant evidence suggests that healthier and more sustainable public sector food would not increase the cost to the public purse, but bring it down. The East Ayrshire schools’ food for life partnership showed that buying organic local produce had an almost immediate effect on the local economy by creating jobs and increasing profits. It also anticipated longer-term public savings in reducing diet-related ill health and carbon emissions.

The British egg industry would also benefit. It has come a long way in recent years. British egg producers should be rewarded for high-quality eggs reared to high animal welfare standards. A ban on caged eggs in the public sector would be a huge boost for the British egg industry because their supply is more easily available and cheaper when sourced in the UK. We should not forget that there are still more than 300 million laying hens in Europe, more than two thirds of which are housed in battery cages. Without mandatory standards, a cheap and tempting alternative market exists for public sector caterers who want to continue bumping along the bottom.

Taxpayer’s money should be spent on public sector food with a positive rather than negative impact, and for the benefit not just of animal welfare, but of our health, the environment and local economies. The only way to be sure that public sector food serves that purpose is to lead by example.

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Will my hon. Friend pick up an idea that many of us on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promoted some years ago that Departments should be prohibited from purchasing food that is produced to anything less than the standards incorporated in the red tractor scheme?

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Yes. That is a reasonable, desirable and achievable goal, given the necessary political will.

More than £2 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent on public sector food each year. The average British taxpayer forks out approximately £70 a year on food purchased, prepared and served in the public sector. Numerous benefits can be achieved by introducing mandatory health and sustainability standards for the food that that money pays for. Public sector food should help to solve environmental health and social problems, rather than exacerbate them.

The United Nations calculates that the global food system is responsible for between 20 and 30 per cent. of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Introducing mandatory sustainability standards for public sector food would have a significant impact on changing what we buy and eat in the UK, and on the environment in due course. That could be achieved by setting an example of sustainable consumption for public sector food consumers, and would have a big impact on bringing down the cost of sustainable produce for the benefit of all consumers.

That would be only a first step. The arguments applying to eggs apply equally to other produce. Creating demand for sustainable produce in the public sector would bring down the cost of organic fruit and vegetables, sustainable fish, and animal welfare-friendly meat and poultry. Mandatory health standards for the public sector would improve health, not least for schoolchildren, hospital patients, and members of the armed forces, many of whom eat public sector food three times a day. It has been estimated that in the UK alone 70,000 premature deaths are caused by diet-related ill health. Public sector food should aim to bring that figure down rather than drive it up.

In a nutshell, a Government commitment to purchase only free range eggs would improve animal welfare, support British farmers, and not increase costs. That can be achieved only with mandatory standards, not by yet another voluntary initiative. It would command great public support and bring public sector food into line with the food that people generally consume at home. That is what is commonly referred to as a no-brainer. I rest my case.

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I am on early, but I probably will not keep my speech going for 40 minutes. In fact, you would not be grateful if I did, Mr. Key.

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I hope not.

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I concur with the comment from stage right; I will not be long at all.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this morning, Mr. Key. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who secured the debate, on seeking it in the first place and on raising a tremendously important issue. The bulk of his speech was about caged eggs, which is a seriously important issue. Movement away from caged eggs towards humane forms of farming is essential, and UK poultry farmers are leading the way in ensuring that the most humane forms of egg farming become the norm. It is important to say that at the beginning.

We are encouraged to think of ourselves these days as active consumers, not passive participants, and we exercise that power positively and negatively. Like many other hon. Members present, I suspect, and others here, I exercised my own personal boycott of companies that gave succour to the apartheid regime in South Africa, for example. On a positive note, like many others present—probably most of us—I use my consumer power to buy Fairtrade products and locally sourced food.

However, our power as consumers is surely never greater than when our collective power is exercised through public bodies, acting on behalf of us all, choosing to purchase goods and services ethically. How we spend the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money that goes on food each year is immensely important. It is even more important than my refusal in the 1980s to allow Barclays the privilege of managing my student overdraft. We can influence an awful lot of producers and, as we have heard, an entire market with £2 billion. This debate allows us to hold the Government to account for their failure to use that influence positively to date.

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The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the scale of the concerns with which we are dealing. Is he aware that the number of chickens bred for meat in this country is about 800 million a year and that the scale of cruelty quite often involved in their breeding and slaughtering is such that anyone who cares about the way in which we treat sentient animals that we are to use for food would be grossly offended? Should we not be focusing on that, as well as on the worthy intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)?

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Yes. One measure of a civilised society is how we treat our fellow animals. What I am concerned about and what I know the hon. Gentleman is concerned about is how we use the power of the public purse to achieve the transformation to which he refers. It is incredibly important. The Government have not used their power appropriately or sufficiently and have failed to build animal welfare and other, broader ethical concerns into their procurement policies when they could have done so.

In response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), the hon. Member for Sunderland, South referred to the reality, which is that McDonald’s is ahead of the UK Government. I would have thought that was a serious embarrassment to the UK Government and an indictment not only of the policies of central Government, but also of the many different agencies and bodies that spend taxpayers’ money.

There is much to be horrified by, as has been said, but we can be encouraged by the fact that animal welfare standards in the UK are just about the best in the world, and that includes welfare standards at farms that are industrial in scale. As a consequence of our high standards, consumers, including me, buy British as a fairly reliable proxy for shopping ethically. Buying British not only reduces food miles while supporting local farmers, but rewards producers who put animal welfare at the heart of everything that they do, not just in egg production but with regard to all food production.

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My hon. Friend is making very important points. Egg producers in this country often complain that eggs are imported from areas that have lower welfare conditions, but they also complain that eggs are imported not only as whole eggs but as egg products—liquid egg and powdered egg—so it is almost more difficult to ascertain their source of origin. Those products go into the manufacture of confectionery and so on. The Government ought to be addressing egg products as well as eggs.

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That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend raises a range of issues, one of which I shall come to in a moment—that farmers who farm ethically can find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. There is the broader issue about honesty in labelling, although one hopes that public sector procurers understand what they are buying. If products being purchased in bulk are reconstituted and come from producers with poor animal welfare standards, the consumer needs to be protected generally through honest and accurate labelling, but surely the state—the public sector—will not have the wool pulled over its eyes; it will know what it is buying. There is no excuse for central Government and Government agencies.

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Does that not go to the heart of the matter? The new draft standards for the Government’s healthier food mark still assert that those bulk-buying products have been subject to

“high standards of animal welfare”,

despite the fact that we are still using battery eggs and factory-farmed pork and chicken.

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Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point and it leads us on to what we need to do to support those farmers at home and—dare I say it?—abroad, who are doing the right thing. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South correctly stated that if we back humane egg producers and, indeed, humane farming of all kinds, we shall see an increase in the size of that sector and in its economic health, which will lead to economies of scale and drive down costs. That is tremendously important.

The Government say that they back animal welfare standards at a high level, but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they fall well short. They do not take the lead, which is what we expect of a Government, yet this is a matter in which it is quite simple to take the lead. It is not a case of persuading others to do the right thing; it is something that they can do almost with the stroke of a pen.

The public sector spends approximately £2 billion every year on food procurement, providing more than 1 billion meals for Departments, schools, prisons and hospitals. The national health service is the largest purchaser of food in the country. It spends £500 million, which is nearly a quarter of the total public sector food budget. However, as much as 75 per cent. of the meat products used in our hospitals are imported from abroad.

In Whitehall, the problem is just as bad. I do not think that I have ever had the privilege of going to the Treasury and consuming anything there, but only 60 per cent. of the meat served to staff and visitors to the Treasury is sourced from British farms. The same applies to the proportion of meat sourced from the UK by the Department for Work and Pensions. As has been said, no doubt cost minimisation is the major criterion for those in charge of food procurement, but surely we should ensure that Government policy is not compromised by the rush to get a cheap deal.

In 2005, the British Pig Executive estimated that 70 per cent. of the pig meat imported to the UK was reared in conditions that would have been illegal in this country. Is it right that when it comes to public procurement, taxpayers’ money should be used to endorse and encourage what would be in this country illegally low standards of animal welfare?

The reality is that Departments subcontract catering and often, therefore, procurement to private firms, but it is not acceptable for Ministers to wash their hands of the responsibility. It is entirely possible for tender documents to specify conditions based on quality, animal welfare and local sourcing, and this debate gives the Minister the opportunity to say that he will ensure a change of policy to make that happen.

Ensuring strict animal welfare standards across the European Union is hard because not every member of the Union places the same value on animal welfare as we do. As we have mentioned, that means that standards in the UK are significantly above those of many of our competitors, and it also means that the costs incurred by our farmers are higher. It is not right that our farmers should be at a competitive disadvantage for doing the right thing.

We need to do more than simply employ sticks to beat our farmers if they do not comply; we should also offer a carrot, rewarding and encouraging them for leading the way on animal welfare. What better way to do that than by using taxpayers’ money to buy their produce?

There should be an enforced code of conduct across all Departments and the wider public sector, including the NHS, quangos and other Government agencies and arm’s length bodies. It should include criteria for procurement that ensure that food is sourced locally from within the UK and from producers who comply with the highest animal welfare standards. I urge the Minister to confirm that he will agree to institute and enforce such a code as a matter of urgency.

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I am slightly disappointed that there has not been more interest in the debate from hon. Members on both sides of the House, although we are obviously all conscious of the pressure on Members’ diaries. None the less, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). In former times, when he was a DEFRA Minister, he and I debated some of the issues before us, and I know how strongly he feels about them. I do not think that there is anybody in the House who is not enthusiastic about improving animal welfare—the issue is how we go about ensuring that we have genuine improvement, rather than something that simply salves our conscience by letting us think that we are doing something about the issue.

At the start, I want to pick up one of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. At one stage in his speech, which I endorse and support, he seemed to confuse sustainability and welfare with the health issues raised by the quality of one’s diet. It would be unwise to imply that eating caged eggs, for example, was any less healthy than eating free-range or any other eggs. One can make all sorts of arguments for not buying caged eggs, but we must be careful not to imply that they are any less wholesome. Indeed, perversely, they are probably slightly safer if anything, because it has been shown that the level of salmonella in them is considerably lower than in free-range eggs. That is an issue, and we have to be careful not to mislead the consumer.

Before I address public procurement, there is another animal welfare issue that we have to consider. When we introduce measures and pass regulations in this country, we have to be certain that we are not simply exporting lower standards to other countries. We did that in the pig industry in 1992—I say this as a former member of a Conservative Government—when we banned stalls and tethers. There was massive support for that, but it is one reason why our pig industry has halved in size since then. The ban is not the only reason why that happened, and it would be wrong to blame it alone, but it put something like 5p per kilo on the cost of finishing pigs. It was quite a serious issue, but we almost certainly did nothing at all for pig welfare, because the industry simply moved to countries that continued to use stalls and tethers. The EU has now taken steps to ban tethers, which is welcome, but the measures are not in place yet, so we are, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, importing large quantities of pigmeat produced from pigs kept in stalls and, indeed, tethers. We have not, therefore, helped the welfare of pigs overall, even though we might have done something, as I suggested earlier, to salve our conscience.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly reasonable point, but I urge him not to be too hard on the measure that his Government introduced many years ago. It is just possible that it was one of the things that forced the generally somnambulant EU into trying to ban tethers across the region, although I appreciate that it is taking a frustratingly long time to introduce the ban.

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I am happy to accept that it may have been one of the reasons why the EU was eventually persuaded to apply the same rules across the whole Union.

That brings me conveniently to the issue of eggs, on which the hon. Gentleman concentrated, and on which I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions. As the hon. Gentleman said, the EU has banned conventional battery cages from 1 January 2012. Working backwards from that date, and bearing in mind the lifespan of a chicken, we can see that the eggs from which the last batch of chickens in cages will hatch will be set to incubate next spring, so we are not far away—one or two other things may hatch next spring, but we shall see. The eggs will be incubated next spring, and the pullets will grow up and be put into cages about this time next year. They will be the last batch to go into battery cages.

The time scale is therefore tight, and I am already concerned about two things. First, quite a lot of British producers have not yet invested in alternative systems, and they are going to find life very difficult. Many of them have been to see me, as I am sure they have been to see the Minister, to press for derogations. Personally, I am not particularly supportive of derogations, because there has been plenty of notice, but—this is a big but, and it prompts my request to the Minister—producers are now telling me that a number of countries actually have derogations, Poland being one example. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us details of the derogations that the EU has granted to allow some countries to continue using conventional cages, because such measures will fly completely in the face of attempts to raise standards. That will mean, given the single market, that we will still be able to import eggs produced in conventional cages, and our producers, who will have made the necessary investments, will be at risk of being undercut. This is therefore a serious issue, and I hope that the Minister can address it. My view is that there should be no derogation and that animal welfare should be improved across the whole EU at a particular stage to minimise unfair competition.

As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who has just left the Chamber, said, a significant amount of egg is brought into the country in powdered or liquid form. Quite a lot comes from the United States, and it also comes from elsewhere in the world. I am not suggesting that it will be easy to deal with the issue, and I do not know whether such products have the levels of traceability that we would like, but it is a pretty clear bet that they will be from caged eggs, which will be a significant part of the cost of production.

Let me move on to the labelling of food before trying to draw the different threads together. The House has been debating food labelling for many years, and certainly since the era when the changes in pig welfare that I mentioned were made. Governments have frequently said that they are working with industry to improve things, but as Conservative party studies have demonstrated—we referred to this earlier this year—the public are clearly still being misled. People will say that is unlawful and that the law bans misleading labelling, but I am not sure whether the Minister could point to any prosecutions. Public surveys in which members of the public have been shown labels show that people are clearly confused by them. The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), was quite struck by how deceptive labelling was when she and I did a Jamie Oliver programme about the labelling of pigmeat products.

Nothing has really changed. We now find that the Food Standards Agency, dealing with EU regulations on the Government’s behalf, is voting against EU proposals that would help to clarify food labelling legislation. On the DEFRA website, we read:

“The Food Standards Agency…advises that if meat is described as British it should be made clear where the animal was reared and slaughtered and where processing took place”.

Frankly, that is not good enough. If meat is described as British the animal should have been born, reared and slaughtered in this country. There should be no scope for misleading people about that, which is why my party has committed itself to legislation—although our campaign has been so successful that a large number of supermarkets, including Tesco, have voluntarily set about altering a lot of their labelling. We are obviously very pleased about that.

That approach is essential, because the only way the consumer can exercise choice, whether on price, welfare standards, country of origin or anything else, is by being correctly and properly informed about what is available, and sure of buying what they think they are buying. Once that has been got right, there is an opportunity for the industry to market its wares and exploit the higher welfare standards and, indeed, to be negative about the standards of some imports. It is for the industry, not Government, to grasp that opportunity, but Government should create the framework that enables it to happen.

The debate is about public procurement, and as the result of much pressure in the past few years the Government are moving in the right direction on that issue. It would be churlish of me to deny that. However, I do not think that they have a great deal to be complacent about, because there is a long way to go. I shall refer to some figures in a moment, but it is important to note that when comparing Departments one is dealing with widely differing budget levels, and it is necessary to be a bit careful. I found one table on the Department’s website, headed “Comparison of average total percentages of commodities of UK origin”. It gives the total average of each commodity—meats, vegetables and so on—for 2006-07 and 2007-08, and demonstrates a 2 per cent. increase on the total average. It is an average of averages, and I know that you, Mr. Key, are wise enough not to take too much notice of averages of averages. It is fairly meaningless, and, when one adds to that fact the massive difference between the budgets of Departments, clearly, averaging averages is even more absurd.

The same website has a table of contracts specifying certain objectives. The total value of food provided under catering contracts for the Department for International Development, for example, was just £280,000—one of the lowest amounts. For the Prison Service the value was £1.72 million. For the Ministry of Defence, obviously, the figure was considerably more, and for the NHS it was several million pounds. Thus 100 per cent. of one Department’s food budget would, in the wider context of public procurement, mean nothing by comparison with the budgets of the big Departments.

That leads me to some percentages. If we consider some individual commodities—concentrating on the animal foods sector, because we are debating welfare—we find that just 15 per cent. of poultry meat for the Ministry of Defence is of UK origin. The figure is 0 per cent. for bacon, and 19 per cent. for mutton and lamb. Those figures are atrocious, and they are percentages of a very large budget. I quoted the figures pertaining to DFID’s very small budget, but actually even its percentages are not very good: just 28 per cent. of its poultry meat, 87 per cent. of its mutton and lamb and 15 per cent. of its bacon are of UK origin. In the Department for Children, Schools and Families just 33 per cent. of poultry meat, 9 per cent. of beef, 0 per cent. of mutton, lamb and bacon, and 6 per cent. of pork are of UK origin. Those are horrendous figures.

What should be done about that? Mention has already been made of the little red tractor, and I make no apologies for the fact that we believe it is completely wrong and immoral to spend British taxpayers’ money buying food that is produced to standards that would not be allowed in this country, because Parliament has set rules about how farmers must produce food. We can argue about the adequacy of those rules, and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and I may differ slightly on that point, but the fact is that we have passed laws about welfare standards in this country, and we import meat that may not meet those standards. That is unacceptable and immoral, and it should change, which is why all public procurement contracts must be moved towards requiring farm assurance—little red tractor—standards. I know that we cannot insist that the food should have that mark, because that could be construed as insisting on UK provenance, but we can ensure that the food is produced to the same standards. That is the best way forward, and it is why we are committed to that approach for all central Government budgets. We are currently considering how to extend it through the devolved area of schools and hospitals. We believe, because of our principles of localised decision making, that they should make their own decisions.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South and other Members referred to the good examples of public bodies, such as schools, some hospitals and at least one or two local authorities, which have gone about doing what we would all probably propose, demonstrating that, contrary to the argument constantly put forward by central Government that we must bulk-buy because it is so much cheaper—I do not blame the present Government uniquely—when devolved power is driven down to local bodies, those bodies can procure food just as cheaply, and probably to a higher standard.

There are many good schools in my constituency, but I want to mention St. Mary’s primary school in the city of Ely, which took responsibility for its catering back from the county school food service. It gave the budget to the school cook—none of this arty-farty food technician nonsense—and she goes out and buys food locally. It may not always be of local provenance, but it is good quality food. She has substantially increased the uptake of school meals, which are much nicer. The quality is good and the cost is no more than it was under the old centralised system. It is excellent, and I go there at least once a year to have lunch with the children. Other schools are following suit, and indeed another Ely school asked St. Mary’s for support with its catering, because of that success.

There are countless other relevant examples. The county of Cornwall, which I accept is run by a different party from mine, has done a great deal to source Cornish food for its requirements; it can be done. However, it can be done only with a dramatic change of mindset among bureaucrats at all levels, so that they say “Let’s devolve and give responsibility to the people in charge, who will actually prepare the meals.” In that way we shall make substantial strides towards ensuring, as everyone has said, that the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money that is being spent really creates the example we expect others to follow.

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Key. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on securing this important debate, and I welcome it as an opportunity to outline the Government’s absolute commitment to the improvement of the welfare of animals.

The UK has the highest animal welfare standards that we have ever had; they are among the highest in the world. For example, this year we reached agreement on a new regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing, as well as on an EU ban on the trade in seal products. At home, we have introduced new legislation, the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Now anyone responsible for an animal must take steps to ensure that its welfare needs are met. In addition, the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 set requirements in respect of general welfare, inspection, housing and feeding for all farmed animals. Enforcement action can be, and is, taken against farmers who do not comply with that legislation, which is supplemented by species-specific welfare codes. Stock keepers are required by law to be familiar with and have access to those codes, which encourage high standards of husbandry.

Furthermore, last autumn we ran a very successful campaign to help laying hen producers to make informed business decisions. The campaign outlined the options that will be available to them when conventional cages are banned in 2012. It is vital that we work in partnership with the agricultural sector, and we were very grateful for the industry’s support for the campaign. In July, I wrote to the industry restating our commitment to the 2012 EU-wide ban on conventional cages, but reassuring the industry that we would do all that we could to ensure that those UK producers that have already converted from conventional cages were not disadvantaged. To that end, we pressed the Commission for an intra-Community trade ban on eggs produced by hens in conventional cages after 1 January 2012.

In response to the question asked by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), let me say that we understand that no derogations are in place. I am sure that he is right that some countries will seek derogation, but one of the protections that we would try to put in place, if such derogations were allowed, would be to say, “Okay, you can perhaps ring-fence, temporarily, but you can’t export any products.” That would keep up the pressure. It would also give our producers some solace to know that they will not be disadvantaged. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those discussions are ongoing.

We have also pressed the Commission to introduce into the EU egg marketing regulations a code 4, to signify eggs produced by hens housed in enriched cage systems—those required to have nest boxes, litter, perch space and claw shortening devices—so as to differentiate those eggs from conventional cage eggs, which remain classified as code 3. That will be an additional protection to designate the improved status of those hens. That will aid enforcement and create an improved economic environment for those producers that have already converted.

I accept what was said by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, and others on clearer labelling generally. The House will know that we are working hard with the food industry to improve labelling in the UK, and we are working hard within Europe on all aspects of labelling—country of origin, provenance and so on—for the benefit of consumers.

On the alternatives to conventional cages, there is no scientific evidence to favour one legal production system over another. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Research has shown that free-range and barn systems may result in higher mortality, an increased occurrence of painful fractures and a greater risk of feather pecking, cannibalism and predation than a system of enriched cages. However, enriched cages offer the challenge of allowing hens the freedom to express normal behaviour. The EU Commission, in its 2008 report on the welfare of laying hens, and the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which advises the Government on on-farm animal welfare issues, both recognise the welfare benefits of enriched cages, and they have given their support to that system of production.

Although we have been working hard to ensure that the supply side supports ever-higher welfare standards, we have also been trying to increase demand for healthier, more sustainable food by showing leadership in the public sector. The public sector food procurement initiative—the PSFPI—has been a driver for change. A review of the PSFPI last year showed that there had been clear progress against its objectives, which include promoting animal welfare. However, we know that there is still room for improvement, which is why we are continuing to take forward a number of initiatives.

One of the key challenges raised with us by stakeholders from all sides is the need for the Government to set out a consistent and coherent view of what the food system should look like in the future. That is why we are developing a food strategy to bring together the various elements of food policy, with the aim of setting out a vision for the food system in 2030. The part on animal welfare will echo the wording in the leaflet “The Future of our Farming”, published in August, which says that good farm businesses are those that produce high-quality food to high environmental and welfare standards.

The first of those elements is the healthier food mark. For the first time, there will be a national food procurement scheme that seeks to combine both nutritional and sustainability criteria. More than 60 public sector organisations volunteered to be part of the first phase of the pilots. The healthier food mark includes two criteria that address the issue of animal welfare. The first criterion, which aims to ensure that

“100 per cent. of meat and meat products are farm assured…as a welfare minimum”,

has been included in the list of proposed criteria for the healthy food mark. Public sector food procurers are not restricted to sourcing produce from the UK. Indeed, everyone will be aware that they are legally required to ensure that tenders are open to all suppliers. However, by including that criterion we are ensuring that meat and meat products procured by the public sector meet UK animal welfare standards, which in many respects go beyond EU minimum legal requirements.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who is not in his place, asked about egg products as well as eggs. The healthier food mark pilots will be asked to consider that issue, and will extend beyond eggs.

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the direction of travel that the Government have taken over the years. May I ask him to address the question of compulsion versus voluntary codes? That was one of the main points that I was trying to make.

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My hon. Friend makes an entirely valid point. I know that his position is that we should travel down the route of compulsion. He is correct to say that I am trying to make a case for the good progress that has been made, and to outline what we are trying to do through encouragement. As I shall explain, we are trying to approach procurement in a quasi-voluntary way, but with a clear identification of higher standards that can be measured by those in public procurement positions. That is on top of measures introduced through the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and measures that we are securing in the EU, through our discussions about cages, stalls and the rest of it. That is a multifaceted attempt to drive up standards by means of the carrot and the stick—through voluntary as well as legislative measures. I shall say more about that in a moment. The healthier food mark will indeed be voluntary initially, but in 2012 we will review the scheme to see whether we could and should make it mandatory.

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Is not the evidence so far that voluntary measures do not really work? I mentioned the fact that, so far, only 40 of 468 local authorities have gone cage-free. Good though that is, it is very slow progress. I come back to the evaluation to which, I think, my hon. Friend speedily referred. That evaluation by Deloitte—if that is what he was referring to—said that

“Take up of the initiative was limited”.

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I did not mean to speed over points deliberately, or not to pay them appropriate attention. Like other colleagues, I anticipated there being more speakers in this debate. I therefore edited my comments to ensure that others had as much time as possible.

On the progress that is being made under the present infrastructure, several Members pointed out that the use of consumer power reinforces their argument that there has been movement when it comes to the ethos of eating and procurement. The best example is McDonald’s. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, referred to that company’s sensitivity and its position in the market. The fact that McDonald’s has moved demonstrates that it recognises public opinion. It is getting ahead of the game, so that it can try to maintain, if not increase, its market share. In the marketplace, blue-chip corporations involved in food supply are moving forward, and I shall give at least one more example of progress in the public sector, too. That shows that we are talking about a moveable feast, if you will excuse the pun, Mr. Sheridan, and it is moving in the right direction—the direction that my hon. Friend wants us to take.

The second animal welfare criterion being considered as a potential entry on the healthier food mark list is the aim of having

“100 per cent. of eggs…sourced from systems which do not use conventional cages.”

Owing to stakeholders’ concerns about the number of criteria, that is only listed as a potential criterion; we consider that the impending ban on the use of conventional cages will drive the outcome.

In February 2008, we issued a notice to all public sector contracting authorities to alert them to the ban on conventional cages from January 2012. The purpose of the alert was to enable buyers to reflect the new regulations in forthcoming contracts, and that, in part, answers the question that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked about lead-in times and the ability of producers and purchasers to make adjustments in respect of the new regulations.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Office of Government Commerce on the collaborative food procurement programme, which aims to use collaboration between public sector buyers to generate better value and higher quality, and to embed sustainability and animal welfare in procurement decisions right across the public sector.

In the summer, I wrote to Ministers in every Department to ensure that they were aware of how much importance the Government attach to the higher welfare standards. I accept the points made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about averages, and I would not quibble with him. However, we do not want to camouflage the progress that has been made; in some areas, it is better than in others. None the less, we are trying to address the issues and to make even better progress. I have begun meeting other Ministers, starting with those in charge of the biggest food-buying Departments, to discuss procurement issues. We will look at those who are doing well to identify how they have been able to make such progress. We will also look at those who are not doing so well and listen to them to find out what obstacles they may be encountering. We will share best practice across the Departments, and that will then feed down to the wider public sector. For example, I will examine the purchasing of the Department of Health and then move on to the NHS. Likewise, I will examine the purchasing of the Department for Communities and Local Government and then move on to local government, and so on, to try to ensure that we can make additional progress.

I was interested to hear the point that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made about his cook in Ely. One issue that has come up recently in our meetings with the Food Standards Agency and the Council of Food Policy Advisers is the fact that, because of devolved budgets, there are now some 35,000 purchasing points within the public sector. It is possible that the skill level of some of those procurement officials is not appropriate. For example, they may be great at purchasing stationery, because that is their background, but they are now having to purchase food for the Department. We must consider the skills set of the people in those purchasing areas. The cook obviously knows exactly what she is purchasing and is making positive choices, getting better value for money and producing healthier meals. However, she probably does not represent the majority; she may be a very good representative sample, but we must ensure that everyone in the public sector has the appropriate skills to make the appropriate choices.

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I thank the Minister for what he has said. He is right that there is an issue with buyers being responsible for stationery, desks and everything else, including food. That is the problem. The person buying the food should be not the purchasing officer but the person responsible for preparing the food. If we drive decisions further down, we will get the benefit.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. In the exercise that I am conducting with other Ministers and within DEFRA, I am trying to identify what is working well, and am then sharing that best practice to ensure that it is as effective as possible. I should inform my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South that DEFRA’s caterers have made their own decision, and buy only free-range eggs and UK-sourced meat. Again, no legislation compelled them to do that. I am talking about a private sector catering contractor that is making a judgment based on what it thinks the consumer wants. It believes that by doing what the consumer wants, it will sell more of its products, thus making its business more efficient.

In conclusion, I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of the welfare of animals in our care, and I agree that there is some way to go before we can really say that we have reached the desired standards. We must do things that reflect the public appetite for change as well as the need for value. We must ensure that our food and farming industry moves with us to deliver the change that we all want, and the change that allows us to work with our international trading partners for a secure, sustainable and fair food supply, now and in the future. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and would like to express my appreciation to all hon. Friends and hon. Members who have contributed.

Sitting suspended.