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Animal Welfare

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, for this debate on animal welfare and trade negotiations.

The importance that we place on the welfare of other animal species on the planet is a measure of how civilised our society is. We all know that animals feel pain and fear. They have maternal instincts. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows that they can even feel emotions such as loneliness and jealousy. How we treat sentient animals that are raised in captivity for food really does matter and says something about us as a society.

Animal welfare is an area in which legislators should be prepared to take action. The truth is that the public care deeply about the welfare of animals, but the paradox is that in a modern, sophisticated society, people are often separated from farming practices and the slaughter of the animals that they consume. There is therefore a danger that the human conscience of consumers ends up being dissipated by the simple fact that, for the majority of people, farming and slaughter processes are, frankly, out of sight and out of mind. The only way to bridge the gap between the empathy that people might feel for animals and the information that they have about farming is by legislators exercising judgment and implementing laws that recognise the ethical dimension of how we produce our food.

There is another element to this. Farming is sometimes described as an industry, but I would say that it is not like any other industry—it is unique. It is not just about churning out a product for consumption at a given unit price. Farming is intrinsically linked to life itself and entwined with the environment, of which humans are just one part. If we take the special nature of farming for granted, we end up in trouble with animal health problems, disease and even human health problems. In recent decades, that is exactly what has happened. Consideration of animal welfare standards has been trumped by an apparently more important theory about free trade. That is wrong.

I am a Conservative, and no one believes in the concept of free trade more than I do, but even I can see that the concept of free trade is frankly a lower order consideration when compared with more fundamental issues such as animal welfare and the health of our environment. All too often in recent decades, moves to take a lead and to improve animal welfare standards at home end up being stopped in their tracks by the threat that we will merely export our industry to countries that have even lower welfare standards. That fear is entirely justified.

When the UK unilaterally banned sow stalls for pig production, our industry lost out to that in other countries where pigs were treated less well. The concern that our farmers will lose out as a result of improved welfare legislation means that the policy response has typically been to trim our ambitions and to stifle our consciences, because the theory of unfettered free trade has been considered to be a concept that is beyond challenge in any circumstances, and seen as a principle that trumps concerns such as animal welfare.

It is time to challenge that muddled thinking. A civilised society should have a system that encourages competition to raise animal welfare standards, not to lower them. We should not jeopardise our farming industry simply because of some arbitrary rules set down many years ago in the general agreement on tariffs and trade and since enforced by the World Trade Organisation. I shall return later to some of the relevant articles in GATT, because I shall argue that many of the provisions to recognise animal welfare standards in the world trade system already exist, but we have not been good enough at taking them up.

First, I shall speak about the coalition Government’s position, and that of the Conservative party. Just a year ago, in February 2010, the Conservative party published a very good document, “A New Age of Agriculture”, which was our agenda for British farming. The section on animal health and welfare contained an explicit commitment:

“We will promote animal welfare at an international level and work towards the inclusion of production standards in WTO negotiations.”

That could not be more unequivocal or clear, but I decided a couple of months ago to follow it up and to see what progress there had been in making the case to the WTO and internationally for the changes. I tabled a parliamentary question asking what discussions had taken place on this important issue. The response was:

“None. The World Trade Organisation’s…Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement only allows controls on food safety, plant and animal health grounds. While we are totally committed to improving animal welfare standards the situation is that unanimous agreement of the WTO’s membership would be needed to change this to include production standards such as those relating to animal welfare. Such agreement is unlikely to be forthcoming because many of the WTO’s members would regard such standards as likely to facilitate protectionism rather than trade.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2010; Vol. 519, c. 957W.]

What I really want to know from the Minister is whether that represents a change in the Government’s position, and if so did the coalition require that? I would find that surprising. The Conservative party has its differences with the Liberal Democrats, but I would have thought that Liberal Democrats cared about such issues as much as we do. I wonder whether it is simply that the Department has other priorities and has not yet managed to put the matter back on the agenda. I would like some clarity on that from the Minister.

Returning to GATT and the WTO, I want to say a little about how we can get from A to B—from wringing our hands about the problems of animal welfare and how we improve it within the WTO system to being able to implement and obtain agreement. I am conscious that it is easy for people to say, “Oh well, it’s impossible to achieve change because of the difficulty of getting worldwide agreement.” The WTO is undoubtedly reluctant to recognise what are described as process and production methods—PPMs—when dealing with world trade disputes. As I said earlier, farming is unique and unlike any other industry. That is why we must ensure that the WTO opens its eyes to those wider considerations and takes a look at issues such as animal welfare. The truth is that the provisions to do that already exist in GATT. All we need is the confidence to get on and implement them effectively.

First, article XX makes it absolutely clear that animal health is a legitimate factor to be considered in trade negotiations, but the European Union has been weak in arguing that. It states that

“nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to prevent the adoption or enforcement by any contracting party of measures:

(a)        necessary to protect public morals;

(b)        necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health”.

We should be arguing that the health of an animal is intrinsically linked to its welfare, and that under article XX that should be a legitimate consideration that is factored into trade negotiations.

Secondly, article III is also relevant to the issue. It deals with regulations within countries and says that there should be equal treatment for like products. It states:

“The products of the territory of any contracting party imported into the territory of any other contracting party shall be accorded treatment no less favourable than that accorded to like products of national origin”.

The debate is about the definition of “like products”. All too often in the recent past, people have said that a chicken is a chicken regardless of how it is produced. That is simply not the case. In the egg industry, it is recognised clearly that the method of production counts and that eggs are not all alike: all eggs sold in the UK must have a number from 1 to 4 to designate whether they were produced in cages, or are barn eggs, free range eggs or organic eggs.

The Minister will be aware that there is much discussion in the poultry industry about the danger that the new EU legislation being introduced to improve conditions for cage-reared birds may be implemented disproportionately. It may be implemented properly in the UK, but not elsewhere in countries such as Poland. That is causing a lot of concern in the poultry sector, and I understand that the Government may even be considering banning eggs from EU countries where they have not been produced to the new legally required minimum standard.

What an upside down world it is when we argue that it is okay to ban products that do not match our legal standards in the EU, where we supposedly have a single market and are all part of one happy family, but that adopting similar measures and a similar stance as countries outside the EU is considered to be a bridge too far and a step that simply cannot be taken, although the methods of production would be illegal in the UK. Clearly, something has gone wrong. When it comes to agriculture, we must be very clear that a “like” product must mean a product produced to the same standard of animal welfare. The principle that we have established in the egg industry, for example, should be applied to all meat products.

Before concluding, I want say a little about labelling and consumer choice. We have got ourselves into a bit of a muddle in some areas. We sometimes apply asymmetric legislation to farmers, and then tell them to compensate for those new laws by trying to command a premium in the market, to have better labelling and to try to obtain a higher price for their product. I think that is a cop-out because an important principle is involved. If a farmer makes the conscious choice to adopt farming practices such as organic farming, which go well beyond the legal minimum required, he does so voluntarily and having made a judgment that he will be able to command a premium in the market. However, if that farmer is forced by law to improve animal welfare standards, the responsibility is on legislators to ensure that he is not exposed to unfair competition due to others using practices that would be illegal in this country. Otherwise, we simply export cruelty abroad, and no one wants that.

My second point about consumer demand is that, notwithstanding my earlier argument about farming practices and slaughterhouses being remote from modern, sophisticated societies, in recent years there has been a sharp increase in demand for ethically produced food. There has been a huge growth in demand for free range eggs and other organic foods. Some argue that that is the solution, and that it is evidence that we do not need to change the rules of the World Trade Organisation, but I think it proves something different. If consumers are willing to recognise that there is a difference between products based on how they are produced, why cannot legislators recognise the same? During one test case at the WTO, it was held that

“differing consumer tastes and habits”

was a legitimate and relevant factor in determining whether products were, or were not, alike. The fact that consumers distinguish between food products based on the system of production strengthens the case for the Government to argue under article III that we should recognise higher animal welfare standards. Food produced to such standards is not like food that has had a lower level of production.

To conclude, it is time to modernise the World Trade Organisation and the world trade system generally. We should give nation states the right to safeguard their markets against imports produced in third countries to less civilised standards. We should not be asking the World Trade Organisation how to interpret articles III and XX, we should be telling it. Some say that such an approach risks protectionism and would undermine the interests of developing countries, but that claim does not stand up to scrutiny. It does not follow that welfare standards are lower in developing countries. Indeed, some of the worst excesses of the industrialisation of agriculture and factory farming tend to be associated with developed—not developing—countries. In many cases, developing countries pursue less intensive and more traditional farming practices that are better for animal welfare. Quite often, production processes in those countries are already informally regulated by large retailers in the UK who often insist that food produced in developing countries is produced to the same welfare standards as in the UK.

In truth, the latest Doha round of the World Trade Organisation has been stalled for several years. Rather than leave those negotiations in limbo, bogged down and making no progress, why should we not be realists and reconcile ourselves to the fact that, for all the reasons that I have identified, farming—especially livestock farming—is a special industry and a special case? That would free up the position as far as negotiations on other products and industries are concerned.

Requiring all exported meat to be produced at least to the same standards of the country to which it is destined is less radical than it sounds, and it could have a huge impact on our culture and on attitudes towards animal welfare. I hope that the Minister will take some of those points on board.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on securing this debate, and I am sorry that it is only a short Adjournment debate. The issues that he raises go to the heart of things that the Government and I hold dear. He started by reminding me of what I wrote in the Conservative document on agricultural policy about a year ago, and I do not resile from those objectives. I want to explain to the House what we are doing and how we are trying to take forward the objectives that we share. As part of the business plan for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we want to support and develop British farming, encourage sustainable food production and improve standards of animal welfare.

The previous Government’s Animal Welfare Act 2006, which had cross-party support, makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal and contains a duty of care and the five freedoms and so on. The 1999 treaty of Amsterdam requires the Commission and member states to consider animals as sentient beings. I was a Member at that time and know that that was seen as a significant step forward, and it was later reinforced by the Lisbon treaty. Therefore, a large body of EU legislation improves animal welfare. As my hon. Friend said, we have experience in this country of taking unilateral action for the most noble of motives, such as improving the welfare of pigs. I am thinking of pig stalls and tethers, but that action had a catastrophic effect on the pig industry in this country, and there was probably no substantial gain in pig welfare.

My hon. Friend referred to a chicken being a chicken. I was going to relate that not to production in the way that he described, but to concern for animal welfare. It may salve our consciences to raise standards of animal welfare in this country and not care about the rest of the world, but if that means that we simply export those lower standards of animal welfare, it is not a case of a chicken being a chicken—the chicken in England has moved to being a chicken in another country kept at a much lower standard. There is a tremendous amount to be said for doing our best to raise standards across the piece, not just unilaterally, and that is important.

My hon. Friend referred to the directive on caged hens, and I do not want to be led at this stage to say what we might do in this country if the situation does not improve. We have strongly emphasised our views to the Commission, and we believe that the matter must be dealt with at European level. It is abundantly clear that a number of European countries will not have complied by the end of the year with the requirement to replace all their conventional battery cages. Sadly, the Commission seems to suffer from the illusion that that is still possible, but I assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State publicly stated in an Agriculture Council meeting a fortnight ago that we are not prepared to contemplate any extension of the time scale, that the measure must work and that the deadline should not be delayed.

My hon. Friend also referred to competitiveness, which is what we saw in the pig industry. Extra costs can be involved in higher welfare standards, and the European Commission—thankfully—now considers international competitiveness as part of the impact assessment of new policies.

My hon. Friend made a significant point about the World Trade Organisation. What I said in the written answer to which he referred is factually correct. As we see it, the WTO does not allow measures to be taken to ban imports on the grounds of animal welfare. It is, of course, wide open to any member of the WTO—or in our case, the EU—to impose a ban on whatever it likes. However, that would be done in the knowledge that the ban might be challenged and various trade measures taken to deal with that.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Doha round is in a complete state of stagnation. My colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are anxious to get those negotiations back on track, but that will take time. That is the reason for the perhaps somewhat terse written answer that I gave my hon. Friend. While all eyes are on Doha, we cannot start changing the very framework of the WTO.

I shall now deal with the specifics about the WTO, the general agreement on tariffs and trade and various other global agreements to which my hon. Friend rightly referred. He referred to article XX of GATT and read out the relevant justifications: protecting public morals and protecting human, animal or plant life or health. Another justification is conserving exhaustible natural resources. Whether animal welfare could come under any of those headings is, frankly, untested, and I fully understand his desire that we should seek to test that.

It is worth making the point that certain measures have been taken internationally. In some cases, they have been contested. They do not relate directly to farmed animals, at least not in the UK. My hon. Friend will be aware of the seal trade ban—the ban on products from sealing. The European Commission banned them and used the justification of a distortion of trade, but I stress that that is being challenged under the GATT treaty. There is a serious risk that the WTO court will find against it.

The Commission also imposed a ban on importing cat and dog fur, which came mainly from China. That was also done on the basis of distortion of trade. It has not been challenged, although it may be in the future, so one could argue at the moment that we have got away with it. A longer-standing ban, which the previous Conservative Government pressed hard for back in 1991, is the EU prohibition on furs and pelts—primarily from Canada—harvested by using leg traps. That has never been challenged.

I am giving my hon. Friend some encouragement that some ways through this issue have been found, but those are not mainstream agricultural issues, as I am the first to recognise. I fully agree that, in an ideal world, we would get this issue considered at WTO level.

I want to pick up some other comments and then, if there is time, I might return to one or two other aspects of the WTO. My hon. Friend referred to the sanitary and phytosanitary rules, known as the SPS rules. To refer to an issue that is closer to home, Europe has banned the use of hormones in beef production on the basis that we believe that there are public health risks in not doing so. However, the United States has challenged us, and the matter is progressing through the judicial process at the moment.

Again, we have a problem there and we have to think through carefully what we do, but we can do other things in the immediate term. I do not think that even my hon. Friend would expect us to get the WTO rules changed very quickly, and I want to spend a few moments on that. The first point to impress on people is that improving animal welfare standards can benefit producers, because quite often they get higher productivity from animals if they are kept in better conditions, although some costs can be involved.

The second issue, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred, is the role of what are sometimes called private standards—the role of the retailers in demanding higher standards. That has been very successful across the world in raising production standards. There is some evidence, as we might expect, that when the cash figures go the wrong way, retailers turn round. This example is directly pertinent to a point that my hon. Friend made. I was very concerned to hear only last week that one of our major retailers that until now has been sourcing all its organic pig meat from the UK—that meat is certified to Soil Association standards—has now decided to stop doing that and to source organic pig meat from abroad. That meat is up to European organic standards, but they are not as high as the Soil Association ones. If what I have said proves to be correct, it is a pretty shameful approach and does not show much support for our own industry.

My hon. Friend made the point, which I have to repeat, that many people and organisations see welfare restrictions as some sort of ban on trade. The same can apply to the private standards to which I referred. The EU made a commitment to support international initiatives to raise awareness and to create a consensus on animal welfare through its action plan for the period from 2006 to 2010, and we want that to be continued through the strategy for the period from 2011 to 2015.

It is fair to say that animal welfare has not been a major priority for many Governments in recent years, either because they have believed that it is a trade issue and market forces will work, as my hon. Friend described, or perhaps because the alleviation of human poverty has been the predominant concern. However, we are making progress. The EU has recognised that the first step in getting third countries fully engaged in the development of animal welfare standards is to create a wider understanding and awareness of animal welfare, including among Government officials and the exporters. A conference on global trade and animal welfare was organised by the Commission in 2009.

We also have to recognise the OIE—the World Organisation for Animal Health—with which the Commission is working closely. The OIE was created a long time ago, in 1924, and has 178 member countries. However, it began getting involved in animal welfare only in 2001. By the end of 2004, it had developed guiding principles for animal welfare, and it held a conference in 2008 with more than 400 participants. The most important outcome of the conference was the identification of key needs and the tools necessary to help OIE member states to strengthen their capacities, including in relation to good governance and relevant infrastructure. The world assembly of OIE delegates has adopted seven animal welfare standards. Therefore, there is clear evidence that most of the world is moving in the right direction. I hope that my hon. Friend will take a lot of comfort from that. On-farm animal welfare issues are now beginning to be addressed by the OIE, but that will take a bit longer. I cannot get away from that.

None of that prevents higher standards through bilateral agreements. The EU is now emphasising that. Since 2004, we have addressed animal welfare specifically in a number of trade agreements with Canada, South Korea, Colombia, Peru and central American countries. I understand that it is also part of the negotiations with the Mercosur countries that are taking place at present. That work is clearly a step in the right direction.

My Department is working hard to provide training in welfare science and legislation to the veterinary services and non-governmental organisations in a number of countries. We have made a significant contribution to the EU Better Training for Safer Food programme and on welfare-during-transport training for veterinarians. Of course, we also continue to invest in research, because that is hugely important.

My hon. Friend and I are in exactly the same place on this issue. There may be a slight variation in nuance on precisely how we go forward. However, the Government remain determined to do whatever we can to increase animal welfare standards, not just at home but across the world, and to ensure that our producers are not unfairly discriminated against by imports produced to lower standards. I conclude by reminding my hon. Friend that we are also committed, in the document to which he referred, to ensuring that Government money is not spent on buying food produced to lower standards than pertain in this country, and that policy commitment will come to fruition in the next few weeks.