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Welfare of Laying Hens Directive

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2011

Good morning, Mr Amess. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair and to see the Minister in his place. I am delighted to have secured the debate. It is a matter of note that it was requested by all the members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who deem it of great importance. The thrust of my remarks relates to the legal position and legal advice on which the Government appear to have based their decision on how to proceed when the ban on battery cages comes into effect. Effectively, the issue is when is a ban not a ban?

Directive 1999/74 on the welfare of laying hens is well known to everybody in this country and across the EU; indeed, it has been in existence for 12 years. It will take effect from 1 January 2012, when there will be a ban on what are normally known as battery cages, and only eggs laid by hens in enriched cages will be allowed. That is an historic decision, which is welcomed by all across the EU, not least consumers. Animal welfare has enjoyed growing momentum across the EU, and this is the first time the Commission has sought to introduce a ban on animal welfare grounds.

Were the ban not to take effect on 1 January, the implications for the consumer would be very serious. Consumers are very much in favour of a ban. This country’s egg industry has invested £400 million in putting new facilities in place for 1 January, and I pay tribute to all the egg producers who have made such a massive contribution, not least Yorkshire Farmhouse Eggs and others in my constituency. There are also serious implications for the next ban—on sow stalls and tethers—which is due to come into force across the EU on 1 January 2013.

I want to focus for a moment on the implications of the legal aspects of the Government’s case. As I said, the directive is due to come into force on 1 January 2012. It was agreed 12 years ago, in 1999, so egg producers across the EU have had 12 years to prepare. The directive will prohibit the use of conventional cages—commonly referred to as battery cages—which contain about five birds, with a minimum of 550 sq cm, or less than the size of a sheet of A4 paper, per bird. In December 2010, such cages accounted for 28% of all laying hens in the UK. The new enriched cages provide at least 750 sq cm per bird and have a minimum height of 44 cm. They also provide a nest, a perching space and a scratching area. In December 2010, such cages accounted for 21% of all laying hens in the UK.

The directive was intended to prohibit the marketing of eggs produced in conventional cages. Here, I turn to the semantics of what the ban relates to. In this regard, there are flaws in the Government’s legal advice, their argument and the basis on which they are proceeding. I pray in aid a letter—I am happy to share it and to leave a copy in the Library and with the Department—from Commissioner John Dalli, who is the person at the directorate-general for health and consumers responsible for implementing the ban. He wrote to the Committee on 30 November, after we had written two weeks earlier—on 14 November—asking for the ban to take effect across the EU. He states:

“Currently available data suggest that there is a risk that more than 51 million hens in at least 11 Member States will still be kept in un-enriched cages on 1 January 2012.”

He goes on to say that he will

“without undue delay propose to launch infringement proceedings early next year against those Member States that appear to not enforce the Directive.”

However, as we and the Commission know—the Committee had cause to share this with a Minister from Denmark, which will hold the EU presidency from 1 January 2012—all the Commission will do then is issue a reasoned opinion against the member states that are in default. As we all realise this morning, that will give those member states three months to reply. It will therefore be le jour de poisson—April fool’s day—1 April 2012, before legal proceedings commence against any of those member states.

In arguing against the Government’s inaction, I rely on a key paragraph from the commissioner’s letter:

“Concerning unilateral action, Member States are responsible for the enforcement of Union law. They have the power and the duty to keep products produced illegally off their markets.”

The Minister is nodding. The key phrase is that member states

“have the power and the duty to keep products produced illegally off their markets.”

I put it to the Minister that it is not for manufacturers, processers or retailers to police these things. I pay tribute to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for being the first Department to come forward with a taskforce to remove extra regulations and gold-plating. Under successive Governments, it has been expert at introducing such things, but gold-plating and the addition of extra regulations have cost our industry. It would be completely perverse to offload all the costs of policing these issues on to retailers, processers and others, when it should, as the commissioner says, be the Government’s responsibility to police the ban.

I am glad to have the opportunity to make a quick comment and to congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this important issue. Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have pursued the rules and regulations with almost evangelical zeal. However, it has been reported that battery cages that are now obsolete in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have been sold to other European countries that flagrantly disobey Europe’s rules. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Government should make strong representations to Europe to ensure that such contravention of the legislation does not take place?

The Minister will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I invite him to respond. It is perverse to introduce regulatory costs for manufacturers, retailers and processers at this time.

I would like to make some progress.

I put it to the Minister that he has three options before 1 January. The first is to do nothing, as he set out in his recent written statement to the House, and to let the ban lapse before it even takes effect and to offload the costs of policing processed products—not shelled eggs, but eggs in powdered, liquid and other forms. That would be unacceptable.

The second option is to take unilateral action, and the Commission clearly states that the Minister would be entirely within his rights to do so. Indeed, he said in the Government’s response to the Committee’s ninth report on the welfare of laying hens directive:

“We will be pressing to ensure that the Commission initiate infraction proceedings against Member States whose caged egg producers are non-compliant”.

He went on to say that the Government would also consider taking unilateral action:

“The Government has thoroughly investigated the possibility of taking unilateral action and bringing in a UK ban on all imports of egg and egg products which have been produced in conventional cages in other Member States”.

What has changed the Minister’s mind between the quite recent date of publication—25 November—and today? The Minister should take unilateral action, rejecting shell eggs or egg products in powdered, liquid or any other form, based on the legal letter and the legal basis of the directive, backed up by the commissioner’s response to the Committee.

The third option that I invite the Minister to consider is to tour European capitals. It is not up to members of the Committee. We had a warm response from the incoming President, the Danish Agriculture Minister, when we made a visit two weeks ago. She asked the Committee which other capitals we had visited, and which other Ministers we had met. I regret to say that I had to respond that we are not allowed out very often, so it is not really the role of the Committee. It is the role of Ministers from the 14 compliant member states to tour member states to secure—if the Minister does not want to take unilateral action—a multilateral ban on their part. There are 14 or 16 other countries—we are not entirely sure how many—who will not comply.

I am interested to hear that my hon. Friend spoke to the new Danish Minister. Did she ask what the Minister was planning to do? I did, last week, and the answer is nothing.

I am delighted that the Minister met his counterpart, but that is not what she said to us. She said she was aware that the Commission would take action. I put it to her, as I put it to the Committee this morning, that there will be inaction for three months, while just a reasoned position is issued under the Court proceedings. When we left, that Minister—the incoming EU President—had a completely open mind. As I said to her, it is quite within the rights of the Council of Ministers to overrule the Commission and rely on a multilateral ban. That is a matter of disagreement between the Minister, the Committee and the egg industry, and it would help us this morning if the Minister provided the legal advice on which the Government depend.

In his conclusions in a written statement on 6 December the Minister mentioned marketing regulations:

“Because of a loophole in the egg marketing regulations, we cannot prohibit the marketing of any eggs produced in conventional cages from 1 January 2012 which are sent to processing (whether sent as ungraded or class B), nor can we prohibit the use of any products made from such eggs.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 17WS.]

That is not the case, and I repeat the words of Commissioner Dalli:

“Concerning unilateral action, Member States are responsible for the enforcement of Union law. They have the power and the duty to keep products produced illegally off their markets.”

The Food and Drink Federation is equally concerned and has said, in its briefing for today’s debate, that it shares concern that a number of other EU member states still do not appear ready to meet obligations first set out in the 1999 directive. It continues:

“It is also highly regrettable that the absence of mechanisms to prevent intra-community trade in non-compliant eggs exposes food manufacturers and others to the risk of inadvertently buying them.”

The Minister says that retailers agree with the Government, but with the greatest of respect, retailers and processors do not agree with them. The Government are offloading the responsibility for applying the directive on to retailers, processors and the manufacturers of quiches, pizzas, cakes and other products.

Will my hon. Friend reread what she just read out from the FDF? It clearly states that it agrees that it is a pity there is no mechanism. That is what she read out, and that is the Government’s position. The FDF agrees with the Government that there is no mechanism for us to establish the ban that she wants.

That highlights the kernel of the disagreement between the Minister and the Committee. Will he explain precisely what the loophole is in the egg marketing regulations? Are they EU regulations or UK regulations implementing EU regulations? The Committee is at a disadvantage, because we do not have access to the legal advice on which the Government have based their opinion. If the Minister would be good enough, in his response, to clarify the legal position on the importation of non-compliant shell eggs for processing, liquid and powdered egg and egg products contained in prepared foods, it would be a great step forward. Will he also state precisely what loophole in the egg marketing regulations he believes allows the marketing and sale of all eggs and egg products, aside from class A eggs? Will he satisfy us this morning as to whether he really means that because only class A eggs are covered by the egg marketing regulations DEFRA has simply chosen to put that interpretation on the legislation?

As a currently non-practising lawyer, who practised law in two different law firms in Brussels, I accept that asking two lawyers for their opinion might produce two different legal opinions. It seems that the British Egg Industry Council has one legal opinion, and the Government rely on another. It would be helpful for us to learn precisely the terms of that opinion. I have quoted Commissioner Dalli’s belief, which is widely held, that the European Commission is clearly saying that the United Kingdom would be entirely within its rights to choose to prohibit the importation not just of class A shell eggs but also shell eggs destined for processing, and liquid and powdered eggs, from non-compliant sources, from 1 January 2012.

The Commission infraction proceedings will take place only from 1 January, with a reasoned opinion against the 10 or 11 remaining member states that do not comply with the directive. That will mean that no reference to the Court of Justice, or legal proceedings against the ban, can happen until 1 April 2012. The consequences of failing to act are huge. Bearing in mind the fact that we all—consumers, manufacturers and parliamentarians—welcome a ban on battery cages, the consequences of failing to act cannot be quantified.

Consumers were led to believe that the ban would be in place from 1 January 2012. Egg producers have made an enormous sacrifice and invested hugely—£400 million —in enriched cages. There will be huge consequences for producers who are disadvantaged. As to what the costs will be to the manufacturers, processors and retailers who are being asked to check the eggs on import, to make sure that they are compliant, perhaps the Government would like to share a figure with the House this morning. Perhaps we should also look ahead to 1 January 2013.

When the Conservatives were last in power, we imposed a unilateral ban on sow stalls and tethers, which disadvantaged our pig sector and has led to consumers buying cheaper cuts of pigmeat produced with less animal welfare-friendly methods since the early ’90s. I want an assurance from the Minister that a level playing field is not elusive, that we can achieve it, that we can allow our egg producers to compete across the European Union and that we will not accept any imports of shell eggs or any other products from 1 January 2012.

I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and the other members of the Committee on securing today’s debate and on raising an important issue.

I came to the issue because there are a number of small and sizeable egg producers in my constituency, which support the local rural economy and provide jobs. Over the past few years, they have invested heavily in upgrading their facilities. I am aware that, of the £400 million that has been invested across the UK, at least £7 million was invested in my constituency by small and medium-sized firms.

The comments made by the British Egg Industry Council are important to the debate. The critical issue for the producers who have contacted me is that, although they have invested heavily, they are being put at a competitive disadvantage. They are concerned about their businesses in what are already difficult economic times for all rural businesses, and they are concerned that the reward for their investments and for improving what they do is to find their profits reduced and their businesses becoming ever less viable.

Clearly, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, similar to my own, many people have borrowed from banks at a time when they can least afford to do so. They feel that they are comparatively disadvantaged as a result. Does she feel that banks should give some leniency at this time?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Certainly, banks in the rural economy have recently tightened up their lending processes, which is regrettable when agriculture globally is ripe for investment and is a good investment. Such businesses are often asset rich, but they need credit, as farmers all over the world do. Banks can do a lot more at present to support the rural economy.

I confess that I was incredulous when the BEIC raised the issues with me. It struck me as bizarre that some EU members are still not complying with the legislation 12 years after it was passed. One of the most pertinent points today is that not just new accession EU countries are failing to comply with the legislation, but long-standing and established EU members seem to be shrugging their shoulders and letting the issue go by.

One of the most significant issues is that there has been a complete lack of foresight regarding compliance measures. I still find it quite incredible that the enforcement measures are so weak. Enforcement measures by member states may be dismissed as a business expense by the companies that are failing to comply with the law. There are big lessons to be learned about how seriously we take legislation. At the heart of the matter, it is a legal issue. It became clear back in July just how weak the legislation and compliance measures were; that is important.

I welcome the fact that the Government have looked at contingency plans. I wrote to the major supermarkets in July this year, asking them to confirm that they would ensure that their own-brand products would comply with the law and that they would not import products. To be fair to Asda, Morrisons and Tesco, they all wrote back to me to say that they could do so with their own-brand products and the eggs on their shelves, but there was no commitment on the other products that they import from suppliers. That is where the challenges lie.

In a context where the law is absolutely ineffective, I welcome the contingency measures taken by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, but they are not a substitute for proper legal enforcement. We still face the issue that liquid eggs from Holland and Germany might originate from non-compliant countries. Until we deal with the legal issue, I do not think that we can move much further forward—it makes a mockery of the law.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton absolutely hit the nail on the head when she posed the key question about the loophole in regulation. Does that originate from our own laws and regulations, or is it an EU-wide issue? I hope that the Minister will address that and share the legal advice that has been given. The loopholes need to be closed with some urgency.

As we consider how we move forward, I hope that we will ask how on earth we will instil any confidence in new legislation if it cannot be enforced. Farmers are already talking about the problems of complying with regulation. If there is one issue that farmers in my constituency—not just poultry farmers, but livestock and arable farmers—are concerned about, it is compliance. They feel that our compliance, regulation and inspection regimes are much more rigid than those in other parts of the EU. In some cases, they are absolutely right, and that makes it more difficult for them to earn a living and operate internationally. If we cannot even enforce the laws that we make with a 12-year lead-in period, it makes a mockery of the law. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

It is nice to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Amess. I, too, thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for securing the debate; we all supported her in securing it.

I do not think that the Minister should be in the dock this morning; it should be the European Union and the European Commission. As has been said, directive 1999/74/EC is 12 years old. What has the Commission done about it in the meantime? Last June, Commission officials came to see us in our Select Committee, and we had figures from Spain. There are 42 million hens in Spain, of which 2 million are free range and 40 million are either in enriched or in non-enriched cages; people did not have a clue as to how many hens have been put into enriched cages. How can we be confident that Spain is converting? Will it have one or two poultry houses on each farm that have converted to new enriched cages? In that case, an awful lot of eggs produced in non-enriched cages in other parts of the same farm could find their way on to the market as grade A eggs. There are many reasons for the Commission to get strong.

Spain has a record of non-compliance, especially on welfare standards. When I was in the European Parliament, I chaired an all-party group on animal welfare. When it came to achieving welfare requirements, Spain was always one of the worst for compliance. Basically, the responsibility goes from the national Government to the regional and local governments—people pass it from one to another and wring their hands, and nothing gets done.

The Commission has seen this coming. In our Committee last June, we told it that hens, which will lay for 13 months, were going into non-enriched cages. One does not need to be Einstein to work out that, when 1 January arrives, lots of eggs will still come from non-compliant cages. We want to see action taken on that.

It has cost our industry £25 a bird to convert to enriched cages. Let us not forget—I have said this before—that the poultry industry does not receive any money from either the common agricultural policy or the single farm payment. It has to compete on not only a national stage, but an international stage. This country has a good and highly competitive poultry industry, but the industry cannot stand having many inferior eggs, produced under lower standards, coming into the country. The industry reckons that it costs 11% less to produce in non-enriched cages than in enriched ones. We need to take action.

I commend the Minister for his work with retailers. In the end, whether it is the law or not, we must physically ensure that such eggs do not come in. The best way to do that is to look at what we are eating and where the egg has come from. Not only shelled eggs are imported; we reckon that about half the 18% that we import comes in liquid and powder form. That is the area—where they could well get in—that causes me most concern. By working with retailers, we can stop a lot of that happening.

The Commission has a problem because it has taken no action for so long. At this time of higher food prices, it will be difficult for the Commission to smash 45 million eggs a day. That will not look terribly good to the consumer.

I have huge respect for everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) says on such issues and I sympathise hugely. The issue comes down to whether the UK should take unilateral action on 1 January. I think that the Select Committee would agree on everything else. I am interested to know my hon. Friend’s view on whether the UK should take unilateral action.

I am sure the Minister will cover this matter in his summing up, because it relates to legal advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, one can get two or three lawyers in a room and have two or three opinions. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on legality.

I still maintain that we must look at the market; otherwise we will be left with inferior eggs produced under lower welfare standards. From a food point of view, there is probably nothing wrong with the eggs, but they are not compliant. We must ensure that they are driven down in price, so that it is uneconomic for farms to produce them across Europe, and in the end that becomes a matter of the market. If we can drive those prices down, so that those eggs are only worth half a grade A egg, it will not take too long. Farmers may be many things but they usually work out the law of economics, and they will soon find that it is uneconomic to produce those eggs, especially with the high cereal prices at the moment. That must be our main goal. I am happy to slate supermarkets when they do not get it right, but they have got it right in this instance.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful contribution to the debate. Assuming that the Minister will not say that he has found alternative legal advice and that we can have a unilateral ban, does the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) agree that it is right to have a live updated rolling register positively identifying those supermarkets that comply with the Minister’s request and, by implication, identifying those that do not? The only way to do this through a market as opposed to a legal mechanism is to name and shame, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies). Let us recognise the good producers and processors and vilify those who do not maintain the highest standards of animal welfare and British food production.

I could not agree more with the shadow Minister; it is a case of name and shame, and we need to know where the eggs have come from. I have looked at where all the beef, lamb and so on in supermarkets comes from. It would be good to discover not only the method by which the eggs have been produced, but where they have come from. I believe that the British public are more and more interested in where their food comes from and are keen that it is produced not only under higher welfare standards, but in this country. It would be a double-edged sword: we would look at not only non-compliant eggs, but where they were produced. That could be very good.

I join my hon. Friend in praising my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for securing the important debate. I am here because two egg producers from my area got in touch. One has willingly and enthusiastically invested tens of thousands of pounds in new facilities, believing in high welfare standards in the UK. However, I would like to echo the point about the economic argument. At a time when supermarkets are pushing prices down and when people are suffering because of the economy, it is important not to put such producers at an economic disadvantage. We need to support them in any way that we can. I like some of the ideas that we have just heard on naming and shaming and supporting high welfare standards in British eggs.

That anticipates my final point. The industry has to deal across Europe in a single market. The European Commission is not taking the right steps to ensure that that single market works properly; there are inferior eggs on the market, and it is not doing enough about it. I commend the Minister for the agreements that he has made with retailers and supermarkets. If we can work with them to stop as far as possible these eggs coming in and drive down the price of B quality eggs, so that they are uneconomic to produce, it will not take so long for those countries that have not conformed to do so quickly. In the end, we have to ensure that we look after our own highly competitive producers, to ensure that their investment bears fruit and that we have high-quality, good welfare standard eggs, which we can all buy with confidence.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. The last parish notice that I want to draw attention to is my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a free-range egg producer.

This matter has been a long time coming. For 12 years, the EU has had the legislation in place. Some colleagues have already referred to the pig industry. In the Sherwood constituency, a number of pork producers have disappeared over the past 10 years simply because we introduced legislation to improve animal welfare and our colleagues in the EU did not do so at the same speed. In effect, we exported our pig industry to Holland and Poland, which produced cheaper pork products due to their lower animal welfare standards. We are in danger of allowing that to happen again to our egg producers, which is simply morally unjustifiable. Any assistance that the Minister can give to our egg industry—I know that he is working hard to make it a fair playing field—would be most welcome.

The matter comes down to policing. Who will police the issue to ensure that the legislation is enforced and that we can deliver that fairness not only for our farmers but for hens crammed into tiny cages for their whole lives? The Government clearly have a role to play, if they can find a way to enforce this. Producers also have a role in ensuring that consumers and the general public understand the issue. It is important to include food production in the curriculum, so that people understand it, because more such issues will inevitably occur.

Let us cast our minds back to how some of our colleagues on the continent took direct action. Many hon. Members will remember images of Welsh lamb being pulled out of refrigerated lorries and burned by our colleagues over the channel and how the Germans put a unilateral ban on British beef some years ago because they decided there was a safety issue. We are very passive in the UK at times—we play by the rules and we play fair—which is sometimes to our disadvantage. We need to find a legal way to ensure that we deliver.

My real call is to consumers of products to put pressure on retailers and food producers to ensure they have the criteria in place, so that those egg products are sourced from enriched cages or free-range units, and not from battery hens. The power of the market will deliver, but that will require consumers to put people under pressure. In a restaurant, if we order a boiled egg, we ask “Is this free range?” but we never ask where our mayonnaise, or products that involve egg paste, come from. If we buy a sausage roll, it is probably basted with an egg wash, but we never ask if the egg is free range.

Consumers have a big role to play in applying genuine pressure. Every time they go for a pub meal, they should ask the manager whether the eggs are free range, and when they buy mayonnaise in the supermarket, they should write to the mayonnaise company asking whether it is made from free-range or enriched-cage eggs. In that way, the market will deliver, and the £400 million that British producers have invested will have been worth their while. Perhaps we can find a way to support British egg producers, who have the highest welfare standards and the best quality eggs in the world. If we can get that message across, I am sure that we will work our way through this.

We have plenty of time before the winding-up speeches, if any other colleagues wish to contribute. I call Huw Irranca-Davies.

I will do my best to fill the available time, Mr Chairman, and will happily take interventions. This is a good chance to have a detailed debate.

I welcome the debate, and I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing it, in her role both as a constituency MP and as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I also congratulate the members of the Committee on making this very much a live issue. It should be attracting the attention of parliamentarians and the wider public, and I will consider in a moment how we should deal with the consumer and market issues. I also welcome the expert, knowledgeable and detailed way in which the hon. Lady introduced the debate, and I note—as the Minister will have done—the significant differences that have emerged between her, as Chair of the Committee, and the Government, even though their positions support each other in many ways.

I very much welcome the comments from other contributors, including the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford). Am I pronouncing the constituency name correctly?

Ah, it is a Welsh pronunciation, with the “ch” sound. I am dying to see how Hansard transcribes that. The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of recognising and rewarding good producers and the investment they have made, and that has been a common theme of the debate.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made a very good contribution about how UK producers’ investment should bear fruit, or at least produce good eggs. He was certainly supportive of the idea, and I saw nodding heads on both sides of the House, of clearly identifying which producers, processors, retailers, supermarkets and restaurants use not only good shell eggs but good liquefied and other processed eggs, and which do not. There is some scope for the Minister. We might have a way forward, together with the UK egg producers and the various representative organisations.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) spoke very well about his experience with free-range hens. My household has always had a few, just for our own consumption. It has been a long-standing tradition on our smallholding, but I cannot compete with the hon. Gentleman’s much more extensive expertise. He rightly pointed out that we could do a lot with the power of consumers and the markets, but we have a heck of a long way to go.

I draw parliamentarians’ attention to research by YouGov and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The RSPCA would like to go even further towards free range and away from any sort of caging, but it has done an interesting analysis, which the Minister might not be aware of because it has, I think, come out only in the past few days. It looked at people’s awareness of the legislation, and at their buying power as consumers; 69% of them wrongly assumed what the law would mean for hens and animal welfare. A further 19% had not heard about the legislation at all. A fifth wrongly assumed that all battery cages would now be banned; 8% thought that all hens would now be free range and 1% thought it was something to do with farmers having to play music to their hens. We have a long way to go, not only in working with the retail sector, including supermarkets, but in highlighting the issue to consumers so that they can genuinely drive change in the market, but that is not all that I shall talk about today.

I cannot allow that 1% figure about playing music to hens to pass without comment. I may be the only person here who has been a farmer, with 20,000 battery cages. It was unheard of not to play music. The whole point is that opening a door should not surprise the hens and make them jump around, so playing music in battery cages is common practice.

I will not exhaust your attention, Mr Chairman, by asking what music the hon. Gentleman played. As an ex-punk, I think my taste in music might startle the hens, but I am glad to hear that music is played. Was it classical?

As we know, Council directive 1999/74/EC will make it illegal to have laying hens in conventional battery cages across the EU from 1 January 2012, after which date egg production will be allowed only in enriched colony or non-cage systems; for example, free range, barn or organic. We have heard today that Members on both sides of the House agree that that is appropriate, and there has been none of the discussion about gold-plating that we often have with EU regulations. The directive has been welcomed, both for animal welfare and for food production standards, and it might well benefit UK production and producers, if we can get it right. It is also good for the quality of the eggs and egg products that we eat every day. The significant problem is that not every EU nation will comply with the directive—13 of them will not—which poses enormous challenges for the UK egg industry. The industry’s response to the Minister’s written ministerial statement on 6 December 2011 was that it feels “totally let down” by Ministers on this important matter, and I want to look today at why it feels that way and at what must be done.

I compliment the UK egg industry on its responsible approach to the directive over a number of years, with investment in the region of £400 million to convert conventional cages to enriched ones. The capital cost of an enriched colony unit is between £20 and £24 per bird place, and the National Farmers Union has stated that for a producer with a medium-sized cage unit of about 100,000 birds the cost of erecting the new units is, on average, in excess of £2 million—not an insignificant amount. Free-range egg producers have also invested heavily in preparation for the directive, and that has been a draw on the industry, which, as has been mentioned, is a competitive market that does not receive EU support. The NFU has also stated that the majority of birds in the UK will be in enriched cages by January 2012, which is to be welcomed, and that all lion scheme producers will be converted in time.

A lot of work has been going on over recent years, with many people investing heavily to comply, but the problem is that the UK is not self-sufficient in eggs and egg products. We import 15% of our egg requirements, and valid concerns remain about whether imports from January 2012 onwards will come from EU nations that comply with the directive, and about the possible impact on the UK egg industry, including on prices. One of the industry’s fears is that prices will be driven down, with cheaper eggs and lower standards.

In a move that was openly welcomed by the UK egg industry, the Minister recently dangled the potential for a unilateral ban on eggs from EU nations that do not comply. However, in his statement last week, he decided that it was “not a realistic option”. Having raised that possibility, why can the Minister not now deliver it? It will leave many egg farmers feeling that he failed them.

What has the Minister delivered? He has given an unequivocal assurance that DEFRA and the devolved Administrations will enforce the conventional cage ban from 1 January 2012. I think that everybody in this debate will welcome that and how the industry, the devolved Administrations and DEFRA have risen to the challenge. He also stated that a risk-based surveillance scheme would be introduced to ensure that imported shell eggs from other member states produced in compliance with the cage ban would be in place from 1 January 2012. [Interruption.] He is nodding.

The Minister also said that Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency surveillance would be conducted on imports of shell eggs, using ultraviolet light analysis, to identify batches of caged eggs that are not from an enriched environment. However, he also acknowledged that due to the loophole in the egg marketing regulations, he could not prohibit the marketing of egg products from conventional cages sent for processing, nor could he prohibit the use of products made from such eggs. That is a significant loophole.

However, the Minister made the welcome announcement that retailers, food manufacturers, food service companies and processors have come out in public support of the UK egg industry. I do not make many puns in debates such as this, but those good eggs, reflecting earlier campaigns on the issue, are to be complimented on the steps that they have taken and will take. The British Retail Consortium, whose members include McDonald’s, Starbucks, the four major supermarkets and many other brand names, will ensure that they do not buy conventional caged eggs or use them in their products. Furthermore, he outlined that the Government would make necessary changes to the Government buying standards’ mandatory criteria to ensure that eggs produced in conventional cages are not used in any form, whether fresh, powdered or liquid.

After that seemingly wide-ranging set of measures, why does nobody in the industry seem happy? I suggest to the Minister that it may be a case of trying to look busy while failing to deliver the one thing that he strongly hinted was possible, a unilateral ban. The industry is now being overwhelmed with many different initiatives as a diversion. Perhaps they will forget the fact that they think they have been led up the garden path. It is a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering, which is never a good strategy.

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

The British Egg Industry Council says that the measures are not good enough and that the Government could have introduced a complete ban on all illegal products in the UK. Its chief executive, Mark Williams, said:

“The UK egg industry feels totally let down by the Government. Whilst we have received repeated platitudes of support from DEFRA, it has failed to back these up with any real action. Our legal advice has confirmed that the UK Government is able to enforce UK and EU law by banning illegal eggs and egg products, so why have they chickened out?”

That is his pun, not mine.

Although the National Farmers Union has welcomed the measures taken by Government, it has stated categorically that

“our members will certainly be bitterly disappointed that it has not been possible to take tougher action.”

One British egg farmer, Duncan Priestner, echoed the concerns of many, including the NFU, when he said this week that he feared some food producers would be tempted to buy eggs from illegal systems in Europe, because they will be cheaper. He said:

“It will drive down the prices that farmers get. Like the pig industry”,

which has been referred to,

“that will put us in a very difficult financial position."

The UK is clearly not the only country in the EU that will be compliant on 1 January. Does the shadow Minister know of any other Ministers in the European Union who will take unilateral action within their own country?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I will come to that, if he will bear with me. There is a case, if not for unilateral action, then for doing what the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee suggested and considering the possibility that like-minded countries might take multilateral action to enforce the EU directive much more rigorously and aggressively and in a joined-up way. There are like-minded countries out there. With my limited experience of EU negotiations, I suggest to the Minister that that is a fruitful way forward. We should be sitting down with those of the same mind and discussing how to work within the EU directive after 1 January. Even if we cannot do it unilaterally—I will ask about the legal advice in a moment—we could do it in a joined-up way with like-minded countries. As I have given him that forewarning, I am sure that he will be able to tell me what discussions are occurring.

The good work of the NFU Poultry Board has been referred to. Its chairman, Charles Bournes, said:

“We are concerned that although the Government has repeatedly pledged its support for the industry, it cannot prohibit the use of illegal egg products and food manufactured from such products.”

On the back of those comments, I have a series of questions for the Minister.

Given that the British Egg Industry Council and others have stated that their legal advice is that a unilateral ban is possible, will the Minister publish the legal advice that he received on whether the Government would be able to enforce a unilateral ban on the import of conventional caged eggs? As he knows, we requested that advice in a written parliamentary question last week. We expect the Department’s reply any day now, if not today.

In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Sherwood, will the Minister update us on whether he intends to work with like-minded countries to see whether a rigorous form of enforcement or a multilateral ban could be employed by other countries that have complied with the directive and are concerned for their own industries? It is not only about supporting British industry; it is also about supporting higher animal welfare standards. I am sure that those countries would be willing to work on that, with some good negotiation and persuasion from the Minister.

In the absence of full compliance from 1 January, will the Minister commit to making a quarterly statement to the House about the progress he is making within the EU on negotiations, particularly on getting the 13 other members to implement the directive fully, and on what additional work he as a Minister, his officials at DEFRA and UKRep are undertaking to level up the playing field promptly? Will he also update Parliament on the level of non-compliant imports? I think that we will all be extremely concerned if, as a result of the non-level playing field after 1 January, imports increase, particularly eggs and egg products from non-conventional and enriched cages.

We have all seen the recent furore under this Government over humans arriving in airports and ports and being waved through. What hope is there for eggs? What assurance can the Minister give people who are sceptical that imports can be checked for compliance with the EU directive? As an hon. Member said in the debate earlier, what specific additional resources will the Minister make available for policing the directive, and at what cost?

AHVLA surveillance of imports of shell eggs will use ultraviolet light analysis. I understand that the method has not been used specifically to identify different types of caged egg production, although it has been used to identify eggs from alternative systems. What assurance can the Minister give that that type of monitoring is 100% effective? If it is not 100% effective, what level of surety do we have that it is an effective way to monitor and police egg imports? His recent statement made little mention of powdered or liquefied egg. What assurance can he give that imported powdered or liquefied egg will not come from hens in conventional cages?

Will the Minister push the European Commission to take swift action with meaningful financial penalties against any country guilty of non-compliance on shell eggs or egg products after 1 January? Will he take a hard line in discussions with the European Commission on non-compliant countries? That would give some assurance to egg producers in this country that there was at least an attempt, in the way we know other countries do with us, to try and level up the playing field rapidly. What can the Minister do to ensure that the UK egg industry will not be undercut on price by eggs and egg products from conventional cages from any of those 13 non-compliant states? We welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce changes to the Government buying standards mandatory criteria, but why did it take so long to produce them? Why were they so late? Will he guarantee that the changes will be completed and enforced by 1 January 2012, and that all Departments, without fail, will not be using, in this context, conventionally caged eggs in any form—shell, liquid or powdered? It would be wholly inappropriate for the Government to fail to introduce these measures properly, and to fail their own standards, after asking much of the egg industry and many retailers—food manufacturers, food service companies and processors—to invest heavily in preparation for the ban.

Given that the UK’s enforcement strategy is to ensure that all those in the industry have stringent traceability tests in place to ensure that they are not using conventional cage eggs, what assistance is the Minister giving them—not policing, but giving the industry—to ensure that they are fully prepared? Are there additional costs that the industry will now have to take on to ensure compliance, and what assistance is the Minister giving if that is the case? Is he undertaking further action to assist our whole supply chain in the UK to prepare for this directive, or is that now it? They are ready, up and running, and it is a competitive market.

The Minister promised much, but the results have fallen short, as we have heard from the industry. In EU negotiations, there was a failure to level the playing field upwards in favour of higher animal welfare standards, and, I have to say, in favour of UK producers and jobs. However, he had a plan B, which was nothing to do with walking out on negotiations; it was actually to impose a UK unilateral ban. Despite the good promises and the fine words, I wonder whether he has been “Sir Humphried” by his officials on internal legal advice. We must now rely on voluntary enforcement—a sort of big society approach to welfare in UK food production. Perhaps I could suggest to him a reliance on the good and bad in business, highlighted by the Leader of the Opposition in recent contributions.

Finally, when all else has failed, will the Minister work with the industry, hon. Members here today and us to produce a definitive and up to date rolling register of all those who source shell, powder and liquefied eggs from enriched cages? Food processors, retailers, restaurants and others on the list would be demonstrably good eggs, and by implication everybody else would be bad eggs. We would support the Minister strongly in that, but anything else will be seen as a slap in the face for the UK egg industry.

I have already written to all those in the supply chain in the UK, asking in detail what they are doing to comply with the EU directive, both those on the list produced by the Minister and all other significant players. I guarantee our support if the Minister produces a live rolling register, because that seems to be the only tool left in the box at the moment. We have a lot of work to do, as I alluded to with the findings of the RSPCA, and we will do it. If the Minister does not, I am convinced that the industry will do it separately and alone, and we will work with them.

This is by no means a complete list of questions or of the concerns of many inside and outside the UK egg industry, but they are some of the key questions left to be answered by the Minister. I hope that he can provide the assurances that many are seeking—in the industry and in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has done such good work on this—so that we can drive up animal welfare standards and the protection of the very best in UK food production, as I know he is convinced we must do.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for securing the debate and for the way in which she introduced it.

Obviously, I am aware of the importance of this issue. Hon. Members from all parts of the House have written to me about it in the past year to 18 months. Indeed, as I shall come to describe, it is something with which I have been closely involved ever since I took up my ministerial responsibilities. There is much on which I think we can all agree. However, before launching into that, I want to put on the record that I strongly resent and resist accusations that I have done nothing—as my hon. Friend suggested, when she said that I could do nothing, as was clear in my statement. I also reject the hysterical comments that have been made by those who allegedly represent the industry. They are not constructive, and they are not factual in a number of cases.

As hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), have clearly stated, the provision has been in existence for 12 years, since the 1999 directive that bans the keeping of hens in conventional battery cages from 1 January. It has been widely welcomed on all sides of the debate, even from those who would prefer it to go further, as the hon. Gentleman has said. I have said in the Agriculture Council and in this country that every country has had 12 years to prepare. Even the newer member states, which were not members at that time, knew what they were signing up to. There is no excuse, in the Government’s view, for any country not to have done everything it could to ensure that its producers comply.

Clearly, the directive is a huge challenge and great concern to the industry. I join my hon. Friends and hon. Members from other parties in congratulating the producers who have invested approximately £400 million in preparing for the ban by converting either to the enriched systems or to other systems. We know that the vast majority of UK producers will be compliant by 1 January. Of the remainder, we expect many of them will be leaving the industry at the end of the year or shortly after that, as soon as they can get their hens into an abattoir. As has been said, there is a different picture across Europe, with 13 of the 27 member states saying that they will not be ready. It has taken a long while for the Commission to get that information. As several hon. Members have said, there could be approximately 50 million hens in conventional cages across the EU. On 1 January, those will be unacceptable conditions.

We have been working hard to try to protect our producers, who have invested £400 million. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) has said, that works out at about £25 per hen. I have said several times to the industry, and I do not resile from this, that we will do all that we can to protect it. I believe that we have done that within the bounds of legislation, and I shall come on to that. Alongside what we could be thinking about doing in this country, we are still pursuing the UK’s interests in Brussels. Despite the fact that it is not satisfactory, we have made some steps forward.

It is more than a year ago now—in fact, it was September 2010—when Commissioner Dalli visited this country and came to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. At that stage, I said to him that we were very concerned that member states would not be compliant. At that stage, the Commission felt that it would be “all right on the night”. However, early this year it began to realise that that might not be the case. It asked all member states for a status report by the end of April. Not all member states complied, but it has recently received more information, to which I will refer, and which is the origin of the 50 million figure that I mentioned just now.

We have had a number of further discussions, both privately between myself and the Commissioner and at Council meetings. In September, the Secretary of State wrote jointly with nine other concerned member states to the Commission, urging it to act quickly. However, at the October Agriculture Council—this is very important in light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has said—the Commission ruled out the option of an inter-community trade ban, which it said is not legally possible. That is clearly on the record as a result of that Council meeting. I have to emphasise that it has warned member states not to do so individually. The Commission has told us clearly that there is no legal basis for a ban.

I thank the Minister for clarifying that point. Have he and his officials accepted that, or have they challenged it and sought alternative legal advice to take back to the Commissioner?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, of course, we have sought our own legal advice. I was going to mention that issue later, but I am happy to address it now. Please forgive me, Ms Osborne, if I read from my notes verbatim, but I need to get it right. I must stress that I am not reading out direct legal advice. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to say to him that I have answered his parliamentary question and that I suspect that he will get the answer today. As I am sure that he knows, I am afraid that the answer is no. Governments do not publish legal advice given to Ministers. That was not the case under the previous Government, and it is not the case under this Government.

The treaty on the functioning of the EU prohibits quantitative restrictions on imports between member states and all measures that have a similar effect, with limited exceptions to that general rule, including where they are necessary on animal health or human health grounds. The advice that we have received shows that it is extremely unlikely that a court would extend those exceptions to animal welfare grounds in these circumstances. The treaty also states that any restriction of trade must not constitute arbitrary discrimination.

Given the traceability issues around distinguishing between imported eggs that have been reared in conventional cages in other member states and those that have not—I will come back to traceability in a moment—any ban would have to be on imports of all eggs from a particular country, whether reared in conventional cages or not. That would clearly penalise compliant producers in other member states, which runs contrary to the principle of the free movement of goods. The hon. Member for Ogmore and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton raised the ban on sow stalls, which we implemented a long time ago in this country. If we apply the logic of the argument that we are discussing to that, we would have had to introduce a ban on all pigmeat, including that not introduced in sow stalls. Neither the Government at the time nor the previous Labour Government believed that they had the power to do that. It is quite clear that we do not have the legal basis to take such action.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for sharing the advice with us. The sad fact is that if we claimed there was an animal health issue with shelled eggs or their products, we could reject them. I submit to the Minister that the legal basis on which we can rely for either a unilateral or multilateral ban is the EU directive coming into force from 1 January, which finds its legal base in the treaty. We are breaking new ground here. This is the first time that the Commission has imposed a community-wide ban on animal welfare grounds. I therefore submit that the legal instrument is the directive. I ask the Minister to respond to John Dalli’s comments that I read out about having the power and duty to keep products produced illegally off our markets, either unilaterally or, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has said, multilaterally. I cannot accept that there are no grounds for a ban, because the EU directive is the legal instrument.

My hon. Friend is right, but she needs to read that legal instrument to see what powers it gives member states to introduce a ban. The fact is that it does not give those powers. The Commissioner has been through this over and over again. I have had private meetings with him and with others as well. He is absolutely adamant that there are no powers available to him or member states to introduce the ban in the way in which my hon. Friend has advocated

I hope that I can clarify the matter by coming to traceability, which is right at the heart of the issue. Before getting to that, I shall finish my point about the Commission’s role. Once Commissioner Dalli realised that there was going to be a big problem, the Commission started looking for a robust enforcement approach that would avoid a large number of producers having to close down their operations. More importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has said, the Commissioner also wanted to avoid the destruction of millions and millions of eggs, which clearly would not have been right when many people are struggling to make ends meet.

At the same time, the Commissioner wanted to protect producers who have complied with the ban. He came up with the concept of what has been described as a gentlemen’s agreement, which does not have a legal basis. Most of those member states who were expecting to be compliant did not like the idea. Those who were not compliant reluctantly agreed to the idea. I took the view that, although we did not want any slippage in the timetable, we had to face up to the reality that there would be non-compliant eggs and therefore something had to be done. In fact, the gentlemen’s agreement died. There was clearly no prospect of a gentlemen’s agreement, and it has not been progressed.

The Commission has acted on the practical things for which the UK has been pressing. As several hon. Members have said, it has begun pre-infraction procedures. More importantly, it has also asked for the action plans from all non-compliant member states to contain measures to accelerate compliance. In answer to the hon. Member for Ogmore, its intention is for a monthly report of those plans to be given to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which is known as SCoFCAH for short.

Once again, I thank the Minister for clarification on those points. Returning to the legal advice, has he sought clarification from his officials on the risk of the UK being found guilty and prosecuted for infraction for trying to abide by the very standards that the EU Commissioner wants to apply eventually throughout Europe? Considering the backdrop he has just explained about the EU Commission driving forward pre-infraction procedures, if the UK or other countries were to go for a unilateral ban or a multilateral ban with like-minded countries, what is the likelihood of the UK facing infraction? If a country is infracted for not doing something, it is different from being infracted for doing the very thing the EU wants countries to do.

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable suggestion. Obviously, I cannot tell him what the risk is. This is an extremely important point and, to go back in history, his Government took such a view about earlier issues when the boot was on the other foot. It is very difficult for someone to argue that other people are not complying with the law if they then proceed to break it themselves. Someone would lose a great deal of moral standing if they did that.

I want to make a final point about the Commission before I come back to the key issues. The Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office missions will be targeted from the beginning of 2012 at non-compliant member states and, to help that, all member states have been asked to submit lists of compliant producers. We have asked for all those measures, because they will give some protection to compliant producers in the UK and across the EU. Clearly, that is not enough, which is why we have said that we reserve the right to take our own actions. Yes, we have thoroughly investigated the possibility of unilateral action and, when I have said in the past that we were considering the matter, I was saying it exactly as it was. I think that hon. Members who know me well enough will know that I would be keen to take action, but, unfortunately, the legal advice that I have had from within, plus the statements from the Commission to which I have referred, have led me to believe that we cannot do so. That is partly because of the practical issues and difficulties in enforcing such an approach.

Let me continue, because I am addressing my hon. Friend’s point about the issue of traceability. Perhaps I can also mention the point about the egg marketing regulations, because the two matters are interlinked. The answer to her question about the egg marketing regulations is that class A are shell eggs and they have to be marked with a producer number and a mark defining the production method—in other words, it would be code 3 from a battery cage or, from January, from an enriched cage.

Class B eggs, however, which are mainly used in manufacturing, are not required to be marked with anything—with either a producer number or a code—so there is no traceability, which is the key point. If we were to introduce a ban, it would have to be on all non-grade A eggs or on all powder and/or liquid. We could not differentiate them, which is the nub of the challenge that we faced. Because of that, as I suggested earlier in relation to the legal advice, we would have been accused of a discriminatory approach and would certainly have been in breach of the legislation.

Will the Minister confirm whether the marketing regulations are European Union regulations or UK regulations? If they are EU regulations, we, as a country, would have had the opportunity to query them and, presumably, amend them when they were drafted. Will the Minister comment on that? I look forward to his response to other questions, but what will be the cost to the industry—to processors, retailers and manufacturers—of doing what the Government are asking it to do from 1 January?

They are European regulations—there is no question about that—as I am sure the advisers to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will have confirmed to my hon. Friend. We have, in recent months, asked the Commission—and we will continue to ask it—to amend those regulations. That has not happened so far, and I must confess that the Commission officials with whom we have had detailed discussions do not seem overly keen on the idea, so we are faced with having to operate within the existing legislation.

On the issue of what exactly is an offence, it will be an offence to keep hens in those cages, and we would prosecute under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. That is clear. However, it will not necessarily be an offence to be in possession of an egg from an illegal cage, but it would be an offence to try to pass it off as an egg from a legal cage. It is important to be clear about that.

On the efforts that we have made within the constraints, the hon. Member for Ogmore challenged me about the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and my description of the use of ultraviolet light. He is right that the technique has never been used directly in the way that we propose, but, as he has also said, it has been used to identify eggs from caged hens within batches that have been described as free range or barn eggs. Not until now has it been specifically used to identify different types of caged egg production, but we have had it independently validated, and I have looked at it myself. When an egg is laid, the shell is momentarily a bit soft and takes an imprint of the material on which it is laid. If it is laid on wire, it comes through clearly under ultraviolet light, which is obvious. If it is laid on any sort of softer egg-laying surface, which is a requirement of an enriched cage, that comes through as a completely different pattern.

I must also make it clear, however, that the use of ultraviolet light is simply a marker for us and would not, by itself, be the basis of prosecution. If any suspect eggs are found, we will ask the country of origin to confirm our suspicions about whether the producer—do not forget that the information will be on the egg—is compliant or not. That is how the system will operate. If the eggs are found to be from an illegal system, they will be prevented from being marketed as class A eggs and sent for processing—that is, as I have said, downgraded to class B. I have now explained the point about marketing regulations.

As of today, as far as we can establish, the average price per dozen of class A caged eggs, which are, of course, legal at the moment, is about 54p, while the average price per dozen of class B eggs is 29.4p. That is nearly 25p per dozen cheaper, which is close to 50% of the price. That is a massive price differential. I cannot believe that anybody will seek to import eggs from non-compliant cages and risk losing half the value of the eggs if we detect them. We have to be sensible. The economic impact on anybody who has their eggs downgraded will be absolutely massive, and I do not believe that they would risk it happening. As far as shell eggs are concerned, our measures will be sufficient.

Let me turn to the understandably more concerning issue of processed eggs, which, as has rightly been said, represent about half the imports of egg and egg products into this country and approximately 9% of total consumption. As I have said, they are much less easy to trace, because the eggs are not required to carry any identification. That loophole causes us immense problems, which is why we have been pressing, and will continue to press, to get it closed. In the absence of that, we have had to use what opportunity we have, which, as I have said, is to work with the industry. The hon. Member for Ogmore is right and that is why I published a list in my statement, and was happy to do so, unusually, on the basis of name and shame. I am happy to update the list and, as of today, can add two more processors—Bumble Hole Foods Ltd and D Wise Ltd. That now means that nine of the major processors are on board, reducing still further the likelihood of eggs from conventional cages or their products being imported.

That is the situation. I am approaching the end of my allocated time and have almost finished addressing the issues, but I am conscious that I also need to respond to a number of questions. In the absence of the ability to instigate a ban, we have tried, as I have explained, to throttle the market. That is what it boils down to—we have tried to make sure that there is no market in the UK for illegally produced eggs or egg products.

I have dealt with the issue of legal advice. To return to my earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, I have been in contact with like-minded countries in the EU. In the week before I made the statement, I telephoned them myself and not one of them is proposing any action yet. As far as we can establish, we are the only country proposing any measures from 1 January. Of course, I continue to work with them and, if there are prospects for more unified action, I will take it, but, as I have said, they are not minded to take action.

I have mentioned the regular monthly updates to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health and, in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for Ogmore, I will ensure that, somehow, that is brought to the House’s attention. I cannot give him the information about non-compliant imports, because of the issue of traceability, which I have mentioned. We do not know whether such imports are non-compliant, and we are trying to ensure that they are not. The European Commission cannot impose financial penalties, which is a matter for the courts following infraction proceedings. On the industry’s issues, it has not provided us with any form of costings. We are open about that. I am sure that if the costings had been onerous, the industry would have been quick to tell us.

Finally, I fully understand the importance of the issue. We have tried very hard to use the weapons available to us.

I am sorry, but I must finish. The fact that I have been able to list not just retailers, but all the major bakery brands, such as the producers of Mr Kipling and all sorts of biscuits, and the major caterers, such as Compass Group, BaxterStorey, Sodexo, and a number of, if not all, the major importers of egg products, demonstrates that we have gone a long way to throttling the marketplace in this country for eggs from non-compliant cages. My final point for anybody who tells me that it is too difficult and that the eggs cannot be traced is that the importers of processed eggs have their own traceability systems, because that is what they are trying to do and, they have assured us, what they will do. However, when we are faced with an egg that has no indication of where it came from, we cannot trace it, which is the harsh fact. I hope that the House will accept that the Government are doing all that we can to protect our producers.