I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of live animal exports and animal welfare.
It is a great pleasure to open this debate, which was requested by a cross-party group of Members. I want first to thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us a debate on this extremely important issue. It is an extraordinary thing: Britain can have extreme pride when it comes to animal welfare—we have a strong sense of tradition. This is the country that passed the first piece of legislation on animal welfare—I believe it was in 1635—when we prohibited the pulling of wool off sheep and forbade the attaching of ploughs to horses’ tails.
I am sure the horses and sheep would have had something to say if it had been. That legislation was not only about animal welfare, but about more effective agriculture—I am concerned about how effective a plough drawn from the end of a horse’s tail would be. Even Cromwell decreed through parish rights that
“No Man shall exercise any Tyranny or Cruelty towards any brute Creature which are usually kept for man’s use.”
We should therefore be proud of our traditions and standards.
It was for that reason that when I became a Member of Parliament, I did not feel that this issue would concern me particularly. I felt we were leading the way—setting the standard. That was most certainly the case until live animal exports started from my local port in Ramsgate. As I started to see the trade first hand, I was extremely surprised that we in this country had so little power or control over the well-being of the animals bred here by UK farmers and exported to the continent. The trade out of Ramsgate shows, for example, how many licensing regimes regulate the industry. The ship that takes the animals across from Ramsgate to France is licensed in Latvia, but was designed as a roll-on, roll-off vessel for river crossings in Russia, not for crossing the channel. The transport licence holder has a licence in Holland. The drivers of the lorries do not need licences at all, but they do need to hold certificates of competence, which can be granted in any country, including those with different animal welfare priorities. They do not have the same tradition as us or the same high standards.
If I could take the hon. Lady back to the vessel that carries the animals across the channel, does she know why it is used instead of the normal channel ferries on the Dover-Calais routes, which carry lots of goods, travel faster and are in better condition?
The trade used to be out of Dover, but there was an issue with berths and some of the animal transport boats. Indeed, there was an issue before I entered this House whereby the ferry operators banned the trade on their ferries. As a result, a specific transportation mechanism was needed, but we are talking about a ship that is not equipped to go across the channel, despite our regulators saying that it is. It is equipped for fresh-water river crossings, not channel crossings in the middle of winter. We have already had a major crisis, when animals were taken halfway across the channel but had to return because the boat could not manage the seas.
Let me return to the drivers, the third element in all this. They do not need licences; they need certificates of competence. Certificates of competence can be granted in any country, with any set of standards, and would not necessarily meet the standards of competency in this country, which must reflect not only an ability to deal with animal welfare in a positive sense, but an ability to deal with animals in a crisis. I have seen major problems on my portside when people without the relevant competency have tried to deal with crises and emergencies.
Of course we have to meet EU standards, but others do not have to meet UK standards. When I went to see the commissioner in Brussels, he told me that he was keen for the rest of Europe to raise its welfare standards to match ours, but at the moment we are witnessing a race to the bottom. As a result, lowest common denominator standards are being applied to all the different licensing regimes in the different parts of the live animal export supply chain. Our farmers in this country are not lax about animal welfare. They take huge pride in maintaining standards, but once they start trading in the licensing regime, the EU standards apply. I have been contacted by many farmers who have been appalled by what is going on in my port.
Is this not another example of the UK gold-plating regulations while the rest of Europe ignores them? Is the hon. Lady aware of moves in any other European countries to ensure that at least the minimum standards in the regulations are enforced?
That is an important point. The commissioner told me that one of his key priorities was to enforce the existing EU regulations across all of Europe, because there are quite a lot of inconsistencies. Despite my dislike of gold-plated EU regulations, I believe that, in this instance, it is the gold-plating that enables us proudly to maintain our tradition as a country that stands up for animal welfare across the board. However, we need to encourage the Minister of State to be much more forthright towards countries that adopt different standards.
I do not have precise knowledge of which countries are not complying with the regulations. Animal welfare can also be a cultural issue, with different countries having different cultural responses to the regulations. I hope other Members will agree that our Minister needs to be absolutely clear with countries that are pursuing the lowest possible level of animal welfare provision or that are not meeting the UK’s standards, which should represent the gold standard.
On the question of port inspections, I was concerned to note that only 45 out of almost 40,000 animals were deemed unfit to continue their journey when inspected at the port. Does the hon. Lady agree that there might be a lack of decent inspections on our side of the channel as well?
There are issues about the EU, and there are issues about the competent authority. The competent authority in this instance is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it needs to ensure that we have a gold standard for inspections, enforcement and licensing.
On the point about enforcement, my hon. Friend might be aware that article 26.6 of European Council regulation No. 1/ 2005 gives member states the power temporarily to prohibit the use of transportation in the case of
“repeated or serious infringements of this Regulation…even if the transporter or the means of transport is authorised by another Member State”.
Would she therefore acknowledge that a power exists within the regulation to take unilateral action?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s great knowledge of EU regulations. I will come to that point in a moment. It is crucial that the existing powers are aggressively exercised in this trade, and the first challenge that I shall throw to the Minister, which I am sure he will welcome, is that he should use his good offices and his political will to ensure that we raise standards right across Europe.
The second priority for me and my local residents is that we seek to ban live animal exports. The fact that there are few benefits to the trade is illustrated by the significant drop in the number of live animals being traded out. The problem is that our farmers are not being properly paid for the food they produce. My understanding, from talking to representatives of the National Farmers Union, is that this is a marginal trade undertaken by some farmers who can get a better price for their animals on the continent. It is crucial that farmers are properly paid for their work and for their investment in animals. We need to ensure that we are building the right levels of value into the food supply chain, and that we do not undercut certain stages of our food production.
I know that the trade in Ireland is much bigger than it is on the mainland—or certainly than it is in England. I am interested in this issue in a broader sense, right along the food supply chain, and I believe that we have undervalued food across the board. We need to ensure that farmers are getting fair prices, but this trade is not the answer to the fundamental problem of the market not delivering good value to farmers. We need to address the problem comprehensively, and I know that it is the will of my constituents—and of many people around the country—that we should be seeking to impose a ban on live animal exports. There is no reason why farmers should not be able to get good value for their animals by exporting them after slaughter, rather than on the hoof.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I, too, would support a ban on live animal exports. Would she acknowledge that the journey of animals being exported for slaughter often starts many miles and many hours from the port from which they exit this country, and that it can continue for many kilometres and many hours before they arrive at their destination on the continent, where they are to be slaughtered?
I totally agree. The transportations that go out of Ramsgate can come not only from the north of England but from Ireland, and we can speculate that they are ending up in southern France, Spain and sometimes Greece. I still do not understand how that business model can deliver value, given the time taken to transport the animals from one end of Europe to the other, along with the cost of transportation, licensing costs and lairage. I do not understand the fundamentals of the business of transporting animals that far.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is focusing on the welfare of animals. Does she agree that that is more important than the question of whether they cross a border? Many animals being taken for slaughter within mainland UK experience longer journeys than those being exported from, say, Northern Ireland to somewhere not very far away in the Republic of Ireland.
Absolutely. Animals can be transported across Europe, and the journey need not involve crossing water, but our priority must be the standard of that transportation. As I said, the licensing regime has many layers, which creates a lot of confusion and inhibits us from imposing our own animal welfare values on operators within our borders.
I confess that I have not finished my research for the debate, so, given that we have reached it earlier than I anticipated, the hon. Lady might be able to help me out with a figure. I believe that the number of animals exported is less than 5% of the total number slaughtered in the UK, which gives us a measure of the size of this trade. Does she know what percentage of live export animals are sold abroad for breeding purposes rather than for slaughter and meat?
As I understand it, there are two quite distinct trades. The animals exported through my port are definitely for slaughter and not for breeding. I am happy to be corrected, but I believe that animals for breeding will be transported in quite different conditions from those transported for slaughter. That shows the difference between looking at the issue as a long-term economic asset as compared with a temporary price differential to be achieved in a different territory.
According to Compassion in World Farming, about 4.5 million sheep were slaughtered in the UK in 2011, but only about 72,000 exported—0.5% of the total. That chimes with what the hon. Lady was saying—that it is difficult to understand why there is an economic imperative for sending those 0.5% of sheep abroad for slaughter rather than slaughtering them here.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s knowledge in this field, which is extensive.
I asked the Commission in Brussels whether it had done any form of business analysis to show why this business is economic. I still feel that fair prices for farmers that take animal welfare really seriously are absolutely crucial. I do not necessarily understand the business model behind the exporting business.
The hon. Lady is setting out the case very clearly. She makes the point that animal welfare is central and highlights the UK’s excellent record. It is integral to the case she is making for minimising animal transportation wherever possible. If there has to be transportation in the UK or beyond, there should be the highest welfare standards. That is an issue for the Minister to address through the competence of DEFRA as much as anything else.
I agree with hon. Gentleman. A point about gold-plating was raised earlier. It applies to some of the legislation on abattoirs, and relates to transportation distances becoming longer within the UK. There are issues with domestic animal welfare that we have not necessarily promoted.
Let me return to some of the key themes, which I hope other Members will take further. I shall come on to the third element about which I feel strongly as I represent the interests of my constituents. The first two themes are EU competences and EU legislation, where the Minister represents and reflects our concerns, but the third is about the UK as a competent authority. I appreciate the restrictions on DEFRA’s ability to act, but I sometimes feel that it can be a touch meek and mild, not using all the entry points it might have.
I welcome the Minister’s statement yesterday on tightening some of the regulations and enforcement, but I would like to see a lot more commitment in three key areas. The first relates to a “fit and proper operator”. We must clearly understand what infringements an operator must commit to stop being fit and proper. I have no understanding of that, but I am greatly concerned about the transporter that has received six warning notices from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We have had major crises in the port side, with 47 animals being slaughtered. A ram that broke its horn had to be shot in the truck and was then pulled out. We do not have penning arrangements, yet we still have an operator that can receive licences. I would be interested to know whether DEFRA has contacted the Dutch authorities to express concern about the method used and the experiences that we have had to endure in Ramsgate.
I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) about the very strong powers. If we look at paragraph 6 of article 26 of the EU Council regulations, we find that there is an opportunity to
“temporarily prohibit the transporter or means of transport concerned with transporting animals on its territory”.
I hope that the Minister will be increasingly robust about that issue.
Two other smaller issues are crucial, the first of which is the cost of licensing. I was fascinated and staggered to find that there was no cost to a transportation licence. Someone applies and, if they have a certificate of competence, there are no related costs. I have run two small businesses and all I can say is that I had to pay every time health and safety turned up at my door to give me a certificate to be a fit and proper organisation. There are lots of costs in running an organisation. There is then the added cost to the taxpayer, which in this instance is for animal welfare inspections of the operations that the Minister is running through DEFRA. Why has that fully-loaded cost not been put on to the operator? Ultimately, as small businesses, we all pay for the regulatory regime to which we are subject.
It is crucial that we accept and tolerate only the very best transporters in the sector. I feel strongly about this trade generally, but we must ensure that operators take their responsibilities extremely seriously and that this trade is not being subsidised by all of us as taxpayers. In my constituency, where there is much more involvement, it is my local taxpayers who are paying for a lot of this, and I would like to see them refunded for the impact it is having on their bills.
My understanding is that there is a cost to licensing. I shall use the example of George Neville’s firm, which is in the Minister’s constituency, abutting mine. It has a fleet of 20 vehicles—this is executive transport, with water, fans and hydraulic decks that lift up and down so the stress levels on the animals are hugely reduced—but it pays £4,000 for the licences on those 20 vehicles.
That sounds like the Rolls-Royce of transportation, and I would be very pleased if the animals coming through Ramsgate were in that sort of condition. My understanding is, however, that people can apply for a transportation licence, although I do not know whether this is a different sort of licence from the one to which the hon. Lady has just referred, and that they can get it for free.
Order. We are now 25 minutes into this debate, when 10 to 15 minutes was expected. The hon. Lady has taken many interventions, but I am sure that she must be coming to a conclusion as she wants to allow other Members to enter the debate.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to answer the questions put to me.
I believe that we need to look clearly at what is going on in Europe and to raise standards in Europe, ensuring that we address some of the licensing regimes across Europe. Ultimately, I urge the Minister to use all the powers he has—they seem explicit and give him a lot of scope—to ensure that if we must have this transportation mechanism and live animal exports, we have the best in business.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on her efforts to arrange a debate in the Chamber on this subject, and on her speech. She is obviously doing a very good job in representing the wishes of her constituents. I am very disappointed that the High Court overturned the moratorium that Thanet district council had imposed on animal exports until it could be sure that animal welfare standards were being met and that RSPCA inspectors would be able to check the conditions of the animals, but I understand that the council intends to appeal, and I wish it every success.
My starting point is the same as that of the hon. Member for South Thanet. I think that live animal exports are cruel and unnecessary, and I should like them to be banned. I agree with Compassion in World Farming, which has said:
“Live exports have no place in modern British farming. We must end the trade once and for all.”
Today we are discussing live animal exports, but there are live animal imports as well, and some of those animals are primates. In 2011, up to 1,500 primates were imported to this country for the purpose of experimentation, from countries as far away as Mauritius. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should also consider the welfare of animals that are imported to this country, whether for food or for experimentation?
I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman speaking out on animal welfare issues, as I know he has done on a number of other occasions. I agree that those imports are cause for serious concern. The trade in great apes has already been banned, and I think that we should go further and consider banning the trade in all primates.
Although this does not appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I think it is well known that I have been a vegetarian for a long time. My 21st anniversary as a vegan is approaching: that was a new year’s resolution in 1992. Of course I would rather people did not eat animals at all, but given that they will be doing so for at least the foreseeable future, I think that UK animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to the farms where they were reared, and—I understand that the Government agree with this—that there should be an export market for meat rather than for live animals. At present, however, we are herding live, terrified animals into cramped conditions and transporting them overseas, often on journeys lasting several days.
According to Compassion in World Farming, more than 90,000 cattle and sheep were exported during the 18 months between January 2011 and June 2012, mostly through Ramsgate. The sheep tend to be exported for slaughter in continental abattoirs, while the calves are sent abroad to be fattened for veal. The long journeys are stressful for both. The journeys to Spain, for example, can take more than 90 hours, and the calves are often only two or three weeks old when they are exported. Dr Weeks of Bristol university has concluded that
“scientific evidence indicates that young calves are not well adapted to cope with transport…transport should be avoided where possible, particularly as morbidity and mortality following transport can be high.”
Dr Weeks says:
“Their immune systems are not fully developed”,
which makes them more susceptible to disease. They are also poorly adapted to cope with the temperature changes that can happen during the journeys, and with many other aspects of their transport.
Concern has also been expressed about the conditions of the animals when they arrive in the countries to which they are exported. Once they reach the continent, many calves are reared for veal in conditions so poor that they would be banned in Britain on welfare grounds. They are kept on concrete or slatted floors without any straw or other bedding. Such barren systems are illegal in the UK, as our legislation requires calves to be provided with appropriate bedding. We should ask ourselves why we are sending animals abroad to be kept in conditions that we would not allow in the UK.
The same applies to sheep, many of which are exported from Britain to be slaughtered in France. A few years ago, an investigation of 25 French slaughterhouses by a French animal welfare organisation revealed many breaches of EU legislation that was designed to protect the welfare of animals at slaughter. British sheep are also exported to the Netherlands. A report published earlier this year by a European Union organisation identified a number of serious animal welfare problems in Dutch slaughterhouses. Once the animals leave Britain, we are powerless to ensure that they are treated properly. The National Farmers Union claims that they are treated well before and during transportation, but the recent deaths of sheep that were being transported through Ramsgate demonstrate that that is not always the case.
I consider it highly unsatisfactory that live exports cannot be legally prohibited. In general, I accept that as members of the European Union we sign up to collective laws and that that is part and parcel of the deal, but yesterday I took part in a protest outside Fortnum and Mason about its sales of foie gras. The situation in the United Kingdom is fairly ridiculous: along with 17 other countries, we ban the production of foie gras, but we are not allowed to ban imports from France. PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—has carried out undercover filming which reveals terrible conditions, including the grotesque force-feeding of the geese that produce foie gras, but we are not allowed to ban it because of EU free-trade laws, and we are obviously in a similar position when it comes to live exports. I accept, at least for the moment, that we cannot prohibit the trade, but we need to consider how existing regulations can be properly enforced and the highest possible animal welfare standards adhered to.
The last Labour Government tried to strengthen EU regulations. In November 2011, the European Commission published a review of the animal transport regulation— Regulation 1/2005—which stated that severe welfare problems still existed. It called for new ways of improving the implementation of existing rules—including satellite tracking systems, more frequent inspections, and better reporting on compliance by member states—rather than proposing any changes to legislation. In June this year, however, the EU Health Commissioner, who has responsibility for this issue, said that current legislation could not adequately protect animals on long journeys, and that the EC would propose a review of EU legislation including a proposal for reduced transport times. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether, rather than merely ensuring that the existing regulations are “enforced strictly and rigorously”, as they have said is their intention, the Government would be prepared to support a review of the current legislation as well.
Many MPs and Members of the European Parliament have backed the campaign by Compassion in World Farming to set a maximum limit of eight hours for the transport of animals, and more than 1.1 million EU citizens have signed a petition requesting a time limit. The campaign calls on the EU to amend its legislation so that live animals can never be transported for more than eight hours, and yesterday the European Parliament reaffirmed its support for it.
We all respect the hon. Lady’s views on these matters, but I fear that an eight-hour limit would affect traditional UK farming practices. For instance, animals that are bred and reared on remote Scottish islands need to be brought to the mainland, where grazing and arable crops are better, in order to be “finished” for slaughter. The limit would cause problems for them, and for traditional agriculture practices on those islands.
I was coming to that. The motion in the European Parliament was passed by 555 votes to 56, which constitutes pretty overwhelming support for a reduction in journey times. The motion allowed some geographical and science-based exemptions in the case of certain species, which could perhaps be factored in provided animal welfare standards were met, but I think it has been accepted that the introduction of an eight-hour limit would bring most UK live exports to an end.
It is true that journey time limits in themselves cannot guarantee animal welfare. The hon. Member for South Thanet mentioned the vehicles on which animals are transported, and the need for inspections and the good handling of animals. However, Regulation 1/2005 recognises that
“Long journeys are likely to have more detrimental effects on the welfare of animals than short ones”.
Let me finally put a few questions to the Minister. The final decision rests with the Council of the European Union, which comprises the national Ministers of the 27 member states. Has the Minister any plans to discuss with his ministerial counterparts whether to review or amend Regulation 1/2005? What discussions has he had with his ministerial counterparts about an eight-hour limit, in the light of the overwhelming vote by the European Parliament and the fact that more than 1 million EU citizens signed the petition? What are the Government doing to ensure that animals are slaughtered as close as possible to the farms where they are reared, rather than encouraging the transport of live animals?
In June 2012, I wrote to the then Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). I felt at the time that Government lacked the will to deal with the issue. However, I have great faith in the new farming Minister, who, I believe, will be far more constructive and willing to make progress, and I look forward to hearing from him.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, as it is directly relevant to my life experience. I am one of the livestock farmers that other Members have been talking about for many years. I have been indirectly involved in the live export trade. In the early part of my career I was a cattle farmer, and nearly all the British male breeding stock has changed since then. We are now using European breeds—Charolais, Limousin and Simmental. The quality of British beef has been completely transformed, therefore, simply through the relationship between this country and other countries. That process is still going on elsewhere.
The main part of my enterprise was producing sheep, however. Exporting to France was particularly common. Most of my stock were sold at the local livestock market, where they were bought by a dealer, who would put together a lorry-load. The standards of those who transported animals were very high. The lorries at the Welshpool livestock market were of a very high standard, and many people were watching the quality of the loading, which was very good.
Some 20 or 30 years ago I would sell my small hill lambs towards the end of the season. The tradition then was to take them to the small market in Llanfair Caereinion from where they were taken to Spain. They were kept in Spain for several weeks, and the feeding regime was changed so the quality of the product was changed. I discussed the whole process with the local transporter, M. E. Edwards and Sons—one of the finest transporters in Britain, with very high standards, who is still operating today. The point was made to me that transporting those lambs served to underpin the lamb trade in rural Wales, and that they were far better treated than lambs supplied from elsewhere to the Spanish market would have been. If the lambs had not been transported from Wales, in what seemed to me to be the highest possible standards, they would have come from other parts of Europe, where standards had not been checked.
I have a lot of sympathy with many of the points made in the debate so far. I am in favour of gold-plating the standards of animal transport. It is a lot more important to ensure there are high transportation standards than to worry about distances. I am not in favour of banning live exports, and it is not entirely logical to concern ourselves with distance. We must make certain that all transport is of the very highest standard, and we should demand that when journeys cross borders, too.
Most of the store cattle at my farm in central Wales were sold to central Scotland, where they were fattened. That journey probably took longer than some of the time scales we are talking about. I cannot see the point of such time limits, and neither do I envisage that they will ever become law.
Let me turn to the question of unintended consequences. When I was in my teens, I was involved in these issues. Many people will remember the demonstrations at Dover. They were a matter of some concern, as they were hugely damaging to the farming industry. The ferry companies felt under public relations pressure, and eventually decided no longer to carry the animals. They were then transferred to Ramsgate, Ipswich or other ports where the standards were far lower. The boats were far less safe and less comfortable for the animals, and the travel time is far greater, and the facilities at the docks are not as good. The unintended consequence of having created that huge rumpus at Dover was a lowering of the standards of animal welfare.
Those who transport livestock from Britain must meet the gold-plated standards we in Britain demand. If we stop live exports, European companies will still buy lambs to satisfy demand in their markets, but they will buy them from somewhere else. The result of a ban on animal transportation will be that the sum total of animal cruelty is increased, and no one wants that. We must be aware of the possible unintended consequences of the proposals we make.
I welcome the Minister’s recent statement on these matters. We want to maximise the proportion of slaughtering that takes place in the United Kingdom, rather than abroad. That will support the British economy and mean there are more jobs in the United Kingdom. European markets need to be educated, however. The French like to have lamb that has been in France for a day or two so they can describe it to customers as “Welsh lamb.” The Spanish certainly used to want to have the animals in Spain for quite a long period so they could have different feeding regimes and the resulting meat was different and more attractive to the Spanish market. We need to change the nature of the markets in Europe, therefore.
I am also pleased about the Minister’s focus on zero tolerance. If a transporter is found guilty several times, their licence must be taken away as they are not fit for the job. This is a highly sensitive job that is important to the farming industry, and the British people have a natural instinct to care about the animals we farm. It is unacceptable for anybody who has a record of poor behaviour to have a licence to transport animals. They must be kicked out of the industry all together.
The Minister referred to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Wherever there is the slightest doubt about standards—as there is in Ramsgate at present—the agency must check up on the situation very closely. There must immediately be a Government presence at the port in question and action must be taken if necessary.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I listened intently to the points he made. I did not agree with some of them, but as his speech came across as a confessional, I felt I should not intervene until now. Does he agree that what happened at Ramsgate—some 40 sheep died—is unlikely to be an isolated incident? We need a proper review into the transportation of animals, and an inspection regime must be put in place. Does he agree, and will he call for a proper review by the Government, not a narrow internal one?
I am terribly sorry if my speech came across as any sort of confessional. Throughout my involvement in the business, I have been extremely proud of it. Indeed, if I lived my life again, I would probably do exactly the same thing. I see absolutely no reason to apologise for anything. May I also say how much I appreciated the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) about improved payment being a good thing for farmers in this country?
The hon. Gentleman may be leading us to a more compassionate future if he decides to finish the sheep that he has in Wales; he could give them a Spanish diet for the last few months and export them as carcasses. Would that not be both profitable and more humane?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is being completely serious, but I rather agree with the principle of what he is saying, and this goes back to what I said about education. Whatever we can do to move to a system of slaughtering in Britain for the European market, I wholly applaud, but I do not think we can do that now; it would be like taking step 10 without taking steps one to nine first, and it would not be sensible at the moment. We should continue with the live export trade—we probably have no choice but to do so—as it is the right thing to do, but we should do it absolutely properly.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who demonstrated his long experience and expertise in these matters. We are grateful for that contribution, as it helps us to get a better understanding of this subject. I am pleased to be a co-sponsor of this debate, along with the hon. Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to the many questions raised. I was one of his predecessors as Minister of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I recall that when I was appointed I was identified in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph as a “townie veggie” and a “lacto-pescatarian”. I also had some fun poked at me by Horse and Hound, although being attacked by Horse and Hound is a bit of a badge of a honour for Labour Members, so it did not do me any harm whatsoever. This issue came across my desk, and I was reassured about the regulations, the monitoring and the enforcement. Some three years later, the Minister is being asked these questions again.
The National Farmers Union was much more generous in its welcome of my appointment. It said, “We don’t care where he comes from or what he eats. We will judge him on what he does for farming.” I built up a very constructive relationship with the NFU in my time as Minister of State at DEFRA, and I have high regard for the farming community. That arises, first, from the quality of product they produce and the very high animal welfare standards to which they produce it. Our standards are much higher than those of most of the rest of the European Union, as can be seen in the lead we have set on chickens, eggs, poultry and the rest. Sometimes that has been at the expense of the farmers, because they pay for it out of the profit they make at the end of the year. We also charge farmers with responsibility for looking after the countryside and our environment. The farming community is a big part of the United Kingdom, economically, industrially and environmentally, so I have nothing but regard for the NFU and its members.
The hon. Member for South Thanet raised two key issues: the general issue of live animal exports; and the secondary issue of what happened at Ramsgate in September. Those issues are distinctly different and need to be addressed differently. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) will cover the Labour party position on live exports in detail, but I can say that we have called for a full review into the trade; a look at the treaty of Rome, because measures to ban any live trade would fall foul of that; and better facilities to be available at or near the port of Ramsgate. Hon. Members have already drawn attention to European regulation 1/2005 and the minimal animal welfare provisions, so I do not need to go into that, although the Minister may wish to refer to it when he responds.
My hon. Friend has previously asked the Minister
“if he will carry out a full review into the animal welfare considerations of the live export trade”.
He was told:
“The Government has no plans to carry out such a review.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 713W.]
It is a measure of the power of Backbench Business Committee debates that the Minister made the statement yesterday that he has taken action on this issue and the export of live animals through the port of Ramsgate will face tougher welfare checks. One can only assume that that is a result of his having examined the questions, the correspondence and the fact that this debate was taking place.
The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has been asked to look into the three additional measures that the Minister mentioned: the AHVLA implementing its own contingency plans in the event of an emergency with the transport; improved procedures to ensure that an AHVLA vet is always within an hour of the port to assist inspectors in the event of an emergency or welfare concern; and working with the operator of the transport vessel to develop new contingency measures. Those very important measures have been raised by the Minister and they may offer some reassurance. However, for the House and for the hon. Member for South Thanet clearly they only reinforce the questions she asked in her introductory remarks, such as why it has taken so long for these things to be identified. She also asked about the pre-existing arrangements, and the monitoring and enforcement that was going on.
I am grateful to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its briefing on the subject. Its policy position is clear. It wants: an end to the long-distance transport of live animals, with a maximum journey of eight hours; amendments to existing legislation; and full costs being paid by the hauliers rather than by the taxpayer. That brings us to the question raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and others about the suitability of Ramsgate as opposed to Dover. We are advised by the RSPCA that the
“trade in live animals changed to Ramsgate from Dover in…2010 as the loading bay in the port of Dover had been damaged.”
The hon. Gentleman suggested that commercial reasons may have been behind this, because of the lobbying by animal welfare groups against the general trade in live animal exports.
I noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments about an eight-hour transporting limit, but that would preclude a number of people transporting their animals from west Wales and from mid-Wales to markets in the UK. How would he overcome that problem?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The point was dealt with earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the explanation she gave about exemptions for particular species in regions and areas covers that. I was not setting out my position; I was putting on the record the RSPCA’s position, out of gratitude for the briefing and information they supplied me, so that it is in the public domain for anyone listening, watching or reading afterwards. They will be able to weigh that up in the mix and decide whether it is something that they want to support.
On Ramsgate versus Dover, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire suggested that the decision may well have been a commercial one taken by the ferry operators because they did not want to inflame or outrage public opinion and were aware of the power and influence of the animal welfare lobby against live exports. The perverse outcome is that instead of the animals being transported on vessels that are quicker and better equipped to carry cargo, and having better animal welfare facilities available much nearer the port, the animals have to go to the port of Ramsgate in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Thanet. It is clearly not as suitable and it does not have the facilities. Clearly, the vessel she described was not built for this particular trade. The perversity of the outcome leaves a bad taste; it is a success for those lobbyists who chased the trade from Dover, but the animals have to go through the additional journey time, the additional discomfort and so on. I am not sure that that counts as animal welfare. It certainly does not address animal welfare concerns as I would understand them. I look forward to hearing whether the Minister has anything to say about that.
The second issue is the incident in September. Yesterday, I had a meeting with the NFU and I have also received a briefing from it, for which I am grateful. I know that the NFU has written to the Minister, asking a number of questions. Who made the decision to unload? Who decided to kill the animals and which ones to kill? What were the reasons for the kill? Why were the animals unloaded on to an uneven surface? Why were there open drain pits and animals drowning, not just being shot? Were they shot in the right part of the head? What were the skill levels of those involved, who were clearly moved by compassion and tried to do the right thing? When we see the photographs of the blood, the animals and the discomfort, we see that this clearly was not done in a way that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire would recognise; it was not done in the professional way that we would all expect. In that instance, there are serious questions to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond. I know that there is an inquiry going on and that he might very well be constrained in how much he can share with us, but a commitment to ensure that that is in the public domain as quickly as possible so that we can return to the subject will, I am sure, be welcome.
I hope, too, that the Minister will make comparisons between the trade from the south-west and Wales to Ireland and the trade to the continent. I do not hear the noises from Wales—I do not hear about protests at Holyhead or people complaining about the live trade there, so I assume that that trade works in the way that the Department and industry want it to work in contrast with the way it is operating at Ramsgate.
That is a very good question to conclude the points I am making to the Minister. As I said in my opening remarks, there are two distinct questions. One is about live exports as a trade. Although I do not eat meat and poultry—my cards are on the table—that is a matter of choice and if the trade is legal, which it is, and if people are making a living out of it and there are jobs and economies at stake, I would go along with it. What happened at Ramsgate is a whole different ballgame, and the concerns about Ramsgate’s suitability as a port were well expressed by the hon. Member for South Thanet, in whose constituency the port is situated. In that instance, those questions are very valid.
As I have said, trade is legal and we found out from the exchange between the hon. Member for South Thanet and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East that we are talking about 0.5% of UK trade in sheep. Regulations are supposed to cover the facilities, the transportation, the haulage companies and the principle of animal welfare. The questions are therefore about the relevance of the rights, their validity, their monitoring and their enforcement. There are many questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer, although we recognise that he will not be able to answer all of them. I look forward to even better reassurances than those that I was able to give when I was sitting in his place.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who shared with us his experience when he held the post of Minister responsible for agriculture in the previous Labour Government.
I want to declare an interest that appears in the register, as I am a livestock farmer producing both sheep and cattle. I have no doubt that in the past many of the animals might have been subject to live export, but at present almost 100% of everything that is produced on my farm, when it leaves my farm, is sent by me to a slaughterhouse in Merthyr Tydfil, about 20 miles away, which has an excellent reputation for animal welfare, hygiene, cleanliness and all we would want to see in a slaughterhouse. Many of us feel much more comfortable now we know that our animals are going to a slaughterhouse like that, which will dispatch them in the best way possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on introducing this debate, which is very useful. I anticipated that it might be a little better attended, but I congratulate everyone who has taken part on doing so in a constructive and measured way. Anyone who is interested in animal welfare and wants to see it improved will find this debate a valuable asset.
I think that it has been agreed that at the moment live export is a legal operation. Indeed, it would be illegal to ban live exports of animals, as in the 1990s the European Court twice ruled that the UK could not ban live exports. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was a Minister—I am glad he is in the Chamber today—he was asked what progress the Labour Government had made in reducing live animal exports, and he replied:
“The export of live animals is a lawful trade and to restrict it would be contrary to free trade rules.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 716.]
That is where we are at the moment.
The hon. Member for South Thanet has taken the right line. Rather than calling for something that we cannot do immediately or perhaps ever, let us put all our effort into making things better. Let us have zero tolerance for poor animal welfare. I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) on that point. I also welcome the Minister’s announcement that the AHVLA will check every consignment of live animals scheduled to pass through the port.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. People who are found to have repeatedly committed criminal offences in respect of animal welfare should be banned from carrying out such activities at all. That would not only be a very good encouragement for people to adopt better animal welfare conditions, but would mean that the worst offenders were no longer involved in the trade.
On doing research for this debate, I found various numbers for how many sheep and cattle are being exported live from this country. Out of the 15 million sheep produced in this country for sale, almost 99.5% are slaughtered in this country, and of those, 30% are exported in carcass form or as meat products not only to the continent but more widely, including to the middle east and far east. That is an important trade for the agricultural industry.
The NFU gave me some figures. They were not as helpful as they could have been, because the period covered was not given, but it seems that about 43,000 live sheep are exported from this country to the three main destinations to which sheep are exported. Those 43,000 sheep can be set against roughly 5 million that are slaughtered in this country and exported as carcasses. The vast majority of live exports in the UK go to the Republic of Ireland, most of which will simply be crossing a land border. People might like to distinguish between sheep travelling across land and sheep travelling across sea, and the point has been made about the suitability of the vessel employed in such circumstances. When we address animal welfare issues, we must address the quality not only of lorry transport but of ship transport.
I have already made the point that in setting time limits for journeys, we must take into account traditional agricultural practices. For instance, on the Scottish islands, on islands in the rest of Europe and in some remote areas, animals need to travel for winter grazing, improved grazing or better arable crops in order to be prepared for slaughter.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about animal movements. Even in the case of transporting animals over the Irish sea, it is not whether they go by ferry but the length of time and conditions that are paramount. It makes sense for the producer and the consumer to have a better sheep or a better beast arriving in better order.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and his experience of representing his constituency is important in these matters.
The hon. Member for South Thanet asked what type of business plan encourages this type of live export. I cannot believe that anybody who loads 100 live sheep on to a lorry and at the end of the journey unloads 95 live sheep and five dead ones can make money out of that in the long term.
I have spoken already about executive transport for cattle and sheep, with which I am familiar. If a company that pays £90,000 for an Italian-made trailer and £70,000 for the tractor unit to draw it can carry cattle, sheep and other animals, can operate at such costs and can meet the Freedom Foods certificate standards, it is clearly possible to do that and still make money.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The discussion this afternoon shows that although some hon. Members may wish to ban live exports altogether, most would want it carried out in the way that is most conducive to good animal welfare. My hon. Friend makes the important point that much of the transport that is now provided for animals is of a very high standard. Water and ventilation are provided, there are rest periods and journeys are of limited duration.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, and I would join in the many compliments to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). The hon. Gentleman has spoken about the improving standards of transport and conditions on the vehicles—lorries and boats. My hon. Friend raised the crucial point about the ports. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that enforcement at the ports is vital if we are to improve animal welfare standards?
Indeed—not only enforcement at the ports, but the right sort of facilities at the ports to deal, for example, with emergencies or with animals that cannot be loaded at a specific time because weather conditions preclude sailing. Good conditions at the port are almost as important as the enforcement that the hon. Gentleman highlights.
Always a friend of the farmers on this subject.
We heard about the very distressing case of the lorry that was on its way to Ramsgate. It was stopped because of a suspected traffic offence. It seems extraordinary that regulations do not allow many more lorries to be stopped to ensure that the dreadful conditions in which those animals were being carried are not repeated in other vehicles.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It may be that that lorry was stopped for a suspected traffic offence, but as I understand it the animals would have to have been inspected at the time of loading. There is some lack of clarity about events at Ramsgate. It was suggested by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is no longer in her place, that 40 sheep died there. In fact, 40 sheep were put down there, which is slightly different. I am clear that enforcement and inspection should be of a high order, and the Minister announced yesterday that that would be the case. Every lorry that is being prepared to board a vessel will have to be inspected.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time; he is very kind. Perhaps I should have declared in my previous intervention that as a lamb producer myself, I have an interest in the matter. As a lamb producer I understand that we want to get our beasts to market—mine make a sea crossing—as clean as possible. Among crofters in the west highlands, even a couple of pounds on the price—if we do a pound or two better than our neighbours—means that we have bragging rights for the rest of the year. There are inbuilt reasons for having very good animal welfare, so that the animals are clean and have the best possible appearance and no distress when they get to the auction mart on the mainland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Those of us who have been involved in animal production and would like to think that we have a high regard for animal welfare cannot believe that people in the business could be involved in damaging the animals or reducing their appearance. As he knows, the price of an animal depends not only on its health and fitness, but on its appearance. Cramming animals into very small spaces does nothing to improve their marketability.
In conclusion, I shall set out the Liberal Democrat point of view on this matter. I am sure many hon. Members would agree with this broad approach. Although we accept that live export is a legal trade and it would be difficult in the short term or even the medium term to ban it, Liberal Democrats are deeply concerned about animal welfare and the export of live animals. We would prefer animals to be slaughtered as close as possible to where they are reared. The transportation of meat and other animal by-products is always preferable to the movement of live animals. Unfortunately, the movement of live animals for trade is a perfectly lawful process. While it remains a legal trade under European laws we must allow it to continue. However, we should make sure that our animal welfare laws are followed to the letter so that no animal is made to suffer during transport.
We welcome the Minister’s announcement that every consignment of live animals scheduled to pass through the port will be inspected. We support a zero tolerance approach. If there is any evidence of slipping welfare standards, the coalition Government should not hesitate to take action. The EU has strengthened the law on live animal exports by placing strict responsibilities not just on drivers, but on others involved in the entire transport process. The authorisation and training of drivers, and the vehicles used for the transportation of live animals, should all be subject to rigorous requirements.
This debate has been very beneficial and I am sure the whole House would support improvements in animal welfare wherever the Government can find the necessary regulation to achieve them.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, to have caught your eye. It has been an excellent consensual debate so far. I have the privilege of serving on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I also serve on the Defence Committee and I hope that the Backbench Business Committee will in future consider the timings of some of these debates. I suspect that this debate may not go the whole five hours. There might have been an opportunity for a second debate later, although I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) is still to share his huge wisdom with us, which may take some time.
As a Member representing a Scottish constituency, I am cognisant of the issues facing the farming industry. It has been a measured debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on securing it and on being present to open it and then to hear the very good exchanges that have taken place. I received a number of e-mails from constituents asking me to attend and I was happy to do so. I shall tackle a couple of issues that particularly affect Scotland. Also, I am conscious of the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore for a Select Committee inquiry. I shall return to that.
On the subject of transportation, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) mentioned the importance of the export of live animals to British farmers, particularly those in the sheep industry. I understand that around 400,000 live animals a year are exported, more than 90% of which are sheep.
We all recognise the challenges facing the sheep industry across the United Kingdom, particularly in upland areas. Were we to ban live exports, not only would we fall foul of European law—article 34, I think, but I might be wrong—but there would be serious consequences for our farmers. However, that is not to say that we should not require the highest standards of animal welfare in the process, and I welcome the constructive comments made by the hon. Member for South Thanet and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse on the way forward.
It would be helpful if the Minister could set out the Government’s thoughts on some things. For example, does he agree that using regular services on large, cross-channel freight ferries from Dover might be more advantageous than the less than ideal conditions in which they are sailing from Ramsgate, as the hon. Lady said? Not only are journey times significantly shorter, but there are more frequent sailing opportunities for ferries. Also, there are probably—I hope she takes no offence—better and more appropriate port facilities for live animals at Dover than there are at Ramsgate.
Opting for an all-out ban right now would be against EU law, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister did everything he could to advocate such a ban at European level, because we are often told that things are against EU law, but when member states really start to push they can get breakthroughs?
No, I do not agree that we should have an outright ban. If the hon. Lady had been here since the start of the debate, she would have heard the reasons why. We have a fragile farming industry and banning the trade would be ludicrous. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is sitting beside her, will probably wish to point out to her that banning the use of ferries would effectively end sheep farming on the Western Isles, the Isle of Arran and other islands around the United Kingdom. I am sorry that she has not had the opportunity to go across the country and listen to farmers, because otherwise she would understand the fragile state of their industry and the damage an outright ban would do. If she had been here for the whole debate, rather than coming in at the last minute, she would have had an opportunity to hear the eloquent speeches made by Members on both sides of the House.
Another consideration is that there are larger, faster and more stable boats sailing each day from Dover. As the hon. Member for South Thanet set out clearly, we are dealing with a very dubious character when it comes to the gentleman running the trade out of Ramsgate. It is obvious that animal welfare is not his priority and that he is not interested in local public opinion or in what DEFRA has to say. For him, it is all about the bottom buck. It would help if the Minister set out what powers DEFRA has to ensure that a fast buck is not the most important consideration for exporters and that animal welfare is crucial.
Over the past few years we have seen that having an export market for livestock helps even those farmers who sell within the UK because it takes some of the surplus supply overseas. About six weeks ago the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and I had a very good debate in Westminster Hall on the dairy industry. We pointed out, along with another Select Committee colleague, that what farmers need is a fair price for their produce, whether it is milk, mutton, lamb or beef. Doing all we can to encourage exports will not only bring additional revenue into the UK and help the balance of payments—I do not intend to give the House a lecture on economics—but help to secure a fairer price for farmers and a vibrant farming industry. Perhaps the Minister will also set out what DEFRA intends to do to encourage exports to other parts of the European Union, because Labour Members, with perhaps one exception, recognise that a vibrant farming industry is a good thing for the British economy.
I am sorry, but the condescension coming from the hon. Gentleman is hard to bear. He is implying that the UK farming industry is all of one view on this, but I know UK farmers who are absolutely against the export of live animals precisely because of the cruelty involved. To suppose that those of us who are, for strong ethical reasons, against the trade are somehow also against UK farming is a gross simplification of the issue.
Obviously I speak regularly with the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and I know that colleagues speak regularly with the National Farmers Union in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. If she can point to which of those four organisations, which are the voice of farmers, shares her rather extreme views, I would be delighted to meet it.
As I said, I strongly disagree with the implicit assumption that cruelty is involved. I produce lambs between March and April and sell them in August, so I know that they have to be cared for for those four months and that the last thing a farmer wants to see is them going away in any kind of cruel circumstances, not least because that affects their value, but also because they have raised them from birth. To send them away in any sort of cruel circumstances would, I think, turn the stomachs of many crofters and farmers.
It is fair to say that the hon. Gentleman and I do not agree on every issue, so the fact that we are on the same side of the argument today, as are Liberal Democrat and Conservative colleagues and, indeed, Members on my own Front Bench—always a pleasant treat—shows clearly that the House supports a vibrant but, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, ethical and humane export policy. That is the nub of the debate. It is not about the principle of exports; it is about how we treat the animals. That is why we need more rigorous enforcement. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how he thinks DEFRA, with its existing powers, could better ensure that that happens.
The House will be aware that yesterday the European Parliament debated a motion, similar to those we often have in this place, to approve a report by its agriculture committee. It contained much to be welcomed on the issue of animal transportation. It recognised, as we have done today—those of us who have been here throughout the debate—that we should seek to have higher standards and that it is a question of how we ensure compliance across all member states.
However, there is one issue that I and the National Farmers Union of Scotland disagree with, and it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire: an obsession with the eight-hour rule. There is no credible scientific advice demonstrating that exceeding the arbitrary limit of eight hours leads to a drop in animal welfare. As the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and for Brecon and Radnorshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore and other Members from elsewhere in the great parts of the Celtic kingdoms would point out, getting to abattoirs even within the United Kingdom can take more than eight hours. I am thinking, in particular, of the pig industry and the difficult circumstances Vion is currently going through. For example, if Vion is sold and its Scottish abattoir is closed, the nearest abattoir for pig farmers from north-east Scotland will probably be in Yorkshire. If we were allowed to head down the path of the eight-hour rule, it is difficult to see how farmers in Morayshire and across north-east Scotland, never mind those in the highlands, could survive. I would like the Minister to confirm that the Government have no plans to introduce, and do not support, an eight-hour rule.
I hope that the Minister, who is no doubt busy taking notes in his head, will also tell us what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations. It is vital that DEFRA work with Mr Lochhead in the Scottish Parliament, our Labour colleague in Wales and our Democratic Unionist party colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly so that we are all working together on this issue, on which, overwhelmingly, all the grown-up, sensible parties are united in wanting a vibrant farming industry.
I think that the word the hon. Lady wants is “patronising” rather than “patronage”, but I accept that she was grasping for it and missed. Obviously, the RSPCA is entitled to its view, but it has not—dare I say it?—looked at the bigger picture. It is surely the job of parliamentarians to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We have to follow the evidence, and the reality is that there is no evidence to say that an eight-hour rule would lead to a rise in animal welfare standards. In fact, it would only damage the farming industries in Scotland, parts of Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Let me move on to what more we could do. I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore has written to the Select Committee about this. One issue that we have not talked about is what more supermarkets can do. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on whether we could encourage them to introduce labelling that says that they have introduced their own voluntary codes about humane standards and clearly states what they are. We all know of the great success that the British egg industry has had with the introduction of the red lion symbol on packets of eggs. There are also fair trade labels for overseas goods. In the debate on the dairy industry a few weeks ago, an eloquent point was made by an hon. Member who said that we rightly talk about fair trade for overseas farmers but do not talk enough about fair trade for British farmers. I want to extend that principle. We should have clearer labelling from the supermarkets and the food producers that says that all their products have been produced in a humane way that complies with the highest possible standards of animal welfare.
On the request for a Select Committee inquiry, I am not in a position to divulge the thinking of colleagues, but the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and I have listened sympathetically to the arguments made today. We have been talking about the need for an inquiry into how EU regulations as a whole are implemented. I hope that we will have an opportunity in the near future to carry out such an inquiry, which might be a useful tool. Perhaps when my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore responds to the debate he could set out in a little more detail what he thinks the terms of reference might be.
I will indeed do that. One of my reasons for calling for a wide-ranging review is not only to focus on the animal welfare considerations but to give the industry, which is a good industry, an opportunity to show where it is implementing good practice and to highlight the areas that might need improvement and amendment. It is very much an opportunity to salvage the reputation of the industry and to put things right where that is needed.
That is a good point. I would like three major players in the industry to give evidence—the farmers themselves, those involved in transportation, and the supermarkets. Perhaps my hon. Friend can expand on that. I hope that the animal welfare charities will also come to the table and add their voice, because that is important. That will enable us to take counsel from all interested parties.
This has been an excellent debate, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse and the hon. Member for South Thanet on securing it. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore and the Minister.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for introducing it. It is an opportune moment for us to debate live exports and, in particular, the methods used.
If we look at the number of animals that travel in and out of this country, we see that 85% of the trade is between Ireland and ourselves, so the idea that we are going to ban the live export of animals is unfeasible—it would be impossible. Furthermore, many of those animals may be intended for further fattening or breeding. It is therefore absolutely necessary for the farming community to be able to trade properly, not only with Ireland but with the rest of Europe, because, for the time being at least, we work within a single European market and expect to be able to trade as such.
Let me pinpoint what happened in Ramsgate, where 40 or 50 sheep were unloaded on to the dockside with no way of containing them. Those of us who have reared sheep know very well that, certainly without a dog or any sort of enclosure, the idea of allowing those sheep off the lorry was, to be candid, madness, because all it would do is cause a huge problem, and that is what ensued.
We need to have a system whereby proper investigations can be performed. The Minister has said that animals need to be inspected properly when they go on to the lorry, and that is fundamental. Then, if there is a problem when they get to the port, wherever it is, there needs to be some form of lairage not too far away so that if there is an emergency the animals can be unloaded and looked after properly. It is possible to take animals on journeys and look after them well. Racehorses are taken all over the world, but of course they go first class, whereas not all the animals we are discussing are going first class; I very much accept that.
Another aspect is the type of lorries that are used, which must be the proper type for the species they are transporting. When I was in the European Parliament, I did a lot of work on the transportation of horses, which requires specialist vehicles. We need the right vehicles and the right number of animals on the vehicles so that they are not overcrowded. At times of the year when it is particularly hot and the animals are reasonably crowded on the lorry, there must be proper ventilation, and sometimes refrigeration, to be able to get cold air into it. As I said, the trade is essential, but it has to observe the very best rules. We need to get the situation regarding the lorries right and get the inspections correct, and we need to be sure that, if there is an emergency, when the lorries get to the port there are the means to unload the animals carefully and to handle them properly. If we do all that, then much of what went on at Ramsgate can be put right.
Perhaps the industry needs to think about concentrating exports in particular places so that they can provide the best facilities. I think that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) used the word “ramshackle”. That is an interesting word, but I do not necessarily disagree with him. We cannot allow this sort of thing to happen, and I know that the Minister is very conscious of that. The public out there are supportive of agriculture and farming, but they are also very keen on animal welfare, and it is therefore in our interest to make sure that animals are treated very well. From an economic point of view, we want them to travel well and to be unloaded at the other end in good condition, or what is the purpose of transporting them in the first place?
I think we are getting carried away about distances. The driving distance from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s is, I think, a little more than 900 miles—it is nearly, but not quite, 1,000 miles. The distance between Dover and Calais is 22 miles, so as long as an export system does not take animals on long journeys, it is possible to cross either the English channel or the Irish sea without too many problems. Again, it has to be ensured that the ferries are fit for purpose and that everything works, because I think that the public demand it. The industry and farmers are conscious of that and know that it is part of the trade.
We have to put the percentage of trade in perspective. Live export, especially that for slaughter, amounts to probably only 1% or 2% of the overall market, so huge numbers of sheep and cattle are being slaughtered in this country and then exported as meat. Let us be absolutely clear that that is our preferred position. We must have the ability to take those animals to be traded as meat or to be further fattened.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about EBLEX, which is doing a good job in promoting our lamb and beef abroad. On this occasion, I will be magnanimous and say that Welsh lamb, Scottish lamb, English lamb and west country lamb are all wonderful. I will not tell Members which one I think is the best, but they will probably have a fairly good idea.
Parts of the west country are in England, but I will not enter into that debate this afternoon.
It is essential for us to deal with the issue in a grown-up manner. I thank the Minister for the steps he has already taken and look forward to hearing his winding-up speech. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has said, perhaps there is now a case for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to look at the issue, in order to see exactly how the trade is being conducted, to make sure that the rules are in place and to double-check whether the lorries, other vehicles and all those involved are operating it correctly.
If sheep or cattle that are not lame or ill, which is exactly as they should be, are loaded on to and transported in the right type of lorry, they should get to their destination in France, Ireland or wherever it be—that is a Somerset expression—in good condition, and that is what the industry wants. I reinforce the point that it is not in the interests of the farming community or those carrying out the trade to take an animal across in poor condition.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be appropriate for our Committee to look at the conditions, such as handling facilities, when the animals arrive at their destination? Given the growth of super-abattoirs as the industry consolidates, we need to look carefully at that part of the journey.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman—we could look at all of that. One of the issues that I have spent a lot of time on, although it is probably not on the agenda for this debate, is the way in which the animals are slaughtered. That is a slightly more controversial issue, but it needs to be dealt with so that they are properly stunned when it comes to slaughter.
The hon. Gentleman proposes a good idea. There are European regulations and, having experienced the work of all the other 27—now to be 28—member states, I can assure Members that, on the whole, Britain’s methods and inspections of transport are good. That is not to say that we always get everything right but, compared with many member states, our methods are good. We should not beat ourselves up on this issue, but we need to get it right. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet is concerned, and rightly so, about what happened with the Ramsgate shipment and the slaughter of animals on the quayside. There will be a proper inquiry into that and the situation needs to be put right. As I have said, I am certain, in hindsight, that the same action would not be taken again.
I welcome this debate and reinforce points that have been made by Members of all parties. I do not believe that this is a party political matter. It is a matter of trading properly through the single market and under good conditions, including for welfare, so that the public are assured that our farming community and those involved in the export trade are operating it properly and that the animals get to their destination in good condition.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being here at the beginning of the debate. Unfortunately, as the sole representative of my political party, it is difficult to be in more than one place at once, but I am working on it.
I am genuinely glad to take part in this debate, because the issue is close to my heart. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for all her work on the issue. She has put it high up on the political agenda again, and I thank her for that.
I do not think it is useful to characterise this debate as being one between those who are grown up and those who are somehow not grown up. I seriously regret the tone of some of the debate over the past half an hour. We are all trying to work out how to reduce the harm that can be done to animals in the live animal trade, and there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether it is ever possible to put in place sufficient safeguards for live animal exports in order to ensure the welfare of the animals. Some people—including some of the hon. Members present—believe that it is possible to do that, but there is a group of people who are not un-grown up, who are not unscientific and who are not in some way defective who have genuine concerns about whether or not, even if we had an eight-hour journey limit, we can look after animals sufficiently.
Several of us who spoke earlier—I accept that the hon. Lady has greater difficulties than others in attending debates—put on record the fact that we choose not to eat meat and poultry and that we would prefer it if other people did not, either. We have been debating two distinct issues: one is the principle of live animal exports, and the other is what happened at Ramsgate. For many people, they are the same issue, but for others they are two distinct issues that need to be addressed in different ways.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I genuinely think is extremely helpful and very much welcome.
I come to the issue from the perspective of having spent 10 years in the European Parliament. I was vice-president of the animal welfare intergroup. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) was its president and he did a great job.
The hon. Lady has mentioned guarantees in live export. As a crofter, I cannot give guarantees on live beasts on the croft. Something could happen to them—they could fall into a ditch or they could get snared in a fence. There are hazards all the time and there is no absolute guarantee I can give. All I can do is minimise the hazards to the best of my ability and with the knowledge built up over a number of years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I suppose that he makes my point. There is a parallel between this debate and some of our debates on the use of wild animals in circuses. On the one hand, we can try to reduce the harm done to those animals; on the other hand, we can say that, no matter how hard we try, ultimately it is not a good place for animals to be. I would argue that being on long-distance transportation is not a good place for animals to be, either, and others may come to a similar conclusion.
I believe that long journeys can be stressful for sheep and calves. The stress factors include deprivation of food and water, lack of rest, extremes of temperature and humidity, handling by humans, exposure to novel environments, overcrowding, insufficient headroom, noise and vibration. Animal welfare is not served by long journeys or by the poor treatment that is often experienced by animals at the journey’s end.
Yesterday’s announcement by DEFRA that it is strengthening the controls that apply to live exports is a step in the right direction, but there is no guarantee that British animals will be protected from the suffering that they currently endure when being transported abroad.
Some of us are concerned that people do not draw a distinction between export and the movement of animals. The suspicion is that there will be a move to stop all movement of animals, because people cannot see the difference between exporting an animal and just moving an animal.
That is a helpful intervention. I would much prefer to see many more small, local abattoirs around the country so that even within this country we do not have long journey times. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Although one can argue that more stress factors are involved in transporting animals overseas, such as animals being decanted into different vehicles, even if animals are transported within the UK for eight hours or more, it is not necessarily in their best interests.
The hon. Lady seems to be missing the point that was made earlier about some of our smaller communities, such as Arran, the Western Isles and some parts of Wales and the highlands of Scotland, which simply could not have a local abattoir. Is she saying that she opposes the movement of sheep, cattle and pigs from the Western Isles or Arran by boat?
What I am saying is that we could be more creative in looking for solutions. In other countries where big distances are involved, one economic response has been to have mobile abattoirs. In remote areas where it is uneconomic to have an abattoir because it would not be served by many animals, a mobile abattoir might be more practical. I would like to make some progress, if I may.
No, because I want to make some progress, if I may.
Calf exports have been declining amid concerns in some important countries about bovine tuberculosis. However, as Members know, countries such as Spain are still major destinations for British calves. Journeys to Spain can take more than 90 hours and young calves are poorly equipped to withstand the rigours of such a journey. Dr Claire Weeks, the senior research fellow in animal welfare at Bristol university has concluded:
“Scientific evidence indicates that young calves are not well adapted to cope with transport… Therefore transport should be avoided where possible, particularly as morbidity and mortality following transport can be high.”
On arrival in Europe, calves are typically kept on concrete or slatted floors without any straw or other bedding. Such barren systems have been outlawed in the UK. There is a real question about the ethical acceptability of calves being sent for rearing abroad in conditions that have been prohibited on welfare grounds here at home.
With calf exports declining, the industry has been considering alternatives, for example through the work of the Beyond Calf Exports Stakeholders Forum. That initiative involves beef and dairy industry bodies, Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA, Government, retailers and academics. The forum is starting to overturn the assumption that male dairy calves produce low-quality beef and hence should be exported for veal production or shot in the head soon after birth. As a result of its work, male dairy calves are increasingly being reared in Britain to high welfare standards, with a resultant fall in the number of calves shot at birth or exported for veal production. I am confident that more dairy farmers would abandon the trade if the Government engaged with the industry more proactively and gave them more help to do so. The carcass-only trade is already widespread and I want to see an end to the remaining exports of live calves.
The export of sheep is in many ways no better. It, too, entails significant suffering and long, stressful journeys. In addition, British animals may experience poor welfare in European abattoirs. In 2007-08, a French animal welfare organisation carried out an investigation into 25 French slaughterhouses and found many breaches of EU legislation that is meant to protect the welfare of animals at slaughter. Earlier this year, a report by the EU’s food and veterinary office identified a number of serious animal welfare problems in Dutch slaughterhouses. The Netherlands is the destination for many sheep that are exported from Britain. Once animals leave our shores, we are powerless to ensure that they are treated properly. All the evidence suggests that they are not necessarily being treated with standards comparable to our own welfare expectations.
For sheep, as for calves, I believe that the trade should be meat and carcass only. Slaughtering a higher proportion of animals in the UK for domestic consumption or meat exports could create jobs and increase profits here. Indeed, the economic case for the live export of sheep seems negligible. In 2011, just 0.5% of the sheep reared in the UK were slaughtered abroad. That is 72,458 sheep, compared with the 14.5 million that were slaughtered in the UK. It is difficult to believe that transporting such a relatively small number of animals abroad for slaughter makes a significant contribution to the sheep sector’s earnings, or that that contribution justifies the suffering that the sheep undergo during the long journey from the UK. The UK economy would probably benefit much more from the added value derived from processing animals at home, rather than exporting the raw material for the benefit of processors abroad.
Much of this debate has focused on the disaster at the port of Ramsgate. Animal welfare conditions are questionable during the process of live transport, as well as on arrival. Other Members have spoken strongly about the Russian tanker, the Joline, which had to turn back en route to Calais because of adverse weather conditions. The ship’s design means that it is particularly sensitive to poor conditions. On this occasion, the sea was breaking over the vessel. Its design also means that there is little leeway between the time that it takes to cross the channel and the maximum journey time for calves of nine hours after a one hour rest at port. On another occasion, the vessel was held at Ramsgate for two hours because of adverse weather warnings and the lorries on board were in danger of exceeding the journey limit.
In a six-month period when the RSPCA was inspecting every vehicle involved in the trade through Ramsgate for infractions, it issued six warning notices. In September 2012, one lorry was stopped because of faults with the vehicle. The animals were unloaded and two sheep, one with a broken leg, were put down. Another 41 lame sheep were euthanised. Six sheep fell into the water after they were loaded into an area where a drain became exposed. Four of them were rescued by RSPCA officers, but two drowned. It appears that a proportion of the lame sheep were injured during the journey owing to a defect in the vehicle, but others were apparently lame before the start of the journey. By law, an official veterinarian must, before an export journey begins, certify that the animals are fit to travel.
That case raises serious questions. If some sheep were lame before the journey, why did the vet who inspected them certify them as being fit to travel? Are the checks and balances that are meant to be in place fit for purpose? Given those failures, can DEFRA’s ordering more inspections give us confidence? It is not even clear whether it intends to increase the number of inspections that are taking place or simply to meet its current legal obligations.
I agree with those who have said that the facilities are Ramsgate are not suitable for ensuring the welfare of animals if they need to be offloaded in an emergency. Despite the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), saying that he intends to pursue a zero-tolerance approach to animal welfare and live exports, I think that the contingency plans that DEFRA has announced are inadequate. A temporary ban on live animal exports out of Ramsgate was lifted last month, but legal action is still under way. It is vital that far more is done to safeguard the welfare of animals that are shipped through the port, especially as access for the RSPCA to inspect conditions has been denied.
In the 1990s, the European Court of Justice twice ruled that the UK cannot ban live exports. Such action has to be taken at EU level. That does not let the Government off the hook. There is much more that they could be doing to bring this trade to an end. They could go to Brussels and press for a change in EU law to allow individual member states to ban live exports.
Since the two European Court cases, article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union has recognised animals as “sentient beings”. It requires the EU and member states, in formulating and implementing EU policies on agriculture, transport and the single market, to
“pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.
That article creates a new legislative landscape in which, with the right political will, the UK would be justified in pressing for the right to lawfully end this trade.
Earlier this week, MEPs voted for improvements to the conditions in which live animals are exported, but they failed to reduce the maximum journey time. How different might the result of that vote have been if the UK had actively lobbied for an eight-hour limit? The Government must take the lead in pressing the EU to place a maximum limit of eight hours on journeys to slaughter or for further fattening.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but we need to look for solutions to that problem. The suggestion is that a trade can carry on despite a wealth of evidence. He asked earlier about my evidence for the cruelty of the trade and I could read out a whole set of scientific studies. I appreciate that difficult discussions and debates must be had about how to safeguard the livelihoods of farmers, about which I care deeply, but to say simply that we should carry on with business as usual is not an adequate response.
As colleagues will know, I am a former MEP and I have worked extensively on this issue. As I have said, ideally I want a complete ban on the trade of live exports, but imposing a maximum journey time of eight hours would at least help reduce the current suffering. That should also be backed up with sufficient resources to ensure that minimum welfare standards are met.
For example, DEFRA could carry out more rigorous checks to ensure that the mandatory rest breaks required by EU Council regulation 1/2005 are provided. At present, that seems to be verified primarily via returned journey logs, which are often open to abuse and inaccuracy. Instead, DEFRA should ask the appropriate authority of the member state in which the rest break was due to confirm that it was provided, or check the data on which the vehicle’s tachograph or satellite navigation scheme depends. That would show when animals were rested, and for how long.
The sheep and dairy sectors receive generous subsidies from the taxpayer and we should consider whether they should carry the costs of regulating the trade, particularly the cost of pre-export inspections at the place of departure and the port. The Government could also amend the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847 to enable ports to refuse to allow live export consignments to use their harbours. I understand that Ramsgate would welcome such a move, as would other UK ports.
As I said, my constituents have been lobbying me in support of a ban on live exports, and the issue has growing public support. A petition on the No. 10 website has more than 31,000 signatures. That number is growing rapidly every day and I hope that when it reaches 100,000, we can have a further debate and—crucially—MPs can vote on whether to take a stand against the trade. I regret that so few Members are in the Chamber this afternoon but I do not think that that reflects the strength of feeling on the issue. If we had a votable motion, far more colleagues would have attended and contributed strongly to the debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, and I conclude with one simple request for the Government to make every effort to end what is a cruel, outdated and unnecessary trade in live animals.
I, too, apologise for arriving late to the debate. I do not have the same excuse as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) of being the sole representative of my party—although on some issues it feels like it—but I have been dealing with a serious matter in my constituency that may come to the surface in the next few weeks. I am sure that hon. Members will understand.
I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for securing this debate and for her consistency in raising this issue in recent months. Live exports have become a regular problem. We have had debates in the past, and bans have been introduced at individual ports, but the issue has recurred and there has been more than one incident similar to what happened with the Joline. Time and again I remember hearing reports in this House in which we felt that the appropriate regulatory system had been put in place, only to hear similar reports of problems with animal welfare within months. That is not incompetence; it is an almost blatant disregard of animal welfare by some of those involved in such transactions, and of the legality of some of the cases dealt with. None of the systems that we put in place seemed to have worked, and such cases returned time and again. I therefore came to the conclusion—after receiving briefing from the National Farmers Union as well as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—that the system was not working and that a ban would be the appropriate approach.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, there are two issues. One is a matter of principle—do we support the export of live animals in this way?—and the other is about pragmatic practicality and regulation. Are the Government going to continue allowing live exports? I do not believe that European legislation should hold us back because, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, representations can be made and we can use other legislation to enforce the ban if necessary. However, if a ban is not introduced and we seek a pragmatic inspection regime—this is the point raised by the hon. Member for South Thanet—the work done by Thanet district council has been superb. It has set out a number of recommendations, working with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and delegating some of those functions to the RSPCA, to gain maximum confidence in the implementation and rigorous nature of those inspections. Those recommendations, if taken on board by the Government, would at least provide a practical way to address effectively some of the abuses of the past.
My hon. Friend has been an absolute champion of agricultural workers during his time in Parliament—often, I dare say, a lone voice. Does he accept that a ban on live exports would be a huge hit to the agricultural industry and hurt the very workers he has worked so hard to champion?
My hon. Friend always knows the point of vulnerability in a debate. I have never been convinced about the economic necessity of live exports, which is why the idea of an inquiry is important. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is looking at a wide-ranging inquiry into the practical nature of how the industry operates.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, we need to address the location of abattoirs and how they operate. By locating, promoting and developing local abattoirs we can overcome the problem of the lengthy journeys that animals take, and particularly any necessity to export live animals.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and reading about this issue. Surely when the animals see that ramp into a truck they will start panicking. They must panic the whole time and be terrified for the whole journey and that really worries me. I feel so desperately sad for them that I am beginning to think that the way we should proceed is to slaughter at the farm. I know it is difficult, but that is what I am beginning to think.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) will come back and argue about the practicalities of that for certain geographical locations in the United Kingdom. However, the desire must be to have slaughter as close to the farm as possible and to obviate the need for any long-distance journeys, whether in the UK or to the continent. I am arguing that we should look again seriously at the recommendations of Thanet district council, the RSPCA and others. From experience, every regime so far put in place has not worked. We had another scandalous example with Joline this time round, and there have been others in the past. That is why I support the proposal for an inquiry.
I would prefer the Government to set up an independent inquiry, but if it must be the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so be it. That Committee can look at animal welfare, the economics of the industry and why there is such economic necessity for live animal exports, as well as at the distribution of abattoirs, which in themselves have the potential to generate employment. It can look at how, if we are to transport animals in the future, we can reassure people that those animals will be safe and secure, and that their welfare will be maintained not only in this country but, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, when they reach other countries. In the past we seem to have lost control of what happens to our exported stock in other countries.
That is the short-term practical approach; we need to undertake an inquiry, take on board Thanet district council’s recommendations and introduce an economic debate on this issue. I am also worried about the staffing of individual organisations on which we rely to undertake these tests and checks. I give the example of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Its offices are being closed, staff are being laid off, and I doubt whether it has the capacity to maintain the vehicle inspection regime that we would expect of it. I am also concerned about staffing in DEFRA and the cutbacks there, and about the resources available to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The inquiry should consider that range of staffing issues because the worst thing that could happen is that we put an inspection regime in place, but the resources and the expertise are not available. That includes the expertise of working alongside voluntary organisations such as the RSPCA. That is the problem with a pragmatic approach in the near future if we do not move towards a ban.
So often, promises have been made, and procedures and regimes have been put in place that have not worked. My view now is therefore that a ban should be introduced because the animal welfare issues are overriding.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about ensuring that adequate resources are available to do the job. On Tuesday, Committee proceedings finished on the HGV Road Levy Bill, which gives the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency additional resources to monitor and enforce the levy that will be introduced in due course for foreign hauliers using our roads. Perhaps the Minister will say whether, given the additional safeguards that appear to be required at Ramsgate, DEFRA will provide additional resources to address that matter.
I think that the Minister heard the question; he does not need me to repeat it.
The Minister has a job to do now in negotiating with other Departments. Yesterday, I met some Public and Commercial Services Union representatives, who are involved in the Department for Transport, including VOSA and DVLA. There are genuine issues about the future, including the review of Department functions, the threat of privatisation and outsourcing, and staff numbers. I am therefore fearful for whatever regime we expect to be put in place. I believe that neither the staff nor the expertise are there, or that they will be so stretched that the regime will not meet our requirements.
After several years as a Member of Parliament, with the problem arising regularly, it is clear that every regime put in place has not worked, resulting in immense animal suffering and immense concern throughout the country. I have many letters from constituents who are concerned about the matter and constituents who have been on demonstrations in Ramsgate. Time and again, they have come back extremely concerned about what they have witnessed. It is now therefore my view that we should introduce a ban and, if necessary, lobby Europe to challenge the European interpretation of the directives, thereby reassuring many of our constituents who are anxious about the matter.
Failing that, if there is to be an inquiry, it needs to be done quickly and be fully inclusive. I am anxious that organisations such as the RSPCA, as well as producer representatives and the trade unions, are fully involved, and that the inquiry comes up with some recommendations fairly soon. That must include representations about the level of resources, as well as the regime that will be put in place.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise to you and the House for not being present at the start of the debate. I am a member of the Backbench Business Committee, so I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and her colleagues were successful in obtaining the debate. Unfortunately, I thought that it would start at 1.30, and I have been entertaining a newly elected member of the United States Congress, Mr George Holding, who represents the 13th district in North Carolina, together with Congressman Robert Pittenger. I am sorry.
Order. That causes some difficulty. We have now had three Members in a row taking part in a debate that they have not heard on the basis that they were busy doing something else. As all hon. Members know, when wishing to take part in a debate, one has to make a choice between being in the Chamber and doing other things. On this occasion, I have called each Member, but I want to put it on the record that the convention of the House is that, if you wish to speak in a debate, that is your priority, and you should be here to do it. The hon. Gentleman, being the third Member in a row to give a reason for not being here, gives me the opportunity to make that point. Those Members have not had the benefit of hearing the other speakers.
I have been a Member of Parliament since 1983 and I absolutely agree with everything you have said, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Throughout my time in Parliament, I have supported sensible animal welfare measures. Indeed, if anyone had time on their hands, they could look in Hansard and see that my views on animal welfare have been pretty consistent.
Order. We are really not going to follow that route. We are considering a serious subject, and I expect Members to continue to behave seriously. So, Mr Docherty, thank you, but we will not have that answered, and Mr Amess, you may continue with your remarks and ignore the intervention.
The late Member of Parliament for Newham, North-West, Tony Banks, was a great champion of animal welfare measures, and I would stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the subject of the debate. It saddens me that, nearly 30 years on, we have to revisit the issue.
I was flattered last year when Dods gave me an award as charity champion for animal welfare and environment, which I accepted on behalf of the animal welfare kingdom. Indeed, I promoted the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, and I also supported Bills on the welfare of dogs—the list is endless.
However, I want briefly to consider live export of animals. I am pleased that it is not a growing industry, and that it is shrinking. I note that, for example, the transport of live calves fell from 93,000 in 2007 to just 7,000 in 2009. That is real progress. I hope that, in time, such a debate will be unnecessary.
I associate myself with the views of the RSPCA, which is a wonderful charity, and which I hope will continue to promote sensible animal welfare issues. It wants an end to long-distance transport of live animals, with the aim of carcass-only trade. It wants a maximum eight-hour journey time for all animals travelling to slaughter. It wants a change to current law to allow ports to refuse to partake in the transport of live animals trade. It also wants the organisations involved in the trade, not the taxpayer, to bear the costs of veterinary and animal health inspections, alongside other costs.
I recognise that hon. Members rightly represent all sorts of interests. I have said that I support responsible animal welfare measures. I would not want to use the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet has introduced to bash farmers and the farming community. I therefore understand the points that the hon. Gentleman and others have made.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman supports banning the use of wild animals in circuses. One of the solutions is to export those wild animals to new homes. If I understand the matter correctly, an unintended consequence of a blanket ban would be that we could not find new homes for those wild animals.
I cannot believe for a moment that that would be the result if the motion was supported. I want to stick to my script. I was not present when other issues have been discussed in the Chamber, so I would like to stick to the specific issue that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, said that we should talk about.
I want to see an end to the long-distance transport of live animals. There is a clear case for the ending of the transport of live animals altogether. It is a cruel practice that regularly leads to the distress—or worse, the death—of animals. Indeed, recently we saw terrible pictures of little puppies who were dead, and rare, exotic fish dead in their containers. For example, inspectors, when they were able to investigate, found one animal with a ripped horn that had to be euthanised. In another incident, a vehicle had to offload all its sheep and 46—yes, 46—had to be euthanised for various reasons. Any practice that regularly inflicts such pain on living creatures, and, worse, regularly leads to their deaths, should be ended as soon as possible.
This is not an impossible dream. More often than not, animals are now slaughtered in their country of origin and then transported to whichever country they are going to. That is a much more humane way to approach the transportation of animals. Another reason why it is right to pursue the end of this practice is that even if we manage to transport live animals effectively and safely, we cannot ensure that the countries the animals arrive in live up to our high standards.
Compassion in World Farming has issued a report that shows that many member states do not provide penalties that are “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”. While some countries have shown recent signs of improvement, namely the Czech Republic, Italy and Romania, the European Union Food and Veterinary Office indicates that they, and other countries, still need substantial improvements in enforcement levels. Those two reasons—the cruel nature of transportation and the worrying lack of enforcement in other EU member states—are reason enough for wanting the practice of live transportation to be stopped altogether. That said, until that aim is fulfilled, there are other curbs that could be applied to the industry to protect transported animals. For example, there should be a maximum eight-hour journey time. Journeys for calves can be up to 19 hours, and for horses and pigs up to 24 hours. For horses and pigs, 29 hours can be an incredibly long time before a 24-hour rest. That is cruel—to make any creature travel for 29 hours before having a rest is very cruel indeed. At the very least, a middle ground should be found that enforces shorter breaks after eight hours, and then a longer 24-hour rest at the current limit.
On ports, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states on its website that when dealing with animals it is important that vehicle loading and unloading facilities are designed and constructed to avoid injury and suffering. While that may be the case for road vehicles, I have concerns about the UK ports that animals leave from and about the ships that transport them. According to the RSPCA, the Joline, an old Russian tanker, currently transports animals from Ramsgate. It is too slow, and is overly exposed to poor weather conditions. I urge the House not to accept such poor conditions for animals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
It appears that the ports of Ramsgate, Ipswich and Newhaven do not all currently live up to the standards set out in section 23 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Ports have no choice but to opt out of the transportation of live animals due to the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847. I believe strongly in choice. Ports that currently do not have the right facilities to transport animals to a high standard must be able to choose whether they wish to partake in this practice.
On veterinary costs, the economy is going through tough times at the moment. There are a lot of elderly people in Southend West, the area I represent, and animals are their lives. Animals are everything to them and we should not trivialise how important they are to them. Veterinary bills can be very high. The taxpayer foots the bill for veterinary checks on animals in live transportation. If that cost was shifted to those involved in the industry—I know that hon. Members with farming interests will say that that would be yet another burden passed on to them—not only would the taxpayer save money during these hard times, but the industry would be incentivised to look after its animals well, as the cost of veterinary bills could otherwise be very high.
The last topic I wish to touch on is labelling. It has come to my attention that a sheep or cow can be born, raised and fed here in England, transported to France and, once slaughtered, labelled, “produce of France”. If, as I hope, the EU agrees to stop this practice, surely the incidence of live transportation will fall as the pressure to have and eat home-grown food in each European member state will grow. I therefore urge hon. Members to support any such law on labelling.
In my brief speech I hope that I have highlighted a number of issues I feel strongly about that have not already been covered concerning the suffering of animals. Maximum journey times must come down if at all possible. Ports must be able to opt out if they do not feel that they have the resources to adequately look after animals. Veterinary costs should not be met at the expense of the public purse. Labelling issues need to be addressed.
We must look after animals to the best of our ability. The fact that we need this debate at all sadly reminds me of the quote attributed to Frederick the Great:
“The more I see of men, the more I like my dog.”
I then think of the quote from Ghandi:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I said that I entered this place 30 years ago. We are hardly pressed for time in this place. We used to sit until 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock in the morning. We used to sit for five days a week—we certainly put the hours in. Hon. Members no doubt love to pat dogs and like to see cats in their constituencies. They are concerned about their constituents, who feel that their animals are important. They should demonstrate their support for animals by supporting the motion introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. I would hope that most hon. Members feel that transporting live animals in horrendous conditions is totally unacceptable. We live in an era where we no longer write letters to each other. MPs respond to e-mails, blogging, Facebook and so on. There is not the amount of personal contact that there used to be.
I was privileged recently to attend two carol services for animals. I feel very strongly that the quality of our nation should increasingly be judged by how we treat the animal kingdom.
It is a privilege to follow such a commendable contribution. I understand that a few weeks ago one of my Labour colleagues made a contribution of one word, before time ran out, so the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) does not get the record, but it was quite a contribution none the less.
People watching will have seen a well balanced, diverse range of well considered contributions and interventions putting forward a variety of views on animal welfare and the live transportation of animals. It has been a good day for the House, and I hope that I and the Minister will continue in that frame of mind. I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and other Members, not only for calling the debate and enabling us to air our concerns, but for maintaining and arguing in favour of their long-standing, if sometimes differing, views. I will deal with the contributions first, because some of them pre-empt my own comments.
The hon. Lady spoke eloquently on behalf of herself, her constituents and—I suspect—her local authority, given that its views are very much aligned with hers, and said that DEFRA had been a bit too “meek and mild” and might need to go further. I will try to draw that out in my comments too. She said that DEFRA might need to focus more on this intriguing idea of fit and proper operators—a leitmotif in several contributions. We are talking not always about individual instances, but about operators that have had constant warnings—mention was made of six warnings in a short period in Ramsgate—and those patterns of behaviour draw out an interesting theme for the Minister. What does zero tolerance actually mean? When should we intervene to stop something that is a genuine animal welfare concern?
On another interesting theme, the hon. Lady talked about cost-sharing. Like other Members, including those who have farmed for many years, I sometimes wonder how the economics of this trade stack up. But they do stack up. The live export of lamb from south Wales, the moors of Ramsgate or Scotland maintains not just a premium price but a remarkably high premium price—there is huge demand for it. It would be interesting to know what would happen to the economics of the model if the additional costs of inspection, licensing and the adequate enforcement of animal welfare considerations—so that we can have real confidence in the integrity of the process, particularly of the long-distance travel—were loaded on to the transporters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has been a consistent campaigner on animal welfare issues, rightly recognised the differing standards of animal welfare applied in many parts of the continent—another issue that I will return to—and its impact on the UK export trade. Even if all our domestic arrangements for animal exports are of the highest standards—what the hon. Member for South Thanet called the “gold standard” that we should be proud of aspiring to—what happens if the animals pass through or reach a part of the continent where the standards fall well below what we would expect? I ask the Minister to focus on that.
This has to be about the end-to-end journey, not simply about what we are doing. The hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) would be appalled if any animals they were trading in—having done all the right things, such as loading the animals in good condition and ready for market, in the belief that they would be transported in good condition and get rested, fed, watered and given emergency treatment when needed—were ending up somewhere on the continent, such as Spain or even Brussels, where the same rigorous standards of animal welfare were not being applied. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East put to the Minister the valid question of what discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on this issue, particularly on the topical issue in Europe at the moment—it is being debated as we speak and has been debated all week—which is the consistency of those standards across the EU. I am sure that the Minister will address those concerns.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke with great personal insight and expertise—given his farming background—and spoke proudly in favour of the gold-plating of animal welfare. He said we should be doing that and that he would want to be doing that as a farmer. He took pride in driving towards those standards. We are talking, of course, in part about a sector—sheep exporting—that is for farmers who are not prosperous or massive landowners. These people are often farming on less favoured agricultural land where the only option is sheep farming. Only a few years back, the price of those carcasses was half or a third of what they are now. They have always struggled, but they have always focused on the highest standards, and the Government need to help them to do that.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent case. He just mentioned personal experience. Will he say a bit more about his own personal experiences in this industry, and will he set out what terms of reference he thinks the Select Committee should consider, if we do indeed do a report?
I shall return later to the specific things that the inquiry should consider—it will not be an exhaustive list, but I will give some good pointers. On my own personal experience, I have not been a sheep farmer, but my friendly and well loved father-in-law was a sheep farmer for many years on the uplands of the Brecon Beacons.
Indeed. I am just worried about any inheritance potential, so I had better continue.
For many years my father-in-law was a sheep farmer, and I would go out and help him. I was born on the Gower and, curiously, my first ever job as a young lad of 10 or 11—I know not everybody will like this, including on my Benches—was to go to Gowerton market. At that time, we had a live market right in the centre of the village—it is long gone; now it is housing. We had just turned metric, and my job in the market, for 50p a day, was to go with the farmers on the back of their wagons, load what seemed to me to be these massive beasts—they were massive, because even a sheep to me at that age appeared to be very big—and take them off to what were then local slaughterhouses and abattoirs. One of the problems with those abattoirs is that not all of them had the high standards that we now expect. We have seen a diminution in the number of abattoirs across the country, which brings us back to the points that many Members have made. We would love to see more local abattoirs—I will raise this again with the Minister in a moment—but we also need to have high quality abattoirs, with the very highest standards for both consumers and farmers.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the reduction in the number of abattoirs. In this important book—“Little Book of Meat Facts”, published by Hybu Cig Cymru—it says that in 1990 there were more than 60 slaughterhouses in Wales and that in 2011 there were just over 20. That gives an indication of the reduction in the number of slaughterhouses.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good intervention, which points to a long-term trend. Some of the reasons behind it were negative, in that the drive to improve standards in slaughterhouses and abattoirs meant that some of the smaller and—let us be honest—lower-standard ones were forced to close. We are fortunate, because the town I live in—Maesteg, which has a population of 17,000—still has a working, prosperous, thriving abattoir right in the centre, which is unusual nowadays. The abattoir services not only the local farmers, but the butchers in town, which are also thriving. However, that is unusual. The abattoir has had to increase its standards massively and absorb those costs or pass them on. Perhaps the Minister will return in his closing comments—I think we will have time—to what more can be done not only to protect the remaining network of abattoirs at the very highest standards, but to encourage, where possible, the resurrection of others. There are some worries—the pig sector has been mentioned, with the retreat of Vion from the market, but there are others as well. We want the resilience of the slaughtering sector to be maintained.
As the Minister probably knows, an announcement on Vion is imminent, but does the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) agree that the reduction in the number of small abattoirs probably contributed to foot and mouth disease spreading in the way it did? Small abattoirs are also hugely popular with farm shops and help the local farming community enormously.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the popularity of small abattoirs increasing as people become much more aware of the provenance and source of their food. Her first point is also valid, because of the biosecurity risks that result from increased animal movements generally. In my constituency, farmers would summer-pasture their sheep down in the lowlands and in the winter literally drive them on to the top. Come time for market, they would drive the sheep down the old drovers’ route into Blackmill for the market—a grass-based market, not a concrete market—from where they would go straight to the local shops and so on. Those days are gone. We now routinely—because of biosecurity, as well as for other reasons—shift animals in trucks. That brings with it the massive obligation of looking after their welfare.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend out. The answer is that it depends on the stress that the animal goes through in the build-up. The point is—it is a point he has made before—that although at first glance a local abattoir might be preferable, if standards of hygiene and humane treatment are not met, that leads to a poorer outcome. I suspect that the key thing in this debate is the standards of humane treatment that we all want to see.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly formed point.
I shall proceed at a rate of knots now, because I want to touch on the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire talked about the Spanish diet given to exported sheep. I am intrigued to know what it consists of; I suspect that it is not tapas. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke with the benefit of his experience as a well loved and well respected food and farming Minister, although he was not quite so well respected by publications such as Horse & Hound. He made a considered and well balanced contribution, in which he rightly praised the higher standards generally to be found in the UK. He also echoed other Members’ call for a wider review, in the interests of animal welfare and of the industry. He made detailed points about the Ramsgate incident, as did others, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire also has huge experience in this area. I do not think that my father-in-law’s sheep ever mingled with his; there was a little obstacle in the way, known as the Brecon Beacons. He focused on animal welfare considerations and raised the issue of zero tolerance. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister define that concept. What does it mean, particularly in the context of repeat offending by individuals, companies or organisations? Are we going to step in and take action much more rapidly in those circumstances? I hope that the answer will be yes.
I am glad the Minister confirms that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, made a very good contribution. He talked about getting a fair price for meat exports, which could help to continue the downward trend in live exports. If farmers are able to get a good price for meat on the hook, rather than on the hoof, they will certainly go for that market. I am glad that he also mentioned the importance of listening to the views of the devolved nations and Administrations.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) rightly spoke about end-to-end protection for animals throughout their whole journey. He also mentioned the importance of the right provision of animal welfare being in the right place at the right time. The Ramsgate incident illustrates that need. Having lairage facilities in the right places along the route, for example, is critical. I hope that the Minister’s internal review of the Ramsgate incident will throw up some of those issues for wider discussion. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton also said that live animal exports represent only a tiny proportion of the export market. He is right to say that live exports are declining as a part of the overall meat sector, but they are nevertheless vital for certain farmers, especially those who are not big, wealthy barley barons.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made a good contribution. We have to respect those whose ethical reasoning leads them to form different conclusions from those of other Members who are also exercising their own ethical reasoning. She went into quite some detail about the importance of maintaining animal welfare standards from end to end. She also referred to the very good initiative between Compassion in World Farming and the NFU on the treatment of young calves in the pink veal trade. That initiative has enormous potential, but we need to take consumers with us as well and to brand that. We have done that successfully in other meat areas over the years, but it has usually taken a few years to get there. It is great to see animal welfare organisations working hand in hand with farming organisations to try to create that market.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about patterns of behaviour leading to regular problems. That links back to the question of zero tolerance. I welcome his support for an inquiry, whoever might carry it out. I hope that the Minister will change his mind and express an interest in such an inquiry, but if not, I look forward to hearing the response of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), to whom I have recently written on this issue. My hon. Friend also raised the vital issue of the capacity of the animal inspectors at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to carry out inspections in the light of the cutbacks and of the rise in concern about confidence in the trade. How will such inspections be sourced, given that DEFRA has already had cutbacks, along with every Department, and is now facing more?
The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) spoke eloquently about the RSPCA campaign, and I thank the RSPCA, the NFU and many other organisations for contributing to the debate and providing briefings for it. Interestingly, he raised the issue—nobody else did—of the labelling and provenance of meat that is transported to various destinations and rebranded as indigenous to an area different from where it was raised and produced.
I think we all agree that animal welfare considerations in the movement of live animals for trade, for slaughter, for breeding or for other reasons should be absolutely paramount. Logically, the volume and duration of the movements of live animals should therefore be kept to a minimum. That is why in opposition now, as when in government, we want a growth in the trade and export of meat or germ plasm rather than of live animals. That is why in opposition, as when in government, we believe it best that animals are slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible so that the transportation of live animals is minimised and the welfare considerations are lessened. In short, more exports on the hook, not on the hoof, is the right aim.
The trade is legal, and any attempt to ban it, which has wider European and UK-Ireland implications than the focus on any one transit route such as the one through Ramsgate might suggest, would break on the rocks of article 34 of the treaty of Rome. That was the consistent legal advice we received in government—my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse would have received it—so I invite the Minister to intervene to say whether that advice has changed in any way.
The Minister shakes his head, so the advice is still the same. In that case, our focus must be on the paramount issue of animal welfare considerations for a trade that will continue, to and from the UK and across other parts of the Europe, for the foreseeable future.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that is absolutely valid. We strongly believe in that focus, the Minister strongly believes in it and many contributors to the debate believe that the focus must be animal welfare. I did not touch on an issue that was raised consistently in this debate: that even if we take away the crossing of seas to Ireland, Northern Ireland, the highlands and islands and mainland Europe, we still have a massive internal trade of live animal shipments, and it is part of the integrity of our current livestock business. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to say that we should focus on animal welfare.
I say that in the knowledge that, only yesterday or the day before, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development voted strongly in plenary session to support a report on the protection of animals during transport, which had many recommendations. As I know from my meetings with European parliamentarians and Commission officials in Brussels over the last few weeks, this issue is of topical concern right across Europe, not just in the UK. It is a good and comprehensive report that makes some sensible recommendations on the effective and improved implementation of existing measures to safeguard animal welfare.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the one part of the report that is causing great debate at the moment and that has been referred to in today’s debate—the growing momentum behind support for an eight-hour maximum for animals travelling for slaughter or for fattening across the EU? As has been mentioned, over 1 million EU citizens have now signed a petition that was organised by Compassion in World Farming and others.
A local farmer recently approached me to say that for the first time he has won an order to transport a small number of cattle from Thirsk to Italy in excellent conditions. This would probably breach that petition, but would not breach animal welfare provisions. He would risk losing that trade, as would many others from Scotland and other parts of the north of England, if we strictly implemented what the shadow Minister proposes.
That is not what I am proposing. What I am proposing is a live debate. Given the existence of a petition bearing more than 1 million signatures, I think that we need to consider the issue in considerable detail. That would include consideration of impacts such as the one cited by the hon. Lady, about which I shall say more in a moment. She has made a very valid point.
I think that the public often assume that all animal transport takes place in the worst conditions. A good debate on the issue, and an understanding that some transport conditions are a great deal better than others, would help us to reach a conclusion.
As we know, the big issues that hit the headlines in the press involve the worst possible examples. What they do not tell us is that, as has rightly been pointed out a number of times today, the standards that we apply in the UK—at least within UK borders, because beyond those borders a difficulty arises—are generally much higher. We have not been singled out by the European Commission for having poor standards of animal welfare. It would be churlish of me, at Christmas, to name the areas in Europe—whole areas, as well as individual nations—where there are such problems.
Although today’s debate has been very useful, I would go further if I were in the Minister’s shoes. I would be seriously thinking of commissioning a piece of work—let us call it an impact assessment, for want of a better phrase—dealing with the likely effects of an eight-hour journey limit on the transport of live animals both inside and outside the UK. Let us see, in black and white, the probable impacts on exports of live animals to the continent, on trade between Great Britain and Ireland—including Northern Ireland—and on internal movements on the UK mainland and between the highlands and islands. Let us not leap to conclusions. Let us make our policy on the basis of the evidence: the evidence on animal welfare, and the socio-economic evidence.
In making that policy, we must acknowledge that, although the focus in the United Kingdom has recently been on exports via Ramsgate involving the hugely regrettable slaughter of more than two score animals, there is a far wider trade—most of it involving short journeys, but some, by necessity, involving longer ones—within the UK, among our islands, and with our neighbours in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Although the Minister’s focused investigation of the lessons to be learned from Ramsgate is welcome—I should like to know when we are likely to see its outcome, by the way—it is essential for a wider review to be conducted so that we do not end up making policy on the basis of individual incidents, no matter how harrowing they may be. That piece of work should also pull together the best available evidence from all sources on the animal welfare considerations that would support, or otherwise, the case for any limit on the duration of a journey.
The time is right for a more wide-ranging review of the live animal trade to and from the UK. It should be independent of the trade in order to be seen to be fair and impartial. It could focus on animal welfare considerations, but also on the economic importance or otherwise of the trade. It might give the existing trade a clean bill of health, or highlight areas of concern where improvement is needed. In either event, it would benefit the trade to have, as it were, an MOT, in the light of well-publicised recent concerns that risk damaging not just the trade in live exports, but the wider reputation of the food and farming sector.
I have discussed this matter with representatives of farming unions. I have told them that I believe it would be in their interests to support the call for a review of the trade, and I hope that any of them who hear or read my words will support that reasonable call. Resisting it would suggest there was something to hide. As the Minister knows, I have already asked, in a written parliamentary question, whether he is minded to carry out a review, and he replied that he had no plans to do so. That is a pity, because I think that he could do a service to the industry and to animal welfare by changing his mind. He recently changed his mind about including the power to use financial penalties in the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which was a welcome precedent. He is a listening Minister.
In the absence of the Minister’s willingness to carry out a review, I wrote to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the knowledge that, given her expertise and that of the other Committee Members, a forensic and helpful eye could be cast on these matters. I know that the Committee’s programme of activities is chock-a-block, but if it is unable to pursue a separate review of the trade, perhaps that could be incorporated in the wider animal welfare review which I understand that it may be undertaking in the new year.
Such a wider review could address the following questions. Is the level of veterinary inspection sufficient at all stages of the journey, from the loading of animals through to ports or other stations and onward on the UK mainland, the European mainland and in Ireland and Northern Ireland? Such an investigation could also serve to provide us with an end-to-end assessment of the level of mortality and injury. What assessment has the Minister made of the levels of mortality within different sectors of the trade and on different durations of journey? Is the current level of inspection good enough for longer journeys?
We welcome the Minister’s temporary strengthening of procedures through Ramsgate, but it is only temporary. Should the current heightened level of inspection be maintained, and have any areas of concern been identified? Are animals that are unfit for travel ever loaded? I hope not, but it is one of the concerns people feel. Why is some unsuitable transport still being used? How often does that happen, and what sanctions are imposed? Should we take more robust action against the risk-takers and the rogues?
There are major issues to be addressed if Ramsgate or any other port is to be used as the long-term staging post for live exports, including the suitability of vessels and the availability of emergency facilities at or near the port for unloading, feeding and watering animals. Which exit points from the UK are most suitable in respect of minimising animals’ travel time? Is it desirable at all to offload animals at a port, except in the most exceptional circumstances, where they cannot be transported to a nearby facility? Do some transporters have a history of poor animal welfare behaviour?
On the wider issue of animal transportation across the UK, do any aspects need to be addressed to ensure we comply fully with our obligations under EU regulation 1/2005? If additional measures are identified in a wider review, the Government should take action under article 1.3 of the regulation.
What is the Minister doing to make good on his, and our, ambition to encourage the slaughter of animals close to their point of production, in order to minimise the transportation of live animals? Is the reduction in numbers, and geographical spread, of abattoirs a relevant factor? I think it is, so what more can we do to promote local slaughter?
This has been a very good debate with some expert and well-informed contributions. I hope the Minister will deal in detail with the concerns expressed, and finally may I reiterate a request I made in a letter to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, and urge the Minister to consider whether, in addition to the Ramsgate-focused review, we should look more broadly at animal welfare issues and the socio-economic aspects of the wider trade in and out of the UK?
I agree with the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that this has been an extremely good debate. The speeches have been well informed, non-sensationalist and have expressed various points of view. I have hugely enjoyed listening to all the contributions from both sides of the Chamber. Members have deeply held beliefs, but recognise the facts. I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for securing the debate and for her contribution to it. I also recognise that she and her constituents have been put under considerable pressure on an almost daily basis for some time, as has Thanet district council. I commend her on the way she has addressed the issue in question and tried to secure the best possible outcome.
I am particularly pleased that the hon. Lady began by talking about our country’s proud history in respect of animal welfare. We should not shy away from the fact that we have a very good record at promoting animal welfare and ensuring that rules and laws are enforced. The title of today’s debate does not confine itself to live animal exports, although inevitably that is what most hon. Members have wanted to focus on, as it also deals with wider animal welfare issues. Even in the very recent past, we have been making steady progress on improving the welfare of all kept animals. That is not surprising because that is one of the top priorities in my Department and within government. So we have ensured that no hens are kept in battery cages. We have also ensured that our farmers do not use sow stalls, and of course the European ban is coming up. The hon. Member for South Thanet asked me whether there was an instance recently when we had been pressing for European compliance, and I can tell her that that is a clear area where we have been pushing very hard to ensure that other member states comply with the regulation coming into effect on 1 January. I fear that some states will not be ready to have 100% compliance, and that is not acceptable. We have been having discussions with the European Commissioner, who I believe shares that view, to say that that is not acceptable and member states will be expected to comply.
We have the opportunity to recognise and celebrate this high standard of animal welfare in this country, which we introduced as early as the 1990s, disadvantaging our own farmers, who have faced what one might call unfair competition from other EU member states.
That is precisely the case, and now is the time to level that playing field for our producers. We have commitments—I have personally been given commitments—from the main retailers in this country that they will not import meat derived from non-compliant states. I want to hold them to that, because it is only fair to our producers that if they are expected to comply with high welfare standards, as they should be, others have to do the same.
On that wider theme, what would the Minister say about the importation of foie gras? Would he be sympathetic to trying to take measures to prevent the cruel practice that takes place on the continent, with that product then being imported into the UK?
My personal view is that people should not buy foie gras, because of the method of production. It is up to people to make their own decision about what they buy, but unless there is a humane way of producing foie gras, and I am far from convinced that there is, they should make that decision when they decide what to put into their shopping trolley—I suspect that foie gras is rarely put into a shopping trolley—and what they ask people to provide for them. We have taken a view in this country; foie gras is a legal import and therefore there is no constraint that we can place on its importation, but we can ask people to think carefully about what they buy. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Let me continue setting out our recent measures: we have set a maximum stocking density for meat chickens that is lower than that required by European regulation; we have made sure that farm inspections are better targeted on the farms more likely to have welfare problems; for the first time, we have welfare standards for game birds; we have delivered a licensing regime to safeguard the welfare of circus animals, and we are working on delivering a ban, as hon. Members know; we are working on proposals to tackle—
I have just given way to the hon. Gentleman and he cannot really have two bites in the same sentence. We are working on proposals to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and to protect the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses; and we have demanded in Europe better protection for animals being transported for long distances, especially horses and unweaned calves—that comes back to a point to which we will return.
Having set out that broad framework, let me move on to the topic that most of this debate is about: live animal exports. I am going to use phrases that are uncannily similar to those used by the hon. Member for Ogmore in expressing the Government’s position and my personal position. I want to see animals slaughtered as near as possible to their point of production, and I would prefer to see a trade in meat or germ plasm to a trade based on live animals, particularly where journeys may result in livestock travelling very long distances across Europe. There are a number of reasons for that. Quite apart from animal welfare, it helps to support our domestic slaughter industry and is simply more sustainable. We should bear that in mind, too.
Local abattoirs, which are a very important issue, were mentioned, as was the fact that we have lost so many. In opposition under the last Government, I was critical of the fact that we lost so many abattoirs under them. The hon. Member for Ogmore is nodding; he probably remembers me saying that. If he does not, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) probably does.
The lack of abattoirs is becoming a major issue in many areas. I was on the Isle of Wight the other week and the island does not have an abattoir, so any animals that go to slaughter have to cross the Solent. People on the Isle of Wight would like to have an abattoir on the island. They are right to want one and we need to find ways in which we can support a viable alternative to ensure that they have. If we are talking about never moving animals across any waterways, the Isle of Wight will have a problem. Let us bear that in mind when we talk about what constitutes the export of live animals.
Again, I do not want merely to echo the hon. Member for Ogmore—that is a very bad practice—but I must say, in similar terms to those that he used, that the trade in live animals is lawful and we must remember that. There were a number of legal challenges by local and port authorities in the early to mid-1990s, but none was successful. In fact, some of those authorities have had to pay significant damages to exporters as a direct result of their failed attempt to block the trade by direct or indirect means. That is why, although I understand the sentiment expressed, I have a little difficulty dealing with writing campaigns that use postcards, e-mails and the rest of it to tell me that I must ban the live trade when I have no power to do so. It would fundamentally change the basis of free trade within the European Union area if we were to do so. We might want to do that and consensus might form in the EU at some stage, but it is not there at the moment and it is therefore not within my power to make that change.
I am sorry that I have not been in the Chamber for the whole debate, but I have been here for quite some time and speak as someone who was a Minister for agriculture for a time 22 years ago. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we cannot say that something is illegal when it is not, but I think the test is the degree of reasonableness or unreasonableness that should bring the law in. I think we can agree that unnecessary journeys in bad conditions are undesirable, but we need to draw a line so that we can say when they should become illegal. Clearly, we cannot make them illegal just because they cross a national boundary. Sometimes, journeys are necessary, such as in the cases we have heard about from the Isle of Wight, the western isles, and highland farmers. We need to understand that the public’s understanding and acceptance matter. When circumstances are unacceptable because we care for the welfare of food and farm animals, if the law is not good enough we need to be prepared to change the law.
I think we need to do two things. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I shall discuss the circumstances over recent months that were, let us be clear, totally unacceptable. We certainly need regulation and law that are fit for purpose and satisfy the requirements, but we need to enforce them rigorously. My view is that in areas of animal welfare, there should not be ifs and buts—we simply need rigorous enforcement. People need to understand that.
People need to understand that if they are looking after animals, they have a duty that is set out in law and we will hold them to it. If they fail in that duty, there will be consequences. That is the message I want to express and I think it would be supported by every good stockman, male or female, in the country who understands that the care of the animals in their protection is of paramount importance.
We all seem to be on the same side of the argument. Does the Minister agree that if we went for a blanket ban on exports, it would affect not just slaughter and circuses, but the racehorse industry and its involvement with the great French races? Our colleagues in Ireland would also suffer immensely.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We must be careful what we wish for because there are sometimes unforeseen consequences. Coming from an area where we have lots of excellent stables producing first-class racehorses, I have to say that the way racehorses are transported is very different from the way the average sheep is transported. Let us understand that as a basic rule of thumb. However, it is not unreasonable to expect every animal that is transported to be transported in proper and appropriate transport. That is what I am determined to ensure.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me for the second time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who spoke from the Dispatch Box, called for a review to be undertaken to give an MOT, so to speak, to animal exportation. May I refer the Minister to article 3 of EU Regulation 1/2005, which states:
“No person shall transport animals or cause animals to be transported in a way that is likely to cause injury or undue suffering to them.”
Until we undertake the MOT review that my hon. Friend mentioned, we cannot know whether that regulation is being complied with. I suspect that on almost every occasion undue stress or injury is likely to be caused to the animals concerned. We cannot refute that until a review has been undertaken.
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Yes, he is right to read out that article. The legal requirements that the EU sets down for transport have to be in compliance with it. I believe—I will always look to see whether we are right in this belief—that if the legal requirements laid down in the EU welfare and transport legislation are observed, there is a satisfactory level of protection for the animals being transported. It is a highly regulated trade, subject to multiple levels of official controls. There are significant and specific, but I think justified, requirements on the farming and haulage industries. The EU Commission estimates that on average it costs nearly €12,000 to upgrade a vehicle for long journeys, and there are other significant costs.
There is already a regulatory framework. My task is to make sure that movements within this country comply with those regulations, and that we have the framework to make sure that that is the case each and every time. Where it is not the case, as it would appear may have happened recently—I have to couch what I say in careful terms—we take the appropriate actions.
Those controls include the need for all commercial transporters of animals to be authorised. For long journeys, vehicles must be inspected and approved. Drivers must pass a competency test. For long journeys of more than eight hours between member states, transporters must apply for a journey log providing details of the proposed route from point of departure to point of destination. The timings of the journey must be realistic and in line with the maximum journey times and with the compulsory rest periods laid down in the legislation. Once the journey has been completed, the journey log has to be returned and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which has been mentioned many times in the debate, checks to make sure that there have been no infringements of the legislation during the course of the completed journey. If there have been infringements, AHVLA will take the appropriate enforcement action.
Somebody—I am afraid I do not remember who—suggested that that was a passive arrangement. It is not. I do not have the power to order my inspectors to inspect French vehicles on French roads or Spanish vehicles on Spanish roads. What I can do is make sure that the UK legislation, which is consistent with European legislation, is enforced rigorously. It must be observed.
One of the first situations I faced after taking up this post was the regrettable events of 12 September at the port of Ramsgate. There were serious consequences, as has been well reported, with 40 animals having to be humanely killed. That led me to look very closely at what could be done to ensure the most rigorous and robust enforcement of the existing legislation in this country, and I am absolutely committed to doing that.
The first thing I did was ask AHVLA to undertake a review of its existing procedures with a view to making the necessary improvements to ensure that, as far as possible—I was asked earlier to give this commitment—the events of 12 September would not be repeated. I have been given the review and accepted its conclusions, the vast majority of which, I am pleased to say, have already been implemented. As I have made plain publicly, and as other Members have said today, essentially I am asking for zero tolerance of lapses in animal welfare standards and rigorous checks on all journeys where there is a risk that we can identify.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) asked about a fit and proper person test—[Interruption.] She is looking dubious, so obviously I have misrepresented her. I apologise and will let her have the credit anyway, even though it was my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet who raised the matter. I think that it is crucial to our understanding of what is and is not within the powers. There is no test in those precise terms, but article 10 of the regulation sets out the circumstances in which the competent authority can refuse to grant authorisation. Basically, that is when the applicant has a recent record of serious infringements of laws relating to the protection of animals, and that includes proving that the applicant has appropriate facilities.
If, after authorisation, a transporter authorised in the UK commits offences, we can withdraw their authorisation. With regard to transporters authorised in other member states, we can report them to the equivalent competent authority and it should take action. Independently of that, we can prevent a transporter authorised by another competent authority operating here, but we obviously cannot stop them operating elsewhere. Those are important provisions that will come into effect, and I will use them when someone has been convicted of animal welfare infringements, but I make the point that they have to be convicted in a court of law; I cannot do it on the basis of suspicion or anecdotal evidence.
I would like to take the Minister back to the report he has received. He will be aware that the NFU, the RSPCA and indeed this House are keen to see the contents of the report, so can he confirm when he will place a copy in the Library and whether he will sent one to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee?
I was just about to come to that. The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. Nothing would have pleased me more than to have immediately published the report, which I was keen should be made public. However, on advice from lawyers in the Department, and having received a specific request from Kent trading standards department, which is pursuing criminal investigations, I reluctantly had to agree to withhold publication until those investigations and possible prosecution actions have been completed. There is a view that release of the document might prejudice those proceedings, which I am simply not prepared to do.
Following Thanet district council’s decision on 29 November unilaterally to lift its temporary ban on the movement of live animal exports out of the port of Ramsgate, and the High Court hearing on Tuesday this week, I can explain the changes made to existing procedures by the AHVLA to help to prevent a recurrence of the events of 12 September. That is why I made a statement yesterday, at the earliest opportunity, so that the House was at least aware of the changes that we have made.
Let me focus on the most important of those changes. The AHVLA has always undertaken a proportion of its inspections at the point of loading based on an assessment of risk. On the basis of the risk that I perceive following the Ramsgate incident, I have asked it to inspect 100% of loadings at the point of loading in order to make sure that the risk at that point is properly assessed. Those inspections are much better, in some ways, than inspections undertaken at the roadside or at points of rest or transfer such as ports. They enable the AHVLA inspectors to undertake over 30 different checks—there is a list—on the welfare of the animals and the facilities on board the vehicle. I want to make it plain that I will maintain that 100% inspection regime for transporters using Ramsgate for as long as I believe that the risk is high. I hope that it is helpful for the House to understand the approach taken.
Earlier we heard reference to inspecting at the port itself. There is a good reason not to offload animals at the port if it can be avoided—doing so distresses the animals. It is better to have a visual inspection on-vehicle following the loading inspection, with veterinary controls at the point of loading. In everything we do, we are trying to make sure that we reduce the stress and improve the welfare of the animals as far as possible.
There is a particular issue at the port of Ramsgate, which, it is fair to say, is not the ideal port for this purpose. I understand exactly why Thanet district council has concerns, as there are other ports that might be better equipped. Having said that, there are problems associated with trying to undertake this very difficult work with live animals when a substantial protest is going on. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse touched on this when he referred to perverse consequences. The protesters are people who care passionately about the welfare of animals, and I ask them to think about whether they are enhancing their welfare by exacerbating the job of the inspectors employed by the Department, who are already doing a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances; I thank them for the care that they take in protecting these animals. People will have to search their consciences in this regard, but I make that plea to them.
I will not go into the other changes to the existing procedures because all those details are in the DEFRA press release and Members can look at them for themselves.
Let me move on to the enforcement of the legislation by the AHVLA. The number of statutory notices served by the AHVLA on transporters using Ramsgate is clearly unacceptably high. Approximately 95% of transporters using Ramsgate are not authorised in Great Britain. All 30 statutory notices served by the AHVLA have been served on transporters who are authorised in other member states and whose vehicles are inspected and approved there or elsewhere. This is a significant issue. It is not about British livestock transporters using vehicles that have been licensed in this country; it is about overseas operators. When we make complaints about conduct, they go back to the authorising authority. In the case of one major operator registered in the Netherlands, we can send reports to the Dutch authorities, and I have been in touch with them. In fact, however, he does not operate in the Netherlands but is merely authorised by the Dutch Government, and that poses problems in terms of enforcement.
We had similar protests at Brightlingsea when I was an MEP. At that time the port of Dover had closed for live animal transports, so everything came through Brightlingsea. Could the Minister repeat that 90% of live animal exports now go through Ramsgate? What has happened to Dover and Brightlingsea, because live trade used to go through those ports?
As we have heard, Dover is no longer used. There may be more than one reason for that. I am not sure whether it was because of the damage to its docking facilities or because of the effect of the public protests on a port that has a high throughput of other traffic, but the perverse effect is that vehicles and shipping are being used at Ramsgate that might not be ideal for the purposes of the trade.
I thank the Minister for all the work he is doing, but what he outlined before the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) was the lack of clear accountability and the Department’s lack of ability, as the competent authority, to unravel the different layers of licensing and the different regimes under which licences and competencies are managed. To be frank, we as a Parliament should collectively be pushing this on Brussels, to ensure that there is absolute clarity that the Department can take action and enforce its responsibilities effectively, without having to go through a Byzantine licensing and competency regime.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The EU Commission itself notes that the level of enforcement varies significantly between member states. Taking regulatory or enforcement action against transporters based abroad presents legal and technical challenges that do not exist in relation to British-based transporters.
I do not like picking fights with those who argue strongly for animal welfare, but it is wrong for some welfare activists to claim that my Department and the AHVLA have been reluctant to take action against transporters when necessary. Since exports of livestock commenced from the port of Ramsgate, the AHVLA has inspected 113 vehicles at the port and supervised the loading of a further 68 vehicles at its premises of departure and three vehicles at control posts—that is 60% of the total number of vehicles presented for export via the ship, Joline—carrying more than 41,000 farm animals out of a total of 120,471 animals exported from Ramsgate.
As a result of those inspections, the AHVLA has taken regulatory action on 41 occasions, serving 30 statutory notices and issuing 11 verbal warnings. Regulatory action by the AHVLA has resulted in four vehicles being prohibited from continuing their journeys. In addition, 10 vehicles approved and certified in another member state have been temporarily suspended from operating in Great Britain until the necessary modifications have been made to them. Three incidents have been referred to a local authority for investigation with a view to possible prosecution.
I repeat and make clear that I will not tolerate the use of sub-standard or faulty vehicles that, in the view of the AHVLA, are not fit for purpose. I am confident that the AHVLA will continue to take robust action against any transporter using poorly equipped or designed vehicles in the future.
I, the hon. Member for Ogmore and others have mentioned the EU Commission’s recent report on the impact of transport legislation. The EU has competence in the area of animal welfare during transport, so we cannot take any unilateral action. That would be contrary to the requirements of Council regulation 1/2005, which has been mentioned many times. This is an important legal point and it is essential that people understand it. Although article 1 of the legislation permits member states to take stricter national measures, they can only apply to transport taking place entirely in their own territory or during sea transport involving trade outside the EU. Stricter national measures do not apply to intra-Community trade, so we are not in a position take unilateral action.
A point that has not been raised much today, but that has been raised outside the Chamber, is lairage at Ramsgate port. It has been claimed that Ramsgate port requires lairage facilities at or close to the port so that the requirements of the EU welfare in transport legislation can be properly enforced. That is not correct on two counts. First, there is no legal requirement for such facilities at a port that operates a roll-on/roll-off ferry service, such as the MV Joline. Those who claim that such facilities are needed at the port appear to have confused the legal requirements for livestock vessels, which animals are physically loaded on and off, with those for roll-on/roll-off vessels that do not require the loading or unloading of animals at a port.
It must be remembered that the EU legislation places a legal responsibility on transporters to minimise the length of the journey. There is also a requirement that the competent authority must not detain animals in transport, unless it is strictly necessary for the welfare of the animals or for reasons of public safety. I have touched on the point that the routine unloading of animals is also wrong from the animal welfare perspective. The EU legislation acknowledges that the unloading of livestock during transport is stressful for the animals, can lead to injury and increases the risk of animal diseases.
As a result, the AHVLA will unload animals only when it is absolutely necessary. Should it need to do so, because other options are not practical in the circumstances or because it is in the best interests of the welfare of the consignment as a whole, two farm-based facilities are available within one hour’s drive of the port. Those facilities have been used by the AHVLA on four occasions in the recent past. We believe that their existence continues to fulfil the legal obligations on DEFRA as the competent authority under the EU welfare and transport legislation.
Some Members have pointed to the fact that the last audit inspection by the food and veterinary office, which is part of the European Commission, engendered exchanges concerning emergency unloading facilities close to the port of Dover. The facilities that we now have were not available when that report was written, so it is not directly relevant.
The issues that the Commission has identified in the enforcement of the EU welfare and transport legislation are crucial to our understanding of this subject. This is where we all share common ground, even those who feel that we should not be exporting animals beyond our shores. The welfare of animals in transit is what we all want to achieve.
Sadly, there are still cases in which severe animal welfare issues persist. The Commission has identified key areas of concern, not within the UK, but across the EU. Those are the transport of unfit animals, the overstocking of vehicles, the transport of animals in vehicles in which the internal height of the compartments is inappropriate, animals not receiving enough water during the journey, and animals being transported for longer than the maximum permitted journey time. Having identified those issues, I am disappointed that the Commission is not taking decisive action to address them. We will push hard for it to do so.
This matter has not been raised when I have attended the Agriculture Council, but it was raised at the Council in June. My predecessor, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), while supporting the Commission’s desire for better enforcement, recorded his desire to see improvements to the legislation, particularly through a review of the journey time rules in the light of more recent scientific evidence. That point has been raised by several Members in this debate. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Government could not support the demand for a maximum limit of eight hours on all journeys involving livestock because the scientific evidence does not support such a limit for all major species of livestock.
The committee on agriculture and rural development of the European Parliament appears to support that view in its recent report on the protection of animals during transport. The report recognises, among other things, that such a demand alone has no scientific basis, and considers that animal welfare during transport in some instances depends more on proper vehicle facilities and on the proper handling of animals, as documented in the opinion of the European Food Safety Authority of December 2010, than on the overall length of the journey.
Although we will continue to press the EU Commission to update EU legislation on welfare in transport in line with available scientific evidence, it has decided to take a more strategic approach by tying the rules on transport more closely to requirements in the official food and feed controls legislation—regulation 882/2004—which is currently being re-written. Although it is possible that such a move could help to solve some of the problems with enforcement mentioned by the EU Commission in its report, it is too early to form a judgment on whether that is the most appropriate method of doing so.
The Minister is doing an excellent job of setting out a complex set of arguments. He will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) suggested that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee look at this issue, given its complexity. I know that the Minister has covered a lot of topics, but before he concludes his remarks will he tell the House his observations on the merits of that suggestion, and say what issues could be looked at? Would he welcome an opportunity to give evidence to that Committee?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that and this is probably an appropriate place to begin drawing my comments to a close. Some of what I have said has been a little complex and dry, but it is important to set out the legal background to some of the issues and I hope that I have answered in main the points raised by hon. Members.
I want to thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate, including the hon. Members for South Thanet, for Bristol East, for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). Although the speech by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) was brief, it was beautifully formed in a pre-Christmas spirit that somehow seemed so appropriate. All those Members have practical experience in this area.
I also thank those Members with a genuine interest, concern and expertise in this area such as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, for whom I have a great deal of respect, as well as the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Southend West (Mr Amess).
I have mentioned the hon. Member for Ogmore many times and covered what he said almost word for word. It is unnecessary for me to say again that he and I agree on this issue to a large extent, and that is as it should be because this matter ought to transcend party labels.
I said that I do not want a formal review on this issue, and I do not see any great attraction for one in the Department at the moment. I will, however, continue to consider whether I should change my view on that. However, I want to review all our animal welfare issues, and live exports is just one among many. Whatever we do, I want to ensure that this country has the highest levels of animal welfare and protection—I hope I have given a flavour of that to the House—and that regulations and laws are enforced rigorously. I want an environment in which people understand that they must carry out that duty if they look after animals, whether a domestic pet, flock of sheep, herd of cows or killer whale. Whatever animal people look after, they must do so properly as it is their responsibility and we will enforce that.
If the Committee wants to undertake a review—it is not for me to tell it whether it should or not—I would be delighted for it to do so and happy to provide any evidence and support it needs to do its work properly. That is a matter for the Committee to decide. The Government welcome this debate and the opportunity to put on the record some of the things we have done and will do to ensure that what happened at Ramsgate on 12 September does not happen again. Wherever possible we must maintain the highest possible levels of animal protection in this country, which is what the House wants us to do.
I thank the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for co-sponsoring the debate. I also thank all other Members, from farmers to animal campaigners, who took part in it. We have had a full spectrum of views, but we have been bound together by our common purpose of considering animal welfare.
I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for his contribution and the Minister and his team. I represent the people of Ramsgate, and we want the most robust regulation that can be put in place. We welcome the statement about zero tolerance, which must be upheld. We would like to establish a definition of a fit and proper operator of the trade. One day, we will resolve the trade through the EU. In the meantime, I look to the Minister’s good offices to ensure that it is regulated effectively.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of live animal exports and animal welfare.