Monday 16 March 2020
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Sentience and Welfare of Animals
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 242239 relating to the sentience and welfare of animals.
It is a genuine pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, because I know how committed you have been to animal welfare over many years in Parliament. I am sure that if you were not in the Chair, you would be speaking in favour of the petition—I hope that is not slightly presumptuous of me.
There is widespread support for introducing the recognition of animal sentience, as enshrined in article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, into UK law. Nearly 104,000 people signed the petition that led to this debate, and 43 organisations are backing the Better Deal for Animals campaign. I have only just joined the Petitions Committee, and this is the first petition I am speaking in favour of, but it is a real privilege to be able to debate it because we have been pushing for it for such a long time. I have taken part in Petitions Committee debates as a Back Bencher and been slightly frustrated that the person moving the petition has not been fully on board with the sentiments behind it, but I can assure the petitioners that I very much agree with what the petition asks for.
I will explain later why the sentiment behind the petition is so important, but I want to retrace the journey that has led us to today’s debate. Back in November 2017—well over two years ago—I added my name to a new clause to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that was tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). New clause 30 called for the EU protocol on animal sentience, as set out in the Lisbon treaty, to be recognised in domestic law post Brexit. For some reason, the Government did not want to accept new clause 30; various reasons were given at the time.
However, in the face of a mass email campaign from the public—those of us who were Members back then will remember that it was a massive campaign—and vocal support from charities and NGOs, the Government clearly had to do something. They promised to legislate separately, and the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill—all three clauses of it—was published in December 2017 and put out for consultation. It is fair to say that the sentience provision, which was only one clause, was flawed, as we heard when we took evidence about it on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The consultation closed at the end of January 2018, but it was not until August 2018 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got around to publishing the outcome. The only excuse I have heard for the delay is that the Department had been absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the public response. That was in August 2018, and nothing has happened.
When questioned about the lack of action, one Minister told me that the Department wanted to legislate on sentience. We heard all the usual things about the lack of parliamentary time; again, however, those of us who were in the last Parliament know there was an awful lot of time when we were sitting around doing very little, and it would have been pretty easy to get a very short Bill through Parliament. The Minister did say to me at one point that the Department was looking for a suitable vehicle to introduce legislation, so I provided one. With help from animal welfare organisations, I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill in April 2019, hoping it would spur the Government to action, but it did not. In fact, I have heard that a draft Bill was produced in July 2019 and circulated across Departments. I have heard, too, that it has been shown to animal welfare campaign groups. I have some inkling of what might be in it, but I have not actually seen it. Still, it is progress of some sort.
Since July 2019, when that mysterious Bill was perhaps put into circulation, we have had two Queen’s Speeches—in October and December—and there was no mention of the Bill in either. Despite the Government’s assurances way back in November 2017 that they would legislate before Brexit, we have now left the EU, with no legislation in place. Indeed, the animal sentience provision is one of the only provisions that were not carried over and incorporated into UK legislation when we left the EU on 31 January 2020, and the measure needs to be in place by 1 January 2021. Clearly, we are starting to run out of time.
If we do not legislate now, there are a number of risks. For example, the import of lower-welfare animal products could be permitted under new trade deals. That is something that I, the Minister and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), thrashed out in some detail in the Agriculture Bill—some of us for the second time. It is an important issue for animal sentience. Another issue is that developers might not have to consider the impact of new roads, housing or major infrastructure projects on wildlife in the area. Through its overseas aid or trade programmes, the UK could invest in the kinds of intensive farming systems that are not allowed in the UK because of animal welfare concerns. It would be more difficult to take action against inhumane wildlife management practices and wildlife crime.
I find the Government’s reluctance to act utterly bewildering. They are very keen to talk about how we have the highest animal welfare standards in the world; introducing legislation would simply be a way to underpin them. There is widespread consensus around this issue—not just in the House—and it is fair to say that new clause 30 would have passed if it had been put to a vote back in late 2017. Most people agree with the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said in October 2018:
“Animals are our fellow sentient beings. They show loyalty and devotion, and they know pleasure and pain.”
In a real display of irony before he took up his post, the current Secretary of State even chastised the US for its position on this issue, saying it displayed a backward
“resistance to even acknowledging the existence of sentience in farm animals.”
I turn to the Bill—to the extent that I can, given that we do not actually have one in front of us. Many of us feel that the Government should have a positive duty, not a negative duty, to pay all due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating and implementing policies. It should not just be about ensuring that no pain or suffering is caused to animals, but about considering the five freedoms and ensuring they have happy, healthy and fulfilled lives. The Bill should provide for animal welfare assessments to be prospective, not retrospective: any report to Parliament involving the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee should be done before policy is made, not afterwards. That should apply to all policy areas and to all sentient animals.
I have heard reports that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is seeking to be excluded from the Bill’s remit, which could mean that it would not have to pay due regard to matters of animal sentience when giving the go-ahead for planning permission for mega-farms. I think we all feel that the Government should be able to have a say on that beyond the concerns about slurry and local environmental impact, which are used at the moment to prevent things such as the Nocton dairy farm.
Many of us would like to see in the Bill a recognition of the sentience of decapod crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters, and of cephalopods such as cuttlefish, squid and the extremely intelligent octopus. Campaigns are being led by the Shellfish Network and Crustacean Compassion—the Minister is nodding, so I am sure she is aware of them. I have heard that research on whether such creatures are sentient beings has been put out to tender; the closing date is 2 April. The research will be carried out between May and November. Can the Minister tell us why the tender process has been held up for so long? We have been asking for this provision to go in the Bill ever since it was first mooted. If the research does not conclude till November, it will be too late to get the conclusion of that research into a Bill that has to be passed before 31 December.
There also needs to be a power in the Bill to create an animal welfare advisory commission. I understand that the Government support the idea to an extent, but there is no chance of its being established as a non-departmental body. It would instead be within DEFRA, which raises concerns that it would not really have the independence it needs. It would need to be able to advise all Departments, so it is not just a matter for DEFRA. Scotland recently set up its equivalent Animal Welfare Commission, with 12 independent commissioners appointed. Why cannot the UK Government commit to doing likewise?
We pride ourselves in this country on our strong record on animal welfare. As every Member present will know, few campaigns fill our postbags and email inboxes like those focused on animal welfare. However, we cannot be complacent and allow economic pressures to roll our standards back. Some people—a vocal minority—question whether such legislation is needed. Some people want greater licence to ignore animal welfare concerns, either so they can cram animals into ever more intensive and industrialised farming systems, or so they can pursue so-called country sports.
Consecutive Tory Governments have repeatedly promised to recognise animal sentience in law and have been given chance after chance to act and bring forward legislation. The time for excuses has passed; the time for action is now.
It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who made a very valuable speech.
I believe that animals are sentient beings and fully accept that they feel pain and suffering as well as pleasure. The amount of pleasure that we showed to our dog and that our dog showed to us served as a genuine indication that animals are genuinely sentient beings. However, we also need to consider the issue in the context of UK animal welfare standards, of which I am rightly proud, and of what we have achieved by setting them up. I would certainly pay great attention to that and ask the House to do so as well.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the law, I do not believe that the inclusion of a new clause in the withdrawal Bill was the right way to go about this. It is always convenient to add more and more to Bills until they become nothing more than Christmas trees. That would have been the case in this instance; we could have added endless numbers of things to the Bill. Under existing UK law, animals are already recognised as sentient—I will try to find the reference during my speech. We already recognise in law that animals are sentient creatures, and we should hang on to that firm belief.
I am quite exasperated by the hon. Lady’s mention of trade deals. I am not sure how much more has to be said or written to say that we are not going for cheap trade deals that bring contaminated food into the UK. The matter came up in this Chamber last week, and the Minister in that debate made the point—as indeed, did I—that that has been ruled out for very good reasons. I suggest that we remember that.
I want to raise a couple of concerns about the Government’s response. Finn’s law—the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019—which, as the hon. Lady will know, was introduced as a private Member’s Bill by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), is a very good indication of general as well as specific thinking. Specifically, the law ensures that service animals such as police dogs and horses are offered greater protection, which is extremely valuable, and removes a section of self-defence law that is often used by those who want to harm service animals. Finn’s law is indicative of a wider appreciation of animals shown by the Conservative party, and there seems to be agreement across the House that we should show such appreciation. That is a very good indication for the future.
The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty offences from six months to five years. That is an appropriate sentence to apply to those who commit such offences. Since some of those issues were first raised with us in 2018, I ask the Minister why not enough has been done in the short term to bring those changes forward. Why are we still having debates like this? Why have we not been presented with Bills so that we can make our commitment plain in debates in the main Chamber? I would be grateful if the Minister responded to that point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). Unsurprisingly, I, like many hon. Members, have been inundated with constituents’ emails and letters about animal sentience. We are a nation of animal lovers; nearly half of UK households have pets—we own approximately 51 million pets.
Like us, animals are sentient beings with feelings and emotions, and can also experience suffering and pain. It is crucial that the Government recognise animal sentience and place animal welfare at the heart of their policy agenda. I am proud to belong to a party that prioritises the welfare of animals: the Hunting Act 2004 banned fox hunting, while the Animal Welfare Act 2006 protected the treatment of domestic animals.
This month, the Barnsley Brownies collected food and treat donations for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal centre. Their charity badges are well-earned symbols of their compassion and kindness. Programmes such as the RSPCA’s generation kindness project help to teach those important values to schoolchildren and influence how they treat animals and each other. I encourage the Government to recognise the importance of those values.
The national curriculum should contain lessons on how to take care of animals, especially wild animals that have been taken from their natural environment and need to be returned safely and unharmed. No animal should be forced to endure unnecessary suffering. People who purposely harm animals for their own enjoyment, or simply because they believe that the pain of animals is beneath their consideration, should be appropriately punished.
The RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty line receives, on average, a phone call every 30 seconds. In a single year, more than 1,000 reports were made in Barnsley alone. I have worked closely with the RSPCA in Barnsley and seen at first hand the work it does, particularly when I travelled around the local area with an RSPCA inspector over an afternoon. It is not enough that those convicted of animal cruelty offences receive merely a slap on the wrist. We need tougher sentences to prevent those who might do harm to innocent creatures from doing so. All animals, domestic or wild, should be protected by the same five-year maximum sentence.
I call on the Government to enshrine animal welfare standards in UK law so that public authorities pay attention to animals’ welfare needs as sentient beings when implementing public policy. We need legislation that recognises the sentience of animals, acknowledges their capacity to feel, and commits to protecting them as creatures deserving of respect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on having secured not just one debate this afternoon, but two. It is good to see that so many parliamentarians are interested in animal welfare issues, because that certainly never used to be the case. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who organised a splendid dinner last week. There are no political divides between us when it comes to our interest in animal welfare measures, although unlike her, I am not a vegan. She has done a splendid job by having secured this afternoon’s two debates.
I was very keen to leave the European Union for all sorts of reasons. I think our animal welfare legislation is perhaps the best in the world. I will not use my brief contribution as an opportunity to attack the farming community, because it faces a number of difficult challenges, but that will not stop me speaking out about animal sentience. I am a proud patron, like you, Sir Roger, of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. I have worked very closely with those pushing to recognise animals as the sentient things that they are. Animal welfare is undoubtedly of increasing concern among the general public.
We are in the middle of a crisis; it is a nightmare, like the worst sort of science fiction movie ever. If older people are to be asked to spend more time in their homes, animals will be of enormous importance to them. Scientists have proven that animals are capable of feeling pain. There should be no argument about that. Animals suffer fear and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, they experience joy and comfort. Animals have evolved to give themselves the best possible chance of survival. Sentience extends to being able to identify situations that cause harm; for example, mother hens teach their chicks which foods are good to eat.
Over the years, I have been involved in most animal welfare issues, particularly the campaign to stop live exports of animals and put an end to millions of farm animals being forced to endure journeys of hundreds of thousands of miles for slaughter or fattening. I was taken by the fact that the Prime Minister, in perhaps his first speech, said:
“Let’s promote the welfare of animals that has always been so close to the hearts of the British people.”
I am sure his father and partner are a great influence in those matters, so it is good to know that the person in charge of our nation tells us that he regards this as a very high priority. Inhuman practices show a complete disregard for the fact that animals experience the pain, stress and suffering of cruel journeys.
Let me first put on record my interest as a trustee of World Horse Welfare. Does my hon. Friend agree that the very act of transportation causes enormous stress? Although, unlike him, I did not advocate leaving the European Union, this is one area where it could be an advantage, in that it will enable us to prevent the stress that is placed on animals that are transported to the continent.
My right hon. Friend made that point far better than I could, and I totally agree. It is unacceptable that animals are kept in appalling conditions and that the evidence that they experience fear and pain is ignored. As a matter of urgency, industries such as farming must recognise the sentience of animals. They are trying to recognise that and adjust their practices accordingly, but perhaps in the next debate I will be able to enlarge upon that.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said that we are a nation of animal lovers. Of that there is no doubt. Colleagues on my side of the House have found that people power is influencing our views—the general public feel strongly about this. Although the Animal Welfare Act 2006 acknowledged that animals experience pain and suffering, it did not explicitly recognise animal sentience. Now that we have left the European Union, that should be introduced into legislation. The Minister might argue that it is not necessary, but I remain to be persuaded.
Many parliamentarians were delighted to meet Finn the dog for Finn’s law part two, or the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which will increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. Finn’s law came into force in June 2019 and put in place protections for service animals, such as police dogs and horses, from violent attacks. It is that sort of legislation that gives the United Kingdom its proud position of leading the way on animal welfare issues. That is why I want us to lead the way and enshrine animal sentience in law.
We have a very high standard in this country, but if we do not take action to legislate on animal sentience, we will put that proud record in jeopardy. I am glad that we have left the European Union, but I want the United Kingdom to influence the rest of the world through our already high standards.
I am pleased to participate in this debate, secured by a petition with over 100,000 signatures, just like the debate on farm animals immediately after this one. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her comprehensive opening to the debate. Like probably every Member, I received a huge number of emails from my constituents about this issue, and it is important to give voice to their concerns.
Since being elected in 2015, I cannot recall any animal welfare debate in which I have not participated, from straightforward debates about animal welfare to puppy farming, microchipping cats, bans on ivory sales, the fur trade—the list is endless. Those matters are hugely concerning to those we represent, and the debates matter to them. As we have heard, animal sentience is a self-evident truth for all living creatures. They feel pain, pleasure, distress and fear. It is incumbent on anyone with an ounce of compassion or empathy to recognise that and act on it. As elected representatives, we act on that self-evident truth through legislation to ensure that the welfare of animals is protected to the fullest extent possible. The Scottish Government have recognised the importance of that and acted accordingly.
There is some concern, which has been touched on, about a reduction in animal welfare standards below EU common standards in the wake of Brexit. I know the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) was quite irritated that the issue had come up again, but it does not matter whether this is inconvenient or irritating; the fact is that the fear persists among our constituents. We do well to recognise their fears and address them as best we can. In that spirit, I hope the Minister will tell us that those concerns are completely unfounded and will put to bed the ghost of chlorine-washed chicken, as that is in the public imagination. It does not matter whether that fear is real or imagined; if it persists, it needs to be addressed further. I hope the Minister can assuage those concerns suitably. Perhaps she will tell us what commitments her Government will make to reassure those who are concerned that animal welfare standards might be sacrificed, to whatever extent, during trade negotiations.
Animal welfare is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National party Scottish Government have an excellent record in this area, and in a variety of debates, some of which I listed, I have heard Members across party political lines recognising the SNP’s work. A few months ago, the SNP’s programme for Government set out a range of new animal welfare commitments, not least to maintain EU animal rights standards as a minimum, and that there must be no compromise on or diminution of the standards as trade talks proceed with the US. That is a genuine concern; Tory Back Benchers and Ministers might raise their eyes to heaven in impatience, but these matters are extremely important.
I am particularly pleased that the SNP Scottish Government are set to increase the maximum penalties for the most serious animal welfare offences to five years’ imprisonment and/or unlimited fines, and to make changes to the maximum penalties for various wildlife offences.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a new Member to the House, and I am sure he is a welcome Member to his friends and colleagues. I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—I may well be—but I am sure this measure was in the pipeline for the Scottish Government even before he started his selection process. Having said that, I pay tribute to him for bringing this important matter forward to the UK Government, because sadly the SNP’s measures do not apply across the UK. I am sure he will press and persuade his party of Government to do the right thing, and he must be applauded for that.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) can be excused, because he is very new, but we did spend quite a lot of time in the last Parliament debating an increase in animal sentences. I pay tribute in particular to Anna Turley, my former colleague who was Member for Redcar, who, under the guise of Baby’s law—a bulldog in her constituency had been appallingly treated and videoed while he was being abused—did a lot of the work. The new Member may get most of the glory, but I do not want Anna to be forgotten.
I thank the hon. Lady for sharing those points. I say to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder)—I will not call him a new Member because we have said that enough—that I have been calling for maximum penalties of five years since I was first elected in 2015, so I have got a wee bit of a head start on him. We support each other in these efforts, because, quite simply, that is the right thing to do.
Another new measure in the Scottish Government’s programme for government is on slaughterhouses. In Scotland, 80% of slaughterhouses have CCTV fitted, but that will become a requirement for all slaughterhouses under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill. Indeed, the first independent animal welfare commission to be set up will look specifically at how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met and what legislative and non-legislative measures can be implemented to make improvements, where required, and for animal welfare to proceed on an evidential basis.
I do not think there is any dispute about animals being sentient beings; no one would deny, or seek to deny, that. Therefore, there is a responsibility on all Governments to recognise that comprehensively in policy and practice through legislation. It is as simple as that. I hope the Minister will seek to match the good work undertaken by the Scottish Government in this area, especially as we negotiate trade deals post-Brexit. That is the kind of reassurance that she knows our constituents are looking for.
I am delighted to speak and represent the views of more than 150 of my constituents who contacted me to offer their support for the debate. Anyone who has been in the presence of a cow being separated from her calf, as she hurls herself repeatedly at the byre door to try to get to her baby, knows full well that animals are sentient beings. From the thousands of videos on Facebook and YouTube showing animals being released from laboratories for the first time into a space where they can see the sky and feel the grass under their feet, we know that animals experience joy. Who, watching an octopus drag ocean detritus to cover herself and hide in full view of the shark hunting her, would not feel awe at her intelligence or recognise her desire to live and protect her young?
On 27 November 2017, the Scottish Government recognised that sentience and stated that
“the Scottish Government fully accepts the principle of animal sentience and will take all appropriate action to safeguard animal welfare standards. Animal Sentience has been recognised in Scottish legislation for over a century”.
In keeping with that statement, on 29 February this year, the Scottish Government created the first independent animal welfare commission, consisting of 12 members who will provide ethical and scientific advice to the Scottish Government. It is chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer, an eminent professor of animal behaviour and welfare.
The commission will consider how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met by devolved policy, possible legislative and non-legislative routes further to protect the welfare of sentient animals, and the research required for an evidence base for future policy development. It will also specifically consider how current policies take account of animal sentience, the wider welfare needs of animals and what improvements could be made.
In Westminster, the Government have yet to incorporate the Lisbon treaty article 13 acknowledgement of animal sentience into law. That is quite ironic, given that the original framework was initiated by the United Kingdom when they held the presidency of the European Union in 1997. The Government have stated that the sentience of animals will continue to be recognised, with protections strengthened once we leave the European Union. We have heard on many occasions that that is the Government’s view, but no animal sentience legislation has been forthcoming. We welcome their commitment, but yet we wait. We were told in a written response on 14 March 2019 that officials continue to engage with stakeholders further to refine the Government’s proposals.
Now we have left the European Union, it is even more critical that the Government, at a very minimum, have animal sentience as a keystone value within future policy. All existing animal welfare laws instigated and passed in the House of Commons are in place because we wish to stop animals being subjected to pain. We do therefore already recognise animal sentience and should bring that recognition into law.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important debate during these trying times. As an animal lover and owner, I have found the contributions of Members across the House touching. Will the hon. Member join me in commending the work of Friends of Animals Wales, a charity in my patch of Rhondda Cynon Taf, and in particular Eileen Jones? They do fantastic work with the Welsh Government against the barbaric puppy farming trade and are also pushing for Lucy’s law to be implemented to protect all dogs from such awful treatment. I pay tribute to them for their fantastic work.
Anyone who has had a pet and loved them, with that relationship having built up over the years, knows that that creature is sentient. Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that sentience has been described as some unnecessary additional clause to be added to legislation and ascribed as an ornament on a Christmas tree? Does he agree that sentience is surely not an additional ornament, but a central and fundamental tenet of any legislation? The analogy of sentience being an ornament is so inaccurate because sentience is the tree—the central component of animal welfare. Does he also agree that, in line with the Scottish animal welfare commission, that should be a central part of policy making in Westminster?
Order. Before we proceed, I see a number of new Members present, so let me make the point for the benefit of Members new and old that interventions are supposed to be interventions, not speeches. We welcome speeches. If anyone wishes to take part in the debate, please simply rise in the usual manner. An intervention should be brief.
I want to talk about my experience of the criminal justice system, and how the sentences I have seen being given are a reflection of society’s attitude to animals and an indictment of how we treat animals in my profession.
I cannot calculate the number of lower court cases in which I have acted, during which I heard the most harrowing details of animal abuse in interviews conducted by the RSPCA. However, I cannot remember one occasion when a perpetrator was sent to prison. Those cases rarely went to the Crown Court, because of the sentencing powers that we are talking about.
I pay tribute to the Minister and to any Government who have legislated to support animal welfare, but we must increase the punishment available to our courts to reflect the fact that animals are sentient beings, and that we value them as such. We must find a way to ensure that sentencing within the criminal justice system acts as a deterrent to the people who act in the most appalling manner, rather than most people being able to walk away from the justice system with, at worst, a community penalty.
I could tell you how much I love animals, Sir Roger, but you do not want to hear that. I know that this Government are committed to the highest possible standards of welfare for animals, and that they will bring forward the measures they think are reasonable and appropriate to achieve those aims. I know this is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but could she comment on any discussions she has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about giving guidance to the courts, the prosecution and the RSPCA, which mounts such prosecutions, to ensure that we have a rigorous attitude to animal prosecutions and that the courts provide harsh but fair sentences?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am pleased to have the opportunity to sum up for my party in this important debate.
There cannot be an MP anywhere who does not receive a large quantity of correspondence on this subject; East Renfrewshire is no different. It is interesting that there are large numbers of us here in Westminster Hall, considering how quiet it is in Westminster today. That reflects the fact that people all over the United Kingdom are focused on this issue. I have been very interested by the excellent speeches that we have heard today, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who is a tireless advocate for animal welfare, as is the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who moved the debate in such an excellent and powerful way, taking us through how we got to where we are now.
Evidently, there is a degree of reluctance—it is hard to get away from that. Despite assurances from the UK Government, the issue of animal sentience is not being dealt with in the way that many of us think it should be. That is disappointing. As we move forward and leave the EU, there are real risks for animals, including wildlife and farm animals, and in how crime relating to them is dealt with. The hon. Member for Bristol East rightly pointed out how odd it is that the UK Government speak so positively about animal welfare, yet here we are.
On a personal level, it is important to me that the SNP has a strong stance on this issue. I have been a vegetarian for several decades, if not a vegan, like the hon. Member for Bristol East, but I might get there. It has become increasingly important to me and many others to know that animals are offered appropriate and proper treatment, and to have an acknowledgment that they are sentient beings and ought to be treated accordingly.
The SNP is committed to improving animal welfare standards, which is welcome, and we are taking action in Scotland this year to ensure that that continues to be reflected in legislation. It is positive that the SNP Scottish Government recently introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill. It sends a clear and important message that animal cruelty and wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Scotland. The Bill delivers on a promise that the Scottish Government made to create new legislation to further protect animals and wildlife. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister intends to reflect it in similar legislation here.
To be clear, a sentient animal is one that can experience feelings such as pain or pleasure. We have all seen that in reality; we all know what it means. We can summon images to our minds, such as loving and beloved family dogs—the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke positively about them—or horses kicking their heels for joy. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) spoke about cows and calves; I think we all know what he was talking about—there surely cannot be any doubt about the principle. The hon. Member for Henley said that he felt that sentience was covered by case law, but let us be sure and have clear, indisputable regulation rather than relying upon that.
The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke about the repeated promises about legislation that the UK Government made, but that were still unfulfilled. I wonder if the hon. Member for Henley, who was politely dismissive of the issue of welfare standards in trade talks, could reflect further on that. His assurances are welcome, but some real assurance is needed, not just the repetition that we do not need to worry about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran explained, there is significant concern amongst our constituents and many others. People are fearful about the issue of chlorine-washed chicken, among other things. We need to be able to reassure people on those matters, as well as on welfare. Foremost among the commitments that the SNP Government in Scotland have made is one to maintain animal rights standards as a minimum, and not to compromise those standards during trade talks. As we have heard again today, as the trade talks begin, we must be clear that those animal welfare standards must not be traded away by the UK.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) spoke about the cross-party interest in animal welfare. It is important that we acknowledge that and, given that, we should be able to find ways to move forward. We have heard that the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill increases the maximum penalties in Scotland that can be applied to the most serious offences, and that five years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine are possibilities. I think there is an appetite across the House for similar measures here.
In terms of the slaughter of livestock, we support that being undertaken as close as possible to the point of production, and with full regard for animal welfare standards, which brings me to the issue of slaughterhouses in Scotland. More than eight in 10 slaughterhouses in Scotland have already installed CCTV coverage in their premises on a voluntary basis, but we will legislate in Scotland to ensure that that is a requirement for all slaughterhouses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock spoke about the first independent Animal Welfare Commission, which is being put in place in Scotland. It will be chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer. It will specifically look at how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met, possible legislative and non-legislative routes to further protect the welfare of sentient animals, and the research requirements to provide an evidence base for future policy developments. They are sensible and structured measures. The hon. Member for Bristol East pointed out that Scotland had recently done this and, quite reasonably, asked why the UK Government had not done the same.
There cannot be any doubt about the clear and uncompromising message that animal cruelty and welfare will not be tolerated in Scotland. I am grateful to the Scottish Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon, who has done significant work on that. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) spoke powerfully about the need for consequences for people who mistreat animals and penalties that deter people. The provisions in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced in September 2019, are the type of measures he is talking about. Hon. Members are always positive when they hear that the Bill includes increased penalties for attacks on service animals, otherwise known as Finn’s law. We rightly hear a great deal about that.
In her powerful speech the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) told us where we need to be now. The Government need to pick up on all the issues and demonstrate that they are listening, and that they intend to put in place measures in which we can have confidence and on which we can rely, so that we can point them out to our constituents, who are so concerned about the welfare of animals.
I was pleased when Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said:
“These exciting changes—
those made by the Scottish Government—
have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.
That is important, because the way we deal with animals says much about us. It is heartening to hear the level of people’s concern not to let such things slip by, and to take account of the need to make proper welfare provision for animals. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Southend West said about the challenges we face just now, and how important pets will be to many people. I reflect on a fantastic charity that started some years ago in my area, called Give a Dog a Bone…and an animal a home. It links up elderly and lonely people with pets that need a home. We will need a great deal more of that kind of work, and I hope that people will feel able to support such organisations.
I hope that the people who signed the petition that secured this debate feel the issues that concern them have had an airing, and that the Minister will give some assurances that there are changes afoot, and that there will be some kind of regulation.
It gives me great pleasure to respond to this very good debate on behalf of the official Opposition. There is cross-party support for enshrining animal sentience in law, and I want to express Labour’s full-hearted support for the effort to do so. We have heard powerful speeches today, but there are also community groups in each of our constituencies who engage in advocacy and campaign for 21st-century animal welfare laws. We know that what we do will make a difference to animals—domestic animals, animals in agriculture, and others—if measures are put in place correctly.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her unrelenting campaigning on this area. She has a good position on the Petitions Committee, which gives her a new platform, and will continue to use that with force, ferocity and cross-party support for as long as Ministers fail to listen to her arguments. She made a good argument today.
I congratulate the Minister. This is the first time since she has been in her new role that I have had the opportunity to speak from the Bench opposite her. I am a big fan of cross-party working, and for most animal welfare legislation there is a lot of cross-party support. Sometimes the only thing that holds us back is the ambition to achieve what cross-party support has the potential to deliver. In relation to animal sentience, we have an opportunity.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue and, if the Minister has not yet read Labour’s animal welfare manifesto from the general election, it is very good and well worth reading. Puppy smuggling is dealt with under point 10. It is horrendously cruel, on an epic scale. There is huge public support for dealing with the cruelty that organised crime gangs perpetrate on those tiny little dogs.
The debate shows why Parliament’s online petitions are good: the fact that 104,000 people signed and 43 organisations back the petition shows that there is public support for enshrining animal sentience in law. I thank everyone who clicked on the link, then went to their email inbox to find the email and clicked the confirmation link to make sure their name could be added. I thank them for participating in earlier petitions as well as the present one, because the arguments have not changed. There may have been a slight adjustment as to which faces are around the table, but the importance of animal sentience remains.
The petition states:
“EU law recognises animals as sentient beings, aware of their feelings and emotions.”
That is enshrined in the Lisbon treaty and the Government chose not to move that provision over in Brexit legislation. There was an outcry at the time and Ministers have been dragging their heels ever since, trying to make the case that although the issue is important, enshrining it in law is not really necessary. I say that it is necessary and important, and that there is cross-party support for doing it.
To be fair to the Government—I regard the present and previous Governments as one continuous Conservative Government, although I know they like to think of themselves as fresh, since December—in 2017 they introduced a Bill. They withdrew it in 2018, but we are yet to see any signs of the crucial legislation since then. However, in the intervening year, a prominent and successful Conservative Back Bencher wrote in The Guardian:
“There is currently a cross-party consensus that we should enshrine the recognition of animal sentience in statute to underpin all our existing policies and inform new ones.”
The writer was, of course, the brand new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, during his brief sabbatical from the role of Minister. One reason I have a lot of time for the Environment Secretary is that initially when he was freed from the clutches of office he made a bold, clear case for changes in agriculture, fishing and animal welfare. I hope that now he is thrust back into ministerial office—in the Cabinet, no less—the same independence of thought that he demonstrated on the Back Benches will come into play.
In the same article in The Guardian he said:
“One option might be to suggest that the US introduce a similar piece of legislation at federal level to drive the modernisation of its own laws. We could even send British advisers to Washington to help them do it as part of our trade negotiations.”
I am not certain that the US President would take kindly to British trade advisers advising him on animal welfare standards, but there is something important there: the people with whom we want to do trade deals must not undercut our animal welfare standards, in relation to agriculture, domestic pets or any element of the high levels of animal welfare we enjoy at the moment.
I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to the same Guardian article that I mentioned in connection with the Agriculture Bill. It is hard to believe that the Secretary of State would have written for The Guardian twice during his brief period of freedom. Did he not go on to say that we should protect animal welfare and other standards in future trade deals by enshrining them in law—in the Agriculture Bill, for example?
My hon. Friend is dead right. There is an amazing amount of good political meat in publications by the Environment Secretary from the time when he was on the Back Benches. It feels as if the Opposition do not need to remind him of them, because I am sure his officials have churned through those plentiful publications, and the amendments he tabled to an earlier Agriculture Bill. Sadly, his new batch of Ministers recently voted against those proposals, but they include things for which there is a lot of support, and there is cross-party support for what we are discussing today.
I do not think British diplomats in Washington instructing President Trump to raise his domestic animal welfare standards to get a trade deal with the UK would work, but it is important to maintain high levels of protection in law, so that during negotiations the people we are negotiating with know the strength of feeling of the British people and Parliament: that we will not accept any lowering of standards or undercutting of them in any trade deal. That is why we need the animal sentience legislation to be implemented before the end of the implementation period. We cannot allow our animal welfare standards to fall behind those of the EU, especially after the plentiful promises of Conservative Ministers.
The animal sentience legislation that I hope the Minister will announce needs to apply to all policy areas and all sentient animals. If an animal is sentient, they are sentient no matter how they are being used by humans or where they are living. The law needs to confer an active duty to respect that sentience on all aspects of government. Simply having a function within DEFRA to advise the rest of Government is insufficient because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, there are other Departments that need to reflect the importance of animals in their day-to-day work and that might not, as standard, take animal sentience on board. That is why an independent monitor is such a good idea.
The legislation should require the Government to publish an annual report detailing how the duty has been acted on, including the policy options considered and what animal welfare impact assessments have been undertaken. It also needs to recognise that decapods and cephalopods—that is, crabs and lobsters, octopuses and squids—are sentient animals. In Labour’s animal welfare manifesto, which, again, is a very good read and still available on the website, we make the case that lobsters experience anxiety, crabs use tools, and octopuses have been known to predict the results of football matches—at least, that is not quite in the manifesto, but the sense of it is.
That is why, in our manifesto, we talk about not allowing those precious creatures to be boiled alive, for instance. We know that if you put a lobster in a boiling pot of water, it experiences pain. The pain may be lessened by the experience of being slowly heated, but it is pain none the less, and there are better ways of doing it.
The petition calls for a new body to support the Government in their duties to animals, which I referred to briefly, to ensure that
“decisions are underpinned by…scientific and ethics expertise.”
It has been proposed under a few names. The experience of Scotland was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) spoke about how Scotland has already got there. In Scotland, it is called the animal welfare commission, but it could also be an animal welfare advisory council. In our manifesto, we talk about an animal welfare commissioner. Regardless of the name or the precise format, the function is the same: to support and critically analyse, to advise Ministers and Government to make the right decisions, and to ensure that the effects are truly understood.
My party prides itself on being the party for animal welfare. At the last election, we were the only party to publish a manifesto exclusively on animal rights. In it, we set out how we would appoint an independent animal welfare commissioner to operate in England and in collaboration with the devolved Administrations. Now that the UK is no longer a member of the European Food Safety Authority, we need to establish a body that can advise DEFRA and all of Government independently, and to represent the wealth of scientific, ethics and animal welfare expertise available in the UK.
We know that at the moment there is no specific body that is under a statutory duty to enforce the welfare requirements of Labour’s landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned. That needs to be placed on a statutory footing, and an animal welfare commissioner would help to achieve that. I recommend that the Minister cut and paste that from our manifesto into her Department’s work plan; if she did, it would enjoy the cross-party support that we have seen from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who were united in the same effort here.
The commissioner would be responsible for gathering the latest scientific evidence on animal sentience and welfare, to ensure that there is the most up-to-date, evidence-based understanding across Whitehall, and to ensure that our nation maintains its top ranking in the animal protection index. Working alongside Government, the commissioner would assist in the promotion of best practice in animal welfare internationally because, although we pride ourselves on the legislative framework, Britons care about animal welfare both at home and abroad. To see that, we need only look at changes that the tourism industry has made to remove animals from so many of the products sold to British tourists, because that is not something Brits support.
Ministers are often found saying that the legislation that has been proposed now that we have left the EU is world leading, but time and again the evidence does not support that high-falutin’ soundbite. The Bills that have come out of DEFRA recently on agriculture and the environment have, I am afraid, been disappointing, at a time when many of us—including many of the “greenies” from across the parties and across the divide here—had high hopes that they really would deliver on that promise.
We cannot be world leading without an animal welfare commissioner. We are not even leading in the UK, because Scotland already has an animal welfare commissioner. England is already lagging behind. That matters as well. My little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall and, if she were to move north of the border, the animals that she now keeps in Cornwall would have a different legislative framework and different protections. That does not quite seem right for the same sheep, and I think there is an option to look at that again. I am not advocating taking sheep out of the Secretary of State’s own county along the way, for fear of offending him, but having those standards across our islands is important when it comes to animal welfare.
As I conclude, I will mention briefly the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who said in his remarks that he was exasperated by the language around chlorinated chicken. Indeed, many people in this place are, and the answer is very simple: put it in the Bill. That would prevent our standards from ever being undercut. If the hon. Gentleman believes the words of Ministers—they are said so very often—there is no reason for that not be put in a Bill, because those words are already on record. The thing is, I do not believe Ministers when they say that. There is an important element of building trust in these areas.
The difficulty when we sit on the Opposition Benches, where our job is to scrutinise rather than to support, is that we look for evidence of the words. There is a genuine risk that standards could be undercut.
It is important to make a distinction here, because this is frequently lost in interventions, although I hope that will not be the case with the hon. Gentleman. It is not that we think the Government will somehow lower our standards immediately, but by signing trade deals that undercut our standards and permit food produced to lower animal welfare standards or with negative environmental impacts, we will be allowing in produce that undercuts our own farmers and our high animal welfare standards, and that creates an incentive to lower regulatory pressures in the UK—or protections, as the Opposition like to think of them.
That is not something that is supported. It is not supported by Labour, it is not supported by the SNP and it is not supported by many Conservative Members, nor is it supported by the National Farmers Union and other groups. There are elements of cross-party support for keeping standards high and keeping that in law; it is one of those areas where we can come together on a cross-party basis to say that animal sentience should be in law. If we did, it should be a simple Bill with good scrutiny—the Minister knows that there are many experts in this House who would happily advise her for free along the way—because it is important that we get it done. At the moment, far from getting done, it is just getting delayed.
I hope that the Minister, when she gets to her feet, will give a boost to the petitioners—all 104,000 of them, in nearly every single parliamentary constituency of the country—and reassure them that this petition will not only enjoy warm words from Government, but see Government action before the end of the implementation period at the end of this year.
It really is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir Roger. I am not sure that we have yet reached a point on animal welfare where we are sharing glory, but if there is glory to be shared, you should certainly have a part in that, as should many of the hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate. I recognise that many hon. Members here have been involved in this area for a long time and will continue to be involved, and that is to be welcomed.
I thank in particular the Petitions Committee and its representative in this Chamber, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I also thank the 104,000 people who signed a petition to say that it is important that the House have this debate.
I start by saying that we should be proud of this country’s animal welfare record. In preparing for the debate, I had a little look at the history books. We started legislating for animal welfare in the 1830s—a long time before we put into place many other provisions that we would now consider essential, such as for the protection of children—so it is true that we are keen on protecting animals in this country.
It has never been in dispute that, of course, animals are sentient beings. Today’s debate demonstrates once again that we are a nation of animal lovers. All colleagues will know how deeply their constituents feel about these issues. We see that all the time in the love and money that people give to animal charities. We have heard today about the work that the Barnsley Brownies have been doing, and the excellent work that Give a Dog a Bone has been doing in East Renfrewshire. I pay tribute to all those who are involved in that way.
If we are mentioning community groups, I must speak up on behalf of my constituent Helena Abrahams, who runs Gizmo’s Legacy. We talk about how we treat animals and how important they are to us, but, as the Minister knows, thousands of cats are disposed of every year without being scanned for a chip by local authorities. Cats are part of the family and need to be returned home rather than simply thrown into landfill. Will she agree to meet me or Ms Abrahams to discuss the matter further?
It will give me enormous pleasure to agree to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I am a former officer of the all-party parliamentary group on cats and, indeed, the proud keeper—I certainly would not call myself the owner—of Midnight, voted parliamentary cat of the year the year before last. He definitely keeps me fully under control and has no difficulty in telling me about all his welfare needs.
Until 31 December, we are covered by article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, but the Government have committed to introducing new laws on sentience, as we heard many times. We had an extremely clear manifesto commitment to do that, and I confirm that we will do so as soon as we can, but I am sadly unable to say exactly when that will be.
Obligations on keepers of animals under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 make it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, and anyone responsible for an animal must take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s welfare needs are met. At this point, I thank those vets, charities and animal welfare organisations working around the clock with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials in these difficult times of reacting to the spread of the coronavirus to develop guidance for pet and livestock owners. We want to help owners and keepers to take proportionate hygiene measures while supporting animal welfare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) spoke of the comfort that animals can give us in these frightening times, which was an important, well-made point. We are pleased to support the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who has just popped out of the room. It had its First Reading on 5 February 2020. It is the same Bill that the Government introduced in the last Parliament, and this small but critical piece of legislation will increase maximum sentences for animal welfare abuses tenfold, from six months to five years. It was good to hear the breaking news during the debate that we will next hear about this important Bill on 12 June.
I understand the concerns raised about the loss of protections as we leave the EU. I have never spoken ill of Government lawyers, and I certainly would not like to start now, but article 13 of the Lisbon treaty was proposed and promoted by UK Government lawyers. It states, as I think we all agree, that animals are sentient beings and that the EU and member states should pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals when formulating and implementing policies, but only in relation to a limited number of EU policy areas. Article 13 also provides some wide-ranging exemptions for cultural and religious practices and so on. It does not—I hesitate to criticise it, but we must—confer directly applicable rights or legally enforceable requirements. Frankly, it does not provide the sort of protection for animals that we want going forward.
Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West said so powerfully, to do things differently and in a way that reflects the importance we attach to animal welfare. Of course, what really matters is that we can enforce standards of animal welfare. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). We must find a way to ensure that sentencing acts as a deterrent, and I am extremely happy, given my legal background, to have many conversations with him about that, so we shall take that offline.
We have some world-leading animal protections in place in this country. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) will be pleased that we have introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens, known as Lucy’s law, and I pay tribute to the charity from her constituency that worked on that. The ban will help to clamp down on puppy farming and to ensure that our much-loved pets have the best start to their lives. It comes into force on 6 April, which will be welcomed.
On your birthday? That is good news. We have coupled the ban with a very effective public awareness campaign—not everything is to do with legislation; there are other methods of getting the animal welfare message out there—called “Petfished”, on how to source puppies and kittens responsibly and how to watch out for the tricks that clever and deceitful sellers use in this area. I encourage all those who have not seen it to have a quick google.
The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 recently came into force, ensuring that wild animals can no longer perform in travelling circuses. CCTV is now mandatory for all slaughterhouses in England. We also support the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019, commonly known as Finn’s law, which increases protections for police animals. It was mentioned by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). I spoke from the Back Benches in favour of that Act, as I think he did, and I met Finn, which was truly an honour.
The Government will introduce the necessary legislation on animal sentience as soon as we can, and I look forward to debating the details of the legislation with Members, particularly those present. Several useful points have been made during the debate, which I will take back and feed in.
There is considerable and growing interest in cephalopods and decapod crustaceans and whether they are sentient. At DEFRA, we have to follow the science, and because we want to ensure that this matter is progressed, we commissioned an independent review of the science on the sentience of those creatures, as the hon. Member for Bristol East said. A tender for the review was published on 6 March, and its findings will provide us with a robust scientific view later this year. I do not know the history of this matter, I am afraid—I have been the Minister only since just before the review was commissioned—but I think it is important that we look carefully at what that review says. It will be a full review of the evidence out there, and I look forward to sharing it and discussing it with the hon. Lady.
I sort of look forward to that, but if the research is due to run from May to November, and if this legislation has to be in place by the end of December, and given that we will obviously break up for Christmas, when will we actually have that debate? What is the window for that legislation to be brought forward? I do not see that it can make it.
While absolutely committing to bring forward the legislation at some point, I am not committing to bringing it forward this year, which I am seeking to explain is not necessary because other protections are in place.
I have listened with interest to discussions on sentience, including on whether a new animal welfare advisory body should be created. It is clearly important that the Government receive the right expert advice when assessing the impacts on welfare needs. Various models might be appropriate. DEFRA already has an animal welfare committee tasked with providing independent, impartial advice to Ministers on welfare matters. We heard from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) about the introduction of the Scottish animal welfare commission to provide advice on sentience. It undertakes interesting work, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we follow the progress of that commission extremely closely. The Home Office’s Animals in Science Committee advises on all matters concerning the use of animals in scientific procedures. There are a number of models that we can choose from, and we are actively exploring the options.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for securing the debate on this important issue. I know that she attempted to introduce a private Member’s Bill on it in the last Parliament. Unfortunately, there was no parliamentary time to debate it, but I look forward to debating our new proposals with her when we can bring them forward. The Government place great importance on the welfare of animals, and the measures I set out demonstrate the steps that the Government have taken, and continue to take, to strengthen our high animal welfare standards.
I end, because it is important that I do this, by putting to bed the ghosts of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and reaffirming, whether necessary or otherwise, that the Government are absolutely committed to maintaining high standards of animal welfare, food security and environmental protection. The Secretary of State, as the shadow Minister rather teasingly referred to, is very committed to high standards, as am I. Chlorinated chicken is absolutely not allowed under English law; it is simply not something that we have to worry about. High standards are here, and we hope that higher standards will come in the future. Nobody need be worried about spooks in the night.
Okay. I will not take up that much time.
The Minister’s response has left me thoroughly confused and more than a little concerned, and I think that the people from the campaign “A Better Deal for Animals”, some of whom are watching here today, will be equally alarmed by what she said. It might not have been my belief, but my understanding was that the Government were committed, in their manifesto, to introducing the law as soon as possible. First, there was the original promise. Let us not forget that there was going to be a Back-Bench revolt. New clause 30 had been introduced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Government were going to lose on that. The Government made a promise that they would legislate, so that they did not lose. They bought off their own Back Benchers, as well as the Opposition, by promising to legislate.
Therefore, there was a promise to legislate before Brexit, which has turned into a promise to legislate before the end of the transition period. There was a manifesto commitment to do this as soon as possible, but the Minister has just said that it might well not be this year.
It is important to clarify this matter, as the hon. Lady has raised it specifically. The manifesto commitment is to bring forward the legislation as soon as possible. That is absolutely our position and that is what we will do. However, being realistic, we are in an emerging situation. We do not know what will happen over the next few months, and there are three very important DEFRA Bills going through both Houses of Parliament. I cannot, in those circumstances, absolutely swear to her that it will be this year. I tried to give reassurance in my speech that we already have animal welfare safeguards in our law, but the Government’s position remains the same: we will bring the legislation forward as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I do not know exactly when that will be.
The manifesto was obviously for the election towards the end of last year, and we then had a Queen’s Speech. One would have thought that if there was a manifesto commitment to do something as soon as possible, the Bill would have been mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I appreciate that there are pressures on DEFRA and I certainly appreciate that there are many more pressures on the Government now than there were back then, but I do not think that we can use the coronavirus as an excuse for not having put something in the Queen’s Speech when none of us knew about that at the time. My concern is that the Minister seems to be trying to have it both ways by saying, “We will legislate; we have promised to legislate,” while also saying, “We don’t really need to legislate.”
This might genuinely be the Government’s view: “We do not feel that we need to legislate; we already have protections in law, but we know that at some point we will have to bring in a law, because we promised to do that to get out of an awkward situation.” We saw that with the Bill that became the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019. That was a far smaller matter, but again there was, I think, an Opposition day debate, and a huge number of people were supporting the change. Then it was dragged out; there was pre-legislative scrutiny and all sorts of things for a tiny little Bill that applied to, I think, 21 animals. It took forever.
My fear is that the Minister is trying to kick this issue into the long grass in the same way as the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill was in the long grass for an awfully long time. Many people outside the House will not be happy at all with this situation. Therefore, I will conclude by saying that there was a commitment to bring the concept of animal sentience into UK law. There was not a commitment to show people or illustrate by examples that it is already covered in UK law. We had that argument.
The commitment was to put this into UK law. There was then a manifesto commitment to put it into UK law as soon as possible. This is all very much Brexit related, and it was meant to be done by exit day—the end of January this year. Perhaps the transition period will be extended. Who knows? But the Government have made a clear commitment, and everyone expects them to live up to that commitment.
I must now put the Question. Unfortunately, although most of the main players for the next debate are here, we must wait until 6 o’clock to start it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 242239 relating to the sentience and welfare of animals.
Caging of Farm Animals
Geraint Davies in the Chair
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 243448 relating to the caging of farm animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to introduce the second petition in my time on the Petitions Committee. This petition, “End the cage age”, which was led by Compassion in World Farming and backed by a dozen other animal welfare non-governmental organisations, is another one held over from the last Parliament. The petition closed at the start of last September with 107,187 signatures. I remember that it was listed for debate, but another Brexit petition meant that it could not be debated. The then Minister, who is now in the Lords, was very disappointed, because he was keen to see some action on this. However, here we are. Better late than never.
The petition states:
“Across the UK, millions of farmed animals are kept in cages, unable to express their natural behaviours.”
That relates to the earlier debate on animal sentience. The petitioners
“call on the UK government to end this inhumane practice by banning all cages for farmed animals.”
That would entail bringing forward legislation to amend the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 and to phase out the use of sows in farrowing crates, individual calf pens, and barren and enriched cages for farmed animals including laying hens, rabbits, pullets, broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, pheasants, partridge and guinea fowl.
The Petitions Committee tries to do outreach on some of the petitions and it reached out to farmers ahead of the debate by posting on the Farming Forum website. There was not an overwhelming response, but everybody has other things on their mind now. Among the responses that came in were the following comments:
“Animal welfare is of paramount importance to farmers.”
“It is in farmers’ interest to treat livestock well.”
“It is a small minority of farmers that mistreat their animals.”
It is important to put on record that this debate is not anti-farmer; it is about ensuring that current standards are adhered to and showing that we can do better, as we know other countries have. We always ought to look at how we can move animal welfare forwards, not backwards.
There has been some welcome progress at the European level over the years. There have been EU-wide bans on veal crates and barren battery cages for laying hens, and a partial ban on sow stalls. As I am sure the Minister would tell us, sow stalls have been banned altogether in the UK, which shows that being in the EU did not stop us going further when we wanted to, although that is often used as an excuse. Animals have been recognised as sentient beings in EU law under the Lisbon treaty, which we have already discussed.
Cages continue, however, to be used on British farms, despite well-established alternatives that allow animals to express their individual needs and have been proven to be economically viable. If the UK wishes to maintain and enhance its status as a global leader in farm animal welfare as we leave the EU, we ought to follow the lead of those European countries that have already banned caged systems.
“End the cage age” campaigners found the Government’s written response, published when the petition reached 10,000 signatures—quite some time ago—hugely disappointing. I hope we will hear more from the Minister today than a repetition of that response. The Minister’s officials look saddened. I do not know if one of them wrote the response. I am sorry if that was the case, but we would like a more encouraging response today.
In their response, the Government suggested that the main determining factor in protecting animal welfare is
“good stockmanship and the correct application of husbandry standards.”
Caged systems, however, which prevent so many essential natural behaviours, mean that welfare will inevitably be very poor, no matter how good the stockmanship is. A sow confined in a crate in which she cannot turn around will suffer because she will not be able to exhibit natural behaviours, even with the best care and stockmanship.
The Government go on to say in their response that cages have already been banned
“where there is clear scientific evidence that they are detrimental to animal health and welfare.”
However, a wealth of robust scientific evidence demonstrates that enriched cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for sows are highly detrimental to welfare, yet they remain in use for millions of animals. I am still working my way through the Government’s response, which continues:
“Enriched cages provide more space for the birds to move around than conventional cages and are legally required to provide nest boxes, litter, perches, and claw shortening devices which allow the birds to carry out a greater range of natural behaviours.”
No one is arguing that enriched cages might not be better than an alternative, but that does not mean that they meet animals’ needs.
The reality is that hens confined in enriched cages still have only a little more space than an A4 sheet of paper per pen. These cages severely restrict many natural behaviours, including wing-flapping, running, perching at a reasonable height above the ground, dust bathing and foraging. Germany, Austria and Luxemburg have banned, or are in the process of banning, enriched cages. The UK should not lag behind, not least because the main supermarkets have already stopped selling eggs from caged hens or have committed to do so by 2025.
We could argue that if people can buy eggs produced to the welfare standards they want, it is down to consumer choice. What is the problem? However, when eggs started being stamped with method of production, it made a big difference in consumer patterns. That is why some of us are keen to see method of production on other forms of produce. However, many people would not make that choice, whether because of price, availability or lack of awareness. When eggs end up in other products, one does not know their method of production. Just relying on consumers to take the lead is not the answer.
On sows, the Government boast that the UK is ahead of most other EU pig-producing countries in terms of non-confinement farrowing, with 60% of sows in crates to give birth and the remaining 40% housed outside and free-farrowed, that is, crate-free. The Government said in their response:
“Research is on-going to develop and test indoor free farrowing systems under commercial conditions which protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”
Again, the reality is that several indoor free farrowing systems that give the sow freedom of movement while protecting piglets are already commercially available and in use in several countries including the UK, so I am not sure what research the Government are talking about. Indeed, systems designed and produced in Britain are being used in the UK, USA and Canada. Sweden, Norway and Switzerland have already legislated to ban the routine use of farrowing crates. Again, Britain should not lag behind the leaders in recognising the science and ending unnecessary suffering.
On calf pens, the Government said in their response:
“The UK unilaterally banned the keeping of calves in veal crates in 1990, sixteen years before the rest of the EU. However, as young calves are highly susceptible to disease, up to 8 weeks of age, they are permitted to be kept in individual hutches of a specified size with bedding provided, as long as they have visual and tactile contact with other calves.”
The organisations that support the “End the cage age” petition argue that, in reality, group housing from birth can provide health and welfare benefits for calves, provided that groups are small and stable, and that housing provides sufficient space and ventilation, and is hygienic and well managed. Cattle are social animals, and evidence shows that calves are much more stressed and fearful when housed individually, preferring to be housed with other calves.
On layer and broiler breeders, the Government said in their response:
“In the UK, the use of cages to house both layer breeders and broiler (meat chicken) breeders is prohibited under the UK’s farm assurance scheme standards.”
It is not compulsory, however, to sign up to a farm assurance scheme. Outside those farm assurance schemes, cages for layer breeders and broiler breeders are not prohibited.
The final example I will give is game birds. About 50 million game birds are purpose bred to be shot each year. The vast majority of those are pheasants. Around a third of that total are actually shot and about 3 million make it into the food chain. However, that is a debate for another day. There is a debate on driven grouse shooting—I do not think it covers pheasants and partridges—that we might just get around to having before the Easter recess. Again, that is a Petitions Committee debate. For the purposes of this debate today, however, I will not get into the ethics of that issue.
Breeding birds used to produce the birds that will be shot are often confined to raised metal cages that are placed outdoors for the whole of their productive lives. It is true that statutory welfare codes for game birds state that barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used. However, as I understand it, that is only a recommendation; it is not legally binding and it does nothing to discourage the use of such cages. Even the British Association for Shooting and Conservation called for an outright ban back in 2010, stating that
“the available space in such cages is so limited that the welfare of the birds is seriously compromised and the system does not conform, whether enriched or not, to the five freedoms which are the basis of the UK’s animal welfare law.”
In 2009, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs initiated a major study, costing more than £420,000, into whether cages could meet the welfare needs of game birds used for breeding. The report was not published until July 2015. I had completely forgotten how many written questions there were, and how much we had done to try to chase the Government, asking, “Where on earth is this report?” Of course, the study was commissioned by a Labour Government. Then, when there was a coalition Government, it just seemed to disappear entirely. As I said, it took until July 2015 for the report to be published. However, the eventual report was pretty disappointing, in that it did not examine the issue of whether cages could be justified; it just compared cages of different sizes and with different types of enrichment.
Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the Agriculture Bill, which currently awaits a date for its Report stage in the House of Commons. Clause 1 sets out a new system of farming subsidies, seeking to ensure that public money is used to deliver public goods. Those public goods include improving animal welfare, but the Bill is silent on what constitutes better animal welfare, or exactly what farmers would be rewarded for, although I think that we made it clear in Committee that farmers should not be rewarded just for meeting the current legal standards. They should be rewarded for going above that level, but then the question arises: how far above that level is worthy of reward? Many of us are keen to see that it is those farmers who are willing to go substantially beyond the legal minimum requirements of normal good practice, not only on preventing animals from suffering but in giving them positive experiences, who should be rewarded under the financial incentives in the new subsidies system.
To ensure that financial assistance supports genuinely higher levels of animal welfare, the Bill should provide that payments may only be made in respect of farms that enable animals to engage in their natural behaviours, as identified by scientific research. Farmers operating cage systems should not receive any support under animal welfare payments.
If the UK truly wishes to be the global leader in animal welfare, we need to take steps to end the cage age for more than 6 million animals that are confined each year. Several countries across the EU have already prohibited certain cages that we still allow in the UK. The UK needs to set an example and take an ambitious approach to increasing the number of animals farmed to higher animal welfare standards if it is not to be left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I was very keen to take part in this debate because it is in response to a public petition. As a result, we are partaking in democracy in action and I was very keen to come along to contribute. I am also delighted to take part to ensure that I represent the many constituents of mine in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill who signed not only this petition but the petition that was discussed in the previous debate.
Animal welfare is taken extremely seriously in Scotland and by the Scottish Government. The Scottish National party has been very vocal in addressing concerns about the caging of animals and we are currently taking steps to strengthen animal welfare legislation through our Parliament. Indeed, a consultation seeking views on proposals to strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare legislation by increasing the maximum available penalties and the use of fixed penalty notices took place in Scotland, and it has guided the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which had its stage one debate in the Scottish Parliament just last week, on 12 March. The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause any animal unnecessary suffering.
Recently, MEPs voted in Strasbourg to demand a new law to protect animals, and called on national Governments right across Europe to roll back on intensive battery farms for rabbits, and to financially reward farmers who use pens instead of cages. They have also called for the European Commission to come forward with housing guidelines for rabbits and other animals, and to ensure that imported animals enjoy the same welfare rights and the same food criteria as their domestically reared counterparts.
The SNP Scottish Government invest £20 million a year in support of animal health and welfare, and they employ highly skilled and qualified workforces across Scotland, led by our chief veterinary officer, Sheila Voas. The Government in Scotland also recently introduced an animal welfare Bill, which sends a clear message that animal cruelty and wildlife crimes will not be tolerated in Scotland, nor indeed—hopefully—across the United Kingdom. So, if the UK leads the world on this issue, as a Scotsman it is comforting to know that that once again Scotland is leading the UK; of course, that is not for the first time and not only in this particular area.
The Scottish animal welfare Bill is rightly far-reaching and punitive. If someone is found to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, whether it be a pet, livestock or an animal involved, say, in the practice of animal fighting, that will result in a custodial sentence of up to five years and the potential for an unlimited fine. These measures will go some way to combating those who make money from these inhumane and barbaric practices. If the UK needs a precursor, it need look no further than Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament.
The Bill will deliver on the Scottish Government’s commitment to create new legislation to further protect animals and wildlife. We will ensure that the welfare needs of animals are met by placing a duty of care on the people who are responsible for their upkeep and maintenance. The welfare of all our protected animals is provided for under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which places a duty of care on pet owners and others responsible for animals to ensure that the welfare needs of animals are constantly met. The Scottish Government will produce supplementary information in the guidance for that Act, and will update that guidance regularly. The programme for government of 2019-20 commits to increasing the penalties set out in the 2006 Act for causing unnecessary suffering, resulting in a five-year term of imprisonment and an unlimited fine, as I have previously mentioned.
We know fine well that this is an area that many people across the United Kingdom have serious concerns about; the sheer number of people who signed both the petitions that we have debated today illustrates that perfectly. The direction of travel in a post-Brexit set of nations is key in how we implement further legislation. If the UK truly wishes to be a world leader on this issue, we must enact these changes, accept that they need to be made, and show a desire to implement them.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who opened this debate, that if we are going to end the use of cages and pens, we should ensure that the moneys given out go to the people who enact the policies that we want to see across the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on leading this debate on the second petition we are considering today, and on the detail of her speech. I commend her for what she said and I agree with her completely. Science has shown that animals have the capacity to feel and have emotions, as was made clear in the previous debate, and it is vital that the UK Government recognise that.
I wish to pay tribute to Compassion in World Farming. The day before we left the European Union, I was in Brussels and I went to the Compassion in World Farming headquarters to discuss various issues. It does a first-class job. At last week’s dinner, which the hon. Member for Bristol East hosted, I was very impressed with the chief executive who explained how the organisation started, which was as a result of farmers. When the hon. Lady said that farmers do love animals, she was absolutely right. Many of them are what we could describe as big softies, so I do not think it is the House’s intention today to bully them. Great progress has been made but, as ever, I want them go further.
There is huge support on the issue. Without wishing to put too much pressure on my hon. Friend the Minister, the aspirations of more than 100,000 people will or will not be met, depending on how she responds to this debate. Like many colleagues, I am appalled by the cruel conditions in which millions of farm animals throughout the world are kept: in cramped and restricted cages, preventing them from performing their natural behaviours, and causing extreme frustration and suffering.
Pigs, hens and game birds are kept in cages that confine and restrict their movements. Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation figures show that there are currently 500,000 sows in the UK and 50% of them are in cages. Sows are placed in farrowing crates to limit their movements when giving birth, as has been said. In the following weeks, the metal frame means that they cannot turn around and can scarcely move backwards or forwards. The crates have been banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, and we must implement a ban here now. It is unacceptable that animals have to endure such horrendous conditions.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has called for a ban on farrowing crates. The use of farrowing crates is allowed and they are used routinely in the rest of the EU, except in the countries I have mentioned. However, there are commercially available free farrowing systems such as 360°, PigSAFE, and SWAP, which are acceptable alternatives. The foundation calls for a ban on farrowing crates that severely restrict the sow’s movement and her strong instinct to build a nest before giving birth—I do not know how many colleagues recognise that a pig tries to build a nest before giving birth. The farrowing crate is a small metal cage in which pregnant sows are imprisoned for weeks on end, usually from a week before giving birth until the piglets are weaned three to four weeks later. The sow is subjected to that treatment roughly twice a year.
The metal frame of the crate is just centimetres bigger than the sow’s body and severely restricts her movements. She is completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward, and frequently rubs against the bars when standing up and lying down. Beside her cage is a creep area for her piglets. The flooring is hard concrete and some form of heating—mats or, more commonly, heat lamps—is used as a substitute for the warmth of the mother’s body. That really is not acceptable. Can parliamentarians imagine being imprisoned in a metal crate for weeks on end, unable to see the sun, feel a blade of grass or turn around? It is cruel beyond belief, which is why I support Compassion in World Farming.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation also feels strongly about cages for egg-laying birds. My wife insists that when we go shopping, we purchase free-range eggs. Caging egg-laying birds causes immense suffering. Cages confine and restrict the hens’ movement. They prohibit many of an animal’s natural instincts, and they are a grim reflection on our society. Despite the obvious failings of these miserable cage systems, around 16 million farm animals are trapped in them every year in the United Kingdom.
We need a kinder future for animals. As someone who has kept chickens in reasonably large numbers in an urban area—I do not know whether the neighbours were always pleased about it—I know one can become very fond of one’s hen. Could I wring a chicken’s neck? It just would not happen. They are wonderful animals. I hope we can persuade the small minority of the farming community to stop keeping them in such a cruel manner.
Luxembourg has already banned the use of enriched cages—I know it is only a small country—and Austria and Germany are beginning to phase them out. In conclusion, in response to the petition on this issue last year—in fact, I think I chaired the proceedings and that the then Minister is now in the other place—the Government highlighted that cage bans have already been introduced where there is clear evidence that they are detrimental to the welfare of animals. Science shows us that the caging of animals is cruel and inhumane. Will the Minister reply positively and tell us that over a period, these outdated practices will be banned?
I am very happy to participate in this debate, although I have a sense of déjà vu because, now that we have established and agreed that animals are sentient beings, by definition we should be repulsed by the idea of keeping them in cages when that is not necessary under any circumstances that I can think of. In the spirit of déjà vu, I want to once again thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her excellent opening of the debate.
Nothing captures the imagination, attention or strong feeling of our constituents more than the issue of animal welfare. It does not matter what aspect of animal welfare. Like other MPs, I get more emails about animal welfare than I do about any other issue that has ever presented itself in the five years that I have been an MP. Various important issues have come up, but nothing has prompted my constituents to email me more than the issue of animal welfare. The petition has garnered 106,000 signatures calling for the prohibition of the use of caging for animals. Ultimately, that is an animal welfare issue. We all want to see the highest possible standards of animal welfare that can be achieved and delivered for our furry friends.
As I have said to the Minister—this is another case of déjà vu—in the wake of Brexit, many people are concerned about what it will mean for animal welfare in the UK. SNP Members of the European Parliament backed the “End the cage age” campaign. The European Parliament voted to demand a new law to protect animals, and called on national Governments to roll back on intensive battery farms and to financially reward farmers who use pens instead of cages. We have heard much about that today. The European Commission was also asked by MEPs to introduce housing guidelines to ensure that imported animals enjoy the same welfare and food safety criteria as their domestically reared counterparts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) indicated.
The bottom line is that it should never be acceptable to cause any animal unnecessary suffering. Again, we can all agree on that, because there is never a good reason for doing so. That is why the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 made it an offence. In addition, a consultation sought views on proposals to strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare legislation by increasing the maximum available penalties—something that, as I said, I have called for since being elected in 2015—and the use of fixed penalty notices.
The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill was debated at stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament only last week. Its provisions were referred to by Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as “exciting changes” that
“have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.
Importantly, the Bill will speed up the processes for making permanent arrangements for animals to be taken into possession to protect their welfare, and doing so will not require a court order.
Cages for animals feel instinctively wrong to me, and will to many people. Keeping animals confined goes against their natural instincts and seems evidently cruel. About 16 million animals are confined in cages every year in the UK. I am sure many owners believe that there is no detrimental impact and that they are not harming their animals, but this is a practice with which many of us are not, and should not, be comfortable. How many of us have seen pictures of these huge colonies of hen farms and instinctively recoiled? I know that I have. Although those animals may be well fed and kept clean, such conditions cannot make for a happy hen. How could they?
It seems that the real driver may be the attitudes and values of the consumer. If the Government will not drive change, consumers will. For example, the supermarket Morrisons broke cover a couple of weeks ago and became the first major supermarket to sell only free-range eggs. Morrisons is a commercial enterprise. It exists to make a profit, so the importance of that move cannot be underestimated, especially since that supermarket—as so many others still are—was formerly perfectly content to stock eggs laid by battery hens. Supermarkets make such changes based perhaps only on what matters to their customers. Certainly, it puts pressure on other supermarkets to follow suit, which in turn puts pressure on egg producers.
Ultimately, consumers will get what they want by driving change through exercising their choice. For example, 60% of all eggs laid and bought in Scotland are free range. Given that consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about what they eat, and the process of how it gets to their plate and how it is sourced, there is every reason to believe that that figure will rise. Morrisons is simply responding to that. Well done to Morrisons for meeting its goal to stop selling eggs from caged hens five years before its target of 2025.
The hon. Member for Bristol East said that waiting for consumers to drive change is simply not good enough on its own, and I agree. However, the carrot and stick together are important tools. About a year ago, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about microbeads. I remember saying that the real driver of removing microbeads from products was consumer concern. The move away from plastics by retailers is probably almost entirely based on what consumers are complaining about and what they want. The industry is following what consumers want—admittedly, more slowly than perhaps we would like.
Owing to consumer concerns, the chain McDonald’s did away completely with the use of plastic straws. McDonald’s delivered what its consumers wanted. Think of a big company such as Adidas. Normally, we would perhaps not associate such companies with driving environmental change, but at the end of the day they exist to make money and will do what their customers want. Owing to consumer concerns about the climate, Adidas now creates running shoes made entirely from ocean waste. Those are small steps by huge companies, but the consumer is king. If consumers exercise their power, they can drive really important and innovative change.
At the base of all that is the need to ensure that all living creatures, who have no voice of their own, are given the best care and the most compassionate consideration that we can afford them. That is why I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government invest £20 million annually in supporting animal health and welfare, and employing a highly skilled and qualified workforce, led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer.
The petition is timely, and a bit of a wake-up call. Increasingly, we as a society are becoming more concerned about the food we eat and the creatures around us, which can often be open to exploitation but which have no voice. We are concerned for our environment and we have a new-found respect for the natural world as it comes increasingly under threat.
We can choose to listen to the concerns or our constituents and work with them towards the ultimate goal of ending such practices as caging animals, or we can be dragged along by our constituents who, as consumers, will exercise their power to effect change. Being dragged along is never an easy prospect. It is always best to work with our constituents, and with the farming and livestock industry, to seek ways to improve the quality of the lives of our animals. We want our animals to be not just healthy but happy. I hope that the Minister will tell us what she thinks we can do better, and do more of, to try to ensure both the happiness and the health of our animals.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Davies. I will not respond to that, but it is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair—I am not going to cluck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for speaking to the petition so eloquently. She brings her expertise and her tireless campaigning work on improving animal welfare to the debate, and as always made an excellent and thoughtful contribution. I will echo many of her comments.
I fear our numbers are slightly reduced because Members are, understandably, in the House for an important statement, but we have had some very good contributions. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) pointed out that the devolved Administrations always move ahead of Conservative Governments in Westminster. Not all Conservatives, of course, are culpable; the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) delivered a powerful speech. I associate myself with his comments about Compassion in World Farming and his account of the suffering endured by animals in farrowing crates, which should concentrate our minds.
There have been improvements over the past few decades, and some of the very cruel and restrictive caging systems have been improved. Part of that was done when we were members of the European Union. We played a leading role not only in securing our own improved standards, but in leading and persuading others across the continent. It is worth remembering that we helped to end the use of barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal cages for calves, and sow stalls for pigs. All those things were achieved because we were part of that bigger grouping—a role that we have sadly cast aside.
It is important to pay testament to the progressive thinking across our country, which has meant that we have often been ahead of those in other countries with such bans. However, I am sad to say that every year in the UK we still keep around 16 million farmed animals in cages and extreme close confinement systems, when we are well aware, as we have heard, of the significant detrimental impacts on animal welfare, and when viable alternatives are available.
The majority of farmed animals in cages are egg-laying hens, kept in the so-called enriched colony cages that replaced barren battery cages, banned by the European Union in 2012. They are of course an improvement, but that space is still too restrictive for birds to properly express many of their natural behaviours, such as wing flapping, dust bathing, and pecking and scratching. Regulations stipulate that those cages still must provide the birds with only 750 sq cm of space each, of which only 600 cm must be useable—barely the space of an A4 sheet of paper.
To reintroduce an anecdote I told in the Agriculture Bill Committee—which you, Mr Davies, were not able to enjoy—many years ago I was the welcome recipient of a rescue chicken that fell off a lorry nearby. Trevor the chicken was a great joy to me, but that transformation from a caged bird into one that could display all the natural characteristics and behaviours of a chicken—very quickly; it is astonishing how powerful nature is—was very telling for me, and it underpins many people’s concerns about welfare.
Of course, this issue is not just about egg-laying hens. Hon. Members have referred to the farrowing crates that cage 60% of our pigs. Although the sow stalls that keep pigs caged for the entirety of their pregnancy were rightly banned back in 1999, sows can still be caged in that way for up to five weeks at a time prior to birth and during the weaning of piglets in farrowing crates. During that time, the sow is quite often completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward, and cannot reach the piglets that are placed next to her for suckling. The scientific evidence that sow welfare is severely compromised in farrowing crates has been well established for many years, and we now know that keeping pigs caged in that way leads to bar biting, prevents them from carrying out natural behaviours such as nesting, and can lead to higher stress hormone levels, longer farrowing durations and higher stillbirth rates.
We understand the arguments from the industry about the need to prevent the death of piglets by accidental crushing; however, looking at the evidence, I think the arguments are shifting. There is plenty of robust research and combined studies to date that show little significant difference in the mortality of piglets in crated versus loose-housed systems. Alternatives exist, as has been explained, and I think we are moving in that direction. I fear the real issue is one of economics and costs, but that is the kind of issue that can be addressed.
We have also heard about the issues surrounding calf pens. Although veal crates are banned, young calves can still be kept in solitary caged hutches for the first eight weeks of their lives as soon as they have been taken away from the mother cow. The logic is said to be that young calves are highly susceptible to disease, but we also know that cattle are very social animals, and there is much evidence that calves are more stressed and fearful when caged individually in this way so soon after birth. Research shows that housing calves in pairs before weaning leads to a number of positive outcomes without compromising health or production, fulfilling their need for social contact while also apparently leading to increased weight gain compared with those housed alone.
As we have also heard, it is not only animals farmed for food that are still kept in cages. Around 50 million pheasants and partridges are mass produced in the UK to be shot, with large numbers of breeding birds confined for most of their lives in so-called raised laying cages that are left outside, exposed to the elements and to extremes of temperature.
Regulation is limited to a code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which recommends that entirely barren cages are not used. However, that code is not legally binding, and I fear it is too often flouted. Labour believes that we must put an end to the use of cages on our farms and in our production systems, and the strength of numbers supporting this petition demonstrates how popular that would be. I was struck by those figures: sometimes we see extreme numbers of people from certain places signing petitions and smaller numbers signing from elsewhere, but the people supporting this petition are well spread out across much of the country. I think that ending the use of cages is something that the British people would universally welcome.
Due to those welfare concerns and consumer demands for better welfare products, the main UK supermarkets have already made moves on this issue. As we have heard, Morrisons has done so, and in 2018 Tesco unilaterally introduced a requirement that all dairy calves on its supplier farms be reared in pairs or groups. The use of farrowing crates has also been identified by the British Veterinary Association as one of seven priority animal welfare problems relating to pigs, and both the Soil Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals already prohibit the use of farrowing crates under their labels. We have already debated how we move forward, but in our view, what is missing is considered Government action to step in and introduce measures to end the use of these caged systems on our farms, once and for all.
Simply leaving the burden of responsibility for making this change with individual consumers is problematic, because for so many people, price is still the key driver. We entirely understand that; we do not in any way condemn people who are forced to make choices because they are on limited incomes and, even if they would like to support higher standards, cannot afford to do so. We had this discussion in some depth in the Agriculture Bill Committee. Labour’s view is that we have to make it easier for people to make the right choice by excluding low-cost, low-welfare alternatives. There is clear evidence that if standards are lifted, industries respond and prices begin to settle, so this is a case in which we need clear leadership.
We in this country pride ourselves in leading on higher animal welfare standards, but sadly, other countries are moving ahead of us on this issue. Luxembourg has already banned enriched cage colony systems for egg-laying hens, and Germany and Austria are phasing them out. Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have already banned sow farrowing crates, and free-farrowing systems are being developed in other European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands. We recognise that such bans would need to be phased in, with proper safeguards in place to support the agricultural industry during that transition. Back in 1999, the Labour Government rightly banned sow stalls, and that had a clear impact on the domestic pig industry, so it is vital that Government help is there to support a switch to alternative systems.
It is also vital—this is a recurring theme—that we ensure that any home production of animal products produced to these higher-welfare, cage-free standards is not simply undercut and replaced by imports produced in countries that still use lower-welfare caged systems. That should be one benefit of our new-found freedom to take back control, so I encourage the Government to do so. This is why it is so important for the Government to put into law their promises that upcoming trade deals will not simply sell out our farmers by allowing lower-standard imports.
The Government know this is the right direction of travel, which is why we have been hearing some quite positive noises from them. Both the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the current farming Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), have said that the Government’s aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary. The Government’s belatedly released “Farming for the future”—one of my favourite documents, which lays out their plans for British farming post-Brexit—says that they want to establish an animal health and welfare pathway in partnership with farmers and stakeholders to improve animal welfare and health, including in relation to confinement. However, we feel this is all too vague.
The Government’s new Agriculture Bill, which we hope will soon be considered on Report, is the perfect place to introduce measures for supporting farmers in ending the use of cages. However, sad to say, the Government have so far rejected every one of our helpful amendments aimed at better promoting farm animal welfare and enabling the ending of cages and intensive farming practices. They have rejected amendments that would establish a stronger baseline for animal welfare regulation across the board; ensure that those receiving public money for improving animal welfare went above and beyond this baseline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East so eloquently explained; promote the conduct of research into the impact of highly intensive livestock farming practices on animal welfare; and give the Secretary of State the power to introduce a phased ban on sow farrowing crates and to explicitly allow farmers to receive public money for phasing out those crates.
What we need from this debate is rock-solid commitments that ending the use of cages on our farms is a true priority for the Government and proper detail on how they plan to achieve that through their farming policy. The Government have stated on numerous occasions their aspiration for the UK to become the global leader in farm animal welfare once we leave the EU, and if they were serious about that ambition, they could embrace a cage-free future now. I challenge the Minister to explain why this suffering should be allowed to continue, and why she thinks we should end the cage age one day, but not yet.
Thank you so much for that, particularly the story of the liberation of Trevor. I assume Trevor was not an egg-laying chicken.
May I say briefly to Patricia Gibson—this is just a small point of procedure—that I notice that Steven Bonnar, who made a contribution, has left before listening to the wind-ups? I would be very grateful if she had a quick word with him because that is not the convention. Finally, to complete the hen party, I call the Minister, Victoria Prentis.
I think I will call you “Mr Chairman”, Mr Davies. I do not think I will call you anything else in the circumstances.
I thank the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important subject, and it is a pleasure to follow excellent speeches from Members of all parties—particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), whom I have heard speak passionately about such issues many times. Indeed, we rehearsed many of the arguments in the Agriculture Bill Committee when he was the Chair and was prevented from opining on the subject, so it is good to hear from him today. I also thank the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition and brought this issue to our attention, and I acknowledge and praise the animal welfare campaigners who have played an enormous part over the years, with celebrity endorsements, advertising and general encouragement to improve our animal welfare standards. We have come a long way, particularly with the welfare standards of chickens such as Trevor.
The Government have made it clear that we place great importance on the welfare of farmed animals. The “End the cage age” petition calls for a ban on the use of barren and enriched cages for farmed animals, and I assure hon. Members that the Government are keen to explore the issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister noted in Parliament last year that he was keen to introduce animal welfare measures. We will continue to focus on maintaining world-leading farm animal welfare standards through both regulatory requirements and statutory codes.
The welfare of our farmed livestock is protected by comprehensive and robust legislation, backed up by the statutory species-specific welfare codes. The codes encourage high standards of husbandry, and keepers are required by law to have access to them and to be familiar with them. As part of the welfare reforms, I am pleased to say that the third of our newly updated welfare codes—for pigs—came into force on 1 March, and I will say a bit more about that later.
The Government have set ourselves a challenging agenda of animal welfare issues that we will tackle, and we are taking action on many fronts to improve the health and wellbeing of farm animals. A major example is that we are committed to ending excessively long journeys for live animals going for slaughter and for fattening. We will soon launch a consultation on how we deliver that manifesto commitment, and I am keen to press ahead with that as soon as we can. Our “Farming for the future” policy statement, which is favourite reading for the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), was published last month and reiterates that, in line with our national values, we wish to continue improving and building on our position.
As part of our reforms to agricultural policy, we are developing publicly funded schemes for English farmers to provide public goods—including animal welfare enhancements, which are valued by the public and not sufficiently provided by the market. Such enhancements could include improving animal welfare in relation to the use of cages and crates. Not all the examples that I am about to mention are absolutely relevant to the debate, but given that this is a matter which the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I have discussed many times, it is important that I explain our thinking. We intend to develop publicly funded schemes to support farmers in England to deliver enhanced animal health and welfare, so the schemes are intended to reward them for going above and beyond already high standards, which I think the hon. Member for Bristol East recognised.
To take broiler chickens as a specific example, delivering enhancements may include farms using slower-growing, high-welfare breeds of chicken that have the freedom to exhibit natural behaviours through increased communication and a stimulating environment, or through the freedom to roam, peck and scratch outside. For dairy cattle, the enhanced freedom to exhibit natural behaviours could involve increased access to stimulating loafing or outdoor space, and the freedom to access and graze good-quality pasture. I will come to welfare enhancement for pigs later, but they could include rooting and foraging as well as addressing the issues of crates and tail dockings.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system is currently being devised. I am very keen to include him as much as I can in the way we do that. Some of it might well be tier 1 funding, some might be tier 2, and some—though I doubt it—might even be tier 3, but I do not want to rule anything out at this point. It is really important that we keep an open mind, look at how the tests and trials are going, and then look at how the scheme is developed through the pilots. The point I am trying to make today is that it is certainly intended that public goods include animal welfare.
All hon. Members present can think of many improvements that we would like to see. For example, we might want to look at animal health improvements, such as reduced lameness in cattle and sheep, and at lower levels of antimicrobial resistance. We will focus on welfare enhancements that deliver the greatest impact and benefit, based on scientific evidence. I do not want to stray too far from the parameters of the debate, but it is helpful to continue to have such conversations as the system is devolved.
I want to emphasise that cages are not used in England to keep some of the farmed animals referred to in the petition—namely farmed rabbits, broiler chicken breeders, layer breeders and guinea fowl. It has been mentioned already that the UK unilaterally banned veal crates in 1990, 16 years before the rest of the EU, which eventually caught up. Conventional battery cages for laying hens were banned here in 2012. I am pleased to say that we already have a much larger free-range sector than any other EU country, and free-range sales represent about 67% of retail egg sales—not necessarily eggs incorporated into food—in the UK.
The Government are currently examining the future use of cages for all laying hens, and I welcome the commitment from our major retailers, with positive support from our egg producers, to stop retailing eggs from enriched colony cage production systems by 2025. I was interested in what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said about Morrisons, and we obviously welcome its going further. The Government are also considering the use of cages for game birds, including the systems used for breeding pheasants and partridges. The hon. Member for Cambridge outlined how they are governed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its associated code of practice, which provides keepers with guidance. The Act and DEFRA’s code are enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West described farmers as big softies, and I should probably confess at this point that I have kept pigs in the past. They are one of my favourite animals—if a Minister is allowed to have favourite animals. My pigs were extremely free range, to the extent that they sometimes caused a nuisance in the village—the Agriculture Bill Committee heard a lot about that. As we heard earlier, the UK has led the way on improving pigs’ welfare by banning the keeping of sows in close confinement stalls in 1999. I am not in any way criticising that decision, but it is worth noting, as my hon. Friend did, that we were about 80% sufficient in pigmeat in 1998. The figure had fallen to about 50% by 2003, and it is currently about 56%. I am extremely keen not to outsource animal welfare issues to other countries.
The Government have made it clear that we remain completely committed to the ambition that farrowing crates should no longer be used for sows. Indeed, the new pig welfare code, which I mentioned earlier, clearly states:
“The aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”
It is important that we make progress towards a system that both works commercially and safeguards the welfare of the sow and her piglets, and that we do so as quickly as possible. The UK is already ahead of most pig-producing countries on this issue, with about 40% of our pigs living and farrowing outside. Good progress has been made, but there is more to do.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, DEFRA has funded research into alternative farrowing systems. The commercial development of farrowing systems and practices is not sufficiently advanced to recommend the compulsory replacement of all farrowing crates, but I am keen to work with the industry on this—using both carrots and sticks—because it is important to not simply move production abroad.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. The Government place great importance on the welfare of all our animals. The measures that I have set out demonstrate clearly the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to strengthen our high animal welfare standards. We are actively exploring options to do with the use of cages and will work with industry to improve animal welfare in a sustainable way. The provisions in the Agriculture Bill will help us to do that.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said, the debate was poorly timed as the 6 pm start coincided with the start of the statement on covid-19 in the main Chamber. I appreciate that some of the petitioners may be slightly disappointed that, as a result, the turnout was not as good as for the previous debate on animal sentience, but I assure them that that does not mean that MPs do not pay attention to our email inboxes or do not care about these issues. We definitely want improvements.
I appreciate that all Departments have a lot on their plates at the moment, but DEFRA in particular is overwhelmed—it suddenly has three major Bills and some smaller ones kicking around, having gone without significant legislation for quite some time. I impress upon the Minister that there are many people out there who would like to see higher animal welfare standards. To that end, I hope that we can use the mixture of the carrot and the stick that has been mentioned, rewarding farmers through the Agriculture Bill but also banning things that we decide are ethically unacceptable once alternatives are in place, as is the case for farrowing crates, in particular. I am sure that we will revisit the issue. I thank the Chair for coming because I know that he had some reservations about turning up—it shows great pluck of him to have actually come along.