I beg to move,
That this House has considered animal welfare standards in farming after the UK leaves the EU.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. High standards of animal welfare are one of the key hallmarks of a civilised society. I take this opportunity to thank all the Chipping Barnet residents who regularly contact me about the issue, setting out their concerns. In this country, we have a long and proud tradition of protecting animals, often taking action many years before other countries follow our lead.
About 80% of our animal welfare rules are part of European law and are contained in more than 40 different pieces of legislation, including 18 on farm animals. Leaving the European Union gives us a range of choices in this House that we have not enjoyed in this country for more than 40 years. Brexit means that we have the chance to reaffirm our support for the highest standards of animal welfare. It also gives us the opportunity to consider ways to strengthen protection for animals as we design a new system of farm support to replace the common agricultural policy.
I warmly welcome the statement that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made in October, saying that high standards of animal welfare should be one of the unique selling points of UK-produced food in the post-Brexit era. I would very much welcome the Minister confirming, when he arrives, that the Government’s plans for a great repeal Bill will see animal welfare standards maintained at a level at least as high as the one they are at today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. She is right to highlight that in theory the European Union upheld consistent standards of high animal welfare, but does she agree that sometimes there was not a level playing field? While British farmers were proud to abide by those standards, we saw battery cages going from Suffolk to Spain. At the very time that British farmers were introducing high standards, other farmers in Europe were not abiding by those standards.
My hon. Friend raises an entirely valid point. It takes me back to my days when I was a Member of the European Parliament. I consistently raised concerns about the inconsistent implementation and enforcement of animal welfare rules. As he points out, that often disadvantages UK farmers, who tend to take them far more seriously than their counterparts in some other countries.
I accept that retaining our current animal welfare standards does not mean that every dot and comma of EU law in this area needs to be set in stone. There may be legislative options that maintain prevailing standards but deliver the outcome in a more flexible way that better suits domestic circumstances. I hope we can all agree that the end result should be the retention and not the dilution of laws that safeguard farm animals in this country. Our goal for the future should be the further strengthening of that protection.
When the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently, she indicated that around two thirds of EU legislation could be rolled forward into UK law with only minor technical changes. That leaves around a third of laws within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs remit apparently needing more substantive change if they are to be retained after we leave the European Union. It would be useful to hear from the Minister which animal welfare provisions are expected to fall within that category. Will he indicate when the House will be given details on the practical changes that may be necessary to ensure that the protections they provide can be carried over into UK law after we leave the EU?
I was also struck, in the Prime Minister’s recent speech, that final decisions have not yet been taken on which of the powers that will return from Brussels will go to the devolved Administrations and which will stay within the remit of this place. Animal welfare, as colleagues will be aware, is generally a devolved matter, but in light of the Prime Minister’s speech, it would be useful if the Minister could give us an indication of the animal welfare decisions currently made in Europe that he expects to be devolved and the ones that might be retained at Westminster.
None of us in the Chamber should be in any doubt that the food and farming sector is one of the most important for our economy. It supports many thousands of jobs. I saw that for myself in Northern Ireland during my time there as Secretary of State. I met many farmers and businesses creating food of the very highest quality.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. With regards to the animal welfare standards of food production, would she agree that the introduction of CCTV in all slaughterhouses is an important part of that to ensure that some of the abuse that has been widely reported can be stopped, because those operators will understand that they are being monitored?
That is well worth considering. A number of constituents have contacted me about it. One has to be certain that there are effective ways of monitoring that CCTV, but we should give serious consideration to further strengthening animal welfare protection in that area.
A task ahead of us is to create a replacement in this country for the common agricultural policy. As we shape a new system of financial support, we have an opportunity to promote a new vision for agriculture, to help our farmers work in ways that restore natural resources in soils, promote biodiversity and maintain the rural environment in good shape for future generations. Continued financial support for agriculture is not just important for the rural economy and for food security. In my view, it is critical if we are to maintain high animal welfare standards.
There are methods that can keep the costs of maintaining animal welfare standards down to a reasonable level, but the reality is that, in many cases, humane forms of agriculture are likely to be more expensive than intensive, industrial production, so agricultural support payments will be needed into the foreseeable future to ensure that food produced with high welfare standards is not priced out of the market by cheaper, less compassionate alternatives.
With that in mind, I urge the Minister to ensure that animal welfare is an important consideration in future trade talks. We should not be afraid to ask those countries that wish to sell into our market to commit to acceptable standards of animal welfare. We would be constrained by World Trade Organisation rules, but my understanding is that it is possible to set standards for animal welfare and comply with WTO obligations as long as a consistent approach is taken to different countries. We all know that in trade negotiations, compromises and trade-offs occur, but the huge importance rightly placed by many people on animal welfare, including a number of my constituents in Chipping Barnet, means that our negotiators should not lightly trade away ethical concerns in exchange for perceived economic advantage in other sectors.
Quality, safety, traceability and compassionate treatment of animals should be at the heart of the UK’s post-Brexit brand for food and farming. I hope that we will see those themes running through the forthcoming Green Paper on this matter. Our new system of farm support should reward farmers who adopt higher welfare standards.
I hope the UK Government and the devolved Administrations consider the following four areas for reform to further strengthen farm animal welfare. Before I set them out, I want to pay tribute to the work of our farming sector. I am well aware that the majority of our farmers take this issue very seriously, and that our farming sector’s record compares well to anywhere else in the world. Many farmers I know go beyond their legal obligations to safeguard the welfare of their livestock, but there is still more to be done.
The first area of reform should be to phase out farrowing crates for pigs and replace them with free farrowing systems. As with sow stalls, which were banned some years ago, pigs about to give birth cannot turn around in those crates. Cramped conditions mean that the sow can barely move and there is not even enough room for her to lie down, much less carry out the nest-building behaviour normally seen in pigs about to give birth under more natural conditions.
I apologise for the late arrival—several of us were caught up thinking there would be a second vote.
Shockingly, two years after those stalls were banned on the grounds of cruelty, six EU countries were still using them unofficially. Our farmers are already being undercut under EU rules by countries that are not compliant with welfare standards.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no point having rules unless they are properly enforced. It is vital to see all countries subject to the rules enforce them properly.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. To add to that point, it is estimated that 70% of pork imports that come into the UK fall well below the standards of home-produced pork, as I am sure she is aware. Should we not also be shouting that loud and clear, not only from Parliament but right across the UK?
That is a concern. One of my worries is that so many consumers buy products that are not domestically produced and not subject to our animal welfare rules without recognising or realising the extent of the cruelty that sometimes goes into producing them. We need to look afresh once we leave the EU at the rules and transparency of production method labelling, because that may help to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend describes.
Secondly, our new system of financial support for agriculture should provide incentives for farmers to move away from industrial livestock production towards free range systems. I am particularly concerned that intensive indoor production of broiler chickens can involve tens of thousands of birds in a single shed, each with less floor space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
There is quite a lot of misunderstanding about floor space and broiler chickens. The average life of a broiler chicken is between 32 and 36 days. At what point is the floor space measured? Is it when that chicken is a tiny chick or when it is about to be taken away for slaughter? Obviously, the floor space is determined by the size of the chicken.
My hon. Friend makes a useful point. It is important that we bear those considerations in mind, but one of my concerns is that chickens raised in such conditions may lack exercise and be disturbed or trodden on while they are resting. Many thousands may die if ventilation systems fail. I also worry that chickens bred for fast growth have a higher than normal rate of leg deformity because their bones struggle to grow quickly enough to keep up with the weight that is put on them. The litter on the floor to absorb droppings is generally not cleared throughout a chicken’s entire lifetime, meaning that the air can become highly polluted with ammonia from droppings, which can lead to damage to the chicken’s eyes and respiratory system and cause painful burns on their legs and feet, heightening the risk of disease and infection.
I believe that Britain should be a pioneer of free range and pasture-led farming, and a world leader in the skilful management of such systems.
I appreciate the point that the right hon. Lady is trying to make, but does she agree that the vast majority of poultry farmers do not treat their animals like that? Poultry farming is an expertise and relies on the farmer being able to produce a bird that is healthy, wholesome and good for the British market. That is the main priority. Although it is right to make the points that she makes, they affect only a very small minority of farms.
I certainly agree that, happily, many farmers have far higher standards than the intensive means of production that I have been talking about.
One of our goals should be to end zero-grazing for dairy cows. Research by Compassion in World Farming indicates that as many as 20% of UK dairy cows rarely or never graze outside. I fear that industrial systems that keep cattle indoors all year round simply are not capable of delivering high welfare standards, no matter how well managed they are. Evidence suggests that it is essential for cows to be able to access pasture to engage in normal behaviour, including the exercise needed for bone and muscle development. A review of the scientific literature by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that cows that are not kept on pasture for at least part of the year were at increased risk of lameness and disease.
I come from a wet area of west Wales. Our dairy cows are largely indoors for half the year anyway, and they flourish and are sustained to a high welfare standard. I am not quite sure how my right hon. Friend’s proposal would work for the wet winter months when cattle are actually healthier if they are kept indoors.
I think everyone would accept that keeping cattle indoors for part of the year is not problematic. The concern that I am raising is industrial methods of production in which cattle are indoors all year and can never graze. My concern is not with the farming methods my hon. Friend describes.
Another cause for concern and a reason to discourage intensive farming methods is that they can lead to overuse of antibiotics to fend of diseases and infection caused by keeping animals in unnatural and overcrowded conditions, which compromise their health and immune responses. Antimicrobials are often given to whole herds or flocks of intensively-farmed animals via their feed and water. Antibiotic resistance should be viewed as one of the greatest challenges of our time. Unless we halt the trend of antibiotics growing gradually less able to protect us, we face the risk of a return to the pre-20th century situation where small injuries and minor operations routinely resulted in a fatal outcome. We must take action to prevent that disaster.
Admittedly, heavy use of antimicrobials in human medicine is probably the greatest cause of the problem, but there is important scientific evidence to show that regular prophylactic use of antimicrobials in farming contributes to the transfer of resistant bacteria to people. That has been acknowledged by the World Health Organisation, the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority, and in the 2016 O’Neill report. That independent review, set up by the Government, called for a substantial reduction in the use of antimicrobials in farming as an important element of an effective strategy for combating resistance. Research shows that high stocking densities are a risk factor for the spread and development of infectious diseases, and such densities can allow rapid amplification of pathogens. As the O’Neill review put it:
“large numbers of animals living in close proximity…can act as a reservoir of resistance and accelerate its spread.”
Efforts to reduce overall antibiotic use in, for example, the poultry sector have had success, but other sectors such as pig farming have not taken such decisive action. Our goal should be higher-welfare farming where animals are kept healthy through good husbandry practices rather than routine antibiotic use.
Finally, I urge the Minister to bring an end to the export of live animals for slaughter. Everyone present for the debate will be well aware of the suffering that can be caused by long-distance transport of live animals. Once exported, animals can be in transit in crowded and stressful conditions for protracted periods. As we have heard, enforcement of welfare rules in Europe is patchy, which means that there is a risk that animals will suffer from extremes of temperature or be left without sufficient food, water or rest. We cannot always be confident even that welfare rules regulating slaughter in the country of destination will be complied with. Export from Northern Ireland to south of the border does not raise the same concerns, because the distances are generally short—it is essentially local transport, so any future ban should treat exports to the Republic of Ireland as equivalent to domestic ones and allow them to continue, as long as there is not evidence of immediate re-export.
I have been listening carefully, and it is fantastic that the right hon. Lady is looking for such care and welfare for animals. She will appreciate that Northern Ireland farms are very small, and that increasing costs will make things harder. Would there be a long consultative period in what she asks for, including sitting down with farmers to find out how to go about things? When it is wet in Wales or soaking in Fermanagh, we could find a solution.
Absolutely. There should be a long process before changes are made. However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will have noted from my speech that one of the tools at our disposal is positive incentives—ways of rewarding farmers whose welfare standards are high, when we allocate farm support payments. I am not always necessarily talking about changes in the rules or things of that nature. In certain situations we may use incentives rather than penalties. However, a change in the law to introduce a ban is justified in relation to live exports.
I appeal to the Minister to bring forward legislation to ban live export for slaughter or fattening that can take effect as soon as the UK leaves the EU. That trade is far smaller than it used to be. I believe it would have been banned years ago if that power had rested in Westminster rather than in Brussels. The referendum vote means that the House will soon have control over that decision once again. We should seize the opportunity to end that trade. Now is the time to press ahead and get it done. Many of my constituents would support it. I urge the Government to press ahead and do exactly that.
Order. This is an hour-long debate that will finish at 5.49 pm. The guideline limits for Front-Bench spokespeople are five minutes for the SNP and Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister, with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) having three minutes to sum up at the end. That means I have to call the first Front-Bench spokesperson no later than 5.26 pm. Five Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I am determined that each and every one of them should be able to speak. That means that hon. Members will have only three minutes each in which to speak.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) for bringing the debate. She spoke extremely eloquently on a number of points I had hoped to raise—I will no longer be able to do so with only three minutes in which to speak, but I thank her for getting to the heart of animal welfare and what needs to be done in future. I also thank my constituents in East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow for, as always, placing animal welfare at the heart of my postbag every month, which shows that they are principled and empathic in all that they do.
Animal welfare is a devolved issue, and Brexit negotiations will therefore have a significant impact on what animal welfare protections are adapted, amended and brought to the Scottish Parliament. Will the Minister comment on that? We expect that the devolution of animal welfare legislation to the Scottish Parliament will continue. Furthermore, our rural economy benefits from a share of the £4 billion received in EU funding. Will he comment on funding for farmers and particularly Scottish farmers?
Animal welfare standards have to be at the heart of everything we do. Ensuring that our farming animal welfare is world class is something of which we can be extremely proud.
The zero-grazing of dairy cows was brought to my attention when I attended a meal with people from the dairy farming industry. I was told that cows prefer not to graze, as though they had been asked for their opinion on the matter. I was somewhat incredulous, as it seems wholly unnatural for a dairy cow to want to be cooped up all year round. I am aware of research that shows pasture-based cows have lower levels of lameness, hoof pathologies, hock lesions, mastitis, uterine disease and mortality than zero-grazed cows. We must adopt a pragmatic approach, as has been said, but I ask that those issues are taken into consideration, and that those animals have the very best welfare.
I do not have much time to speak about crates for sows, but I briefly say that I have written to the Scottish Government regarding CCTV in slaughterhouses. I believe coverage is at about 95% now across Scotland, but I urge them to do all they can to reach 100%.
I must declare my interest in farming in my constituency. Last week, I argued that Brexit presents opportunities as well as risks for farmers. We are now at liberty to replace the common agricultural policy with a policy that is tailored to suit the farms and farmers of this country—sustainable, profitable, high-welfare farming that is good for consumers, good for farm animals, good for the environment, good for farmers and good for Britain.
However, we must protect against the importing of meat that has been subject to lower welfare standards than our own, which threatens the livelihood of our farmers. We must ensure that we have appropriate restrictions on the importing of low-quality, low-welfare animals because it would be hypocritical to insist on high-welfare standards for our own farmers while financing low-welfare farming in other parts of the world. We saw the impact of the Irish horsemeat scandal on our industry, so we must ensure that food labelling reflects British farming’s commitment to higher standards—the red tractor needs to mean so much more.
Honest food-labelling standards can and should be implemented once we leave the EU to protect the reputation and high standards of our farmers. The problem is particularly difficult for caterers, especially with complex dishes. There is simply no space on a menu to list the origins of all components, so we need to find ways to help consumers determine the animal-welfare standards that we all desire.
Brexit provides many opportunities for British farming to take its rightful place at the forefront of world animal welfare standards, and for British farmers to be well rewarded for producing higher-quality food. Animal welfare standards must and will be kept at the highest levels in this country as we strive for the profitable, sustainable, high-welfare farming sector we all deserve.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) on securing the debate. Who would have thought we would be having a debate about this opportunity? It must have been the powerful oratory of my right hon. Friend, who played a leading part in the campaign.
I enter the debate with some trepidation, because I am not a farmer and do not have one farm in my constituency. However, I wish to pay tribute to Mrs Lorraine Platt and her supporters for all the work that she and others do for the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, of which I am a member. We very much want to end cages for hens, pig farrowing crates—my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) gave me another take on that—and long-distance live animal exports. We want to introduce mandatory closed circuit television in all slaughterhouses and a method-of-production labelling on how meat and dairy are reared, and we want a ban on routine use of antibiotics in farming.
Many of us were shocked at footage that became available on 17 January of a south Yorkshire slaughterhouse. On its online shop, consumers are told that the animals have been reared in an ethical and traditional manner, but the footage revealed nightmarish conditions for slaughter. In one clip, a severely distressed water buffalo struggled for his life by desperately attempting to jump out of a restraint box after witnessing other animals being slaughtered. Mandatory CCTV can act as a deterrent. It can be used to train staff in higher welfare standards and to allow an independent body to review those standards.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) on labelling. The EU legislation covers mandatory labelling on the provenance of eggs and beef, the labelling of some poultry meats and the country of origin of certain meats. That, however, could be improved by introducing method-of-production labelling on how meat and dairy animals are reared, whether the intensive method or the slaughter method.
Yes, we are a nation of animal lovers. Some other countries criticise us for being silly about animals, but I certainly judge the civilisation of any country on how they treat animals. This is a real opportunity to improve the welfare of animals and how we treat animals on farms. I pay tribute to our farmers. One reason why I campaigned not to continue as a member of the European Union in the ’70s was that I thought the farmers got a raw deal. I am very happy that we are to leave the European Union. We will make a success of it.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) for securing the debate.
Brexit is a great opportunity for the UK to enforce more transparency for farm-to-fork traceability to enable British consumers to make more informed choices about what they are buying and what life an animal has had in the production of food. We should therefore focus on a thriving trade for our farmers, because they operate to some of the highest standards. As I pointed out in my intervention, standards for farrowing crates for sows have been flouted in other countries, whereas our farmers obey the rules.
We will have the opportunity to ban the export of certain live animals, such as the live transportation of horses, which I feel very strongly about. Brexit will allow us to protect endangered species from being transited through the UK, and to ban imports of wildlife trophies, body parts and extracts of bodies. It will allow us to have stronger regulation of animal testing and research, banning that which is causing severe suffering.
UK farmers must not be undermined by lower welfare production units operating abroad. It is vital that we get labelling right. I tried to have a debate on labelling. The EU labelling directive is so tortuous that many years are spent achieving little. The traffic lights system on some of our products was voluntary. Italy kicked up a huge stink because it did not want olive oil labelled as a high-fat product, because it felt that that was discriminatory. I think most of us are fully aware of what we are buying when we buy a bottle of oil or a pat of butter.
Leaving the EU will allow us to be able to take things into our own hands. It will allow us to limit the diseases that sometimes come across from other countries. The Schmallenberg virus, for example, is now widespread across much of the EU. It was not made a notifiable disease, despite Governments seeking to limit its spread. As a result, the US banned bovine semen exports from the EU, including from our significant UK export market, despite our stocks being less badly hit. The EU standing veterinary committee operates through a bureaucracy. With foot and mouth disease, its rules caused delayed response times and exacerbated the risk of spread.
We have many, many opportunities within the wildlife sector, the food production sector, the farming sector, the export sector and the labelling sector to take back control in this country and put our farmers at the forefront. We can stop hiding behind rules that are bent by the EU and stop cross-subsidising inefficient farmers in many EU countries that are operating at standards we would not allow in our country.
I welcome this timely debate. Time is short, but the very fact that so many Government Members are taking the matter seriously means that we will certainly have a great deal for farmers in this country post-Brexit.
There are many aspects of Brexit that we have not fully explored, and farming and the common agricultural policy is one of them. Some 15 million sheep, 9.8 million pigs and 2.6 million cattle were raised and slaughtered in the UK last year. There is always that perceived conflict between cheap food and decent animal husbandry, and I do not think it need be so; both can go hand in hand.
For too long, the EU has cast its shadow over British farming, and one area that has been affected more than many is abattoirs. The 1991 directive created huge changes in structural and procedural rules and in costs. Costs for small abattoirs rose by two and a half times. Not surprisingly, there were substantial closures. We can see that in the south-east, which is virtually devoid of abattoirs. The numbers speak for themselves. There were 495 pig abattoirs in 1990; there are just 130 today. That means huge transport distances, increasing costs and animals’ distress. Of course, increasing abattoir costs mean higher food costs.
The question of abattoirs leads me conveniently to live animal exports, which have been raised this afternoon. There were just 40,000 live sheep exports last year, out of 15 million sheep raised. Every single one of those passed through the small port of Ramsgate. I take this opportunity to thank the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, the RSPCA and Kent Action Against Live Exports, which has kept me fully informed about what is happening in Ramsgate.
I proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to change section 33 of the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847 to allow the local port of Ramsgate, which is owned and run by Thanet District Council, to have discretion to stop the trade. The council faced a £5 million bill following its unilateral decision to close the port after a truly dreadful event that led to the euthanasia of a number of sheep on an overloaded lorry. Part of the High Court judgment referred to section 33 of the 1847 Act, but my ten-minute rule Bill was not supported by the Government for a good reason, which is that we were members of the European Union. We can change the legislation when we become an independent country in a couple of years’ time, but the High Court judge referred to article 35 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Free trade rules, foisted upon us by the EU, do not allow us discretion in this area. I hope that that can now change, as we lead farming into Brexit.
I would be grateful to receive an assurance from the Minister that he is looking carefully at transport times. A maximum transport time of eight hours, which many have asked for, would solve the problem and stop live animal exports out of Ramsgate and any other affected harbour.
We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. I have asked the Clerk to help our speakers by putting up the five-minute guideline limit to help them with the length of their remarks.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) on securing this debate and, indeed, on her excellent speech.
The UK Government’s plans for a hard Brexit, including taking all the nations of the UK out of the European single market—in Scotland’s case, against our will and against our interests—will not only inflict, in our view, catastrophic damage on Scotland’s agricultural sector but bring the serious possibility of damage to the welfare of farm animals. The Minister knows that the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain within the European Union and to continue to enjoy all the benefits and opportunities our membership provides. Short of continuing EU membership, we believe that full membership of the single market and the customs union is the best outcome, not only for Scotland but for each country of the UK, not least in respect of animal welfare standards. Outside the single market, within a UK that has isolated itself in the world, Scottish farmers would face the prospect of paying the same high tariffs that apply to countries outwith the EU such as Ghana or Mozambique, for example. That is hardly the preferential access we currently enjoy.
The consequences will be profound—much lower sales or much lower prices paid to our farmers and food producers. The potential loss of the animal welfare controls we currently have in place to protect both human health and animal health will make future trade agreements considerably more difficult to achieve. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) noted, if Scotland is forced to leave the EU, we would expect powers over animal welfare and protection to be fully devolved to Scotland to enable us to address this challenge.
EU regulatory regimes, enforcement, financial support and legislative frameworks help to protect workers and the environment, and create a level playing field. Beyond their importance for trade, regulatory regimes for food safety, animal health and plant health are essential for protecting Scotland’s consumers and environment, and enabling mutually beneficial technical and scientific co-operation. Most of the animal welfare legislation, regulatory controls and enforcement for which Scottish Ministers currently have policy responsibility is derived from EU legislation. The EU legislates on issues affecting the operation of the internal market and the free movement of animals. Indeed, Council directive 98/58/EC, on the protection of animals, is kept for farming purposes and provides general rules for the protection of animals.
However, on 4 January 2017 the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said:
“By cutting the red tape that comes out of Brussels, we will free our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Rolling back on animal welfare standards will create serious uncertainty for potential markets, as will the developing view that any legislation that has animal welfare at its heart might be further diluted by the UK Parliament. If the overriding Government policy becomes cheap food, animal welfare will suffer.
EU law is at the heart of our animal welfare regulations, which protect our animal health, our consumers and our environment. The UK leaving the European Union will mean the repatriation of EU competencies in agriculture, and Scotland’s devolution settlement must change to reflect that. Under no circumstances will we accept the use of exiting the EU as a pretext for centralising control in Westminster. Nor can there be any question of the UK Government attempting to reserve powers that are currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The future of Scotland’s agriculture, including animal welfare standards, must be determined in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) on securing the debate; she showed her real concern and passion through the knowledge she imparted to us today. The hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) all showed their real concerns about animal welfare and also imparted a lot of knowledge to us.
On this side of the Chamber, we want to see the legal standards set by the EU protected and enhanced even further post-Brexit. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those involved in farming and its associated industries for all they do to maintain high animal welfare standards across the UK. In 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported that the UK was leading the way on animal welfare standards, banning the use of barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal cages for calves and sow stalls for pigs, all long before the EU outlawed them. British farmers have led by example, with 88,000 farmers part of red tractor assurance.
Although the Government have said that existing EU laws will be incorporated into domestic law through the great repeal Bill, the Secretary of State has indicated that there will be an opportunity for the Government to scrap the EU regulations that they do not like. The problem is that the Government could be drawn into a race to the bottom on animal welfare standards when negotiating trade deals with countries outside the EU that have much lower standards than ours. I hope that the Minister will be able to guarantee that the welfare of farm animals will not be used as a bargaining chip in any future trade negotiations.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I have similar concerns about what happens if, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) suggested, the powers are devolved. How can the hon. Lady see devolved Parliaments and Assemblies not using the powers as a bargaining chip to influence international deals that we may be trying to achieve for the benefit of the whole of the UK?
Upholding our standards must be paramount and we must stick firm. I hope that the Government do not try to water down any standards unilaterally.
When the Secretary of State addressed the Oxford farmers conference, she announced regulations that she would like to scrap, including the three-crop rule. If the public are to have confidence in any of the Government’s promises on animal welfare, we must be told what objective criteria the Secretary of State is using when she makes such announcements. I hope the Minister can tell us what the criteria are.
The desire for a ban on live animal exports has already been mentioned. I hope that we will get a full explanation from the Minister on what he hopes will happen on that, because it is so important.
A big area of concern is how inspection regimes and enforcement will be upheld after EU regulations no longer apply. Currently, we have a shortage of the suitably qualified veterinary staff who are needed to ensure that standards are being complied with. That shortage may be exacerbated by new restrictions on freedom of movement. What are the Government doing now about that skills shortage?
Our membership of the EU has been valuable to scientific and veterinary communities; it has provided cross-border access to research laboratories in other EU countries and the sharing of best practice on issues such as disease management. Those links have provided an important means of upholding high animal welfare standards. Will the Minister set out how those issues will be addressed in the negotiations and how he will ensure that those important links can be sustained after we leave the EU?
Does the Minister further acknowledge the need for certainty over future border controls? Will he commit to working closely with veterinary experts, as well as farmers, to ensure that that is addressed in the negotiations?
There is also a need for the Government to develop a new system of farming support to replace the common agricultural policy after 2020, which is an opportunity for the Government to design a system that actively provides incentives for farmers to deliver the highest possible animal welfare standards. Will the Minister say what is being considered?
Finally, will the Minister give a reassurance that DEFRA’s upcoming Green Paper on food and farming will have a strong emphasis on upholding and strengthening animal welfare? Farming is vital to our economy and the Government must give it safe passage through the Brexit deal.
If the Minister concludes his remarks no later than 5.46 pm, that will allow the Member in charge to sum up.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for being late. I was given some unreliable intelligence from my Whips about the possibility of a second vote.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) on securing this important debate about the importance of animal welfare in farm policy once we leave the European Union. The debate about agricultural policy is often characterised by a tension between agricultural production on the one side and environmental outcomes on the other, and there is often antagonism between the two. Animal welfare, which is the third issue in this debate, is all too often overlooked, but it is of equal importance. The kindness and compassion that we show to animals that we raise for food are a hallmark of a civilised society.
I begin by paying tribute to the fantastic work of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. My hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) have been actively involved in that group for many years, and they have done sterling work in the Conservative party. I also pay tribute to individuals such as Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming, who for the best part of 20 years has been a calm and cogent voice of reason in this debate and provided really incisive analysis on some of these issues, and to the progress that groups such as the RSPCA have made to develop assurance schemes that have improved consumer transparency in this area.
The Government made two key manifesto commitments on farm animal welfare: first, to promote animal welfare in international trade negotiations, and secondly, to place greater emphasis on animal welfare in the design of agriculture policy. The Conservative party was the only one of the main parties to put such specific pledges about agriculture in its manifesto. I am heartened to see so many colleagues taking such an active interest in what is a manifesto commitment for this Government.
The UK has a good record on animal welfare. World Animal Protection rates the UK in the upper tier of its league, in joint first place alongside other countries. We led the way in calling for a ban on veal crates, bringing an end to battery cages for laying hens and banning sow stalls.
Several hon. Members—particularly the two Opposition Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) and for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)—have raised the issue of regulation when we leave the European Union. It is the case that much of the current regulation relating to farm animal welfare and the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter is governed predominantly by EU law. I reassure hon. Members that nothing will change overnight. As the Prime Minister has pointed out, the great repeal Bill will, in the first instance, convert all existing EU law relating to animal welfare on to a legitimate UK legal basis, and we will be free to improve that legislation over time.
It is important that we do not have a “glass half empty” view and say, as some Members often do, “That means you’re going to have a race to the bottom and reduce standards.” There are areas where current EU standards are wanting and we may want to review things. For instance, the latest science raises some concerns about the very prescriptive nature of the gas mix that is used during the slaughter of pigs, and pigs’ aversion to that. There is an argument for revisiting the nature of that gas mixture. It will be easier for us to do that and to improve standards during slaughter once we are free from the European Union.
However, some things will change. The UK will regain its own seat at the World Organisation for Animal Health, or the OIE—an international body that promotes animal welfare standards. While we are in the European Union, it is literally unlawful for us to express an independent view without first getting permission from the European Commission. That will change when we become an independent country again; we will be free to make the case internationally for higher animal welfare standards and share some of our great scientific expertise to help other countries around the world raise their standards too.
Rothamsted in my constituency has been looking into bee decline. We often do not have a voice on scientific advancements such as those to do with neonicotinoids, sprays and pesticides, because our voice is subsumed in the EU voice. I would like our voice to be stronger.
My hon. Friend is right. I do not want to divert from this debate, but in all the international wildlife conventions, we will regain our voice, our voting rights and our seat at the table.
Most importantly, leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to deliver the second manifesto commitment that I mentioned at the start of this debate, by placing animal welfare at the heart of the design of future agricultural policy. We should recognise that there are some limits to how far increased regulation can go. As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, there is no point raising standards here so high that we effectively end up exporting our industry to other countries because we have exposed producers here to unfair competition from countries with far lower animal welfare standards.
We are seriously considering the possibility of introducing incentives to encourage and support higher animal welfare standards and different approaches to animal husbandry that can reduce our reliance on antibiotics, improving animal health while delivering animal welfare outcomes. In the past couple of years, a number of countries have been doing interesting work in the area. Denmark has developed a voluntary three-tier system for its pig sector to reward producers who show commitment to higher animal welfare standards. The Dutch have a similar system called “the better life system”.
Germany is particularly interesting. It has something called the Tierwohl system, which financially rewards farmers who adopt standards of animal welfare that go above and beyond the regulatory minimum. I have had representations from organisations such as the RSPCA and others that would like us to explore similar options here in the UK. As part of our policy development, we are considering all those ideas. As I said earlier, we have a manifesto commitment to place greater emphasis on animal welfare in future policy.
I turn to a few of the points made by hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet raised the issue of trade and the context of the World Trade Organisation. As a former Minister who understands the issues well, she will know that yes, there are WTO rules. There have been disputes about the degree to which reliance can be placed on animal welfare standards in trade negotiations, but equally, there are legal precedents and case law to support the use of ethical bans on certain practices and the reflection of animal welfare in trade agreements. I do not believe that anything along the lines that we would propose will cause any difficulty whatever with WTO rules.
My right hon. Friend mentioned farrowing crates. It is a complex issue. We led the way in banning sow stalls. I declare an interest: my brother has a pig farm, and raises a rare breed of outdoor pig. There is a danger of sows lying on their piglets; I put it to hon. Members that that is not great for the welfare of the piglet concerned. It is a genuine management challenge, and it is not straightforward. She also mentioned the possibility of offering incentives to encourage free-range systems and perhaps pasture-based grazing systems. Those are exactly the kinds of idea that we are at least willing to consider as part of our work.
Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), raised the issue of zero grazing. There is some academic research showing that by a small margin, depending on the weather, cows prefer to be outdoors in pastures rather than housed indoors. More importantly—I used to run a farm where we had livestock—any farmer who has turned cattle out to grass in April and watched their reaction knows that cattle prefer grazing, all other things being equal.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) raised trade, which I believe I have addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), a long-standing campaigner on the issue, mentioned live exports, as did others. While we are in the EU, it would be against free movement rules to place an ethical ban on the export of live animals, but once we leave the European Union, we will be free to do so, if that is the decision of the UK Government; there will be nothing to stand in our way. The only thing that I would say is that it is a little more complex than one might think in that we export breeding stock, pigs in particular, and that is a different issue. There are also matters to do with different animals travelling better than others. The area is complex, but certainly one that we would be free to look at after leaving the EU.
Finally, a number of hon. Members mentioned CCTV in slaughterhouses. A report by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which advises all the Administrations in the UK, highlighted some of the benefits of CCTV. Method-of-slaughter labelling, however, is contentious. The European Union did some research and we are waiting to see the next steps. We have always been clear that we do not rule out looking at some kind of labelling for method of production or slaughter, although again the issue is complex.
We have had a fantastic debate, with many interesting contributions. I hope that I have been able to reassure Members that the Government take the matter very seriously.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and the Minister for his reassurance on a number of the points that I made and for his strong support on behalf of the UK Government for the highest standards of animal welfare. As others have done, I also thank Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation for their helpful input to the debate.
I was very struck by something that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) said. The sheer volume of animals reared and slaughtered in agriculture in this country and around the world demonstrates how important it is to pursue the highest standards of animal welfare. Anyone who takes animal welfare matters seriously must put the welfare of farm animals at the top of their priorities, not only because of that sheer volume of animals involved, but because we are all responsible as consumers of the products of the system. We all have a responsibility to work for production to take place in as ethical a way as possible.
I very much welcome the strong support that we have heard from all parties today for high standards of animal welfare, for the efforts that our farmers are already making on animal welfare and for ensuring that we do not see our farmers who apply animal welfare standards being undercut by cheap imports from jurisdictions that do not pursue the same level of ethical concern for animals. I welcome the debate and the reassurance that we have heard in response from the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered animal welfare standards in farming after the UK leaves the EU.