Monday 26 February 2018
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Leaving the EU: Live Farm Animal Exports
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 200205 relating to ending the export of live farm animals after the UK leaves the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I thank everyone who signed the petition, and especially its proposer, Janet Darlison, who for many years has shown a tireless devotion to pursuing the issues around live animal exports and to calling for those exports to be ended. Through her consistent efforts, and together with her husband, supporters and many others, she has raised public awareness about the issue, which is one of the reasons why the petition received such support.
I am leading the debate as a member of the Petitions Committee. The petition did not quite meet the threshold of 100,000 signatures that would usually trigger a debate, but the Committee felt that it was such an important issue and that there is such public awareness about it that it was right and appropriate to call a debate on it.
It is clear that exporting live animals is a complex and emotive issue. There is a variety of views about it, some of which are held very strongly. As I considered this debate and looked at the many representations and documents that were sent to me about it, which expressed a variety of views, one clear theme emerged: anything we debate today is at the moment covered by EU regulations and law, and any changes we choose to make will have to wait until we actually leave the European Union. That brings the situation that we face into sharp focus.
We all understand and agree that Britain is a nation of animal lovers, and has a proud history on animal welfare. I am sure that all hon. Members would testify to the sheer volume of correspondence we receive whenever an issue relating to animal welfare arises, whether it be about bees, puppies or live farm animals being exported. As a nation, we care deeply about our animals.
Sadly, for far too long, the animal welfare regulations that we have been forced to apply, particularly with regard to farm animals, have been determined by the EU. In many cases, they do not reflect the widely held views and values of the British people. We hope to change that. This issue is one of many good reasons for the UK to free itself from overburdening EU regulation and bureaucracy. It is worth noting that the UK’s animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. From farm to fork, our farmers care deeply about the animals that they rear, as do the vast majority of people.
Last year, the Conservative party manifesto made the commitment to take early steps, as we leave the European Union, to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter. I absolutely support that position, and we should seek to take those steps soon after leaving the European Union.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to be clear that when animals are ready to be killed, they should not travel to be slaughtered, or be taken anywhere? They should be slaughtered right next to where they were reared. However, we do not want to get muddled: animals can be transported for further fattening, if they are transported in the right vehicles—with the right air conditioning and in the right type of vehicle for that species. We need to differentiate the two.
My hon. Friend pre-empts a point that I will make later. We need to differentiate animals that are exported and slaughtered shortly after they arrive—I see no point in that—and those that are exported for other reasons, such as for breeding stock or for fattening on. We need to consider those two different categories.
With the Conservative party manifesto commitment, the amount of support that this petition received, and the ten-minute rule Bill that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) has proposed, it is clear that this is a timely debate and an opportune moment for us to consider these issues—not least because of the awareness and concern among the general public.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, many people accept that there are differences between exporting animals for slaughter and for other reasons. At times, there are many good reasons to export animals, such as for breeding stock or for rearing on, but there seems to be no good reason to export an animal that is simply destined to be slaughtered soon after it reaches its destination. I can find no good or valid reason for that type of export to continue.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we should certainly consider that. If, for any reason, our opportunity to make those changes is delayed longer than we would like, some intervention along the way might be appropriate.
Many people agree with the reasonable proposition that animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to where they are raised, and that the carcases should then be exported. We should seek to apply that; it is not only far more efficient, but clearly better for the animals. If we were to do that, there would also be an opportunity to up-sell and to create more jobs in the UK, rather than exporting the value-added part of the process with the live animals. A ban may have an impact on some trade, and we need to accept that.
If the hon. Gentleman accepts, as I think he does, that transporting live animals for long periods in poor conditions is wrong and not good from the point of view of animal welfare standards, what difference does it make whether they are slaughtered at the end, or going for fattening? Surely it is the transit that we ought to look at, regardless of what happens to the animals in the end.
From researching the issue and speaking to many people in the industry about it, I think the reality is that when animals are exported for breeding stock or for fattening, they are usually far more cared for, and are transported in far better conditions, because there is a higher value on them, than if they are being exported to be slaughtered. The market, for want of a better word, takes care of that issue. The problem is acute when animals are exported long distances to be slaughtered, because they tend to suffer the worst conditions. I do not think that applies when a higher value is put on the animal being exported.
As I was saying, a ban may have an impact on trade. For instance, our trade in sheep, as opposed to lamb, relies on exports because there is a very limited market for mutton in the UK; some may think that we should look into changing that, but that is the situation. Mutton sheep fetch £70 to £80 a head when sold in the UK, but up to £200 a head when exported live to parts of the EU with higher demand. Even in that example, however, we need to consider whether that additional profit is right, or whether we should do the right thing for the animal, despite the impact on the market. We need to do everything we can to stop the unnecessary suffering of exported animals .
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the matter is currently regulated by EC Regulation No. 1/2005. Is he saying that that regulation does not ensure the necessary levels of animal welfare? I have to say that my experience, and that of farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, says otherwise.
Surely it is not just about the conditions—grim though they may be—in which animals are transported; it is also that the conditions at their destination are likely to be of a lower standard than we would expect in this country. Our animal welfare standards are generally higher, and given all the noises coming from the Government over the last few months, they are likely to rise, not fall, which will make the issue even more critical. It is not just about the transport, but about the conditions that animals live in.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The petition calls for a ban on the export of live animals, but wider animal welfare considerations are also relevant. We have very high standards, and many of us want them improved once we leave the European Union. We should expect those higher standards to be adhered to, because we should be setting an example in this country. That is what many of us want.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear that he understands the desire to look into the issue as we leave the European Union, and that he is committed to restricting this trade. The Government are preparing proposals on live exports for consultation, and are looking very seriously at a ban in the near future. Even within the current restrictions, we have seen some progress, as the records show: as recently as 2000, more than 750,000 live animals were exported for slaughter or fattening, but by 2016 that figure had fallen to 43,000. The direction of travel is already changing, but many of us agree that we want the trade to end altogether.
Tougher regulations and public awareness have led to a switch to exporting carcases rather than live animals. However, there is still a busy trade in live animals between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and I see no reason why that should not continue, post Brexit. Dairy cattle are routinely sent to the Republic, and the milk they produce is sent back to Northern Ireland. Calves cross the border for fattening, too. Concerns have been raised that to circumvent a ban, a trade might develop whereby live exports are shipped to Northern Ireland, then sent on to the Republic, and then sent on from there. Apart from that being hugely expensive, and thus unlikely, there is already legislation on onward journey times, conditions and the need for approved and posted journey plans. Limiting journey times further might address the issue and prevent any chicanery aimed at circumventing a future ban. There are clearly far wider issues and decisions to be agreed on with regard to the Irish border, but I certainly do not intend to get into them today. With regard to animal movements, I believe we should leave Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to continue as they are, without fear of creating loopholes, post Brexit.
I have taken into account and looked carefully at a range of proposals and concerns from several groups, including the National Farmers Union. There are concerns about tariffs being imposed on carcases, post Brexit. I accept that point of view, but we have yet to see how such matters will be settled, and furthermore there will be new and bigger markets for us to pursue, post Brexit. British food has worldwide acclamation. We can and will do better with our food exports, post Brexit. The outcome of the tariff issue is still unknown, but it cannot be a deal breaker when we take our decision on the animal welfare standards that are to apply. It could be argued that tariffs might apply to live exports as opposed to carcase trade, but I see no value in speculating on that. There is no substitute for doing the right thing, on either animal welfare or leaving the EU. There might be choppy waters ahead, but I would rather face that interim phase than be hamstrung forever by the regulations that we are currently subject to.
My hon. Friend’s mention of choppy waters brings me to my feet. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and I are both well aware that cattle are moved from Shetland and the Orkneys in purpose-built equipment on purpose-built vessels, with water and in very safe and good conditions. The cattle and sheep moved from Shetland are shipped for 12 hours on board a purpose-built vessel. I would not want this debate to hide the fact that exporting animals can be—and is— done properly. It is paramount, particularly for islands off Scotland, that we do not get it into our heads that exporting over water is somehow a significant or major problem.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the local situation in the UK, which has a very well developed market for food. Within the UK, we can ensure that standards are adhered to, that animals are moved about in the best possible conditions, and that their welfare is paramount. Unfortunately, once animals leave the UK, we lose the ability to ensure that those standards are adhered to. His point highlights one of the problems: we can make our regulations as stringent as we like, post Brexit, but even the current rules are all too often flouted because we cannot enforce them beyond our own shores.
The creator of the petition has recorded serious animal welfare shortcomings, in breach of current regulations, as lorries arrive at UK ports ahead of an onward journey. As I said, there is documented evidence that the further animals travel from British shores, the more they suffer in transit. That is not only because of distance and travel time, more alarmingly, they are more likely to suffer heat, a lack of food, water and rest, stress, injury, and even death. There is an unacceptable disparity between the conditions and circumstances of slaughter at their final location, and the high and monitored standards that we adhere to in the UK.
There are arguments in favour of allowing the export of high-value breeding stock to continue post Brexit—a point that has been well made. These prized animals have always fared far better in transit than those destined for immediate slaughter. The live export of animals for slaughter has dwindled dramatically in recent years. It has already been banned for many years in New Zealand, which has had no significant detriment to its meat export market. That should encourage us that achieving a ban is possible.
The UK has never been frightened of doing the right and decent thing, particularly when it comes to animals, and I believe that we can take great encouragement from that, and can be confident that this Government will act. We have already seen clear, positive action taken on animal welfare. For example, there has been a tenfold increase in the minimum sentence for animal cruelty, the banning of the ivory trade, action being taken on puppy farming, and clear action to protect our marine environment from plastic waste. That gives us confidence that this Government are determined to address this issue and make sure that action is taken.
We can be proud of our record, but there is more that we can do when it comes to animal welfare. The new freedoms afforded by Brexit will reinstate our sovereignty over these matters. We can once again do what is right and proper for our nation, our people and our animals, and we can fulfil a manifesto promise regarding live animal exports. Once again, I thank all those who signed the petition. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say at the end of the debate.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Wilson. I thank the Petitions Committee for allowing today’s debate. As has been said, the petition did not quite reach 100,000 signatures—I think there are about 93,000 at the moment, which is a really good effort—but I am very glad that we decided to have the debate anyway. Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), I pay tribute to Janet Darlison, the creator of the petition, for all her work in promoting it and for creating the momentum that has brought us here today.
When the Minister comes to speak, I hope that we will have a little more clarity on what exactly the Government’s position is, because at the moment that is lacking. I am certainly none the wiser having heard the introductory speech, but it is up to the Minister to say where he wants to take us. In 2012 I spoke about a ban on live exports, and just last year I supported the ten-minute rule Bill in favour of such a ban, so I am glad that we now seem to be a little closer to a ban becoming a reality. However, I feel that there has been some rowing back on some of the pronouncements that were made during the European Union referendum campaign.
For example, the current Foreign Secretary went down to Ramsgate and I thought that he announced in no uncertain terms that there would be a ban on live exports if we left the EU. I know from the emails I have received that there are people who were persuaded to vote leave simply because of that issue. Perhaps those are the sorts of emails I tend to get from people involved in the animal welfare movement. I tried my best to outline some of the reasons why I thought animal welfare might not benefit from Brexit, particularly if we consider the animal welfare and food safety standards that we might be forced to relinquish as part of a trade deal with the United States. However, many people were adamant and were convinced that a live export ban would be delivered almost overnight if we voted to leave.
It is now being said that such a ban is being considered as one of several options as we leave the EU. As the Minister is here today, I will point out that I asked a similar question about foie gras. At the moment, the production of foie gras is banned in this country, on the grounds that we believe it to be cruel, unnatural and something that we should not tolerate here. The line has always been that imports of foie gras cannot be prohibited, because the dastardly EU would not let us ban them. So one might think that, given we have already established our own moral position on this issue here in the UK, once we are free from the clutches of the EU a ban on imports would be the next step. However, the answer I have just received to my written parliamentary question is:
“Leaving the EU and the single market therefore provides an opportunity to consider whether the UK can adopt a different approach in future”.
To me, that sounds like equivocation taken to the nth degree, and I fear that the same might apply to live exports.
It is also somewhat disingenuous to suggest that such a ban on live exports was always on the Government’s wish list and that it just was not possible to achieve until we left the EU. Ministers who argued during the EU referendum campaign that we would get a live exports ban once we left the EU are members of a party and a Government who in 2012 were instrumental in stopping action at EU level—I think it was being led by Germany—that would have limited the journey time for live animals to below eight hours. In most cases that would have been tantamount to a ban on live exports from the UK. However, the UK went along to those discussions and argued against attempts to limit the hours.
I have raised this issue in a number of debates, including the recent debates on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, as it seems to me to be representative of the verbal and policy gymnastics that the Government have undertaken since the EU referendum, and nobody has come back to me and said that the UK did not take that stance. So let nobody be under the false illusion that we could not have taken significant action to limit —perhaps not ban, but limit—live transit times.
I believe that in 1992 it was a Conservative Government who sought to impose import restrictions, but they were challenged and overturned in the European Court of Justice, so this is something that a Conservative Government have tried to tackle in the past.
I am talking about 2012, which is far more recent than that, and as I said the Government went along to the negotiations and were not prepared to take the side of those who were arguing for an eight- hour limit.
It is important that the Government are held to account on what I see as a promise to end the practice of live animal exports that was made during the referendum campaign. That is because—as the petition rightly states, although I do not think we have heard quite enough about it this afternoon—the transport of live animals, no matter what the end result is, whether they are going for slaughter or for fattening up overseas, causes a huge amount of unnecessary suffering.
It is important not to forget the tragedy that jump-started the long-running campaign for a ban, which happened many years ago. In 1996 nearly 70,000 sheep were left to die either from heatstroke, suffocation, burning or drowning, after the ship that was carrying them caught fire in the middle of the Indian ocean. Although, thankfully, an incident on that scale has not happened again, countless animals continue to endure gruelling journeys every year.
In 2012, 40 sheep had to be euthanised after being crammed into a truck, and just last August it was reported that 500 sheep spent four days without any access to food or water while they were being transported to Turkey. Also, many people here will have seen today’s story in The Times about how every year more than 5,000 calves—unweaned and discarded by the dairy industry—are sent on journeys of more than 135 hours from Scotland to Spain. That number had doubled from the previous year; I think the 5,000 figure is from 2016.
The hon. Lady is making a very good speech and I just want to add one more point. I believe that in the past two years 20,000 calves have been sent to Spain. In Spain there is a requirement that a calf should be given bedding for only the first two weeks of its life and not beyond that, whereas a British calf has the right—if I can put it that way—to have bedding for six months. So the standards in Spain are dramatically lower than those in the UK, which is another reason why this issue is about not only whether an animal is going to be slaughtered, but the conditions in which it is living when it reaches its destination.
As is often the case—perhaps not on the wider Brexit issue, but on this specific issue— I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. Actually, that was a point I was going to make later in my speech: there is a big discrepancy between two weeks’ worth of bedding and six months’ worth of bedding. It is certainly something that we have to take into account.
As I was saying, I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity as to whether Scotland would be exempt from any ban on live exports that was introduced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I understand that that is the case. Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, said this month that Scotland would not participate in such a ban, so I would also be interested to hear from the Scottish National party spokesperson whether the SNP will allow the export of veal calves to continue.
Although the number of live animals exported each year has fallen from millions to tens of thousands, tens of thousands of animals are potentially still enduring cruel, long and painful journeys. Even during routine trips, animals are often exposed to freezing or extremely hot temperatures, with a lack of adequate sustenance, dangerous overcrowding and injuries being common.
One particularly harrowing investigation found that thousands of cattle were being transported via ship, and the unweaned calves were simply being tossed overboard if they became too sickly or died. As was mentioned in The Times story about the veal calves today, with their 135-hour journeys, although there are rules about rest periods, for example on long journeys, that can simply mean that the trucks stop in laybys and the animals continue to be held in very hot and crowded conditions for another hour or so, which for them is really no rest period at all.
The Government continue to proclaim their global leadership in animal welfare and even talk about legislating for higher standards but, as has been touched on, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce standards effectively when it comes to the current live transit. Even the EU, in its 2011 review, admitted that effective enforcement is near impossible. Whenever animals continue to be exported live, there will continue to be suffering and violations of welfare. Unfortunately, the EU review did not come up with any changes to the standards. It seemed almost to accept that cutting corners to save space and money will always be attractive for companies that transport live animals, which will always be to the detriment of the animals involved.
It has been mentioned, not least by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), that when animals are transported beyond the UK they move beyond the Government’s reach, into countries with much lower standards than ours, and not just far-flung countries but our closest neighbours, including Spain and France, as we have heard. Many UK sheep are sent to France, and a 2016 French National Assembly report concluded that there were serious and widespread welfare problems in French abattoirs. Members might have seen from recent parliamentary questions that I and others have tabled, or from The Guardian’s excellent “Animals farmed” series, that conditions in our own slaughterhouses and food production lines are not always as we might desire, but there is certainly widespread concern about overseas conditions also—we have already mentioned the situation in Spain. The problems are exacerbated by many animals being re-exported even further away, meaning that their re-packing is covered only by the standards of the country acting as the middleman, not by ours. It goes without saying that we cannot assume that after the animals have endured the awful journeys they will be killed quickly or humanely.
If the Government are serious about being known as a world leader in animal welfare, they must put their money where their mouth is and announce their clear commitment to banning the export of live animals, for slaughter or for further fattening. The Labour party has called for that in its recently published animal welfare plan, and for the Government to ensure an exemption for livestock crossing the border on the island of Ireland, with which I think everyone would agree.
I have spoken about livestock moving the significant distances between the islands, from Orkney and Shetland and the islands on the west coast of Scotland. Does the hon. Lady accept that that transport reaches a standard with which she would be comfortable?
I cannot comment on the standard, as I have never looked into it, but I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s assurances—he is a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee. I was talking about exceptions outside the UK. We accept that live transit would continue to be allowed within the UK, but we also need to ensure that decent standards and proper monitoring are in place. The one exception would be across the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; I do not think anyone would argue that that should be subject to an export ban.
Once we leave the EU, we will completely lose control over the welfare standards of any animals that go from the UK into southern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady accept that those animals could continue their journey on to Spain or France?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to argue for not having live exports across the border from the north of Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, he is welcome to do so. This goes to a much wider issue that the Government have not yet managed to address: what do we do about the border between the north and the south once we leave the EU? Many people want it to continue in its current form, but the practicalities of leaving should mean that a hard border is established. That is one for the Government and perhaps not one that we in Westminster Hall can grapple with today, but the fact that we need to address the issue of animals being transported between the north and the south ought not to be used as an excuse for not addressing an export ban outside the British Isles.
The difficulty with the hon. Lady’s argument is that we either ban exports or we do not. A ban is a ban, and she is arguing for a ban that is not a ban. As the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) says, once animals are in southern Ireland they can be exported anywhere.
If the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that we need a hard border with Ireland, which will then prevent us from implementing anything else we would desire to see in the relationship between the north and the south, he may do so, but I think we must consider that relationship a special case. We need to look at how many animals would go on in transit. The Minister perhaps can enlighten us on that, but I suspect that it is not a significant number.
I conclude by talking about something the Minister needs to advise us on, and that is World Trade Organisation agreements. Colleagues will be aware that under WTO agreements countries cannot, under normal circumstances, discriminate between trading partners. The principle is known as most favoured nation treatment, and in practice it means that the UK could not allow for the live export of animals to the Republic of Ireland while excluding the rest of the EU. Therefore, it is wholly possible that a ban on live animal exports could contravene WTO rules—a view shared by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others. Any WTO member can challenge another member on its trade policy, which could then be ruled as breaching the organisation’s rules.
However, as a member of the EU, the UK is already party to several trade bans that have never been challenged at the WTO, including the import ban on cosmetics tested on animals and the ban on fur produced from cats and dogs. When the Government consider their future options, they can look at the 2009 EU seal import ban as an example of how to pass the WTO test. I hope that the Minister can explain how he feels we will pass that test if we introduce at least a partial ban on exports.
Finally, I understand that the Command Paper for the Agriculture Bill might be published tomorrow—the Minister might like to enlighten us on that. It presents a perfect opportunity to introduce proposals to ensure that a ban comes into force as soon as possible after the UK leaves the EU. Both before and after leaving, the Government should push the European institutions and member states to strive for greater co-operation. I do not want us just to walk away from the problem. It is one thing to say, “When we leave the EU we can make our own rules; we can have standards that are truly excellent—gold-plated.” I do not want us to walk away from the EU, full stop. I would like us to remain a member and be able to influence animal welfare standards across the continent, but even if we cannot, we still need to use what influence we have and what trade discussions we are having to try to ensure that those standards that are not what we would like to see, in France and Spain and further afield, are improved.
We have an opportunity to improve animal welfare. I said at the start of my speech that Brexit offers very few opportunities, but if we are to leave the EU I hope that the Minister seizes this one and does something to ensure the better welfare of animals for years to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on his introduction to the debate.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has a wonderful record in animal welfare measures, but I have to say immediately that I am absolutely delighted we are leaving the European Union, as are my constituents, and one of the biggest beneficiaries will be the animal kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and I, for 35 years, have consistently championed animal welfare measures in this place. For a while, it seemed that we were rather few in numbers on our side of the House, which could have been because many Conservative Members represented farming communities. When I was Member of Parliament for Basildon I had 28 farms in my constituency; now I am the Member for Southend West I have no farms, so there are no farmers lobbying me. I understand that if a Member from any party has a farming community in their constituency this is possibly not an easy issue to consider, but as far as I am concerned, we can judge life generally on the way in which we treat animals. Mrs Lorraine Platt and others, through the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, have absolutely transformed the way in which colleagues—certainly Conservative Members—see these matters.
From 1997 to 2010, a number of animal welfare organisations supported the Labour party with their money, but as far as I am concerned the only good thing that Tony Blair did was ban foxhunting. On all other animal welfare measures, he let the British people down badly. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the marvellous reception he gave in the Jubilee Room a short while ago celebrating pasties, and I am delighted that we have a Minister who is doing a splendid job on animal welfare. His boss, the Secretary of State—he was an outstanding Secretary of State for Education, too—is saying everything that I and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet have wanted to hear for so many years. I hope that more and more colleagues who are joining the campaign will support the Minister and the Secretary of State in their mission.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, in 2012 we took part in a debate on animal welfare exports. At the time, live animal export numbers were dwindling, and I held out hope that a future debate on the subject would not be necessary. It is obvious that the industry has grown again since then. I associate myself with the views of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I know the RSPCA has had a number of internal difficulties, but as long as Lady Stockton remains one of the trustees, I have great faith in that organisation, and I hope it will continue to promote sensible animal welfare measures.
The RSPCA is concerned that, as the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, millions of farm animals transported around Europe for fattening and slaughter are suffering from stress, exhaustion, thirst and rough handling. I cannot believe that these animals enjoy the way they are transported.
My hon. Friend, as ever, has hit the nail on the head. He is absolutely right. Government figures show that 20,000 calves were exported from Northern Ireland to Spain in both 2016 and 2017. Those young calves are being packed into lorries and sent on journeys lasting up to 135 hours. A review of the scientific literature concluded:
“Scientific evidence indicates that young calves are not well adapted to cope with transport.”
Frankly, I do not think human beings would cope with being transported for a tiny fraction of that time. It continues:
“Their immune systems are not fully developed, and they are not able to control their body temperature well, thus they are susceptible to both heat and cold stress.”
It concludes that
“transport should be avoided where possible”.
Compassion in World Farming—at one point it was not very popular on the Conservative Benches, but I think that has changed, and I admire that organisation—believes that a large number of calves do not survive the journey and that the remainder are likely to spend the rest of their short lives in barren pens. Such cases exemplify why the RSPCA is rightly calling for an end to the long-distance transport of live animals in favour of a carcase-only trade.
It is such a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has left his place, because there are some things that concern me slightly.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is preferable to move all meat on the hook rather than on the hoof. There are long journeys up and down the backbone of the United Kingdom—it is not just about the distance involved with exports into Europe. There is a serious problem with the geographical spread of abattoirs not only in England, but in the devolved regions. We need to get a better spread of abattoirs, bringing them closer to the markets and thereby allowing us to shorten journeys.
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. There are a number of Scottish Members here. I am not an expert in abattoirs, and I need to reflect on precisely how he thinks we should deal with that matter, but I understand. He represents constituents, however, who would feel that the issue is not so straightforward.
Yes. The RSPCA is lobbying for a maximum journey time of eight hours for all animals travelling for slaughter or further fattening across the European Union. I am sure that many like-minded colleagues will join me in supporting that initiative.
Another reason why it is right to pursue the end of live exports is that even if we manage to transport live animals effectively and safely, we cannot ensure that the countries animals arrive in live up to our high standards. We have wonderful standards in this country—I challenge anyone to find better in the EU. Of the 28 members of the European Union, it is this great country of ours that has the highest standards possible. That is why, when we leave the wretched European Union next March, we will improve standards even further.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about leaving the EU, but he is not right about our standards. Listening to the anecdotal evidence of the people who watch the lorries going from Ramsgate, they complain that inspections are not rigorous enough. We can do a lot more here.
I am not going to fall out with my hon. Friend on this issue, particularly as he is a tropical fish fancier, but the Minister will have heard what he said. When the Minister sums up the debate, he will put my hon. Friend right on his criticism of how these things are managed.
The fundamental problem with the current EU regulations is a lack of political willpower in member states to enforce them. That does not just relate to animal welfare; that lack of willpower applies to so many other dealings with the EU. In November 2016, Sweden, with the support of Denmark, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, presented a paper to the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council highlighting numerous examples of infringements and a general lack of enforcement. For example, Compassion in World Farming has found that we export approximately 40,000 live sheep for slaughter to the continent each year. France takes a considerable number of those, yet it was only in 2016 that an inquiry by a committee of the French National Assembly found there to be serious concerns about welfare standards in French abattoirs. Is that something that our nation of animal lovers would be proud to be associated with? I think not.
More locally, veterinary costs are of concern to many constituents. Goodness me, vet bills seem to grow weekly. There are a lot of senior citizens in the area I represent—we have the most centenarians in the country, and I hope to be one of them one day. Animals are their lives. They are everything to elderly people who are on their own, and we should not trivialise the importance of animals to such people. Veterinary bills can be high, and the taxpayer foots the bill for veterinary checks in live transportation. If that cost was shifted to those involved in the industry, not only would the taxpayer save money during these hard times, but the industry would be incentivised to look after its animals well, as the cost of veterinary bills could be high.
I hope I have convinced the House about the issue of the live export of animals. Some 94,000 people signed the petition. What is particularly exciting is that unlike in 2012, the change I want is no longer an impossible dream. When we investigated a ban before, it was found that because of freedom of movement within the European Union—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who was a Member of the European Parliament, knows far better than I do how our hands were tied behind our back—it would be unlawful to stop the practice. Once we leave the European Union, that will no longer be the case. As the Minister said in 2017,
“there will be nothing standing in our way of placing an ethical ban on the export of live animals.”
I believe him.
I was further encouraged by something in the Conservative manifesto last year—one of the few things I was encouraged by, but the least said about that the better. My party committed the Government to continuing to improve animal welfare and specifically mentioned taking steps to control the export of animals for slaughter. The Secretary of State has also made positive noises about that inside and outside the House.
In summary, I want us to address the suffering of animals. The public are overwhelmingly with us—we have only to think of the Prime Minister’s little aside on foxhunting during the dreadful general election campaign and all the damage that that did. We are a nation of animal lovers, and political parties and Members of Parliament should get real on that, because animals are by and large grateful for everything we do for them, and they are not quite as moody as human beings can be.
We must look after animals to the best of our ability. We should enforce maximum journey times, end long-distance travel for slaughter, ensure that British animals are treated according to British standards, which I believe are high despite what my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said, and prevent the public purse from paying for veterinary costs. Let us make this issue one of the first great steps as Britain takes back control from the European Union. As Gandhi once said:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
As we leave the European Union next year, not only I and many of my constituents but the whole of the animal kingdom will be celebrating.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who I think is wrong about rural as opposed to urban communities. We have only to listen to the RSPCA to hear about unspeakable acts of vicious cruelty that take place against domestic animals in our urban areas to know that cruelty is not divided by region, people or nations, but by wickedness in individuals. It is absolutely the road to hell to ban things because we do not like the proper process that should be followed. I am particularly passionate about this because my amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 would have seen the sentence for cruelty increased, but it was voted down by the Labour Government who took the credit for the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West for revealing my fondness for tropical fish, although I am not sure that they are completely relevant in this debate as they tend to be flown in from Singapore on very long journeys. However, the problem with a ban is that we are all here because we want to see less bad treatment and better treatment of animals in transit, irrespective of where they are coming from or going to and irrespective of whether they are for slaughter or for breeding stock.
I had to pass exams to be allowed to transport my animals. It is wrong to say that there are not rules on what we are allowed to do. There is an eight-hour limit. We have to have tests and we can drive our animals only within 65 km of where we live without any regulation whatsoever. So what the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said is wrong. She should look it up on the DEFRA website
The hon. Gentleman has just said that I said there were not any rules, but I said nothing of the sort. I accepted that there are rules in place, but I said that they are not being adhered to. For example, calves being held in a truck in a lay-by technically counts as a rest period, but most of us would agree that is not much of a relief for them. I did not say that there were not any rules.
I have given the matter a great deal of thought and it occurs to me that we should not ban live exports. If we do that, we will lose control through the Irish border and the animals whose welfare we seek to improve could end up travelling from southern Ireland to Spain or France on journeys that are considerably longer than they need to be. We need to improve the standards of transport within the United Kingdom, and when they arrive in Kent ready to cross the channel they must be properly inspected by vets. That means there needs to be lairage and unloading of the animals, and they need to be checked. Then they should be loaded into approved-only transporters. There are penalties for any suffering that happens on the journeys, but at the moment there is not an owner.
The lorry driver is not the owner of the animals in the back, so if a sheep’s leg is sticking out of the back of the truck, nobody suffers financially for that. If one of the animals is found to be suffering when they are unloaded, it gets put down and then there is a penalty, because that life is lost and that animal is no longer fit for human consumption. The whole purpose of its export has been taken away. That is the penalty that hangs over all livestock producers all the time. If someone is found to have put the wrong medicines in their animal, it is condemned. That is how we deal with and enforce rules.
If we have proper policing all the way along the transport route, it is perfectly reasonable to continue to send animals 22 miles over the seas as opposed to thousands of miles around the edge.
I think my hon. Friend has missed the entire point of the debate. The point is not that animals should be transported under good conditions, but whether they should be slaughtered, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) said in opening the debate, as close to the point of production as possible and exported on the hook and not on the hoof. In that context, it is immaterial how they travel within the United Kingdom. There are 135 hours between the Scottish islands and Spain, and that is unacceptable under any circumstances. It is the principle that we object to, not the quality of the export.
I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but if he reads the petition, he will see that it states:
“The transport of live animals exported from the UK causes immense suffering.”
So he is wrong. It is not about whether we kill the animals near to where they are born. We all agree on that: of course we should slaughter and export on the hook. If we cannot, or if something else is going on, such as fattening, we have to be careful, because large numbers of animals will be put in lorries for breeding purposes and they will arrive in France and be slaughtered, and there is nothing we can do. So we ought to correct where the suffering occurs and not try to blame foreign people for standards that they may or may not be more passionate about than some of our people.
It is much more important that the Government focus on removing any suffering on the journeys that we can control.
Does my hon. Friend think it is possible to transport in a civilised manner very young calves from the Scottish isles to Spain, for example? Obviously anything is possible in a world of fantasy, but in the real world does he believe that is a possibility?
At the moment we have got the worst possible case where the roll-on/roll-off ferries will not take live exports because of the protests, so the animals end up going on slower ferries. Can we export and travel safely? Yes, we can. We fly racehorses around the world to appear in horseraces. We do all sorts of things with animals, but the purpose of the Animal Welfare Act was to name the five freedoms so that we would have basic frameworks for animal welfare, and breaking those is against the law. It is vital that we enforce the laws that we all like and support, rather than allow exporters an excuse. So can we transport calves abroad? Yes, we can.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. Surely if one were even to come close to applying the standards applied to racehorses, or to extremely valuable breeding stock, to animals that are transported for slaughter or fattening, the whole economic dynamic would change to such an extent that it would never make sense to transport animals on a large scale for those purposes? The standards for animals transported for slaughter or fattening will always necessarily be far lower than those in the example that he provided.
It is far better to achieve a ban by making it economically difficult because the standards are so high than to apply a legal ban, which people get around by sending their animals to Northern Ireland, southern Ireland and to Spain. Let us get what we really want, which is a reduction in cruelty, rather than an export ban.
In my ten-minute rule Bill, I proposed an exemption for north-south exports on the island of Ireland, so long as there was no onward transport overseas. My hon. Friend sees this as a great flaw in the proposal of a ban, but there is a technical solution that deals with the flaw that he has identified.
It did not stop horsemeat getting into our supermarkets either, and that is the problem. Once we lose control, because the animal is in another sovereign nation, it is out of our hands. Therefore, let us get right the bit that we can. At the moment, a ban would fail. We would get illegal activity and, in the end, promote and improve the lot of the worst people—not the most caring people, such as those who are prepared to be hauliers who are properly policed, have proper veterinary inspections and will lose their licence to be an approved haulier if there is any case of abuse. That is how we can achieve what we really want, which is better animal welfare. I hope that if we can do that, the roll-on/roll-off ordinary ferries will allow proper, speedy channel crossings, rather than the slow boats that animals currently have to take. However, that cannot happen without better enforcement by British veterinary inspectors, and they cannot achieve that in Ramsgate because there is no lairage. If the animals are not taken off the trucks, they cannot be inspected properly. If they cannot be seen, they cannot be given the proper veterinary inspections, and if we do not do that, we will not get the improvements that we all want.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is being very generous. He just said that once the animals leave these shores we have no control over them. He is absolutely right, and that is precisely why we do not want them transported halfway across Europe alive.
Unfortunately for my hon. Friend, that will not be possible, because we are not proposing an export ban on all animals, but just on those that are for slaughter—and how will anyone know whether they are for slaughter? Who can tell what will happen to a sheep after it has arrived in France? It may be breeding stock that is downgraded to fattening, and then downgraded to immediate slaughter. Once it is out of our sphere of influence, it has gone. Equally, when animals come into the UK, they fall into our sphere of influence, and we must ensure that we have properly resourced policing, and the standards that we hope to achieve in this well-intentioned but, I think, slightly vulnerable petition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I would hazard a guess that, unusually, this afternoon’s petition is probably supported by the vast majority of UK citizens. I noted that one of the areas with the greatest density of replies, as we can see from the information published by the House, was South Thanet, and for good reason. Part of South Thanet has been mentioned in the debate: the very small commercial port of Ramsgate, which is part of my constituency. It has the very dubious honour, which I want to get rid of as soon as possible, of being the only UK port through which lamb and sheep are transported across an international sea border for slaughter abroad.
If the inappropriate means of transport across the channel—up to three hours on a small, ageing Russian tank transporter called the Joline, which plied the Volga river in a previous incarnation and is now Latvian-flagged—is not bad enough, we should also be concerned about the long journey times within the UK. The sheep and lambs are often from Cumbria, meaning an eight to 10 hour trip to Kent. The onward journey, after three hours travelling across the channel, could be to somewhere as far as Germany, which would take another eight hours or more, after which they are slaughtered. We are talking about a transport time—without mentioning the problems that we have already heard about regarding veal—for lambs of 24 hours in total. Although exports through Ramsgate can be at any time of year—in winter cold or summer heat—peaks are often seen to coincide with religious festivals, notably Eid, following the end of Ramadan.
The issue of animal exports out of Ramsgate gained national focus because of a truly appalling fiasco on 12 September 2012, as has been mentioned this afternoon. A single lorry carrying more than 500 sheep was declared unfit to travel. Temporary holding pens were set up, as no official lairage was available at the port. Some 43 sheep had to be euthanised due to injury, six fell into the water, and two drowned. Breaches of animal welfare regulations were found, and appropriate fines and a suspended prison sentence were levied against the director of the transport company. Thereafter, Thanet District Council unilaterally suspended the trade through the municipally owned and run port. However, following an injunction by the shippers, the trade was forced to resume again the next month, in late October 2012.
A petition was presented to Parliament in January 2013 by the then MP Laura Sandys, calling for the permanent suspension of live exports through the port. Things then became truly weird, with protracted legal action by the shippers—action that concluded in February 2014, resulting in a claim of more than £4 million in compensation against the local council. It is a small council, so local taxpayers had to bear that cost. Live animal exports could not be prevented in what was a very telling judgment for two reasons. First, section 33 of the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847 allows, in simple terms, free access to goods traffic from any UK port—an historical law that was more appropriate, I would argue, in the age of sail and steam, when navigation was more hazardous. For that reason, I sought to introduce a fairly simple amendment to the old Act via a ten-minute rule Bill in May 2016. My Bill would have allowed municipally owned and controlled ports the discretion to ban the trade. In Ramsgate, it is certainly not a trade that people want through the port, which they own.
In some ways, that Bill was a little bit of devilment, because even if it had passed at that time, it would have been deemed not in accordance with single market rules on the functioning of the EU. That was clearly highlighted in the second part of the High Court judgment, which stated that in any event, notwithstanding the 1847 Act, EU law governing the function of the single market would prevent restrictions of animal exports. I note what the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, but the EU interprets animals as mere “goods”. EU rules still allow the production of foie gras, the existence of veal crates, bullfighting and everything else. I do not think that EU standards are the gold plate that many people see them as.
It was encouraging to see, a couple of weeks ago—and somewhat late in the day, I might add—the Labour party publish its proposals for animal welfare. I warmly welcomed them, but they largely mirrored what we on the Conservative Benches are doing and have been talking about for some time. The Leader of the Opposition spoke today about maintaining membership of “a” or “the” customs union, and maintaining rules and standards very much in alignment with those of the EU, so that we end up in some perpetual membership of the single market. I am afraid that that was where the credibility of Labour’s position on animal welfare somewhat fell to bits in my mind. An independent country would be able to introduce the welfare standards it feels are right, but single market rules have thus far failed us on animal and farming standards.
Just a month ago, I held an event on the parliamentary estate—just next door—with representatives of key animal welfare groups, many of whom are here, and a diverse range of celebrities, including Joanna Lumley, Frederick Forsyth, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Selina Scott and Jan Leeming. I was pleased to be supported by Conservative colleagues, but there was also support from Members of the Scottish National party—I was grateful that they were at the event. Sadly, not one Labour Member came, and I am somewhat intrigued about that. I am also somewhat intrigued about the fact that the Labour Benches are virtually devoid this afternoon.
I did get an invite to that event— I think I was actually speaking at something else that afternoon—but I thought I had been sent it accidentally, because I thought it was Conservative animal welfare event, especially given some of the names that were mentioned. I did not go because I thought I had somehow accidentally got on to the hon. Gentleman’s mailing list, but he should not assume from that any lack of support for the cause.
I am sorry if there was anything in the invitation that put the hon. Lady off, but it was very much open to all, and some other parties took up the offer.
We live in changed times. We voted to leave the European Union, which means leaving the customs union and the single market and no longer being bound by the EU’s acquis in areas where we wish to diverge. That gives me great hope. We have the opportunity to advance new international trade deals, and for the first time in a generation we are free once more to do what is right and what the people of this country demand. That very much comes under the banner of taking back control, which means taking back control of animal welfare and farming standards.
I and other Members have mentioned the encouraging words in the Conservative party manifesto by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other agriculture Ministers. I fully supported the Live Animal Exports (Prohibitions) Bill proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and I pay tribute to the 94,000 people across the country who signed this petition. I feel that they will share my view that, post Brexit, we can have a renaissance of animal welfare standards, alongside our commitments to introduce CCTV in abattoirs and increase sentences for those who abuse animals.
I fully appreciate farmers’ concerns about the potential for increased costs, which were ably set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). He must feel like he is in “12 Angry Men”—one of my favourite films—but I am not sure he is going to win today. The increased costs resulting from the application of the standards that my hon. Friend ably set out may stop this trade in its tracks. The profit from the difference between the farm-gate cost and the price that the farmer receives when the animals are delivered to the market abroad will no longer be realised.
Economic pressure is a far better way of achieving what my hon. Friend wants than legislative pressure. If it does not make economic sense, that is absolutely fine. What is wrong is that, without that potential outlet, supermarkets will simply screw down the price in the UK, and there will be nothing anybody can do. That is where the frustration comes from.
My hon. Friend made his points very well during his speech, and I was very pleased to hear them.
Let me put the size of the export market in context. Some 14.5 million sheep and lambs are slaughtered in this country each year, and a mere 40,000 are transported across the international sea border through ports such as Ramsgate in my constituency. It is a minor trade and alternatives are available. I have no intention—I say this now, but I suppose things change—of stopping my consumption of meat. I can think of nothing better than a decent Welsh or Kent salt marsh lamb, but the slaughter must be undertaken as close to where the animals are raised as possible. That means, post Brexit, having a national rethink about localising slaughterhouses. We need the Animal and Plant Health Agency to up its game on monitoring, particularly for long-distance transports within the UK. The rule that we should all be aiming for is that our meat should be provided on the hook, not on the hoof.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
Animal cruelty always raises passions. I have been involved in farming my entire life, and I have grown up with animal husbandry since I was a little boy. My earliest memories are of inspecting livestock in fields and buildings, no matter the snow or rain. Many farm children help raise cattle or sheep as a project to get them involved in farming. Rural schools in Scotland used to raise funds for the school through family farms, which raised livestock from calves or lambs to be sold at the auction mart.
Rural children grow up surrounded by livestock—farm visits were not contrived, and are still an everyday activity—but society has become disconnected from livestock farming. Fewer and fewer children and adults have a connection to the land and the livestock industry. Growing up in the countryside, I was well aware of where the bacon, eggs, chicken or beef on my plate came from, but I am afraid to say that the vast majority of young adults do not realise where their burgers come from. My young sons are six and two and a half, and they know only too well that their sausages come from pigs, that their burgers come from fat cattle in the fields, and that the chicken in their night-time books are the roast chicken at the weekend. This debate should not be about the morality of eating meat. I respect the opinions of vegetarians, but I resent it if they peddle a myth that eating meat is cruel or unhealthy. This debate should not be about that.
Let us be clear: husbandry, the feeding of livestock, the use of veterinary drugs and the transport of animals are regulated. The care of commercial livestock is paramount to farmers and breeders. We must not confuse this issue with the incidence of neglect, wanton cruelty or, in the case of transport, law-breaking. If we disagree with transporting livestock, it must be for reasons that all of society can agree on, and not simply because of minority beliefs.
NFU Scotland recognises that the standards of transport and slaughter in the EU are equivalent to our standards. Livestock are regularly shipped, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) knows, from the islands to mainland Scotland—to Aberdeen on the east coast from Orkney and Shetland. Several years ago, specialist roll on/roll off containers were manufactured by Stewart Trailers, which happens to be based in my constituency of Gordon. They were designed specifically for long journeys, and they had water and were well ventilated. They were designed to be stable if the crossing is choppy—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the crossing from Shetland and Orkney can be very choppy.
There is a lairage yard at Aberdeen for safe onward transportation to farms in the fertile countryside of north-east Scotland, where I farm. That is best practice, and anyone visiting the facilities and the cattle and sheep auctions would be reassured that it can be done properly. There was a tremendous TV programme, which can still be found, called “The Mart”. Hon. Members may need subtitles, as it was in Doric, which those of us in the north-east can speak. It was about a mart called Thainstone, and it was a wonderful example of livestock husbandry. Anybody watching it would be hard pressed to say that people who look after livestock are not passionate about it; they are therefore concerned about this debate.
If somebody simply does not agree with shipping livestock or eating meat, this proposal will not be good enough. The NFUS is very concerned that any attempt to prevent live export will set a dangerous precedent. Livestock production is the key to farming on Scotland’s islands. There are no processing facilities on the islands—they are long gone—so livestock must be transported safely and effectively to the mainland. Any attempt to restrict those crossings would be catastrophic for the islands, because they cannot grow wheat, broccoli or the fine fruit and vegetables grown in the Kent constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay).
The NFUS said:
“If a precedent is set against permitting animals to undergo ferry journeys based on sentiment, not science, island crossings could be easily targeted…despite the absence of welfare problems on these crossings”.
It is important for us to separate the issues, and I am grateful to the Labour hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who said that she respected the fact that there are higher standards in the UK.
This is the nub of the matter: can exporting over the sea be done properly? Yes, it can. Can it be done with no suffering to animals, given the correct equipment and facilities? Yes, it can. Should concern be shown for higher temperatures in the summer and the length of transportation? Yes, it should. Should this be stopped because of poor practice in the past or internationally? No.
Time after time, we witness on our television programmes the other issue on livestock for slaughter in the EU, and many other Members have mentioned it: illegal slaughter techniques, cruelty and in many cases simple criminality—facilities that should not be allowed and personnel who enjoy being cruel to animals. Abattoirs in the EU where that happens should simply not be operating. Several Members have mentioned that, and I am passionate about it, but it should not be confused with what the debate is about. The industry has to think again about this.
At the weekend, I was delighted to speak at the 53rd dinner of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland. The institute kindly gave me a tie, which I agreed to wear to this debate; I will register it as a gift as soon as I leave the Chamber. It is a venerable organisation that is immersed in the livestock industry and has stepped up during times of national animal health crisis, such as in the foot and mouth outbreak, when it undertook a task that was essential but few could stomach. Auctioneers are tasked with looking after livestock while keeping the market flowing, in a trade that goes back millennia. After all, as Members know, Rob Roy MacGregor was a drover, although he apparently took ownership by other means as well—but I do not wish to cast any slur on his character. The auctioneers are also responsible for being aware of legislation and ensuring that all those who use their facilities comply with the veterinary drug use, husbandry and transport regulations. They are very much the gatekeepers.
I believe that as many people are concerned about where livestock are processed on the continent as are worried about the transportation. On that point I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said. The whole industry must satisfy the public’s concern about where livestock is destined for. The industry cannot simply load the livestock and forget about them; Members have mentioned that. In the UK, we are broadly satisfied with Government inspectorates and officials inspecting our facilities, and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs recently announced that abattoirs—in England, at least—will have cameras, but I suggest that the livestock industry consider a code of practice, or an addition to its industry standards, on being aware of the destination of livestock that are exported live.
Livestock and valuable horses are very tightly regulated, and the destination of valuable breeding stock is known, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said. Lower value livestock can end up being passed from pillar to post, but that should not be the case, and this is where auctioneers could shed a great deal of light. Horses and ponies sent to the continent for processing should be an area of shame for horse lovers. Surplus horses have to be dealt with humanely, even in a country where we do not consume horse meat. With recent royal support, it has been advocated that facilities should be provided in the UK, rather than horses being transported to the continent. I absolutely agree with that. If the industry were to produce its own code of practice on the destination of exported livestock, and facilities were verified as suitable, I personally would be a lot more comfortable.
The Minister should look to best practice, and he is very welcome to visit farms in the north of Scotland and the facilities at Aberdeen docks. I am sure that the Member for the islands, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, would invite the Minister as well, although I recommend that he takes a plane and not the ferry; the crossing is very choppy.
I recognise the passion of those who signed the petition, but I doubt they wanted it to be the thin end of a wedge undermining UK farming, which at the moment has the highest welfare standards in the EU.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to take part in a debate on such an important issue.
The export of live farm animals can cause great suffering in many cases, as was outlined by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess), and the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). Last year I proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to implement a ban on the export of live animals for slaughter or for fattening, because I believe it to be unethical to export animals to countries where they can be subjected to treatment that would be unlawful in the United Kingdom.
I am concerned, as are many others who have spoken this afternoon, that the rules regulating the transport and slaughter of animals that are supposed to apply across every EU member state are not always effectively enforced in every part of the European Union once animals leave this country. Many of the sheep exported from the UK are sent to France, but there is clear evidence of inhumane and illegal slaughter practices in a number of places there—a problem acknowledged in a 2016 report by a committee of inquiry in the French Parliament. In my view, that of the people who signed the petition, and that of many of my constituents, it is not acceptable for the UK to send animals to die in such horrendous conditions.
We have had extensive discussion about calves that are exported from Scotland to Spain, and are subjected to a 20-hour sea journey to northern France, and then a drive all the way to Spain. The total journey time can be as much as 135 hours. Morbidity and mortality following transport can be high, and those that survive to reach their destination in Spain can, under the law prevailing there, be kept in barren pens, without bedding, which would be illegal in this country.
Over the years, there have been repeated calls for this harsh trade to be brought to an end. Public concern on the issue dates back nearly 100 years. The 1990s saw mass protests by thousands of dedicated campaigners seeking an end to live exports, but attempts to implement a ban have been blocked by the European Court of Justice as being in contravention of EU law and single market rules on the free movement of goods.
Now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, we have the opportunity to reopen the question and to decide in this House whether to implement a ban. Although export bans are constrained by World Trade Organisation rules, the WTO appellate body has ruled that animal welfare matters are capable of falling within the “public morals” exception. There are reasonable grounds to believe that the UK would be able to defend a WTO challenge by showing an export ban to be a proportionate response to long-standing, deeply held concerns of the public in the United Kingdom, as illustrated by those many thousands of people who took the time to sign the petition we are debating.
The WTO is not the only potential barrier to delivering an end to live exports, as called for by those who signed the petition. We will only be able to end them if we leave the single market; if we do not, a ban will continue to be beyond this country’s reach, as it has been for so many years. That is another important reason to respect the result of the referendum and leave the single market, replacing it with a new partnership with our European neighbours.
I understand from my discussions with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for which I am very grateful, that the Government intend to consult soon on how implement the Conservative manifesto promise that we will
“take early steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter”.
I appeal to the Minister to publish that consultation, and to ensure that the options considered include a ban on export for slaughter or for fattening. Like the hon. Member for Bristol East and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, I think that if we are to tackle the welfare concerns highlighted by hon. Members, the ban needs to include exports for fattening as well.
I believe, as others do, that there is a case for allowing exports to continue from north to south, from Northern Ireland. That is essentially local traffic, and I do not think that it raises the same animal welfare concerns. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), if we genuinely want an end to live exports, we are justified in stating that the exemption for north-south exports should not allow onward transportation to destinations outside the Republic of Ireland.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I would be very interested to hear from the Minister about the status of an export ban in the United Kingdom as a whole. There have been reports in recent days that the devolved institutions in different parts of the United Kingdom would make their own decisions on this matter, but one would have thought that as a trade matter it would be reserved to the UK Government. It would be useful to have the Minister’s view on that. I am also concerned that there are reports that the Minister for rural affairs in the Scottish Government, Minister Ewing, has indicated that he would not support a ban of this sort. I hope that that view may change.
Actually, the question I am posing to the Minister is about whether it is a reserved matter. Whether it is a matter for the Scottish Government or the UK Government, I want to see an end to live exports, because of the suffering that they cause.
It would be very helpful to hear from the Minister when he expects the consultation to be published. I very much hope that it will come out in time for the outcome potentially to be included in the forthcoming Bill on farming, to which the Government are committed. I accept that it is probably too late for a provision on live exports to be in the Bill when it is first presented to Parliament, but I hope it is not too late for the outcome of the consultation on restricting live exports possibly to be added to the Bill through amendment at a later stage. I appeal to the Minister to move forward with the consultation, with a view to ensuring that it is published and completed in time to enable the Government, if they so choose, to add provisions banning live exports to the agriculture Bill before it finishes its passage through Parliament.
I have listened to the debate intensely, but I still have not got an answer on the issue of a trade deal between Northern Ireland and the Republic, to which live animals can be exported, and which is a member of the European Union. How do we control where animals go from there? We have absolutely no jurisdiction over that. We have to be consistent if we want to bring in something, and it is not consistent to say, “Once it goes to the Republic of Ireland, it is not our business.”
There are still risks that the rules we put in place will not be enforced, but that is a reason to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that they are enforced properly. If we bring in the ban that is advocated in my ten-minute rule Bill, exporting from north to south in Northern Ireland with a view to onward export to other jurisdictions would be unlawful. Obviously, it would be very important to seek to ensure that that aspect of the new legislation was enforced. Just because there are potential difficulties in enforcing some aspects of a ban does not mean that we should throw up our hands and say, “It’s impossible—we can’t do this.” The case has been strongly made for a ban, and we need to look very carefully at how we can make sure that we enforce it as effectively as possible.
I do not accept that that would be a consequence. It is possible to put together a legal formulation that contains an exemption from the ban for north-south exports within the island of Ireland. Enforcement would not necessarily be easy, but even if there were risks of the ban being evaded, that is not an excuse for inaction.
That is why I support an end to live exports. The case for a ban has been made clear by many campaigning organisations, such as Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and World Horse Welfare. The time has come to put an end to this trade that causes so much suffering. We should put a prohibition on live export in statute now, so that it comes into effect on exit day, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on introducing the debate. I want to touch on a number of issues very briefly, and to deal with a couple of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). I normally agree with him, but on this occasion there is clearly a little difference between us.
Let us tackle the fundamental difference between live animals for slaughter, live animals for fattening and live animals for breeding stock. We all understand what “live animals for slaughter” means—that is what the petition is about. My understanding is that “live animals for fattening” is a euphemism for exporting livestock from the United Kingdom to France, Spain, Italy or Greece, where they spend a couple of days in a field and are then slaughtered and branded as local meat, be that French, Spanish, Greek or Italian. Effectively, those animals are live animals for slaughter. My view is that any control exercise should embrace those animals, as well as those that are openly and honestly—if that is the right word—exported for slaughter.
Breeding stock is different. Rather like the racehorses that were referred to earlier, they are high-value animals, they are well looked after and they are transported with great care. That is not the case with animals that are exported for other purposes. The standards in the United Kingdom may occasionally be not too bad, but the standards in mainland Europe are unenforced and unenforceable. In theory they are supposed to be high, but in practice, as we all know, they are not. I am not satisfied that even a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce travelling with one animal, particularly a veal calf, from a Scottish island to the Scottish mainland for eight hours—if that is how long it takes—would be satisfactory.
The issue of veal calves, which has been referred to on a number of occasions, sadly arises from a pyrrhic victory that some of us thought we had won: the banning of veal crates in the United Kingdom. That simply proves that we do not solve a problem by moving it from A to B. That is as true of the testing of cosmetics on live animals as it is of this issue of veal calves. The British market has singularly failed to promote and sell rose veal, as it is known. Veal calves that were raised in the United Kingdom are being shipped under appalling conditions, for very many hours, from Scotland or wherever to mainland Europe, where they are reared in the dark and fed on milk under infinitely worse conditions than they ever had in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire says that we have made it worse, and he is absolutely right—I said it was a pyrrhic victory. That has to be addressed, but not by shipping those animals to Europe to have them raised in sheds in Belgium, Holland, France or wherever, to produce white veal for Wiener schnitzel or whatever. We must consider that matter.
The crux of this issue—as it happens, this was highlighted on the BBC’s “Countryfile” yesterday—is the shortage of abattoir facilities, which arose way back when we shut half our abattoirs and slaughterhouses because we tried to gold-plate European regulations. We have heard that some facilities are no longer available, and that is absolutely right: we have taken away a lot of facilities, particularly in the Scottish islands. The answer, which I would like the Minister to address, is first to preserve local facilities where they still exist.
I am a crofter who sells lambs every autumn because I run out of grazing. We have a slaughterhouse on the island, but slaughtering lambs at their different weights and then selling them on is beyond me—it is beyond all crofters—because some are too small to be slaughtered. About half need to go away for further fattening. Even if we had more slaughterhouses, it still would not work. Lambs would still have to be exported off the island, or else there would be a bigger welfare problem: lack of food.
The hon. Gentleman has greater expertise in this narrow field than me, particularly since he farms. I accept that point, but I do not accept that it is necessary to send those animals to the south of England, which is an eight, 10 or 12-hour journey once they hit the mainland—and he first ships them from the island to the mainland United Kingdom. Even the journey to the south of Britain is very long, but if they are shipped across the channel and then halfway across Europe to Spain, which is what happens, the journey is infinitely longer. I do not accept that that is a necessity. I might accept that there is a case for moving them to the Scottish lowlands for fattening if that is what the economics of the trade demand.
I accept again that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that the local abattoir might not work for everyone all the time. However, we have beset our slaughterhouses not with animal welfare regulations, which I support, but with all manner of other red tape, which is putting them out of business. The Minister needs to address that. Frankly, they are on the borderline of not being able to make a living. Far from closing those local facilities, we need to reinstate them and provide more local facilities so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, animals can be slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible. That is the key. That is why I do not accept the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire that this is just a matter of raising transport standards and ensuring that everything is gold-plated in the United Kingdom. As he said himself—I made this point during his speech—the moment an animal leaves these shores, it is out of our control. I see no justification in this day and age for transporting animals alive rather than on the hook.
The Minister will know that people have said, “Ah yes, but the French have a different way of butchering meat.” That is absolutely true, but it is not beyond the wit of man—before we leave the European Union, at least—to hire a French butcher or someone else who can butcher for the French. In fact, it is already done. The idea that something can be shipped across the channel, spend a couple of days in a French field and be whacked off down to the Rungis meat market and sold as French beef, lamb or whatever is a nonsense.
I see no justification whatsoever for the transport of live animals for slaughter. I see every reason why we should take the opportunity, upon leaving the European Union, to ban the transport of live animals—that includes horses, by the way—for purposes other than breeding. I applaud the measures that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has trailed, and I hope very much that we will introduce them as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hollobone. May I place on the record my gratitude to the Petitions Committee for bringing this debate to the Chamber?
Despite our differences, there has been a large measure of agreement among Members. People have spoken about the need for abattoirs close to the source of production, and I have no problem agreeing with that. The abattoir in Orkney recently failed yet again, so that subject is near to my heart and, Orkney being an agricultural community, to those of my constituents. It also illustrates, though, how insisting on having a facility for slaughter near the point of production leaves people in island communities or even remote rural communities on the mainland open to unintended consequences.
Whatever position we have taken in the debate, I think we are all motivated by a desire to see the highest possible animal welfare standards. No one wants animals to suffer unnecessarily. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said a few things with which I do not necessarily agree. He said that animals are not moody like people. I can only assume that he has never kept a cat. He also said that this is not an easy debate for those of us who represent agricultural communities, suggesting that we are not in a position to put animal welfare standards at the top of the agenda. I passionately disagree. I speak as a farmer’s son who represents an agricultural community. In fact, I should declare an interest given what he said about veterinary fees: my wife is a partner in a local veterinary practice in Orkney and regularly does pre-export checks for animals that go from Orkney to the continent. That does not happen often—the economics are such that live export for purposes other than slaughter, such as breeding, is not straightforward —but it does happen, and the cost of that is met by the exporter, not the taxpayer.
The assertion that farmers care less than other people about animal welfare has to be challenged. It simply is not the case. I invite the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, when he will have seen on his television set pictures of farmers who had had their entire herds slaughtered. Those were not people who did not care about the fate of the animals they had just seen destroyed; many of them suffer a measure of trauma to this day, and they are by no means untypical of farmers. In fact, although there are exceptions to every rule, they are typical. Farmers care about animal welfare. They invest a lot, not just financially but emotionally, in rearing beasts that they then send off for slaughter. That is a commercial activity, but it is by no means cold-hearted.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) explained the shipping of livestock from Orkney and Shetland to Aberdeen and spoke about the cassette system that is used to transport animals. I was first elected shortly before that system was put in place, and I recall that the construction and design of those cassettes was led by the farmers’ unions and farmers themselves, as well as by the State Veterinary Service and the animal welfare authorities. As he said, the system is the gold standard in animal transportation. If anyone feels, as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) suggested, that transportation cannot be done humanely and with due regard for animal welfare, I invite them to come and inspect it. It is subject to the most rigorous standards and regulation, not just in its construction but in its operation.
As has been said, animal welfare export standards are currently subject to EC regulation 1/2005, which governs loading, unloading, journey length, vehicle standards, temperature, and available food and water. Of course, those rules, like any, get broken from time to time—that is self-evident. That is why we have proper enforcement. If hon. Members are keen on seeing better enforcement, I look forward to their support when I next make a call for better resourcing and governance within the state veterinary service, because that has been allowed to wither on the vine for many years. If we are serious about animal welfare, that is somewhere we should put our money.
If I accept the idea of cruise liner facilities being offered for cattle shipped from the islands to the Scottish mainland—for the purpose of this argument, I do—will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is then necessary to permit those animals to be transported to mainland Europe in conditions over which we have no control at all, for hundreds of miles and dozens of hours?
The hon. Gentleman’s question prompts another question: what control is there to be within our domestic boundaries? It is still possible to transport animals for a very long time within the UK. He is right: there is a need for better enforcement across the whole European Union. Part of my unease about some of the arguments that he and others advance is that their attitude is almost, “Well, we’ll be fine—we’ll take the moral high ground and have the best possible standards of animal welfare.” That will not see the end of veal farming in France. That production will go on, but we somehow seem to think we can draw a line on the map and say, “We’re not going to be part of that.”
That also goes to the point I made earlier to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), to which we have not yet had an answer. A ban that does not ban movement across the Irish border is not a ban at all; it is a ban with a most obvious loophole. No matter what terms we may wish to write in about onward transmission, once the livestock has been moved from the north of Ireland to the south of Ireland we have lost control of it. As was said earlier—it might have been by the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin)—when market conditions dictate that a significantly better price is to be had for a product in France, that is where it will go. If there is even only one route to that market, that is the one route that will be taken.
There is one other alternative. In that scenario, if we allowed live exports to continue, any animals coming from southern Ireland to France would cross through the United Kingdom, where our inspectors could significantly improve the quality of the transport.
If the objection is to sea transportation, it strikes me as slightly ironic that one possible consequence for animals from Northern Ireland would be that, instead of crossing of a few miles across the border to the south, they would end up being put on boats to go across either the north channel or the Irish sea. Again, I fear the law of unintended consequences is at work here.
What is important? What should we be looking for as we seek to regulate this whole area better? I say to the Minister that in looking at this issue, which will constantly be under scrutiny, and rightly so, there is plenty of evidence and research. It is that evidence and research—not sentiment—that should ultimately govern the decisions that we make.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Before I move to the substance of my speech and the Scottish National party’s position, I will sum up the comments made by the right hon. and hon. Members who took part in the debate.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who is a passionate campaigner in this area, mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Ramsgate and the promise he made during the EU referendum campaign. I dare say that if it was not put on the side of a bus, it probably did not mean much.
During my time in this place the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) has spent an awful lot of time talking about Southend West. Last week I had the fortune—I was going to say misfortune—of having my flight to London diverted to Southend, and as we flew across I saw one or two of its farms. I am conscious that, as the Member for Glasgow East, I am probably the most urban MP taking part in the debate—I have a total of one farm in my constituency—but I was grateful for his contribution to the debate.
The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) is of course an experienced cattle farmer. There was little in the course of his speech that I could disagree with. As I listened to the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), I was further concerned: as a Scottish nationalist Member, it is unusual to find myself in agreement with Conservatives, but he made an excellent speech, nothing of which I could disagree with. I absolutely agree on the importance of teaching our children where food comes from. Like him, I have a son who is two and a half years old, and at the weekend I explained to him the benefits of us having both pig and cow in our pie. As children grow up, it is important that they understand where the food on our plate comes from. Alongside the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), he made a passionate defence of island communities. I was slightly disappointed that, over the course of the debate, island communities were not recognised elsewhere.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who is a passionate campaigner in this area, spoke of the experience in Ramsgate in 2012. I am afraid that we will probably disagree today. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. She discussed some of the challenges that could flow from World Trade Organisation rules and spoke about reasonable grounds. That does not give me the certainty I would need to give that support.
We also heard speeches from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who made a powerful point about farmers and crofters. I am well aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who is in his place, is a crofter. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, it was the farmers and crofters who had the biggest investment here.
I thank the 36 constituents in Glasgow East who signed the petition. In future, it would be helpful if MPs who take part in petitions debates had the opportunity to interact with those constituents. It is deeply disappointing that although Parliament will send us a heat map showing who signed the petition, we do not have the opportunity to follow up with those people who have lobbied us as parliamentarians to come and take part in a debate. That is a point for the Petitions Committee.
It is indeed a pleasure to speak from the Front Bench on behalf of the Scottish National party. I want to outline our position on live animal exports. We are committed to the welfare of all animals during transport within and outwith the UK. I am afraid we cannot support any moves that create further challenges or disadvantages for our livestock sector, or indeed for Scottish agriculture. We feel that current EU legislation is sufficient. Many good measures that protect animals are already in place, including journey logs and, if appropriate, resting at control posts.
In addition, the current regulations make provision for feeding and watering frequencies for livestock in transit. It is important to note, particularly from the Scottish perspective, that very few animals, if any, are exported from Scotland directly for slaughter. Export is largely done for other reasons, namely breeding and production. Long-distance transport of livestock is an important and traditional part of commercial Scottish agriculture. Indeed, the value of exporting is estimated by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs at £50 million in 2015 alone.
I want to make sure that the voice of stakeholders is heard during the debate. Quality Meat Scotland states that the Scottish industry
“benefits from being able to import live animals with quality genetics to improve blood lines”.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland has been quoted several times tonight, between the speeches of the hon. Member for Gordon and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I too am grateful for the briefing. NFU Scotland is fairly clear about there being no scientific evidence to suggest that animals being transported in current conditions are caused any unnecessary suffering. I acknowledge the previous horror stories, which were outlined by the hon. Member for South Thanet. Those controversies highlight the need for better and more consistent enforcement, rather than a major change in the law. The Government need to appreciate that live exports provide much needed competition within the marketplace, especially at times of peak production or when cheaper imports are placing pressure on domestic prices and demand.
As I have said, livestock production is key to Scotland’s island communities. Without processing facilities on an island, the only option is to transport animals across to the mainland by ferry. In some cases there is a need for animals to leave the island for better forage or winter accommodation, or for finishing purposes. Any attempt to restrict those crossings would be catastrophic to island communities and farmers, and where there is a major supply chain. NFU Scotland’s views on moves to ban live exports for slaughter are quite right and justifiable.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I also want to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: there is a welfare issue. Animals cannot be kept all year round on some of the islands and so have to move; it is for the good of the animals. Crofters and farmers are often worried about that, and spend a lot of time almost varnishing their nails—that is the level of work people put in when they have livestock. That must be considered. Any ban would endanger animals’ health.
It may benefit the House to know that my wife is from Na h-Eileanan an Iar—perhaps the second best constituency in Scotland. I visit the Western Isles fairly regularly and am aware that, in the context of the deer cull, forage is an issue. My hon. Friend makes the point well.
A proposed UK framework cannot be another power grab from devolved Governments during the Brexit process. That is the point I was trying to make to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. The Scottish Government reserve the right to follow Scotland’s interests. That should not mean surrendering control of a devolved competence to Her Majesty’s Government.
I have already touched on the subject of the WTO. Ministers have not ruled out a ban on live animal exports, and I shall be interested to see what kind of language the Minister uses when he closes the debate. Before deciding what path to take, they should be clear about the economic consequences of implementing the policy. That means not the devolved consequences, but the economic consequences for the farming industry. Conservative Members talk an awful lot about the opportunities to come from Brexit, for animal welfare and farming. I hope that policy development will extend to all strands of agriculture, including the staff who work in abattoirs.
One of the potential consequences of a ban, if Her Majesty’s Scottish Government do not invoke such a ban, has just occurred to me. Scottish farmers might be in an advantageous position. I am sure that it is not the perverse aim of English Members to disadvantage farmers in England. I should be happy with higher ram prices, I have to say.
Without straying into the territory of ram prices, which is not something we routinely discuss in Glasgow East, I think my hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not know whether the Minister has considered that issue—perhaps it is why he is reaching for pen and paper.
I was saying that I want policy development to extend to abattoir staff. The Scottish National party, like most parties, takes the view that most animals should be slaughtered as close to the farm as possible. That is why it is important that abattoirs can continue to function properly post Brexit. A staggering 95% of the official veterinarians who work in our abattoirs are EU nationals, so the greatest practical matter that we should consider is ensuring that those EU nationals, many of whom are from Spain, can continue living and working here, staffing the abattoirs.
On today of all days, and given that this is essentially another Brexit debate, it would be remiss of me not to make reference to the importance of staying in the single market and in “the” customs union—not “a” customs union. Failure to do so will result in queues of lorries, backed up with prime Scotch lamb and beef. The Scottish red meat sector already faces enough challenges down the tracks as we are dragged off the hard Brexit cliff edge. It is for that reason that the SNP cannot and will not support any move that creates further challenges or difficulty for our livestock sector, or for Scottish agriculture.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, as I was to serve under that of Mr Wilson earlier. I congratulate the petition organiser and the many signatories. I shall not go over ground that has already been covered, as that is unnecessary, but we have explored some different approaches to the issue, so I shall start with some direct questions to the Minister, allowing him plenty of time to answer them.
I want to give an immediate answer to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who is not paying attention at the moment, about some things that the Labour Government did. There are not many Labour Members present; there are three of us now. Perhaps Labour could be criticised for not introducing a ban on live exports previously, but we are united: we will introduce a ban on live exports. Obviously we shall have to consult about how we do it, but it is our clear intention. The previous Labour Government made progress on animal welfare, with the fur farming ban, the Animal Welfare Act 2006—I am pleased the Government intend to update that, and we shall support them where appropriate—and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. That is aside from what we did on the foxhunting issue. There are two Conservative Members here who strongly supported the ban—the hon. Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who were staunch in their support—but unfortunately many did not. It took rather too long to get the measure through, and we make no apologies for saying that we will look again at some of the implications of the ban.
To begin my questions to the Minister, I want to hear categorically that, in line with the manifesto commitment and the Live Animal Exports (Prohibition) Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), he intends to bring forward legislation to ban live exports. I want to hear, with no ifs or buts, that the Government will be committed to that, notwithstanding some of the nuances—if not major differences—on how it can be done. It is important that we should hear how it will be done—whether by an amendment to the forthcoming agriculture Bill, or through an animal welfare Bill. We do not mind, and we will support it, but it would be good to know the timescale and mechanism. We obviously have some differences to sort out, not least with the territorial Administrations. It is interesting that we are not on the same page as the Scottish National party, or perhaps the Liberal Democrats, but we will do what we think is right and fair.
Secondly, I ask the Minister directly whether the issue is a deal breaker. Will we say now that we will not agree to any trade deal that does not prioritise animal welfare in exports? It is no good just saying that we will ban exports to the EU if we do not ban exports in every other potential trade deal. I know it is less likely that we will be bringing live animals from Australasia, but it would be pretty stupid to ban live exports to the EU if we do not state categorically up front that we will not do a trade deal unless a ban is in the fine print. It would be good to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
Thirdly, although I thought the Conservative party was fairly clear on the ban, it is not very clear in its relationship with the National Farmers Union, which is less than sure that the Government intend to pursue their manifesto commitment. If the NFU will be pushing for caveats and exemptions—it is entirely clear that that is also the case for the territorial farming organisations—it would be good to know quite early on what exemptions could be considered. Maybe the Minister will want to take that point away.
We know about the problems with the Irish border, which will be considerable whether or not we are in a customs union or a single market. We in the Labour party are fairly clear about where we are on those things—eventually. The situation will not be easy if the NFU believes that it really has nothing to worry about, because there are certainly some issues that it does need to worry about if it wants to maintain this trade.
Fourthly—this is a slight tangent, but nevertheless important—it is all well and good talking about banning live exports, but we are not completely on top of some of the things that happen in this country. Some hon. Members will have seen the headlines in The Guardian over the weekend about some of the problems in our meat trade. We know about the scandal over horsemeat, which of course came from the Republic of Ireland. If we are going to do the decent thing and kill animals in abattoirs here, we need some pretty clear guarantees. I agree entirely that we need more local abattoirs, but the problem is that we are shutting even more at the moment. We shut a lot in the new Labour era, but that has not stopped. It continues.
Through foot and mouth, we learned of some of the mad ways in which our meat trade operates. We move animals up and down the country for a few pence on a sheep, largely depending on which abattoir the supermarkets want to send them to. It would be quite sensible to look at the regulation of that as well as the live export ban. We have to be clear that we have something substantially different in place. I say clearly to the Minister that the Russell Hume collapse has brought it to our attention that there are things going on out there that we should be much better at, regardless of where we kill the animals. It is all well and good saying that we have very high welfare standards, but we have to prove that, and sometimes we are not able to do that because of some of the things that are going on.
My last point is, dare I say it, the usual one: it would be great if this was all happening along with an improvement in the quality of inspection and, where necessary, of prosecution. Sadly, there have been major cuts in that area. The Animal and Plant Health Agency is now a much reduced body, and does anyone really think that our trading standards departments are in a stronger position than they were seven, 10 or 15 years ago? They have been cut to ribbons. That is where the cuts have taken place in local authorities.
The idea that there is a lot of inspection going on out there is sadly a myth. There is stuff that goes on out of sight and out of mind. That has an impact both on local government, through trading standards departments, and on the meat trade through the Food Standards Agency, which has also been cut back. If we are serious about this issue, we cannot pretend that we have to do anything other than make sure that those cuts are reversed. It is no good passing new legislation unless we put the resources in place to ensure that we are doing things properly.
I want to look quickly at some of the issues that have perhaps not been highlighted as much as they could have been. The documentation from the Library, produced by Elena Ares, is very useful. For one thing, following up on a parliamentary question that I asked, it shows the variability in the number of animals going for export. The variation is quite dramatic year on year. I do not know what causes that, and whether it is because of domestic price changes, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands more animals going one year than the previous year. There are some peculiarities in the trade that need to be highlighted.
If we are consistent in wanting to improve on and enhancing what the EU does, we need to go back to European Commission regulation 1200/2005, which effectively reinforces the allowing of live exports. It sets down standards such as the 65 km rules and the eight-hour rule, which have been talked about today. We have to ensure that we improve on those rules. It is no good just transposing them into British legislation without genuinely improving on them. I ask the Minister, as an aside, what guarantees he will give that we will enhance the existing situation.
There are a number of ways in which the EU already accepts that there are infringements. It does not do a very good job of regulation, and there has been a European Court of Justice ruling on live exports showing that there are inadequacies in inspection and prosecution across the whole EU. That goes back to the issue of trade; the Opposition want to be sure that WTO rules can be amended in such a way that they will not be a hurdle. It is no good leaving the customs union and single market if we cannot be clear that we can deal with WTO rules. That is an easy one for the Minister, because I am sure he will say that we will be able to do that, but we need to be absolutely up front about it. Finally, while the EU and its trade strategy and treaties have regard for animal welfare on one level, we need to be clear that our new regulations will be better than those already in existence.
I have asked questions of the Minister, and we have had an interesting debate. We have heard from the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who introduced the debate, the right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and the hon. Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for South Thanet, for Gordon (Colin Clark) and for North Thanet. We also heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for the SNP—maybe we need to sit down and work out where the opposition to the ban is coming from. There were other interesting and helpful interventions.
The onus is now on the Government to say what they will do. The legislation needs to come forward; we will support it if it comes forward quickly, although we may choose to amend bits of it—if anything, we may try to toughen it. We need clarity on what the Irish border situation really means. I saw one of the Democratic Unionist party spokespeople here earlier, and the DUP will have strong opinions on how that is going to work.
If we are serious about animal welfare, this is an issue that cannot be ducked any longer. We all saw some of the horrific pictures from Ramsgate, Dover and so on. To some extent, we have got rid of the worst aspects of that, but it has not gone away. Unless we legislate, and have the resources to ensure that we can enforce the legislation we introduce, it will be but a pyrrhic victory—but a victory, nevertheless, whose time has come. I hope we can get on and do that properly in due course, and that the Minister will assure me that that is what the Government are going to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on opening the debate, and thank him for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an issue that is important to the public. As he says, more than 93,000 people have signed the petition. I too congratulate Janet Darlison and others, who put the petition together and secured the debate.
It is unsurprising that a petition calling for legislation to ban the export of live farm animals in favour of a carcase-only trade has received nearly 93,000 signatures. This issue has been the subject of a long-standing campaign by animal welfare organisations, but as most people who have followed the issue know, and as my hon. Friend acknowledged, European Union free trade rules have prevented the Government from taking meaningful action on this over the past 30 years. However, once we leave the European Union, we will be able to take action on what for many people is an iconic animal welfare issue.
While EU trade rules might have prevented Governments from banning the live export trade, we have still seen a dramatic change in the numbers of live animals exported, particularly those destined for slaughter. Some 25 years ago, around 2 million animals were exported each and every year. The peak of live exports going from the UK for slaughter was in 1992, when a total of around 400,000 cattle, 300,000 pigs and nearly 1.5 million sheep were exported from the UK directly for slaughter.
As a result of the high number of animals being exported, live export became extremely controversial, with widespread demonstrations against it at the main ports during the 1990s. Port authorities and shipping companies were put under considerable pressure to end the trade, which led to nearly all the main ferry operators refusing to take animals destined for slaughter.
In 2017, about 21,000 farm animals were exported for fattening and production, and a further 5,000 were transported directly for slaughter from Great Britain. That was a decrease on the 2016 export figures, when about 50,000 farm animals were exported for fattening and production, and around 5,200 were transported directly for slaughter from Great Britain. To put that in the context of our national production, approximately 14 million sheep were slaughtered in the UK in the same period. The reality is that the live export for slaughter of sheep, in particular, is today a very small part of the overall UK sheep trade.
Some of those exported animals will have been transported on the MV Joline, which has sailed between Ramsgate and Calais since 2010, carrying vehicles that mostly transport sheep to Europe for slaughter or further fattening. Those sheep, after travelling to Ramsgate, spend up to six hours at sea on the MV Joline. That is followed by a further journey, often of around eight hours, before reaching their destination in France, the Netherlands, Belgium or Germany. Many people find putting animals through such long journeys, only for them to be slaughtered at the destination, indefensible.
The Government would prefer to see animals slaughtered as near as possible to their point of production, as a trade in meat on the hook is preferable to a trade based on the transport of live animals, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) pointed out. The Government are committed to improving the welfare of all animals, and share both British farmers’ and the British public’s high regard for animal welfare. We are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and have continued to lead the way in raising the bar on welfare standards. For example, as a number of hon. Members pointed out, we recently introduced legislation to make CCTV mandatory in all slaughterhouses.
As we move forwards to a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, we have a unique opportunity to shape future animal welfare policy and ensure the highest standards in every area, including the welfare of animals in transport. To that end, we committed in our manifesto to taking early steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter as we leave the EU. We are considering all the options on how best to achieve that commitment, and today’s debate has been helpful in demonstrating the various issues that any new policy will need to take into account.
Over the years, various scientific and veterinary reports have been written on the needs of animals during transport. A 2011 report by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, made certain recommendations to improve the welfare of animals in transport—recommendations that have not been adopted by the European Union. It is clear from reading the EFSA opinion that the requirements of different species before and during transport are significantly different. For example, studies confirm that heat stress can present a major threat to cattle welfare, while scientific evidence shows that if adult cattle are transported on journeys longer than 29 hours, fatigue and aggressiveness increase, and that cattle should be offered water during rest periods during journeys. There has also been some evidence that sheep and goats can suffer seasickness.
That 2011 report made a number of recommendations, including that the maximum journey time for horses be 12 hours, that journey times for calves be reduced and that pigs be transported in familiar groups, since they are social animals. In 2016, the UK supported Sweden in calling on the European Commission to look again at the regulations governing welfare in transport. It is disappointing that no progress has been made on this in Europe beyond the publication of good practice guides.
We are aware that there is also a significant amount of evidence and scientific research into the welfare of animals during transport, some of which was published after the current legislation came into force. We have therefore commissioned the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to carry out a research project to look at the existing evidence base, and to highlight the key research that we need to be aware of, to ensure that any future measures we consider are based on the most up-to-date evidence.
I turn to the contributions from other hon. Members. I am very much aware that there were a number of contributions by hon. Members who have been long-standing campaigners on this issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who recently presented a ten-minute rule Bill on the issue, and my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale).
I will address an issue raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). We recognise that particular island communities may have special circumstances that we must take into account; at the other end of the country, where I come from, a similar issue pertains to the Isles of Scilly. I had the honour of visiting the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency some years ago; in fact, I visited what I think is Shetland’s one and only abattoir. It prided itself on its attention to detail when it came to animal welfare. I think I am right in saying that there is no similar facility on Orkney, and that most of the animals there are transported. That is something that we are aware of and must obviously take account of.
I completely accept that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is sincere on this issue; she has a long-standing track record of campaigning on many issues. However, she sought to suggest that there might be a lack of commitment from the Government, or that we were backsliding. Let me be very clear: people like me who campaigned to leave the EU explained that EU law prevented us from taking action in this area. That is true. I went down to Ramsgate and met people and explained that EU law is the obstacle. After the referendum result, the Conservative party put in its manifesto a commitment to control the export of animals for slaughter when the UK leaves the European Union. As I have just pointed out, we are now giving consideration to how we will take that forward. We have been consistent throughout.
The hon. Lady should look at her party’s position on this. A few weeks ago, the Opposition introduced—with great fanfare—a package of measures on animal welfare, but just a week later adopted a position on the European single market and European customs union that would basically make many of the things they set out in that welfare manifesto unlawful under EU law.
I am grateful that the Minister has allowed me to intervene, because that point was also made earlier. I think he is referring to the Leader of the Opposition’s speech today. It set out our position on remaining in the customs union. It does not say the same thing about the single market. Hon. Members who spoke earlier rather conflated the two. They are very different positions.
We hear of all sorts of different positions on this issue from the Opposition at the moment. I simply say that EU free movement rules, which enshrine an open ports policy, govern this. Whether it is because of the customs union or single market legislation, the hon. Lady will find that taking action in this area will not be possible if the kind of approach that her party would like is adopted.
The hon. Lady made a legitimate point about WTO rules, but as she pointed out, there is clear WTO case law that enables Governments to ban certain trades on ethical grounds—including in a case on seal furs—as she highlighted. That issue was also looked at quite extensively in the judgment in the case of Barco de Vapor v. Thanet District Council, in relation to the contentious issue that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out. That judgment made it clear that were it not for EU regulation and EU laws in this area on trade, it would be possible for a UK Government to amend the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847 to introduce an ethical ban, should they want to. EU law is the obstacle to taking action in this space.
The hon. Member for Bristol East talked about the forthcoming Command Paper on agriculture and speculated about the timing of that. I will not get into speculation about timing, except to say that we have been working very hard on these issues. I have also been very clear—I have championed this since becoming the Minister responsible for farming—that I want there to be a strong animal welfare dimension to that agriculture paper. It will look predominantly at the type of framework that we would put in place to replace the common agricultural policy, but we have already been clear that we want to look at the idea of incentives to support high animal welfare systems of production.
The hon. Lady mentioned Scotland. We are working with the devolved Administrations to try to put forward a UK approach to this issue. As she highlighted and as we heard today, there is some scepticism from the Scottish Government and Scottish industry, which we recognise. To answer the specific question, it is possible—because this is essentially trade regulation—to put in place UK-wide regulations, but under the Sewel convention, there is an expectation that we will consult the devolved Administrations, and that is what we are doing.
I turn to some of the other contributions made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, as I said, has been a long-standing and passionate advocate on this issue. I welcome all his positive comments about the steps that we have been taking in this regard.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) introduced into the debate some very important notes of caution. The Government are clear about our position: we want to control the export of live animals for slaughter. It is sometimes very difficult in contentious debates such as this for people such as him to come in and take a contrarian position when there is a lot of emotion around. I understand that, but I think it very important, if we want to get the legislation right, that we take account of some of those complications.
My hon. Friend pointed out that there are already a lot of inspections of transport operators. That is true. We do not inspect at the point of entry at the port, or the point of departure at the port. Basically, we do not universally inspect; we do not inspect every consignment, and there is good reason for that. The terrible and unfortunate episode that took place in Ramsgate in 2012 showed the difficulties and dangers of trying to unload sheep in a port situation and trying to correct a position there. That is why, in the case of sheep destined for the MV Joline, we do have 100% inspections, on every consignment, at the point of loading, but not at the port; we do risk surveillance at the port. For other operators, we tend to have a risk-based approach, but there is 100% inspection, at the point of loading, for the MV Joline.
Surely that is one of the low-hanging fruit, and something that we could look into improving in order to get more control over this industry. We should either use ports where lairage is available, which is probably cheaper than trying to create our own, or ensure that we are inspecting, particularly as things are leaving our shores, so that the pride that we have in animal welfare is reflected when the animals arrive at the other end.
Enforcement is an important issue, but I would say that in that case we do have, as I said, 100% inspection at the point of loading.
My hon. Friend suggested that there is no difference between transport at sea and transport by road or land. I think that there is a bit of a difference: if someone encounters a complication or difficulty and they are on the road, they can pull over somewhere quiet and perhaps find a helpful farmer who will let them unload the animals in the yard and sort it out, but it is much harder to do that on a sea crossing; sheep cannot be unloaded in the middle of a sea crossing.
I think that there is also a difference when it comes to transport for slaughter. The reason for that is that we go to great lengths to try to reduce the stress on animals in slaughterhouses and lairage facilities. That is one reason why our CCTV proposal for abattoirs will include cameras in lairage areas. We want to do the maximum to try to reduce the stress of those animals, and having a long, stressful journey before they get to the abattoir cannot be conducive to that.
My hon. Friend asked this important question: do we know whether the animals are actually going for slaughter or for fattening? The answer is that if they are going for slaughter, that requires a different type of declaration to be made on the export certificate, so we do have that information, although there is a moot point: how long does rearing and fattening take? People could say that, and it might be two weeks or two months; it would be difficult to record that information.
For all the reasons that I have set out, our manifesto commitment focuses on the export of animals for slaughter. We are having to look at considerations that have not been raised in today’s debate. For instance, we export some laying hens—chicken—for egg production in European countries. We have the highest standards of animal welfare in our hatcheries. We do not use practices such as maceration when it comes to hatcheries for laying hens. Other European countries do not take that approach, and if we were to displace that trade to other European countries, we would not have done a clever day’s work. There are legitimate issues that we need to take into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, as I said, is a long-standing campaigner on this issue. I visited his constituency during the referendum campaign. I know that it was very galling for Thanet District Council to try to take action on something that mattered to the public and to find that, under EU law, it was unable to do so. My hon. Friend correctly pointed out that EU law is the only impediment to our taking action in this space.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) highlighted very important issues in relation to NFU Scotland, and some of the concerns that it has raised. Like him, I grew up on a farm. We raised livestock. I am not squeamish about these things, but as a farmer, I am also passionate about high standards of animal welfare. I very much concur with his view that we should be doing more to educate schoolchildren about where their food comes from and the realities of farming.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, as I said, also been a long-standing campaigner on this issue. She introduced a Bill on it recently. Like others, she speculated that the Government may be considering a consultation, or that a consultation may be imminent. She will understand that today my point is that we are considering how best to take forward our manifesto commitment, but I hope that I have been able, with the detail that I have been able to outline, at least to reassure her that we are looking very closely at all these details. I commend her for the work that she has done with her Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet raised the issue, as a number of others did, about small abattoirs. There is an opportunity to look at that issue again, but I am very clear that we should not water down our standards of animal welfare in abattoirs. It is sometimes the case that small abattoirs can do this well—I saw that, for instance, when I visited Shetland—but equally, we want to ensure that we have proper regulation, and that they can afford to have an official veterinarian on site, monitoring activities. We need to ensure that we do not go backwards when it comes to animal welfare, and I know that he would agree with that.
My hon. Friend also made an important point about rose veal. If we could develop more of a market for rose veal, rather than ending up having to sell calves for white veal, that would be a tremendous step forward for animal welfare, but sadly, because people often confuse the two, we are stuck with the position that we have now.
I come to the points made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). He asked me to clarify the Government’s intentions. I hope that I have just done that. We have a clear manifesto commitment and are considering this matter very closely. He asked whether any such provision would apply just to the EU or to other countries, and I can confirm that it would apply to all countries. We would have a consistent approach. We are not in the business of singling out the EU for different or special treatment with any such provisions that we would put in place. However, I refer back to the position of his party, which I think would compromise our ability to act in this area. He also asked whether there would be any exemptions. As I said, we are considering that. There is a specific issue when it comes to certain island communities, so of course there are certain areas that we need to look at. Also, as I made clear, we have asked the Roslin Institute to do a very thorough review of all the evidence, because we believe that different circumstances pertain for different species.
Finally, on the issue of enforcement, as I have said, we have a 100% inspection rate in the case of the MV Joline. I also point out that in all our abattoirs, we have a full-time official veterinarian working for the Food Standards Agency, who is there to enforce and maintain animal welfare standards. We also have thorough checking at the ports. There is surveillance as regards all these issues, and there must be accompanying documentation.
We have had a detailed and comprehensive debate, covering many issues. The Government are absolutely aware of the importance of this issue to the public. That is why we included it in our manifesto. I hope that the points that I have made have reassured hon. Members that we are addressing this issue.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this lively and informative debate. As the Minister said, it was important to raise central issues as the Government consider the way forward. I am grateful to the Minister for confirming the Government’s position within the current restraints on him. I am sure we are encouraged by the clear statement that the Government’s desire is for animals to be slaughtered as close to where they are produced as possible—we can all take great comfort from that—while they still understand the particular challenges faced by rural, particularly island, communities, and in no way want to damage the situation there. I am grateful to him for mentioning the Isles of Scilly; my in-laws will be delighted about that.
I thank all those who signed the e-petition, enabling us to have this debate. It is clearly a subject that many people in our country care passionately about. Clearly, we all have a deep desire to have the highest possible welfare standards for our farm animals. No one is suggesting anything other than that. We all want to ensure that we take any opportunities Brexit provides to improve the standards of animal welfare in our country. No one is saying anything other than that we hope to maintain and, where possible, improve those standards. I look forward to continuing to help and support the Government as they seek to do that in the months and years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 200205 relating to ending the export of live farm animals after the UK leaves the EU.