Geraint Davies in the Chair
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 243448 relating to the caging of farm animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to introduce the second petition in my time on the Petitions Committee. This petition, “End the cage age”, which was led by Compassion in World Farming and backed by a dozen other animal welfare non-governmental organisations, is another one held over from the last Parliament. The petition closed at the start of last September with 107,187 signatures. I remember that it was listed for debate, but another Brexit petition meant that it could not be debated. The then Minister, who is now in the Lords, was very disappointed, because he was keen to see some action on this. However, here we are. Better late than never.
The petition states:
“Across the UK, millions of farmed animals are kept in cages, unable to express their natural behaviours.”
That relates to the earlier debate on animal sentience. The petitioners
“call on the UK government to end this inhumane practice by banning all cages for farmed animals.”
That would entail bringing forward legislation to amend the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 and to phase out the use of sows in farrowing crates, individual calf pens, and barren and enriched cages for farmed animals including laying hens, rabbits, pullets, broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, pheasants, partridge and guinea fowl.
The Petitions Committee tries to do outreach on some of the petitions and it reached out to farmers ahead of the debate by posting on the Farming Forum website. There was not an overwhelming response, but everybody has other things on their mind now. Among the responses that came in were the following comments:
“Animal welfare is of paramount importance to farmers.”
“It is in farmers’ interest to treat livestock well.”
“It is a small minority of farmers that mistreat their animals.”
It is important to put on record that this debate is not anti-farmer; it is about ensuring that current standards are adhered to and showing that we can do better, as we know other countries have. We always ought to look at how we can move animal welfare forwards, not backwards.
There has been some welcome progress at the European level over the years. There have been EU-wide bans on veal crates and barren battery cages for laying hens, and a partial ban on sow stalls. As I am sure the Minister would tell us, sow stalls have been banned altogether in the UK, which shows that being in the EU did not stop us going further when we wanted to, although that is often used as an excuse. Animals have been recognised as sentient beings in EU law under the Lisbon treaty, which we have already discussed.
Cages continue, however, to be used on British farms, despite well-established alternatives that allow animals to express their individual needs and have been proven to be economically viable. If the UK wishes to maintain and enhance its status as a global leader in farm animal welfare as we leave the EU, we ought to follow the lead of those European countries that have already banned caged systems.
“End the cage age” campaigners found the Government’s written response, published when the petition reached 10,000 signatures—quite some time ago—hugely disappointing. I hope we will hear more from the Minister today than a repetition of that response. The Minister’s officials look saddened. I do not know if one of them wrote the response. I am sorry if that was the case, but we would like a more encouraging response today.
In their response, the Government suggested that the main determining factor in protecting animal welfare is
“good stockmanship and the correct application of husbandry standards.”
Caged systems, however, which prevent so many essential natural behaviours, mean that welfare will inevitably be very poor, no matter how good the stockmanship is. A sow confined in a crate in which she cannot turn around will suffer because she will not be able to exhibit natural behaviours, even with the best care and stockmanship.
The Government go on to say in their response that cages have already been banned
“where there is clear scientific evidence that they are detrimental to animal health and welfare.”
However, a wealth of robust scientific evidence demonstrates that enriched cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for sows are highly detrimental to welfare, yet they remain in use for millions of animals. I am still working my way through the Government’s response, which continues:
“Enriched cages provide more space for the birds to move around than conventional cages and are legally required to provide nest boxes, litter, perches, and claw shortening devices which allow the birds to carry out a greater range of natural behaviours.”
No one is arguing that enriched cages might not be better than an alternative, but that does not mean that they meet animals’ needs.
The reality is that hens confined in enriched cages still have only a little more space than an A4 sheet of paper per pen. These cages severely restrict many natural behaviours, including wing-flapping, running, perching at a reasonable height above the ground, dust bathing and foraging. Germany, Austria and Luxemburg have banned, or are in the process of banning, enriched cages. The UK should not lag behind, not least because the main supermarkets have already stopped selling eggs from caged hens or have committed to do so by 2025.
We could argue that if people can buy eggs produced to the welfare standards they want, it is down to consumer choice. What is the problem? However, when eggs started being stamped with method of production, it made a big difference in consumer patterns. That is why some of us are keen to see method of production on other forms of produce. However, many people would not make that choice, whether because of price, availability or lack of awareness. When eggs end up in other products, one does not know their method of production. Just relying on consumers to take the lead is not the answer.
On sows, the Government boast that the UK is ahead of most other EU pig-producing countries in terms of non-confinement farrowing, with 60% of sows in crates to give birth and the remaining 40% housed outside and free-farrowed, that is, crate-free. The Government said in their response:
“Research is on-going to develop and test indoor free farrowing systems under commercial conditions which protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”
Again, the reality is that several indoor free farrowing systems that give the sow freedom of movement while protecting piglets are already commercially available and in use in several countries including the UK, so I am not sure what research the Government are talking about. Indeed, systems designed and produced in Britain are being used in the UK, USA and Canada. Sweden, Norway and Switzerland have already legislated to ban the routine use of farrowing crates. Again, Britain should not lag behind the leaders in recognising the science and ending unnecessary suffering.
On calf pens, the Government said in their response:
“The UK unilaterally banned the keeping of calves in veal crates in 1990, sixteen years before the rest of the EU. However, as young calves are highly susceptible to disease, up to 8 weeks of age, they are permitted to be kept in individual hutches of a specified size with bedding provided, as long as they have visual and tactile contact with other calves.”
The organisations that support the “End the cage age” petition argue that, in reality, group housing from birth can provide health and welfare benefits for calves, provided that groups are small and stable, and that housing provides sufficient space and ventilation, and is hygienic and well managed. Cattle are social animals, and evidence shows that calves are much more stressed and fearful when housed individually, preferring to be housed with other calves.
On layer and broiler breeders, the Government said in their response:
“In the UK, the use of cages to house both layer breeders and broiler (meat chicken) breeders is prohibited under the UK’s farm assurance scheme standards.”
It is not compulsory, however, to sign up to a farm assurance scheme. Outside those farm assurance schemes, cages for layer breeders and broiler breeders are not prohibited.
The final example I will give is game birds. About 50 million game birds are purpose bred to be shot each year. The vast majority of those are pheasants. Around a third of that total are actually shot and about 3 million make it into the food chain. However, that is a debate for another day. There is a debate on driven grouse shooting—I do not think it covers pheasants and partridges—that we might just get around to having before the Easter recess. Again, that is a Petitions Committee debate. For the purposes of this debate today, however, I will not get into the ethics of that issue.
Breeding birds used to produce the birds that will be shot are often confined to raised metal cages that are placed outdoors for the whole of their productive lives. It is true that statutory welfare codes for game birds state that barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used. However, as I understand it, that is only a recommendation; it is not legally binding and it does nothing to discourage the use of such cages. Even the British Association for Shooting and Conservation called for an outright ban back in 2010, stating that
“the available space in such cages is so limited that the welfare of the birds is seriously compromised and the system does not conform, whether enriched or not, to the five freedoms which are the basis of the UK’s animal welfare law.”
In 2009, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs initiated a major study, costing more than £420,000, into whether cages could meet the welfare needs of game birds used for breeding. The report was not published until July 2015. I had completely forgotten how many written questions there were, and how much we had done to try to chase the Government, asking, “Where on earth is this report?” Of course, the study was commissioned by a Labour Government. Then, when there was a coalition Government, it just seemed to disappear entirely. As I said, it took until July 2015 for the report to be published. However, the eventual report was pretty disappointing, in that it did not examine the issue of whether cages could be justified; it just compared cages of different sizes and with different types of enrichment.
Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the Agriculture Bill, which currently awaits a date for its Report stage in the House of Commons. Clause 1 sets out a new system of farming subsidies, seeking to ensure that public money is used to deliver public goods. Those public goods include improving animal welfare, but the Bill is silent on what constitutes better animal welfare, or exactly what farmers would be rewarded for, although I think that we made it clear in Committee that farmers should not be rewarded just for meeting the current legal standards. They should be rewarded for going above that level, but then the question arises: how far above that level is worthy of reward? Many of us are keen to see that it is those farmers who are willing to go substantially beyond the legal minimum requirements of normal good practice, not only on preventing animals from suffering but in giving them positive experiences, who should be rewarded under the financial incentives in the new subsidies system.
To ensure that financial assistance supports genuinely higher levels of animal welfare, the Bill should provide that payments may only be made in respect of farms that enable animals to engage in their natural behaviours, as identified by scientific research. Farmers operating cage systems should not receive any support under animal welfare payments.
If the UK truly wishes to be the global leader in animal welfare, we need to take steps to end the cage age for more than 6 million animals that are confined each year. Several countries across the EU have already prohibited certain cages that we still allow in the UK. The UK needs to set an example and take an ambitious approach to increasing the number of animals farmed to higher animal welfare standards if it is not to be left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I was very keen to take part in this debate because it is in response to a public petition. As a result, we are partaking in democracy in action and I was very keen to come along to contribute. I am also delighted to take part to ensure that I represent the many constituents of mine in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill who signed not only this petition but the petition that was discussed in the previous debate.
Animal welfare is taken extremely seriously in Scotland and by the Scottish Government. The Scottish National party has been very vocal in addressing concerns about the caging of animals and we are currently taking steps to strengthen animal welfare legislation through our Parliament. Indeed, a consultation seeking views on proposals to strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare legislation by increasing the maximum available penalties and the use of fixed penalty notices took place in Scotland, and it has guided the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which had its stage one debate in the Scottish Parliament just last week, on 12 March. The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause any animal unnecessary suffering.
Recently, MEPs voted in Strasbourg to demand a new law to protect animals, and called on national Governments right across Europe to roll back on intensive battery farms for rabbits, and to financially reward farmers who use pens instead of cages. They have also called for the European Commission to come forward with housing guidelines for rabbits and other animals, and to ensure that imported animals enjoy the same welfare rights and the same food criteria as their domestically reared counterparts.
The SNP Scottish Government invest £20 million a year in support of animal health and welfare, and they employ highly skilled and qualified workforces across Scotland, led by our chief veterinary officer, Sheila Voas. The Government in Scotland also recently introduced an animal welfare Bill, which sends a clear message that animal cruelty and wildlife crimes will not be tolerated in Scotland, nor indeed—hopefully—across the United Kingdom. So, if the UK leads the world on this issue, as a Scotsman it is comforting to know that that once again Scotland is leading the UK; of course, that is not for the first time and not only in this particular area.
The Scottish animal welfare Bill is rightly far-reaching and punitive. If someone is found to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, whether it be a pet, livestock or an animal involved, say, in the practice of animal fighting, that will result in a custodial sentence of up to five years and the potential for an unlimited fine. These measures will go some way to combating those who make money from these inhumane and barbaric practices. If the UK needs a precursor, it need look no further than Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament.
The Bill will deliver on the Scottish Government’s commitment to create new legislation to further protect animals and wildlife. We will ensure that the welfare needs of animals are met by placing a duty of care on the people who are responsible for their upkeep and maintenance. The welfare of all our protected animals is provided for under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which places a duty of care on pet owners and others responsible for animals to ensure that the welfare needs of animals are constantly met. The Scottish Government will produce supplementary information in the guidance for that Act, and will update that guidance regularly. The programme for Government of 2019-20 commits to increasing the penalties set out in the 2006 Act for causing unnecessary suffering, resulting in a five-year term of imprisonment and an unlimited fine, as I have previously mentioned.
We know fine well that this is an area that many people across the United Kingdom have serious concerns about; the sheer number of people who signed both the petitions that we have debated today illustrates that perfectly. The direction of travel in a post-Brexit set of nations is key in how we implement further legislation. If the UK truly wishes to be a world leader on this issue, we must enact these changes, accept that they need to be made, and show a desire to implement them.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who opened this debate, that if we are going to end the use of cages and pens, we should ensure that the moneys given out go to the people who enact the policies that we want to see across the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on leading this debate on the second petition we are considering today, and on the detail of her speech. I commend her for what she said and I agree with her completely. Science has shown that animals have the capacity to feel and have emotions, as was made clear in the previous debate, and it is vital that the UK Government recognise that.
I wish to pay tribute to Compassion in World Farming. The day before we left the European Union, I was in Brussels and I went to the Compassion in World Farming headquarters to discuss various issues. It does a first-class job. At last week’s dinner, which the hon. Member for Bristol East hosted, I was very impressed with the chief executive who explained how the organisation started, which was as a result of farmers. When the hon. Lady said that farmers do love animals, she was absolutely right. Many of them are what we could describe as big softies, so I do not think it is the House’s intention today to bully them. Great progress has been made but, as ever, I want them go further.
There is huge support on the issue. Without wishing to put too much pressure on my hon. Friend the Minister, the aspirations of more than 100,000 people will or will not be met, depending on how she responds to this debate. Like many colleagues, I am appalled by the cruel conditions in which millions of farm animals throughout the world are kept: in cramped and restricted cages, preventing them from performing their natural behaviours, and causing extreme frustration and suffering.
Pigs, hens and game birds are kept in cages that confine and restrict their movements. Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation figures show that there are currently 500,000 sows in the UK and 50% of them are in cages. Sows are placed in farrowing crates to limit their movements when giving birth, as has been said. In the following weeks, the metal frame means that they cannot turn around and can scarcely move backwards or forwards. The crates have been banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, and we must implement a ban here now. It is unacceptable that animals have to endure such horrendous conditions.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has called for a ban on farrowing crates. The use of farrowing crates is allowed and they are used routinely in the rest of the EU, except in the countries I have mentioned. However, there are commercially available free farrowing systems such as 360°, PigSAFE, and SWAP, which are acceptable alternatives. The foundation calls for a ban on farrowing crates that severely restrict the sow’s movement and her strong instinct to build a nest before giving birth—I do not know how many colleagues recognise that a pig tries to build a nest before giving birth. The farrowing crate is a small metal cage in which pregnant sows are imprisoned for weeks on end, usually from a week before giving birth until the piglets are weaned three to four weeks later. The sow is subjected to that treatment roughly twice a year.
The metal frame of the crate is just centimetres bigger than the sow’s body and severely restricts her movements. She is completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward, and frequently rubs against the bars when standing up and lying down. Beside her cage is a creep area for her piglets. The flooring is hard concrete and some form of heating—mats or, more commonly, heat lamps—is used as a substitute for the warmth of the mother’s body. That really is not acceptable. Can parliamentarians imagine being imprisoned in a metal crate for weeks on end, unable to see the sun, feel a blade of grass or turn around? It is cruel beyond belief, which is why I support Compassion in World Farming.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation also feels strongly about cages for egg-laying birds. My wife insists that when we go shopping, we purchase free-range eggs. Caging egg-laying birds causes immense suffering. Cages confine and restrict the hens’ movement. They prohibit many of an animal’s natural instincts, and they are a grim reflection on our society. Despite the obvious failings of these miserable cage systems, around 16 million farm animals are trapped in them every year in the United Kingdom.
We need a kinder future for animals. As someone who has kept chickens in reasonably large numbers in an urban area—I do not know whether the neighbours were always pleased about it—I know one can become very fond of one’s hen. Could I wring a chicken’s neck? It just would not happen. They are wonderful animals. I hope we can persuade the small minority of the farming community to stop keeping them in such a cruel manner.
Luxembourg has already banned the use of enriched cages—I know it is only a small country—and Austria and Germany are beginning to phase them out. In conclusion, in response to the petition on this issue last year—in fact, I think I chaired the proceedings and that the then Minister is now in the other place—the Government highlighted that cage bans have already been introduced where there is clear evidence that they are detrimental to the welfare of animals. Science shows us that the caging of animals is cruel and inhumane. Will the Minister reply positively and tell us that over a period, these outdated practices will be banned?
I am very happy to participate in this debate, although I have a sense of déjà vu because, now that we have established and agreed that animals are sentient beings, by definition we should be repulsed by the idea of keeping them in cages when that is not necessary under any circumstances that I can think of. In the spirit of déjà vu, I want to once again thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her excellent opening of the debate.
Nothing captures the imagination, attention or strong feeling of our constituents more than the issue of animal welfare. It does not matter what aspect of animal welfare. Like other MPs, I get more emails about animal welfare than I do about any other issue that has ever presented itself in the five years that I have been an MP. Various important issues have come up, but nothing has prompted my constituents to email me more than the issue of animal welfare. The petition has garnered 106,000 signatures calling for the prohibition of the use of caging for animals. Ultimately, that is an animal welfare issue. We all want to see the highest possible standards of animal welfare that can be achieved and delivered for our furry friends.
As I have said to the Minister—this is another case of déjà vu—in the wake of Brexit, many people are concerned about what it will mean for animal welfare in the UK. SNP Members of the European Parliament backed the “End the cage age” campaign. The European Parliament voted to demand a new law to protect animals, and called on national Governments to roll back on intensive battery farms and to financially reward farmers who use pens instead of cages. We have heard much about that today. The European Commission was also asked by MEPs to introduce housing guidelines to ensure that imported animals enjoy the same welfare and food safety criteria as their domestically reared counterparts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) indicated.
The bottom line is that it should never be acceptable to cause any animal unnecessary suffering. Again, we can all agree on that, because there is never a good reason for doing so. That is why the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 made it an offence. In addition, a consultation sought views on proposals to strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare legislation by increasing the maximum available penalties—something that, as I said, I have called for since being elected in 2015—and the use of fixed penalty notices.
The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill was debated at stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament only last week. Its provisions were referred to by Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as “exciting changes” that
“have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.
Importantly, the Bill will speed up the processes for making permanent arrangements for animals to be taken into possession to protect their welfare, and doing so will not require a court order.
Cages for animals feel instinctively wrong to me, and will to many people. Keeping animals confined goes against their natural instincts and seems evidently cruel. About 16 million animals are confined in cages every year in the UK. I am sure many owners believe that there is no detrimental impact and that they are not harming their animals, but this is a practice with which many of us are not, and should not, be comfortable. How many of us have seen pictures of these huge colonies of hen farms and instinctively recoiled? I know that I have. Although those animals may be well fed and kept clean, such conditions cannot make for a happy hen. How could they?
It seems that the real driver may be the attitudes and values of the consumer. If the Government will not drive change, consumers will. For example, the supermarket Morrisons broke cover a couple of weeks ago and became the first major supermarket to sell only free-range eggs. Morrisons is a commercial enterprise. It exists to make a profit, so the importance of that move cannot be underestimated, especially since that supermarket—as so many others still are—was formerly perfectly content to stock eggs laid by battery hens. Supermarkets make such changes based perhaps only on what matters to their customers. Certainly, it puts pressure on other supermarkets to follow suit, which in turn puts pressure on egg producers.
Ultimately, consumers will get what they want by driving change through exercising their choice. For example, 60% of all eggs laid and bought in Scotland are free range. Given that consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about what they eat, and the process of how it gets to their plate and how it is sourced, there is every reason to believe that that figure will rise. Morrisons is simply responding to that. Well done to Morrisons for meeting its goal to stop selling eggs from caged hens five years before its target of 2025.
The hon. Member for Bristol East said that waiting for consumers to drive change is simply not good enough on its own, and I agree. However, the carrot and stick together are important tools. About a year ago, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about microbeads. I remember saying that the real driver of removing microbeads from products was consumer concern. The move away from plastics by retailers is probably almost entirely based on what consumers are complaining about and what they want. The industry is following what consumers want—admittedly, more slowly than perhaps we would like.
Owing to consumer concerns, the chain McDonald’s did away completely with the use of plastic straws. McDonald’s delivered what its consumers wanted. Think of a big company such as Adidas. Normally, we would perhaps not associate such companies with driving environmental change, but at the end of the day they exist to make money and will do what their customers want. Owing to consumer concerns about the climate, Adidas now creates running shoes made entirely from ocean waste. Those are small steps by huge companies, but the consumer is king. If consumers exercise their power, they can drive really important and innovative change.
At the base of all that is the need to ensure that all living creatures, who have no voice of their own, are given the best care and the most compassionate consideration that we can afford them. That is why I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government invest £20 million annually in supporting animal health and welfare, and employing a highly skilled and qualified workforce, led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer.
The petition is timely, and a bit of a wake-up call. Increasingly, we as a society are becoming more concerned about the food we eat and the creatures around us, which can often be open to exploitation but which have no voice. We are concerned for our environment and we have a new-found respect for the natural world as it comes increasingly under threat.
We can choose to listen to the concerns or our constituents and work with them towards the ultimate goal of ending such practices as caging animals, or we can be dragged along by our constituents who, as consumers, will exercise their power to effect change. Being dragged along is never an easy prospect. It is always best to work with our constituents, and with the farming and livestock industry, to seek ways to improve the quality of the lives of our animals. We want our animals to be not just healthy but happy. I hope that the Minister will tell us what she thinks we can do better, and do more of, to try to ensure both the happiness and the health of our animals.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Davies. I will not respond to that, but it is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair—I am not going to cluck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for speaking to the petition so eloquently. She brings her expertise and her tireless campaigning work on improving animal welfare to the debate, and as always made an excellent and thoughtful contribution. I will echo many of her comments.
I fear our numbers are slightly reduced because Members are, understandably, in the House for an important statement, but we have had some very good contributions. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) pointed out that the devolved Administrations always move ahead of Conservative Governments in Westminster. Not all Conservatives, of course, are culpable; the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) delivered a powerful speech. I associate myself with his comments about Compassion in World Farming and his account of the suffering endured by animals in farrowing crates, which should concentrate our minds.
There have been improvements over the past few decades, and some of the very cruel and restrictive caging systems have been improved. Part of that was done when we were members of the European Union. We played a leading role not only in securing our own improved standards, but in leading and persuading others across the continent. It is worth remembering that we helped to end the use of barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal cages for calves, and sow stalls for pigs. All those things were achieved because we were part of that bigger grouping—a role that we have sadly cast aside.
It is important to pay testament to the progressive thinking across our country, which has meant that we have often been ahead of those in other countries with such bans. However, I am sad to say that every year in the UK we still keep around 16 million farmed animals in cages and extreme close confinement systems, when we are well aware, as we have heard, of the significant detrimental impacts on animal welfare, and when viable alternatives are available.
The majority of farmed animals in cages are egg-laying hens, kept in the so-called enriched colony cages that replaced barren battery cages, banned by the European Union in 2012. They are of course an improvement, but that space is still too restrictive for birds to properly express many of their natural behaviours, such as wing flapping, dust bathing, and pecking and scratching. Regulations stipulate that those cages still must provide the birds with only 750 sq cm of space each, of which only 600 cm must be useable—barely the space of an A4 sheet of paper.
To reintroduce an anecdote I told in the Agriculture Bill Committee—which you, Mr Davies, were not able to enjoy—many years ago I was the welcome recipient of a rescue chicken that fell off a lorry nearby. Trevor the chicken was a great joy to me, but that transformation from a caged bird into one that could display all the natural characteristics and behaviours of a chicken—very quickly; it is astonishing how powerful nature is—was very telling for me, and it underpins many people’s concerns about welfare.
Of course, this issue is not just about egg-laying hens. Hon. Members have referred to the farrowing crates that cage 60% of our pigs. Although the sow stalls that keep pigs caged for the entirety of their pregnancy were rightly banned back in 1999, sows can still be caged in that way for up to five weeks at a time prior to birth and during the weaning of piglets in farrowing crates. During that time, the sow is quite often completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward, and cannot reach the piglets that are placed next to her for suckling. The scientific evidence that sow welfare is severely compromised in farrowing crates has been well established for many years, and we now know that keeping pigs caged in that way leads to bar biting, prevents them from carrying out natural behaviours such as nesting, and can lead to higher stress hormone levels, longer farrowing durations and higher stillbirth rates.
We understand the arguments from the industry about the need to prevent the death of piglets by accidental crushing; however, looking at the evidence, I think the arguments are shifting. There is plenty of robust research and combined studies to date that show little significant difference in the mortality of piglets in crated versus loose-housed systems. Alternatives exist, as has been explained, and I think we are moving in that direction. I fear the real issue is one of economics and costs, but that is the kind of issue that can be addressed.
We have also heard about the issues surrounding calf pens. Although veal crates are banned, young calves can still be kept in solitary caged hutches for the first eight weeks of their lives as soon as they have been taken away from the mother cow. The logic is said to be that young calves are highly susceptible to disease, but we also know that cattle are very social animals, and there is much evidence that calves are more stressed and fearful when caged individually in this way so soon after birth. Research shows that housing calves in pairs before weaning leads to a number of positive outcomes without compromising health or production, fulfilling their need for social contact while also apparently leading to increased weight gain compared with those housed alone.
As we have also heard, it is not only animals farmed for food that are still kept in cages. Around 50 million pheasants and partridges are mass produced in the UK to be shot, with large numbers of breeding birds confined for most of their lives in so-called raised laying cages that are left outside, exposed to the elements and to extremes of temperature.
Regulation is limited to a code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which recommends that entirely barren cages are not used. However, that code is not legally binding, and I fear it is too often flouted. Labour believes that we must put an end to the use of cages on our farms and in our production systems, and the strength of numbers supporting this petition demonstrates how popular that would be. I was struck by those figures: sometimes we see extreme numbers of people from certain places signing petitions and smaller numbers signing from elsewhere, but the people supporting this petition are well spread out across much of the country. I think that ending the use of cages is something that the British people would universally welcome.
Due to those welfare concerns and consumer demands for better welfare products, the main UK supermarkets have already made moves on this issue. As we have heard, Morrisons has done so, and in 2018 Tesco unilaterally introduced a requirement that all dairy calves on its supplier farms be reared in pairs or groups. The use of farrowing crates has also been identified by the British Veterinary Association as one of seven priority animal welfare problems relating to pigs, and both the Soil Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals already prohibit the use of farrowing crates under their labels. We have already debated how we move forward, but in our view, what is missing is considered Government action to step in and introduce measures to end the use of these caged systems on our farms, once and for all.
Simply leaving the burden of responsibility for making this change with individual consumers is problematic, because for so many people, price is still the key driver. We entirely understand that; we do not in any way condemn people who are forced to make choices because they are on limited incomes and, even if they would like to support higher standards, cannot afford to do so. We had this discussion in some depth in the Agriculture Bill Committee. Labour’s view is that we have to make it easier for people to make the right choice by excluding low-cost, low-welfare alternatives. There is clear evidence that if standards are lifted, industries respond and prices begin to settle, so this is a case in which we need clear leadership.
We in this country pride ourselves in leading on higher animal welfare standards, but sadly, other countries are moving ahead of us on this issue. Luxembourg has already banned enriched cage colony systems for egg-laying hens, and Germany and Austria are phasing them out. Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have already banned sow farrowing crates, and free-farrowing systems are being developed in other European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands. We recognise that such bans would need to be phased in, with proper safeguards in place to support the agricultural industry during that transition. Back in 1999, the Labour Government rightly banned sow stalls, and that had a clear impact on the domestic pig industry, so it is vital that Government help is there to support a switch to alternative systems.
It is also vital—this is a recurring theme—that we ensure that any home production of animal products produced to these higher-welfare, cage-free standards is not simply undercut and replaced by imports produced in countries that still use lower-welfare caged systems. That should be one benefit of our new-found freedom to take back control, so I encourage the Government to do so. This is why it is so important for the Government to put into law their promises that upcoming trade deals will not simply sell out our farmers by allowing lower-standard imports.
The Government know this is the right direction of travel, which is why we have been hearing some quite positive noises from them. Both the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the current farming Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), have said that the Government’s aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary. The Government’s belatedly released “Farming for the future”—one of my favourite documents, which lays out their plans for British farming post-Brexit—says that they want to establish an animal health and welfare pathway in partnership with farmers and stakeholders to improve animal welfare and health, including in relation to confinement. However, we feel this is all too vague.
The Government’s new Agriculture Bill, which we hope will soon be considered on Report, is the perfect place to introduce measures for supporting farmers in ending the use of cages. However, sad to say, the Government have so far rejected every one of our helpful amendments aimed at better promoting farm animal welfare and enabling the ending of cages and intensive farming practices. They have rejected amendments that would establish a stronger baseline for animal welfare regulation across the board; ensure that those receiving public money for improving animal welfare went above and beyond this baseline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East so eloquently explained; promote the conduct of research into the impact of highly intensive livestock farming practices on animal welfare; and give the Secretary of State the power to introduce a phased ban on sow farrowing crates and to explicitly allow farmers to receive public money for phasing out those crates.
What we need from this debate is rock-solid commitments that ending the use of cages on our farms is a true priority for the Government and proper detail on how they plan to achieve that through their farming policy. The Government have stated on numerous occasions their aspiration for the UK to become the global leader in farm animal welfare once we leave the EU, and if they were serious about that ambition, they could embrace a cage-free future now. I challenge the Minister to explain why this suffering should be allowed to continue, and why she thinks we should end the cage age one day, but not yet.
Thank you so much for that, particularly the story of the liberation of Trevor. I assume Trevor was not an egg-laying chicken.
May I say briefly to Patricia Gibson—this is just a small point of procedure—that I notice that Steven Bonnar, who made a contribution, has left before listening to the wind-ups? I would be very grateful if she had a quick word with him because that is not the convention. Finally, to complete the hen party, I call the Minister, Victoria Prentis.
I think I will call you “Mr Chairman”, Mr Davies. I do not think I will call you anything else in the circumstances.
I thank the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important subject, and it is a pleasure to follow excellent speeches from Members of all parties—particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who I have heard speak passionately about such issues many times. Indeed, we rehearsed many of the arguments in the Agriculture Bill Committee when he was the Chair and was prevented from opining on the subject, so it is good to hear from him today. I also thank the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition and brought this issue to our attention, and I acknowledge and praise the animal welfare campaigners who have played an enormous part over the years, with celebrity endorsements, advertising and general encouragement to improve our animal welfare standards. We have come a long way, particularly with the welfare standards of chickens such as Trevor.
The Government have made it clear that we place great importance on the welfare of farmed animals. The “End the cage age” petition calls for a ban on the use of barren and enriched cages for farmed animals, and I assure hon. Members that the Government are keen to explore the issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister noted in Parliament last year that he was keen to introduce animal welfare measures. We will continue to focus on maintaining world-leading farm animal welfare standards through both regulatory requirements and statutory codes.
The welfare of our farmed livestock is protected by comprehensive and robust legislation, backed up by the statutory species-specific welfare codes. The codes encourage high standards of husbandry, and keepers are required by law to have access to them and to be familiar with them. As part of the welfare reforms, I am pleased to say that the third of our newly updated welfare codes—for pigs—came into force on 1 March, and I will say a bit more about that later.
The Government have set ourselves a challenging agenda of animal welfare issues that we will tackle, and we are taking action on many fronts to improve the health and wellbeing of farm animals. A major example is that we are committed to ending excessively long journeys for live animals going for slaughter and for fattening. We will soon launch a consultation on how we deliver that manifesto commitment, and I am keen to press ahead with that as soon as we can. Our “Farming for the future” policy statement, which is favourite reading for the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), was published last month and reiterates that, in line with our national values, we wish to continue improving and building on our position.
As part of our reforms to agricultural policy, we are developing publicly funded schemes for English farmers to provide public goods—including animal welfare enhancements, which are valued by the public and not sufficiently provided by the market. Such enhancements could include improving animal welfare in relation to the use of cages and crates. Not all the examples that I am about to mention are absolutely relevant to the debate, but given that this is a matter which the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I have discussed many times, it is important that I explain our thinking. We intend to develop publicly funded schemes to support farmers in England to deliver enhanced animal health and welfare, so the schemes are intended to reward them for going above and beyond already high standards, which I think the hon. Member for Bristol East recognised.
To take broiler chickens as a specific example, delivering enhancements may include farms using slower-growing, high-welfare breeds of chicken that have the freedom to exhibit natural behaviours through increased communication and a stimulating environment, or through the freedom to roam, peck and scratch outside. For dairy cattle, the enhanced freedom to exhibit natural behaviours could involve increased access to stimulating loafing or outdoor space, and the freedom to access and graze good-quality pasture. I will come to welfare enhancement for pigs later, but they could include rooting and foraging as well as addressing the issues of crates and tail dockings.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system is currently being devised. I am very keen to include him as much as I can in the way we do that. Some of it might well be tier 1 funding, some might be tier 2, and some—though I doubt it—might even be tier 3, but I do not want to rule anything out at this point. It is really important that we keep an open mind, look at how the tests and trials are going, and then look at how the scheme is developed through the pilots. The point I am trying to make today is that it is certainly intended that public goods include animal welfare.
All hon. Members present can think of many improvements that we would like to see. For example, we might want to look at animal health improvements, such as reduced lameness in cattle and sheep, and at lower levels of antimicrobial resistance. We will focus on welfare enhancements that deliver the greatest impact and benefit, based on scientific evidence. I do not want to stray too far from the parameters of the debate, but it is helpful to continue to have such conversations as the system is devolved.
I want to emphasise that cages are not used in England to keep some of the farmed animals referred to in the petition—namely farmed rabbits, broiler chicken breeders, layer breeders and guinea fowl. It has been mentioned already that the UK unilaterally banned veal crates in 1990, 16 years before the rest of the EU, which eventually caught up. Conventional battery cages for laying hens were banned here in 2012. I am pleased to say that we already have a much larger free-range sector than any other EU country, and free-range sales represent about 67% of retail egg sales—not necessarily eggs incorporated into food—in the UK.
The Government are currently examining the future use of cages for all laying hens, and I welcome the commitment from our major retailers, with positive support from our egg producers, to stop retailing eggs from enriched colony cage production systems by 2025. I was interested in what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said about Morrisons, and we obviously welcome its going further. The Government are also considering the use of cages for game birds, including the systems used for breeding pheasants and partridges. The hon. Member for Cambridge outlined how they are governed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its associated code of practice, which provides keepers with guidance. The Act and DEFRA’s code are enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West described farmers as big softies, and I should probably confess at this point that I have kept pigs in the past. They are one of my favourite animals—if a Minister is allowed to have favourite animals. My pigs were extremely free range, to the extent that they sometimes caused a nuisance in the village—the Agriculture Bill Committee heard a lot about that. As we heard earlier, the UK has led the way on improving pigs’ welfare by banning the keeping of sows in close confinement stalls in 1999. I am not in any way criticising that decision, but it is worth noting, as my hon. Friend did, that we were about 80% sufficient in pigmeat in 1998. The figure had fallen to about 50% by 2003, and it is currently about 56%. I am extremely keen not to outsource animal welfare issues to other countries.
The Government have made it clear that we remain completely committed to the ambition that farrowing crates should no longer be used for sows. Indeed, the new pig welfare code, which I mentioned earlier, clearly states:
“The aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”
It is important that we make progress towards a system that both works commercially and safeguards the welfare of the sow and her piglets, and that we do so as quickly as possible. The UK is already ahead of most pig-producing countries on this issue, with about 40% of our pigs living and farrowing outside. Good progress has been made, but there is more to do.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, DEFRA has funded research into alternative farrowing systems. The commercial development of farrowing systems and practices is not sufficiently advanced to recommend the compulsory replacement of all farrowing crates, but I am keen to work with the industry on this—using both carrots and sticks—because it is important to not simply move production abroad.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. The Government place great importance on the welfare of all our animals. The measures that I have set out demonstrate clearly the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to strengthen our high animal welfare standards. We are actively exploring options to do with the use of cages and will work with industry to improve animal welfare in a sustainable way. The provisions in the Agriculture Bill will help us to do that.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said, the debate was poorly timed as the 6 pm start coincided with the start of the statement on covid-19 in the main Chamber. I appreciate that some of the petitioners may be slightly disappointed that, as a result, the turnout was not as good as for the previous debate on animal sentience, but I assure them that that does not mean that MPs do not pay attention to our email inboxes or do not care about these issues. We definitely want improvements.
I appreciate that all Departments have a lot on their plates at the moment, but DEFRA in particular is overwhelmed—it suddenly has three major Bills and some smaller ones kicking around, having gone without significant legislation for quite some time. I impress upon the Minister that there are many people out there who would like to see higher animal welfare standards. To that end, I hope that we can use the mixture of the carrot and the stick that has been mentioned, rewarding farmers through the Agriculture Bill but also banning things that we decide are ethically unacceptable once alternatives are in place, as is the case for farrowing crates, in particular. I am sure that we will revisit the issue. I thank the Chair for coming because I know that he had some reservations about turning up—it shows great pluck of him to have actually come along.