I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 593775, relating to the use of cages for farmed animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted to lead this debate on behalf of the 109,000 people who signed the petition and the organisation Compassion in World Farming, which organised it and is determined to see an end to the cage age.
In recent times, there have been huge changes in the way that animal cages are used, with bans on veal crates and on barren battery cages for laying hens, and a partial ban on sow stalls. However, 16 million animals across the UK are still confined to cages. Legislation now recognises animals as sentient beings, and the British public love our chickens and pigs; from Peppa Pig to Chicken Little, and Miss Piggy to Camilla the Chicken, we treasure our farmyard friends and their personalities. We are a nation of animal lovers and, for that reason, the UK rightly enjoys the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
We have introduced a raft of legislation to further protect our animals, extending custodial sentences and introducing fixed penalty notices for those who abuse animals. We have banned barbaric glue traps, created an offence of pet abduction for those sick and depraved individuals who would steal someone’s cherished pet, and introduced the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill to tackle puppy smuggling, the export of live animals and livestock worrying. Ending the cage age is the logical next step.
I think that many people assume that the end of barren battery cage farming meant the end of the cage age, and that our chickens now enjoy the freedom they are naturally owed. However, that is simply not the case. Across the world, 60% of eggs are produced in industrial systems. Here in the UK, 35.5% of all eggs produced are from caged birds. Imagine the life of a chicken that has never felt the grass underfoot or the sun on her back.
In 2012, barren battery cages were banned and, in many cases, replaced with enriched cages. However, while enriched cages are a step up, they still do not offer the quality of life that the public would think our chickens enjoy. Some are little bigger than an A4 sheet of paper and restrict many of a hen’s natural behaviours, including wing flapping, running, perching at a reasonable height above ground, dust bathing and foraging. There is a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that hen welfare is still compromised in enriched cages.
All of the UK’s main, responsible supermarkets have either already stopped selling eggs from caged hens or committed to doing so by 2025. The Government must get behind that progressive development by banning the use of those cages to protect the hens that are not part of supermarket supply chains, and by ensuring that the majority of British farmers are not undercut by farmers still using cages, whether they are in Britain or exporting to us. It is also important to note that, as well as being sold in shells, eggs are ingredients in products we buy. We must strive for a higher standard for all our chickens.
The petitioners also request a ban on the use of fixed farrowing crates for sows. It seems more than appropriate to look back at the last time that was proposed, when the late and great Sir David Amess brought forward a ten-minute rule Bill—the Pig Husbandry (Farrowing) Bill. A change to this area of the law would be an incredible tribute to an incredible man who constantly fought to further animal welfare standards in this country.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech; I, too, reflect on the fantastic advancement in animal welfare that Sir David Amess made during his time here. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, because 60% of UK sows farrow indoors in severe confinement caused by the crate, with no space to stand up or turn around, they are unable to perform natural social behaviours, and that we should join other countries, such as Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, in outlawing these crates?
I will come on to that issue, but I think there are better alternatives that will still support the safety of piglets.
Farrowing cages rightly seek to prevent the death of piglets by crushing. More than 50% of UK sows are placed in farrowing crates a few days before giving birth. They are kept there during farrowing and until the piglets are weaned at three to four weeks of age. That means that every year in the UK, over 200,000 sows are confined in those systems for some nine to 10 weeks of the year—in some cases longer—despite the fact that scientific evidence has shown that sow welfare is severely compromised in farrowing crates. The crates result in sows being forced to give birth in a tiny space and then to nurse their young through bars. The space in the crate is so restricted that sows cannot even turn around: all they can do is stand up or lie down until their piglets are weaned, usually at around four weeks of age. Confined in those crates, sows bite and chew the bars and scrape at the floor in frustration. Many endure painful wounds and sores on their legs, feet and shoulders caused by slipping or lying on the hard slatted floors.
Some 40% of the UK’s sows are reared in outdoor free farrowing systems. Calculations based on figures from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board show that total piglet mortalities—stillbirths and pre-weaning mortalities combined—have been lower in outdoor systems than indoor ones in 19 out of the past 20 years. A large-scale study by E. M. Baxter looked at the role of farrowing crates and found that designed free farrowing pens had the lowest pig mortality rate, at just 16.6%. That was followed by outdoor systems, at 17%, and farrowing crates, at 18.3%. Indoor group multi-suckling systems had the highest piglet mortality, at 23.7%. Farrowing crates clearly appear to be worse for piglet mortality than free farrowing pens.
Now is the time to work with the industry to find a way forward that protects both piglets and sows, supports our farmers during the transition, and ensures that those farmers remain competitive. I know our great British farmers want the best for their animals—in fact, there is no one better qualified or driven than a farmer to look after our animals. Their expertise, care, and commitment to the welfare of animals is second to none. Anything done in this space must be done with farmers, not to farmers. The Government must use their new-found Brexit freedom to support our farmers in transitioning from the cage age, ensuring that they are not undercut by those who continue to use cages.
When we banned veal crates in the United Kingdom, we thought we had solved the problem. In fact, all we did was deny British farmers an advantage, because those veal crates were used on the continent and we then imported the product. The difference now is that post Brexit, we can prevent those imports, so does my hon. Friend agree that there is now no excuse for not banning crates?
That is an incredibly valuable point, and one that I am sure the Minister will respond to. We can now determine the future of those crates ourselves, which I think is wonderful.
It is up to the Government to work with the sector to ensure that an informed and achievable transition plan is put in place, and to support farmers financially through the subsidy scheme to meet transition and capital costs. Both the Minister and the Prime Minister have outlined an ambition to ban the use of farrowing crates for sows. In May 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published an action plan for animal welfare that committed to examine the use of crates for pigs and cages for laying hens, and in March 2022, a response to a written parliamentary question confirmed that the Government plan to consult on the issue. I hope the Minister can confirm when that consultation will begin.
I am proud of the steps that the Government have already taken to ensure that our animal welfare standards are the best in the world, and I am delighted that great British farmers strive to reach—and, in fact, maintain—very high standards for animal husbandry. I hope this debate can help to progress that cause and result in happy chickens, happy pigs and happy farmers.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for his comprehensive introduction.
In advance of the debate, I was contacted by a number of constituents who expressed their disappointment that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about the sort of animal welfare reforms that will be the main part of our discussion today. They told me that, as we have heard, DEFRA’s action plan for animal welfare, published over a year ago, said that the Government are committed to issuing a consultation. We have heard that that will be on its way shortly, but the action plan also stated that
“we will introduce other reforms to improve farm welfare, including examining the use of cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs.”
A year on, we are still waiting for that action.
Every year that passes without action means that millions more animals are kept in unnatural and often distressing conditions that we ought to be shamed into doing something about. I hope we will hear today about substantial progress, because some of the conditions are awful. I have heard about cages that are so small that pregnant mothers are unable to turn around and move for four or five weeks once a litter is born. Even DEFRA recognises that these conditions can restrict a sow’s normal behaviour, including nesting behaviour.
We know that the European Commission plans to ban cages for all farmed animals, hopefully by 2027. Significantly for us, it will also look to prohibit the import of food from caged systems. We no longer have to automatically follow what the EU is doing, but we ought to be using our new-found freedoms to go further and faster than the EU so that we can genuinely say that we are the world leader in animal welfare. Let us do that rather than go the other way.
Further to that point about our new-found freedom, many of my constituents voted to leave the European Union in order to enhance our animal welfare standards. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we introduce new animal welfare legislation, we must ensure that we do not repeat the mistake, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) mentioned, of looking only at the domestic position and outsourcing poor practice to other countries? If we introduce a ban, we must ensure that we do not enable poor practice via imports.
The hon. Member makes an important point. That should be said not just for animal welfare standards but for environmental standards and employment protections, all of which we used to have on a clear level from the EU.
Three out of four UK adults back a ban on the use of cages for breeding game birds, and a large coalition of animal welfare charities also backs a ban on cages. As I mentioned, the EU is the largest export market for UK farmers, so I hope we all agree that there is an economic case here as well as a moral one. If we are truly to call ourselves a progressive nation of animal lovers, we must phase out this outdated and cruel practice. The lack of action over the last year paints a very different picture from the commitment to keeping these reforms on the go.
The use of cages for breeding game birds should be also banned. Wider action against cages in farming should include the breeding of game birds to end cruelty and provide consistency across species. Figures from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust show that more than 60 million non-native pheasants and partridges are released every year in the UK to be shot for sport. Many of these birds are bred in the UK using factory-style farming and raised laying cages.
Breeding birds are often kept in small wire cages for much of their breeding lives. As we have heard, those cages are incredibly small. They provide approximately 0.0011% of the space that a pheasant would typically enjoy in the wild, and 0.00004% of the space that a partridge would enjoy. We would not tolerate that for a dog or a cat, so why should we tolerate it for game birds?
Given the semi-wild nature of pheasants and partridges, the cramped conditions of the cages cause stress and injury, including painful open foot sores, exposure to extreme temperatures and injury caused by escape attempts. Aggression is also a common sign of stress in these birds, which can result in self-injury or injury to other birds. Given the conditions they are kept in, that is hardly surprising. It is also hardly surprising that most people, when told about these conditions, agree that as a nation of animal lovers we should not allow those kinds of things to happen.
I hope that we get agreement and acceptance from the Minister that this kind of treatment of any animal should be consigned to history, and that there is a clear road map and timetable for that to happen as soon as possible.
I am quite concerned about what is going on here today. I do not think anybody wants to defend sow stalls or enriched cages, but we need considerably more detail and honesty. The 16 million “animals” that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) referred to are all chickens—well, there are 200,000 pigs—so realistically, this is not exactly about “animals”; the petitioners could have put “birds”.
We saw one of the most infuriating attacks on poultry during the avian influenza outbreak: all free-range chickens were put inside, and no free-range eggs were available in our shops. There was not one campaign about that appalling treatment of poultry. It is entirely understandable why the Government insisted on locking up our chickens, but there was a real welfare issue and we heard not a squeak.
The same applies to all the other things we are dealing with here. My hon. Friend made a lovely speech, but 180,000 extra piglets will die if those crates are not used. That may be acceptable, but it is part of the story. The real problem is that unless the farmer can make a decent living—unless agriculture is profitable—he cannot undergo those kinds of losses, yet that is what we want.
We need to be much more honest about this issue. When we go to Tesco and see bacon from Brookfield Farm, it is coming from Denmark; it is not British-produced. When we get a letter about game birds, we should be aware that most of the game birds released in this country are bred in France. Because of the avian influenza over there, there has been a massive shortage of eggs and chicks. That is because the French reacted differently.
A lot of this animal welfare debate needs to be focused on truth and accuracy, and on the points my hon. Friends made earlier about what we import. We cannot expect to have better animal welfare if we do not honestly and accurately tell the truth about it to each other.
I have listened with wry amusement to my hon. Friend, who I think I am right in saying is a Brexiteer. One of the advantages—some might argue the only advantage—of leaving the European Union was that we were going to be able to exercise control over what came into the United Kingdom. I argued vociferously for a long time that we should not disadvantage our own farming community by putting up costs in a way that prevented them from making a living in competition with, for example, Denmark on pigs. Now that we have left the European Union, we have the power to say that we will not allow into the United Kingdom a product that has been produced under circumstances that we would not permit here. That is what we are asking for. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that.
How could I not understand? My right hon. Friend was crystal clear. However, I am not sure it is quite as straightforward as we would like. He will be aware that people in dinghies are coming into his constituency. We have not quite got the hang of border control yet, but I hope that we will in due course.
In respect of this debate, there are wider problems. The biggest problem for pig farmers is the foot and mouth outbreak we suffered in 2001. The best thing to do with pigs is feed them waste food. Until we can get back to doing that, it will always be difficult for our pig farmers to make a margin, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be wonderful if we could stop other people doing horrible things to animals. Unfortunately, he also supports the ban on foxhunting, which led to the complete eradication of my chickens. There are balances to be had in the countryside, and we need honesty in this debate.
The more accurate we can be, the better. For example, 55% of UK egg production is free range. It is only 9.1% in Spain and 4.9% in Italy, so we are actually doing an extremely good job in this country. We should be supporting our farmers rather than criticising them, particularly for things that are going on abroad.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for opening today’s debate, and the near 110,000 members of the public who took the time to sign e-petition 593775. We should acknowledge that it is the not the first petition on this issue, and one containing a similar call to action received over 100,000 signatures back in 2019.
I have said many times before that animal welfare is an issue on which I always receive a high number of emails from my constituents, and this debate has been no exception. One hundred or so of my constituents have signed the petition, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to represent them here this afternoon. I thank the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Compassion in World Farming for their informative, interesting and useful briefings.
Before I get into the main content of my speech, I want to take a moment to recognise the ten-minute rule Bill brought forward by the late Sir David Amess last spring: the Pig Husbandry (Farrowing) Bill, which would have prohibited the use of farrowing crates by 2027. Animal welfare was one of Sir David’s most passionately pursued causes, and I am sure we all agree that if the Government agree to changes in caged animal law, his contribution to so many debates and campaigns will have been a significant driving force.
The petition text highlights some of the key issues well, but there is an important specific point: caged animals have a low quality of life. They are cooped up, their movement is restricted, and they are left unable to exhibit their natural behaviours. It is unnecessarily distressing for the animals and causes suffering when it need not. The European Commission intends to ban farm animals from being caged by 2027, and is considering imposing restrictions on imports from cage systems. In fact, several European countries have already proactively banned cage systems. The petition is correct in its statement that, by not doing the same, the UK will fall behind the EU in animal welfare standards, creating further issues for future trade.
Battery cages for laying hens were outlawed across the EU, including in the UK, a decade ago. Unfortunately, along with most of Europe, we continue to allow enriched cages. Although they are better than battery cages, they are still too small for the birds inside them—the size of an A4 sheet of paper. The lack of space severely restricts the birds’ natural movements, and they are not able to run, fly or even flap their wings. The restriction on physical exercise has real health impacts, leading to bone weakness or osteoporosis. The RSPCA puts the number of laying hens in enriched cages at around 14 million, or approximately 35% of the UK’s total supply chain.
Luxembourg and Austria have already outlawed enriched cages, and Germany and Slovakia have committed to a ban in the near future. France announced five years ago that all shell eggs sold in supermarkets would be free range by this year. Further afield, Taiwan is beginning the process of phasing out cages. The removal of hen cages has huge support, with large national brands such as Nestlé and Nando’s supporting calls for the Government to introduce legislation. Another petition on change.org is closing in on 100,000 signatures.
When we go into supermarkets and do our weekly shop, we should not have to keep an eye out for free-range eggs. It should not have to be something that businesses point to as a mark of their animal welfare morals; it should be the norm. Every egg should be free range and there should be no laying hens confined to cages in the UK. With the cost of living crisis currently hitting families hard, there should be no disparity in the cost of free-range and caged-hen eggs. Retailers have a responsibility to allow the public to make the ethical choices they would like to. The RSPCA’s animal welfare index reported no evidence that income was related to the animal welfare considerations that people make when purchasing their food. It should not cost more to make the ethical choice.
We have to consider the impact on the farming industry too, bearing in mind the evidence that consumers are willing to support free range and higher animal welfare standards, even when there is sometimes an increase in cost. Retailers such as Aldi, Lidl, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s stock RSPCA-assured products, such as eggs and pork, showing the retail willingness to support the farming industry in that movement. Most importantly for farmers is the impact a potential EU ban would have on their ability to trade. It would be economically damaging and the work to mitigate that must start now.
I have said in previous animal welfare debates that the Government set out an ambitious agenda with their animal welfare action plan, and they have said consistently that they are committed to high standards of animal welfare in the UK. That is why it seems contradictory to overlook important areas of policy such as the use of cages. I recognise the past few years have seen improvements to farm animal welfare in the UK. I also recognise the publication of the animal health and welfare programme, and the announcement of a forthcoming public consultation, and I hope the Minister can update us on the timings. The Scottish Government have also committed to a consultation this year on phasing out caged animals. It is an area in which the UK must continue to show its ambition and commitment. The public have made their view resoundingly clear for years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). I thank all those who have taken the time to sign the petition.
I am here today to make the case for a managed transition away from the use of cages in farming. We have heard about the harm caused by the kind of intensive farming that deploy those methods. I am worried about enriched cages in which laying hens may have little more space than a A4 sheet of paper. As RSPCA research shows, such systems restrict natural behaviour such as wing flapping, running and dust bathing. Constraints on the ability to move around compromise welfare and can contribute to bone weakness and osteoporosis. With all UK supermarkets either having stopped selling eggs from caged hens or committed to do so, now is the time to set the timetable for an end to enriched cages.
I appreciate we have to take that forward in a viable and sustainable way for the farming sector. I hear the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South on getting the facts clear. At a time of inflation we must take care not to do anything to cause pressure on food prices. The Government have now started delivery of their new farm support system. When the Minister responded to the previous debate on this issue, she emphasised that improved animal health and welfare were an important goal for environmental land management. This debate demonstrates that we need an ELM scheme that is focused on higher welfare standards in the poultry sector. That is one of the ways we can smooth the way for the ban on cages that so many of our constituents want to see happen. Many major companies are backing the campaign, including Nestlé and Greggs. Over 75% of the restaurant sector have committed to going cage free in the eggs that they buy.
The fact that countries such as Switzerland and Germany have banned enriched cages shows that there are economically viable ways to do that. The Government promised to look at the issue in their 2021 action plan on animal welfare, so let us see the consultation published to take us closer to the day when we ban cages for laying hens.
We must also see the same urgency given to the replacement of farrowing crates, as called for by the late Sir David Amess in Westminster Hall in 2020. I accept that there are delicate factors to balance if we are to safeguard both the sow and her young, but there are commercially available free-farrowing systems that give the sow room to move while protecting her piglets.
How do we make such systems financially viable for our producers? The Government have stated their ambition to end the use of farrowing crates. They have done so several times, with even the Prime Minister stating it. Again, I ask for a clear plan from the Government, working with farmers, to reach the goal that they have set themselves.
Does my right hon. Friend endorse entirely the view that that has to be done in a managed way, so that the impact is not catastrophic overnight? Does she agree that, in tandem with that, if we are to go down this road, we must ensure that we start to control the import of products produced in conditions that we would not allow in this country?
Indeed. I have been clear that I do not believe that we should allow our own producers to be driven out of business by competition from lower-welfare imports. That should be a much bigger priority in our trade policy than it is at the moment. I urge the Minister to raise these matters with the International Trade Secretary.
In fact, I was about to come on to that point. Whether it is cages or crates, we have to ensure that the rules we impose domestically are reflected in our international trade rules. It is important to ensure that our farmers can compete on a level playing field and that they are not driven out of business by low-welfare competition from overseas.
The Government have a strong record on animal welfare. Our animal-welfare commitments are more wide-ranging than those in any winning manifesto of any party. We have introduced measures such as CCTV in slaughterhouses; we have banned third-party sales of puppies; we have increased the maximum sentence for animal cruelty; we are delivering compulsory microchipping for pet cats; we have introduced one of the toughest ivory bans in the world; and soon, I hope, we will become the first European country to ban the live export of animals for slaughter or fattening. Let us strengthen that record still further by listening to the petitioners today, who want to see an end of the cage age.
I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the tone and content of how he opened the debate.
The decision as to whether we permit farm animals to be kept in cages is not a party political issue, and nor should it be. I am sure that the almost 110,000 signatories to the petition come from a whole cross-section of the population, with a whole range of different political affiliations and none, as is the case today in this Chamber. That should surprise none of us, since animal welfare clearly matters a great deal to the vast majority of the population and certainly to the vast majority of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran. Some 78% of people across the UK oppose factory-farming practices, such as breeding chickens to grow unnaturally fast and keeping large numbers of animals inside crowded facilities as a means of producing affordable food.
We should all instinctively recoil from putting a sentient being into a cage. To put animals in cages deprives them of expressing their natural behaviours and can only cause them suffering. Yet across the UK, as we have heard, millions of farmed animals are kept in cages, so it really is time to end the cage age once and for all.
If we look to our European neighbours, we see that banning the caging of farm animals is set to come into force, potentially by 2027, and they are also seeking to ban the import of food from caged systems, which is a critical point, as we have heard this afternoon. As the Brexit debate raged on, I recall that Minister after Minister came to the main Chamber and indeed to TV studios to proclaim confidently that leaving the EU would mean that the UK could forge ahead with improved animal welfare. Yet now, unless we get cracking, the UK is set to lag behind the EU, with the EU banning the import of food from caged systems, which will have further implications for our farming exports. Therefore, instead of falling behind, across the UK we should be working to secure a ban on farrowing crates for sows and individual calf pens.
In their programme for Government for 2021-22, the Scottish Government committed to starting consultation this year on proposals to
“phase out cages for gamebirds and laying hens, and farrowing crates for pigs.”
In its 2021 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National party committed
“to shifting to entirely free range, woodland or barn chicken and egg production”,
as well as promising to
“modernise and update the Animal Welfare Act from 2006”
and to implementing new livestock legislation. I urge the UK Government to mirror those actions. We know that the action we want to see cannot happen overnight; we have already heard that. However, we need to get on with the transition that we all want to happen.
Scotland’s agriculture sector has some of the highest standards in the world and it is really important that those standards are not sacrificed for trade deals with countries with lower standards. This matters not only for animal welfare, important though it is, but for the quality of our food supply. For example, a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrates that hen welfare is compromised in cages. That is why all the UK’s main supermarkets have either stopped selling eggs from caged hens or have committed to doing so by 2025. In addition, companies such as Burger King and Tim Hortons have announced that they, with all their worldwide locations, will stop sourcing eggs and egg products from caged hens by 2025 in 92% of their markets, and by 2030 for the remaining 8%.
Businesses that survive and thrive do so because they give their customers what they want. What consumers want is more ethical and more humane treatment of animals, which means no caging and as little suffering as possible. If businesses can respond to consumer demand, then Government can do so too—indeed, they should do so.
However, vitally, even if we set the very highest standards for our own agriculture sector, we cannot allow, as many Members have already said, those standards to be undercut by imports from countries that have lower standards, including caging animals, which would cause a race to the bottom. For example, we know that barren battery cages, which were banned in the UK in 2012, are legal in Australia, as are sow stalls, which were banned in the UK in 1999. There is clearly no point banning a practice in the UK because it is cruel and inhumane yet allowing that cruelty to be outsourced, so that the product of this poor regard for animal welfare is still allowed to land on our supermarket shelves, whether it is eggs, meat or any other food produce.
The EU has taken a lead on banning cage systems; the UK Government must follow that lead. The SNP Scottish Government will work and seek to work collaboratively with the UK Government to ensure that animal welfare legislation within the remit of the UK system is of the highest possible standards. We in the SNP will continue to press the UK Government hard not to undercut domestic farmers in trade deals with distant lands that treat animals in a way that we know the people of the UK strongly disapprove of.
As the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and others have pointed out, this is a very important matter, and it requires the UK Government to ask some hard, searching questions about trade deals. That is a critical point that the Minister will be keen to address. I know that she is listening, and I really hope she heeds these calls, for the sake of animal welfare, the quality of our food and our agricultural sector as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I join Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), who introduced the debate in a very measured way. I also thought he was very brave to mentioned Peppa Pig in his introduction. He set the scene very effectively for a debate on what is a large petition, with over 100,000 signatures. I congratulate Compassion in World Farming and others on securing such support. We know that the support is widespread across the country. I very much enjoyed addressing the rally by Compassion in World Farming outside Parliament last week. It demanded that the Government get on with ending the live export of animals. I will return to that issue.
We had a very similar debate on this issue just over two years ago in Westminster Hall. Members might reflect on whether much has changed in that time. I am sure the Minister would be keen to say that much has, but I am not sure that it has. I reflect on the very powerful contribution made by Sir David Amess that day. It was the most powerful contribution in that debate, I think. He made a plea to move things forward.
Members have noted that there have been improvements over the past few decades. We have seen the end of barren battery cages, veal cages for calves and sow stalls for pigs, but we still have a long way to go. Every year, we keep around 16 million farmed animals in cages. There are alternatives. I thought some of the points made by Government Members were very interesting. There is clearly not a settled position on the Government side on trade policy on this issue. There is absolutely no point making improvements here if we just export cruelty elsewhere. There is also no point introducing measures that our industry cannot cope with. That is why we must make changes in a sensible, measured way.
I thought the point made by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), was powerful. These are not easy issues. There are easy slogans, but these are hard issues. Those who saw the article in The Times on Saturday will see that the current Secretary of State is perhaps at odds with other members of the Government on this. It is an ongoing discussion. There can be no solution to this problem unless we can work with others.
I will not repeat a lot of the statistics that have been mentioned about egg-laying hens. These points are probably the same ones that I and others made two years ago and which others have made today. It is interesting to see the supermarkets moving in response to consumer demand, but it is not just the retail sector that uses eggs, and not all supermarkets have come to the same conclusion.
When consumers are hard pressed, price does matter. There is no point denying that. There are extra costs, particularly at a time when we are suffering huge problems with avian flu, which has created difficulties for the sector. Earlier this afternoon, I was talking to people in the industry, who warned me that some egg producers are within weeks of having to make some big decisions. That is bad for them, but it is also bad for us, because later in the year there is a risk that we will suddenly not have a regular supply of eggs. These are complicated questions.
Does the hon. Member agree that as the UK continues to be gripped by the cost of living crisis, it is really important that retailers—especially ones that pride themselves on offering less expensive food—embrace the drive to be cage-free, so that all consumers can benefit from better welfare standards?
Indeed. That goes to the heart of some of the difficult issues in the supply chains. It is also the case that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has seen more claims in recent times because of the pressure in the supply chain. We can all understand that. It goes back to some fairly basic questions about how we address rising energy prices, but that is a debate for another day. The knock-on effect through sectors like this is very real. I fear that it will be difficult for some in the supply chain. We have problems in the poultry sector, but we have also seen huge problems in the pig sector over the last year or two. The Minister and I have exchanged strong words about this many times at the Dispatch Box.
Leaving aside the issue of the cages, some of the ways in which we have had to cull healthy pigs are not great, nor are some of the conditions that pigs have had to be kept in, as they get too big for the space. There are problems throughout the sectors. We have heard about the problems with cages, and the distress that that can cause by stopping pigs engaging in out their natural behaviours, such as nesting. I have been on pig farms and must say, when I see biting behaviour, it worries me, because they are clearly intelligent animals and, sometimes, they are stressed.
The cages can lead to higher stress levels, longer farrowing durations and higher stillbirth rates. Again, I understand the arguments from the industry about why it thinks it needs those things to prevent the deaths of piglets by accidental crushing. However, I hear what other Members have said, and when I look at the evidence, it seems that there are other ways of doing it in other places, and I think that we must move on to loose-housing systems.
In passing, I would mention the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and others about the fact that other countries are moving forward on these issues. The EU’s 2027 target may be optimistic, but I think that there is sometimes a danger that Government Members that the world is standing still out there—it is not. The automatic assumption is that we will be in a better place—not necessarily. It would be sensible, I would say, to move at a similar pace, because then some of these problems could be resolved sensibly.
There are also, of course, concerns about 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 for that is said to be that young calves are highly susceptible to disease. I was on one of my local farms the other day and witnessed exactly that. However, again, it is pretty clear that cattle are social animals, and there is evidence that calves are more stressed and fearful when caged individually in that way so soon after birth. There is also research that shows that housing calves in pairs leads to a number of positive outcomes without compromising health or production, so there are things that can and should be done.
We have also heard that cages are not only used for animals farmed for food. The issue of the millions of pheasants and partridges that are mass-produced to be shot still raises serious issues and concerns for many of us. Our worry is that they live in so-called raised laying cages that can be left outside, exposed to the elements and to extremes of temperature, with the birds suffering from feather loss, scalping and injuries inflicted by their stressed cage mates.
The regulatory system for that seems not to be up to date. The current code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes is, I am told, not legally binding, and was due to be reviewed a few years ago, but that did not take place. I am also told that the Minister has indicated, in response to parliamentary questions, that the Government are examining the use of cages for game birds, so I am sure that she will be able to confirm that. As an observation, there seems to be a lot of examining going on in the Department these days; we need action rather than examining. Will the Minister confirm that, as previously stated, DEFRA will be calling for evidence later this year as part of the investigation into the welfare of game birds?
The Opposition watch these developments with some interest. Two years ago, when we were scrutinising through the Agriculture Bill we tabled a number of amendments to increase the maximum stocking density for chickens reared in barns and to end the use of sow-farrowing crates. We did so again in the Committee that scrutinised the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Sadly, the Government chose not to support those amendments, but I am rather hoping that, over time, they will come round to our way of thinking. The Kept Animals Bill seems to be a little delayed, I think it is fair to say.
The Minister is shaking her head. In that case, I am sure that she can give us a good timetable. That will come as a relief to many of us. It has been carried over; let us hope that we see it soon. As has been said by many others, we need action now to bring an end to the cage age.
It is also vital that we ensure that any domestic production of animal products, produced through higher welfare, cage-free standards, is not simply undercut and replaced by imports from countries that still use lower-welfare cage systems. Any conversation with farmers at the moment leads very quickly to their concerns about being undercut in trade deals. I think we may be discussing this issue again later in the week but, to our eyes, the Government’s long-delayed national food strategy failed to include proper protections for imported food. Henry Dimbleby, the author of the Government inquiry that was set up a few years ago, said:
“Yet again the government has ducked the issue of how we don’t just import food that destroys the environment and is cruel to animals—we can’t create a good fair farming system, then export those harms abroad. I thought the government would address this but it didn’t.”
Well, perhaps the Minister can do so today.
The hon. Gentleman is making excellent points, which are echoed by the many emails I have had from constituents on this issue. Does he agree that when food is produced much further away from where it is eaten, trying to interrogate animal welfare standards becomes almost impossible for consumers and shops?
The hon. Lady raises a very important question, and one of the challenges of the years and decades ahead will be to try to resolve these conundrums. The Opposition feel strongly that the more we can produce food closer to home, the better off we will be.
Although I appreciate that there are concerns about the impact that increasing animal welfare standards could have on food prices—particularly at the moment, when many households are struggling with sky-high inflation—the fact is that, as set out in Dimbleby’s report, our food system is not working. It fails animals, it fails the environment and often it fails the consumer. In our view, the national food strategy has not addressed those issues. We want to see the Government work with the food sector to ensure that we can improve animal welfare without pushing up the cost for consumers. As I said two years ago, we need rock-solid commitments that ending the use of cages on our farms is a priority for the Government, and we need proper detail on how they plan to do that through a proper farming policy.
The Government have stated on numerous occasions their aspiration for the UK to become the global leader in farm animal welfare, and they really could embrace a cage-free future now. I ask the Minister to explain why this suffering should be allowed to continue, and why the Government have consistently kicked the can down the road when it comes to ending the cage age.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, thank the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), and all the people who signed the petition and enabled us to debate this important subject.
I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) that these are not easy issues to resolve. I think everybody in this room shares the goal of working to improve animal welfare, but we also live in a world where we are conscious that such improvements may increase the price of production of our food. I am committed, as are the Government, to working with producers and the food sector to raise standards across the board, and it is important that we set my remarks in that context.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South introduced the debate very well by emphasising that we need to work with, not against, the farming industry. I hope that my remarks will give him some reassurance on that. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) called for honesty in the debate, which is critical. Many of us do not really know what we are eating or where it comes from, and nobody could have lobbied me more heavily than he did on behalf of chickens during the winter. There is nothing about his now sadly demised flock of chickens that I do not know, and I am sorry that they spent their final winter housed because of avian influenza.
I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) that improved animal health and welfare is integrated into all our farming schemes. There is very good news—I would be delighted to discuss it with her in greater detail—on the vet visits that are being rolled out next year, which will specifically target cattle, sheep and pigs. Those will be a good way to provide farmers and vets with a safe space to have a discussion that is not reported to me or the Department afterwards, and they will lead to some really sensible and long-term improvements in the health of the national flock.
I reassure the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that animal welfare is right up the agenda when it comes to forging trade deals. I think everyone in this Chamber is of one mind that animal welfare is important and needs to be improved. Most of us are also aware that this is an extremely challenging time for Britain’s farmers, with enormously increased input costs—of food, fuel and fertiliser—affecting almost all production systems to a greater or lesser extent.
The UK has a strong record of banning battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls for pigs and veal crates for calves. What have the Government been doing in recent years? The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 was given Royal Assent in April, and provides legal recognition that animals are sentient, and that general Government decision making should continue to reflect that sentience. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 increased the maximum sentence for the worst animal cruelty offences from six months to five years in England and Wales. The Animals (Penalty Notices) Act 2022 will, I hope, support transparent enforcement and encourage good behaviours in husbandry generally.
I reassure everyone here that the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill remains a priority for the Government. As soon as the business managers can find us time in a busy parliamentary schedule, we expect a date on which we will debate the Bill on Report. That Bill will, alongside other measures, deal with the issue of excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening. As I have discussed with Members in the Chamber whose names I will not mention for fear of giving their age away, many of us have been committed to campaigning to end animal exports since we watched those pictures on “Blue Peter” as children.
I am pleased to say that moving away from cages is the direction of travel for the egg industry, so 60% of our hens are now kept in free-range systems. Supermarkets are playing their part, with the major supermarkets pledging to stop selling eggs from the remaining 40% of hens in colony cages by 2025. Some supermarkets and other retailers have gone further to extend that pledge to include processed products; that is to be welcomed.
So what is the plan? We are almost ready to go with a consultation on the caging of laying hens, but we must recognise that the transition must be done with, rather than against, the industry. As we move away from cages, we need to continue to work with the industry on improving feather cover and keel bone health, and reducing the amount of beak trimming that is done. The challenges for the sector in recent times—covid, staffing and, of course, the largest ever avian influenza outbreak—have been significant, but we will continue to take steps forward.
Broiler chickens perhaps do not fall quite so neatly into this debate, but they comprise a significant proportion of the animals reared in this country, so it is important to recognise that almost all of them—nearly 95%—are reared in barns, in confinement. Although we have better stocking densities than much of the EU, there is a great deal more to do in this area, some of which I will set out later.
As the hon. Member for Cambridge acknowledged, it has been an extremely difficult year for pig farmers. When we look at welfare in global pig systems, some 40% of our pigs are kept outdoors, so those sows have outdoor farrowing systems. The pig sector also gives us the clearest evidence of what happens when we ban a system without having a plan to help the industry through it. The ban on sow stalls 23 years ago led to a 40% decline in the UK’s pig production statistics, which, truthfully, we have never recovered from.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) put this point extremely clearly: we must not offshore our animal welfare harms, because that would do the pig world as a whole no good at all. There are difficulties—we are bound by World Trade Organisation rules, of course—but active work is being done to establish how, if we banned a system here, we could ban imports from that system. We are working hard on that, but these things are not easy.
It would be much easier if we had honesty in food labelling, because then at least as consumers we can make a choice.
I will get to that point.
Our consultation on pig farrowing crates is not quite ready, particularly the impact assessment on costs, and this is an industry that has really struggled over the past year. The consultation is still being worked on and clearly further work is needed. I am very much in touch with the pig industry, as we come through what has been a very difficult period. We continue to work collectively to try to solve its problems. We are also in the middle of a serious supply chain review, looking at how contracts could be made to work better for the industry as a whole.
In order to raise standards, it is important that we have other tools at our disposal; it is not just about banning systems. I very much refute the allegation that no action has been taken over the past two years. It is important that we put this in context, because probably not since the last major period of rationing have a Government been so involved in ensuring that the food supply system remained operational, and that good-quality food was available on the shelves. I absolutely refute the suggestion that nothing has been done.
Our action plan for animal welfare was published in May last year, when we committed to working with the farming sector to support higher welfare conditions. The animal health and welfare pathway is being used to raise standards all the time, not just through banning things, but through a three-pronged attack. It states that financial rewards will be available for farmers who use higher welfare systems. It also sets out a plan for stimulating market demand—that is the labelling point—and, working hand in hand with that, for strengthening the regulatory baseline.
On pigs specifically, through the animal health and welfare pathway we will continue to improve biosecurity in order to control endemic diseases, and of course the vet visits will help in that area.
On meat chickens, through the pathway we are encouraging producers to implement the Better Chicken commitment, which requires the use of slower growing breeds and lower stocking densities. Only 5% of chickens are produced to higher standards. Frankly, we all need to interrogate where our meat comes from.
Labelling obviously plays an important part in enabling consumers to interrogate where our meat comes from, and we know that it works to stimulate market demand for higher welfare products, as we have seen with shell eggs. We have issued a call for evidence on animal welfare labelling, and last week affirmed our commitment to working on this issue in the food strategy. The food data transparency partnership will help, because the way we work with retailers is critical to changing their behaviours and forcing change from the consumer end up.
In conclusion, the Government are committed to phasing out confinement systems and supporting the industry to do so, not least to underpin UK food security. However, we need to work carefully and sensitively with the pig and poultry industries, which are both struggling with some difficult input costs and other challenges at the moment.
I thank the Minister. It is good that she recognises the impact of the cost of living; the need to ensure processed eggs, as well as shelled eggs, are included in any changes; the challenges that have faced the sector; and the fact that the solution lies in working with farmers, rather than against them, to ensure we do not offshore our farming. I thank her for the work to ensure that we continue to proudly lead the world on animal welfare. I welcome that the consultation is imminent, and the commitment to end the confinement of our animals.
I pay tribute to the many hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke of the need to include game birds in any ban and the need for urgent action. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin)—the chicken ambassador himself—contributed with his usual vigour and authority. He said that we must ensure that farms remain profitable and competitive, that interests must be balanced, and that we need to be honest in the debate.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke of the great interest shown by her constituents in the subject, and of their love of animals. She paid tribute to the amazing Sir David Amess, and spoke of the international context of our legislative position. I did not realise that Nando’s is on board—I will go there more regularly.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) spoke about the need for a smooth and balanced transition, and the urgent need for the consultation. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) talked about the need to maximise the freedoms we have gained from Brexit and to ensure that our farmers are not undercut by imports.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said that customers want the measures called for in the petition, and spoke of the need to continue our role as world leaders on animal welfare. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) spoke about the history and nature of this ongoing debate, both here and in our supermarkets and supply chains.
I thank all the petitioners and animal welfare organisations for ensuring that the welfare of our animals remains firmly on the agenda of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 593775, relating to the use of cages for farmed animals.