(1 year, 10 months ago)Read Full debate
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Wilson. I thank the Petitions Committee for allowing today’s debate. As has been said, the petition did not quite reach 100,000 signatures—I think there are about 93,000 at the moment, which is a really good effort—but I am very glad that we decided to have the debate anyway. Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), I pay tribute to Janet Darlison, the creator of the petition, for all her work in promoting it and for creating the momentum that has brought us here today.
When the Minister comes to speak, I hope that we will have a little more clarity on what exactly the Government’s position is, because at the moment that is lacking. I am certainly none the wiser having heard the introductory speech, but it is up to the Minister to say where he wants to take us. In 2012 I spoke about a ban on live exports, and just last year I supported the ten-minute rule Bill in favour of such a ban, so I am glad that we now seem to be a little closer to a ban becoming a reality. However, I feel that there has been some rowing back on some of the pronouncements that were made during the European Union referendum campaign.
For example, the current Foreign Secretary went down to Ramsgate and I thought that he announced in no uncertain terms that there would be a ban on live exports if we left the EU. I know from the emails I have received that there are people who were persuaded to vote leave simply because of that issue. Perhaps those are the sorts of emails I tend to get from people involved in the animal welfare movement. I tried my best to outline some of the reasons why I thought animal welfare might not benefit from Brexit, particularly if we consider the animal welfare and food safety standards that we might be forced to relinquish as part of a trade deal with the United States. However, many people were adamant and were convinced that a live export ban would be delivered almost overnight if we voted to leave.
It is now being said that such a ban is being considered as one of several options as we leave the EU. As the Minister is here today, I will point out that I asked a similar question about foie gras. At the moment, the production of foie gras is banned in this country, on the grounds that we believe it to be cruel, unnatural and something that we should not tolerate here. The line has always been that imports of foie gras cannot be prohibited, because the dastardly EU would not let us ban them. So one might think that, given we have already established our own moral position on this issue here in the UK, once we are free from the clutches of the EU a ban on imports would be the next step. However, the answer I have just received to my written parliamentary question is:
“Leaving the EU and the single market therefore provides an opportunity to consider whether the UK can adopt a different approach in future”.
To me, that sounds like equivocation taken to the nth degree, and I fear that the same might apply to live exports.
It is also somewhat disingenuous to suggest that such a ban on live exports was always on the Government’s wish list and that it just was not possible to achieve until we left the EU. Ministers who argued during the EU referendum campaign that we would get a live exports ban once we left the EU are members of a party and a Government who in 2012 were instrumental in stopping action at EU level—I think it was being led by Germany—that would have limited the journey time for live animals to below eight hours. In most cases that would have been tantamount to a ban on live exports from the UK. However, the UK went along to those discussions and argued against attempts to limit the hours.
I have raised this issue in a number of debates, including the recent debates on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, as it seems to me to be representative of the verbal and policy gymnastics that the Government have undertaken since the EU referendum, and nobody has come back to me and said that the UK did not take that stance. So let nobody be under the false illusion that we could not have taken significant action to limit —perhaps not ban, but limit—live transit times.
I am talking about 2012, which is far more recent than that, and as I said the Government went along to the negotiations and were not prepared to take the side of those who were arguing for an eight- hour limit.
It is important that the Government are held to account on what I see as a promise to end the practice of live animal exports that was made during the referendum campaign. That is because—as the petition rightly states, although I do not think we have heard quite enough about it this afternoon—the transport of live animals, no matter what the end result is, whether they are going for slaughter or for fattening up overseas, causes a huge amount of unnecessary suffering.
It is important not to forget the tragedy that jump-started the long-running campaign for a ban, which happened many years ago. In 1996 nearly 70,000 sheep were left to die either from heatstroke, suffocation, burning or drowning, after the ship that was carrying them caught fire in the middle of the Indian ocean. Although, thankfully, an incident on that scale has not happened again, countless animals continue to endure gruelling journeys every year.
In 2012, 40 sheep had to be euthanised after being crammed into a truck, and just last August it was reported that 500 sheep spent four days without any access to food or water while they were being transported to Turkey. Also, many people here will have seen today’s story in The Times about how every year more than 5,000 calves—unweaned and discarded by the dairy industry—are sent on journeys of more than 135 hours from Scotland to Spain. That number had doubled from the previous year; I think the 5,000 figure is from 2016.
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It is far better to achieve a ban by making it economically difficult because the standards are so high than to apply a legal ban, which people get around by sending their animals to Northern Ireland, southern Ireland and to Spain. Let us get what we really want, which is a reduction in cruelty, rather than an export ban.
It did not stop horsemeat getting into our supermarkets either, and that is the problem. Once we lose control, because the animal is in another sovereign nation, it is out of our hands. Therefore, let us get right the bit that we can. At the moment, a ban would fail. We would get illegal activity and, in the end, promote and improve the lot of the worst people—not the most caring people, such as those who are prepared to be hauliers who are properly policed, have proper veterinary inspections and will lose their licence to be an approved haulier if there is any case of abuse. That is how we can achieve what we really want, which is better animal welfare. I hope that if we can do that, the roll-on/roll-off ordinary ferries will allow proper, speedy channel crossings, rather than the slow boats that animals currently have to take. However, that cannot happen without better enforcement by British veterinary inspectors, and they cannot achieve that in Ramsgate because there is no lairage. If the animals are not taken off the trucks, they cannot be inspected properly. If they cannot be seen, they cannot be given the proper veterinary inspections, and if we do not do that, we will not get the improvements that we all want.
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
Animal cruelty always raises passions. I have been involved in farming my entire life, and I have grown up with animal husbandry since I was a little boy. My earliest memories are of inspecting livestock in fields and buildings, no matter the snow or rain. Many farm children help raise cattle or sheep as a project to get them involved in farming. Rural schools in Scotland used to raise funds for the school through family farms, which raised livestock from calves or lambs to be sold at the auction mart.
Rural children grow up surrounded by livestock—farm visits were not contrived, and are still an everyday activity—but society has become disconnected from livestock farming. Fewer and fewer children and adults have a connection to the land and the livestock industry. Growing up in the countryside, I was well aware of where the bacon, eggs, chicken or beef on my plate came from, but I am afraid to say that the vast majority of young adults do not realise where their burgers come from. My young sons are six and two and a half, and they know only too well that their sausages come from pigs, that their burgers come from fat cattle in the fields, and that the chicken in their night-time books are the roast chicken at the weekend. This debate should not be about the morality of eating meat. I respect the opinions of vegetarians, but I resent it if they peddle a myth that eating meat is cruel or unhealthy. This debate should not be about that.
Let us be clear: husbandry, the feeding of livestock, the use of veterinary drugs and the transport of animals are regulated. The care of commercial livestock is paramount to farmers and breeders. We must not confuse this issue with the incidence of neglect, wanton cruelty or, in the case of transport, law-breaking. If we disagree with transporting livestock, it must be for reasons that all of society can agree on, and not simply because of minority beliefs.
NFU Scotland recognises that the standards of transport and slaughter in the EU are equivalent to our standards. Livestock are regularly shipped, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) knows, from the islands to mainland Scotland—to Aberdeen on the east coast from Orkney and Shetland. Several years ago, specialist roll on/roll off containers were manufactured by Stewart Trailers, which happens to be based in my constituency of Gordon. They were designed specifically for long journeys, and they had water and were well ventilated. They were designed to be stable if the crossing is choppy—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the crossing from Shetland and Orkney can be very choppy.
There is a lairage yard at Aberdeen for safe onward transportation to farms in the fertile countryside of north-east Scotland, where I farm. That is best practice, and anyone visiting the facilities and the cattle and sheep auctions would be reassured that it can be done properly. There was a tremendous TV programme, which can still be found, called “The Mart”. Hon. Members may need subtitles, as it was in Doric, which those of us in the north-east can speak. It was about a mart called Thainstone, and it was a wonderful example of livestock husbandry. Anybody watching it would be hard pressed to say that people who look after livestock are not passionate about it; they are therefore concerned about this debate.
If somebody simply does not agree with shipping livestock or eating meat, this proposal will not be good enough. The NFUS is very concerned that any attempt to prevent live export will set a dangerous precedent. Livestock production is the key to farming on Scotland’s islands. There are no processing facilities on the islands—they are long gone—so livestock must be transported safely and effectively to the mainland. Any attempt to restrict those crossings would be catastrophic for the islands, because they cannot grow wheat, broccoli or the fine fruit and vegetables grown in the Kent constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay).
The NFUS said:
“If a precedent is set against permitting animals to undergo ferry journeys based on sentiment, not science, island crossings could be easily targeted…despite the absence of welfare problems on these crossings”.
It is important for us to separate the issues, and I am grateful to the Labour hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who said that she respected the fact that there are higher standards in the UK.
This is the nub of the matter: can exporting over the sea be done properly? Yes, it can. Can it be done with no suffering to animals, given the correct equipment and facilities? Yes, it can. Should concern be shown for higher temperatures in the summer and the length of transportation? Yes, it should. Should this be stopped because of poor practice in the past or internationally? No.
Time after time, we witness on our television programmes the other issue on livestock for slaughter in the EU, and many other Members have mentioned it: illegal slaughter techniques, cruelty and in many cases simple criminality—facilities that should not be allowed and personnel who enjoy being cruel to animals. Abattoirs in the EU where that happens should simply not be operating. Several Members have mentioned that, and I am passionate about it, but it should not be confused with what the debate is about. The industry has to think again about this.
At the weekend, I was delighted to speak at the 53rd dinner of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland. The institute kindly gave me a tie, which I agreed to wear to this debate; I will register it as a gift as soon as I leave the Chamber. It is a venerable organisation that is immersed in the livestock industry and has stepped up during times of national animal health crisis, such as in the foot and mouth outbreak, when it undertook a task that was essential but few could stomach. Auctioneers are tasked with looking after livestock while keeping the market flowing, in a trade that goes back millennia. After all, as Members know, Rob Roy MacGregor was a drover, although he apparently took ownership by other means as well—but I do not wish to cast any slur on his character. The auctioneers are also responsible for being aware of legislation and ensuring that all those who use their facilities comply with the veterinary drug use, husbandry and transport regulations. They are very much the gatekeepers.
I believe that as many people are concerned about where livestock are processed on the continent as are worried about the transportation. On that point I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said. The whole industry must satisfy the public’s concern about where livestock is destined for. The industry cannot simply load the livestock and forget about them; Members have mentioned that. In the UK, we are broadly satisfied with Government inspectorates and officials inspecting our facilities, and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs recently announced that abattoirs—in England, at least—will have cameras, but I suggest that the livestock industry consider a code of practice, or an addition to its industry standards, on being aware of the destination of livestock that are exported live.
Livestock and valuable horses are very tightly regulated, and the destination of valuable breeding stock is known, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said. Lower value livestock can end up being passed from pillar to post, but that should not be the case, and this is where auctioneers could shed a great deal of light. Horses and ponies sent to the continent for processing should be an area of shame for horse lovers. Surplus horses have to be dealt with humanely, even in a country where we do not consume horse meat. With recent royal support, it has been advocated that facilities should be provided in the UK, rather than horses being transported to the continent. I absolutely agree with that. If the industry were to produce its own code of practice on the destination of exported livestock, and facilities were verified as suitable, I personally would be a lot more comfortable.
The Minister should look to best practice, and he is very welcome to visit farms in the north of Scotland and the facilities at Aberdeen docks. I am sure that the Member for the islands, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, would invite the Minister as well, although I recommend that he takes a plane and not the ferry; the crossing is very choppy.
I recognise the passion of those who signed the petition, but I doubt they wanted it to be the thin end of a wedge undermining UK farming, which at the moment has the highest welfare standards in the EU.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that that is a matter for the devolved Scottish Government, and not for Members in this House?
I have listened to the debate intensely, but I still have not got an answer on the issue of a trade deal between Northern Ireland and the Republic, to which live animals can be exported, and which is a member of the European Union. How do we control where animals go from there? We have absolutely no jurisdiction over that. We have to be consistent if we want to bring in something, and it is not consistent to say, “Once it goes to the Republic of Ireland, it is not our business.”
My concern is that if the price of sheep went up significantly in France, anybody who wanted to capitalise on that would send their sheep through southern Ireland; at that point, our ban would have made the situation worse for those sheep.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on introducing the debate. I want to touch on a number of issues very briefly, and to deal with a couple of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). I normally agree with him, but on this occasion there is clearly a little difference between us.
Let us tackle the fundamental difference between live animals for slaughter, live animals for fattening and live animals for breeding stock. We all understand what “live animals for slaughter” means—that is what the petition is about. My understanding is that “live animals for fattening” is a euphemism for exporting livestock from the United Kingdom to France, Spain, Italy or Greece, where they spend a couple of days in a field and are then slaughtered and branded as local meat, be that French, Spanish, Greek or Italian. Effectively, those animals are live animals for slaughter. My view is that any control exercise should embrace those animals, as well as those that are openly and honestly—if that is the right word—exported for slaughter.
Breeding stock is different. Rather like the racehorses that were referred to earlier, they are high-value animals, they are well looked after and they are transported with great care. That is not the case with animals that are exported for other purposes. The standards in the United Kingdom may occasionally be not too bad, but the standards in mainland Europe are unenforced and unenforceable. In theory they are supposed to be high, but in practice, as we all know, they are not. I am not satisfied that even a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce travelling with one animal, particularly a veal calf, from a Scottish island to the Scottish mainland for eight hours—if that is how long it takes—would be satisfactory.
The issue of veal calves, which has been referred to on a number of occasions, sadly arises from a pyrrhic victory that some of us thought we had won: the banning of veal crates in the United Kingdom. That simply proves that we do not solve a problem by moving it from A to B. That is as true of the testing of cosmetics on live animals as it is of this issue of veal calves. The British market has singularly failed to promote and sell rose veal, as it is known. Veal calves that were raised in the United Kingdom are being shipped under appalling conditions, for very many hours, from Scotland or wherever to mainland Europe, where they are reared in the dark and fed on milk under infinitely worse conditions than they ever had in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire says that we have made it worse, and he is absolutely right—I said it was a pyrrhic victory. That has to be addressed, but not by shipping those animals to Europe to have them raised in sheds in Belgium, Holland, France or wherever, to produce white veal for Wiener schnitzel or whatever. We must consider that matter.
The crux of this issue—as it happens, this was highlighted on the BBC’s “Countryfile” yesterday—is the shortage of abattoir facilities, which arose way back when we shut half our abattoirs and slaughterhouses because we tried to gold-plate European regulations. We have heard that some facilities are no longer available, and that is absolutely right: we have taken away a lot of facilities, particularly in the Scottish islands. The answer, which I would like the Minister to address, is first to preserve local facilities where they still exist.