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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 March 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Free-range Produce (Animal Welfare)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and to have the opportunity to discuss the issue of animal welfare, particularly in relation to poultry and the chicken industry.

I admit from the start that I have never shown a great interest in animal welfare in the 10 or 11 years that I have been doing this job; many of my constituents have raised the issue, but it is not something on which I have spoken in Parliament before. Bluntly, my motivation for doing so comes from lying in front of the television after eating far too much at Christmas and watching the celebrity chefs, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, on those excellent Channel 4 programmes that looked at animal welfare. My daughter Alice prodded me to watch the programmes. There is a generation of young children who take such issues to heart, but the programmes shown on the BBC and Channel 4 were excellent for broadening the matter out and for raising awareness among a much wider audience.

I should also praise the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has continually raised the matter. Many Members will have been subject to its lobby campaigns—the organisation is extremely smart at arranging constituents to participate in postcard campaigns. Its persistence has done great service to animal welfare.

Such issues are not a flash in the pan—they have been around for some time—and I do not think that those concerning the chicken industry will go away. The television programmes to which I referred have started a process that I believe will continue. Both the BBC and Channel 4 plan to make follow-up programmes, and the celebrity chefs to whom I referred will be fairly persistent.

Although the focus of the debate is chickens, there are many other animal welfare issues, and I apologise for the fact that I shall not be able to touch on them in the time available. I shall say something about the pig industry because it is lobbying Parliament today, and it has some animal welfare issues.

The chicken campaign is not only to do with animal welfare, but our health. The programmes made a strong case for the importance of healthy eating and the way in which the food that we eat is bred. Obviously, the matter is significant for supermarkets and retailers; consumers, because of the costs involved in raising standards; and for Parliament and politics. I apologise in advance to the Minister because I recognise that some of those matters are not in his portfolio, but I hope he will be helpful in perhaps undertaking some cross-party work on them.


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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): I rise early to thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and to pass on apologies for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is at an important conference today. He has asked me to stand in for him, so I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Oaten: The other overriding comment that I wanted to make before getting into the detail is that I do not wish to attack farmers, supermarkets or any particular industry. If we are to make genuine progress, it is apparent that the various sectors need to work together, albeit that there are conflicting interests at times, and there is a fair amount of anger among farmers about how supermarkets operate. We need to recognise that both sides have difficulties.

I should establish some parameters in the language that I will use. There is a danger that the term “free-range”, which is in the title of the debate, is overused. There is a misunderstanding, which I certainly fell into, that animal welfare campaigners are asking for free-range produce. That is not the case: well managed, indoor-bred chickens that meet high welfare standards are perfectly acceptable. The phrases with which I am more comfortable are “freedom food” or “welfare standards”. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that we are always looking for free-range produce, because the alternatives can be just as acceptable for animal welfare.

I should give some of the background statistics. I was staggered when my researchers told me that 850 million meat chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK, which is an enormous amount of chicken consumption. Around 98 per cent. of those are broilers, which are intensively reared in large, closed buildings, in which the temperature, lighting, ventilation and nutrition are controlled to ensure the highest and quickest growth possible. The chickens are designed and bred to put on weight rapidly and many of them have severe health problems as a result of the way in which they are farmed. In some cases, they are crammed in; the lack of space can limit their ability to move around and increase prolonged contact with soiled litter, which gives rise to painful ammonia burns to their feet, legs and breasts. That was graphically illustrated in the television programmes, which showed how the animals were treated. The light is kept deliberately low to discourage activity, but it is kept on all the time to encourage the birds to increase their weight as quickly as possible. However, the chickens simply do not get adequate rest. Many of the birds are kept in brown sheds with no opportunity to express natural behaviour such as perching, ground pecking and foraging.

Research shows that the consequence is poor animal welfare. In 2000, the EU carried out a groundbreaking study that looked at the link between breeding practice and welfare. More recently, as a result of a study by Bristol university, which was sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have more detailed information about the impact that production methods have on welfare. For those who were sceptical of the television programmes, that study, independently sponsored, sets out some alarming findings. For example, at a mean age of 40 days, more than 27 per cent. of birds showed poor locomotion, and 3 per cent. were almost unable to walk. The study’s conclusion said that


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    “a debate on the sustainability of current practice in the production of this important food source”

is needed. Will the Minister say whether the Department has had a chance to look at the study, as I would hope, and what it plans to do next? Does the Minister feel that the Bristol study should result in any particular activities? Both anecdotal and detailed research by universities show that we have a problem.

What about consumers? We know that they are looking for change because there was an enormous change in buying practice in the two or three weeks after Channel 4 broadcast its programmes. I talked to the managers of the various supermarkets in Winchester in my constituency and found that they quickly sold out of welfare birds. Sainsbury’s had to buy free-range chickens from France, so we are aware that consumers are prepared to change their habits.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is another loser in the pattern that he is describing? Will he ask the Government about the small caterer? They traditionally serve free range, but they find that because the supermarkets are buying up supplies, they cannot get a consistent supply, or that the price has soared. There is a premium of something like £7 for a free-range chicken or 10p for a free-range egg, which severely damages places such as the Wetland centre in my constituency.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the success story behind that changing pattern has a downside. There is a shortfall because of demand. As ever in such circumstances, the supermarkets—the big boys—can dominate and set the price. In the next six months or so, we could see an interesting fluctuation in prices as demand makes things difficult. There is enormous potential for British agriculture to meet the demand. If we get things right, I hope that we will see prices come down to a more acceptable level.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is not a new issue; I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the policy some years ago, and the figures show that the scale of distress for chickens is still at a high level.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Winchester supermarkets. He might stand with a clipboard in the car park of any supermarket in the Winchester area asking people to sign a petition to improve the welfare of chickens, but although 80 per cent. of people are aware that chickens are kept in cruel conditions, because they have busy lives and their budgets are under pressure they may dip into the chiller cabinet and pick out a chicken from Brazil or Thailand, where welfare standards are even lower. There is a problem of public awareness, is there not?

Mr. Oaten: I suspect that if I stood in the car park with a petition, I would be thrown out; that is the usual practice, at least when trying to do anything political. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, one that it is backed by the RSPCA. It said that 90 per cent. of respondents to its survey would be prepared to buy a
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high-welfare-reared chicken. Interestingly, when asked how much extra people would spend only 27 per cent. of them said that they would spend £2 or more.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is backed by statistics. As ever in life, many of us talk a good talk, but putting it into practice is something different. Sometimes that is the result of laziness and lack of motivation. I recognise, as did the television programmes, that for some families a very real financial cost is involved. I tried to change my habits recently in terms of the purchase price. In some supermarkets, a chicken costing £14 or £15 is expensive compared with the £4 chicken that one could buy.

David Taylor: The RSPCA runs an admirable freedom food campaign. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that indoor-bred birds with a freedom food label cost about £1 more than the standard bird. That leap in price is not enormous.

Mr. Oaten: I agree. If one considers the way in which the various supermarkets choose to price their birds, one can see that some are at the high end. My slight suspicion is that they are using the current campaign to charge a little more for welfare birds. The hon. Member is right that the RSPCA’s work is practical. The RSPCA is also conscious of the costs involved, which is why many of the welfare tags that it attaches to birds and other animals come at a sensible price. None of this will work if we freeze out a large number of consumers.

I believe that there is an encouraging precedent. Similar arguments took place six or seven years ago on egg production, but practice has changed there. We have seen affordable welfare-raised eggs coming on to the market, and we have seen consumers changing their practice. We have seen the industry change before, and I am confident that we can get the prices right for poultry.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he is saying that the supply of a particular product encourages the consumer, or that the consumer is driving the change in practice? I believe that the consumer is king, and that British agriculture will deliver whatever the consumer demands.

Mr. Oaten: That sounds rather like asking whether it is the chicken or the egg—or the egg and the chicken. I do not imply that my hon. Friend was trying to make that joke: self-evidently, both come together. The catalyst in this case is publicity; it has raised awareness and we have a really good opportunity on the back of the current media campaign to push forward and to get both sides to come together. However, as I said at the start, I do not say that one side is wrong and the other right. We must all work together.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman noticed a bridge between chickens grown locally and those grown overseas, and whether there is an increasing gap between them?

Mr. Oaten: I am not aware of an issue in relation to cost—I have not been briefed on the matter—but I am aware, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware, of the real difference in the welfare standards of poultry reared in this country and abroad. I am confident, as
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ever, that British agriculture meets the highest possible standards of welfare. If there was one simple message to come from the campaign, it is that one way to be reassured that one is getting good welfare-raised poultry is to buy British whenever possible.

I turn to the role of the supermarkets. As I said in response to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the supermarkets’ response to the current debate is variable. The good and positive news is that companies such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose do not stock standard chicken, and that Tesco and others are desperately moving towards that position. That has to be the biggest and most encouraging change that we have seen. Bluntly, if consumers cannot get hold of poorly reared chicken it will change attitudes.

Supermarkets need to undertake further work on labelling. As the consumer walks down the aisle and looks at the labels, it can be hard to tell quickly which chickens have been reared properly. Some poorly reared animals are packed cleverly with pictures of a farm, a barn and lots of green grass. We need to standardise labelling. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the subject. Much work has been done by the National Farmers Union and others with the red tractor campaign, but a little more needs to be done by the supermarkets, particularly if we are to have clarity about where chickens are sourced.

The supermarkets are helped by the work of the RSPCA and its freedom food campaign. The welfare standards developed by the RSPCA give me a great deal of assurance. When considering whether to issue a freedom food award, it takes account of animal welfare and advice from veterinary specialists. I believe that that provides a good model for change. The freedom food label is now used for eggs, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, beef, lamb, pork and dairy products. The good news is that in 2005, about 6.5 million chickens were reared to the RSPCA standard; by the end of 2006, that figure had increased to 20 million. The latest figures show a further increase to 40 million. That is an encouraging trend.

We, as parliamentarians, could put pressure on all supermarkets to make a firm commitment to move towards sourcing their products from a higher-welfare standard by a certain time. Sainsbury’s says that it will do so by 2010; we should look for more public statements to be made by supermarkets.

I am conscious of the time, Mr. Atkinson, but I want to speak about farmers before turning to legislation and other matters important to us as politicians. As we know, farmers are often highly criticised on the matter of animal welfare. Three relatives of mine are farmers, and they spend most of their time with me on Sundays roasting me on the subject. I know that many of them would like to do much more when it comes to animal welfare, but they find themselves tied down in a number of areas.

I hope that the Minister will consider a couple of issues that concern the industry. I said earlier that the egg industry has been a good example of progress—to such an extent that 85 per cent. of eggs currently meet welfare standards. However, that has resulted in more demand being placed on British egg producers to produce eggs to that standard. However, I understand that there is a very practical difficulty, in that many find it difficult to get planning permission to expand, and to build on
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the extra land needed to produce eggs of that quality. The demand is there, as is the opportunity to make money, but planning in rural areas is becoming difficult. Will the Minister say something about that? It would certainly help British farmers to gain from this expanded industry.

I also wanted to make a point about the quality of British farming. One of the concerns of our farmers is that, as this country moves ahead in its welfare standards, that will leave the door open to poor quality, cheaper imports. If we, as politicians, along with the media and consumers are pushing for our farmers to improve welfare standards, we really have a responsibility not to let them suffer financially because of poorer quality imports.

That is one of the concerns that will be raised today when the pig farmers come to lobby Parliament. Stewart Houston, the British Pig Executive chairman, summed it up by saying:

    “Two thirds of all imported produce would be illegal to produce in the UK as it does not meet our higher welfare standards.”

If that is the case, it must be very galling indeed for British farmers who are meeting those standards to discover that our supermarkets are full of products that do not meet them, which is putting our farmers out of business.

Mr. Roger Williams: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about pork and pig meat imports into this country. Another important statistic to put alongside that one about imports is that pig production in this country has been reduced by about 30 or 40 per cent. That has increased the demand for the amount of pigmeat coming into this country that is produced in less than satisfactory conditions.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend represents a very large farming and rural community and he is obviously right. He will know, of course, that, at the moment, many pig farmers are losing up to £20 per pig, and that is not the type of job or industry that anybody would wish to be in. There are very few people who would produce a product where they lost that amount of money per item.

I will move towards a conclusion by looking at some of the legislative issues and some of the ways in which, as politicians, we may be able to address these problems. Legislation that deals with animal welfare is quite varied. The key piece of legislation revolves around the assured chicken production standards. These standards require that chickens have ready access to water, are nutritionally sound, have sufficient space and a hygienic environment, and have the freedom to express normal behaviour. However, if those standards are in place now, it is quite clear, given the studies that have taken place and some of the problems that exist, that they are not necessarily adequate. Many animals are falling foul of those standards.

As ever, the EU has legislated in the area of animal welfare. An EU Council directive—EU Council directive 2007/43/EC—gained political agreement in May 2007. That new EU directive will come into force on 30 June 2010. It sets out minimum standards for the protection of chickens reared for meat production. Now, that is obviously welcome in relation to most of Europe, where
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those standards needed to rise. The directive itself allows 42 kg of birds per square metre. However, the difficulty with the directive, and it is why I seek some reassurance from the Minister, is that British standards run way ahead of that standard already. Our standard is for 38 kg of birds per square metre. The perverse side of this EU directive is that it could allow a lowering of standards in this country if farmers were to comply with it. I seek some reassurance from the Minister that the Government will make it very clear to farmers that they need to stick by the British standard and not revert to an EU standard that would make animal welfare worse.

Another issue in relation to Europe is that there is a slight concern that there are some in the EU who are trying to delay the proposed ban on battery cages, which is due to come into force by 2012. Again, if the Minister could reassure me on that issue, I would be grateful.

There is also a slight problem with the House of Commons. Immediately after the television programmes on animal welfare were broadcast, I decided to table a parliamentary question to find out how much free-range food, including free-range chicken, we consumed in the House of Commons. I think that there are about 22 restaurants and bars in this place, so we consume a fair amount. The answer came back from the House of Commons Commission that, in fact, less than 10 per cent. of the food that we consume here is sourced from free-range goods. It seems to me that if we are trying to influence and persuade others of the importance of this issue, we could make a jolly good start by getting our own house in order.

In many cases, I think that we could solve this problem fairly quickly. The RSPCA has been very helpful in that regard and I am seeking at the moment to arrange a meeting between the RSPCA and the House of Commons Commission, which oversees food production for the Commons. Again, if the Minister could say something helpful to me on that issue, it might help me to arrange that meeting a little more quickly, because at the moment it seems to be taking a bit of time to arrange it. The RSPCA is certainly happy to come here with practical suggestions about how the House of Commons catering could do much more to get that figure for free-range food up from 10 per cent.

Another area in which I would welcome some support from the Minister is in trying to see what we could do to help with providing better quality food in our schools. Again, Jamie Oliver led a big campaign on this issue two or three years ago and the Government responded; that campaign was about trying to move children away from turkey twizzlers and towards eating more salads. However, there is still an alarming problem, in that much of the food sourced in our schools throughout the country is food that we would neither wish our children to eat nor food that we would purchase ourselves. From my perspective, having a couple of daughters who are now constantly on my case about this issue, the irony is that, when they go to school, they are probably eating food that they would find totally unacceptable.

In recent years, Hampshire education authority sourced its chicken for schools from Indonesia and I cannot begin to think what the animal welfare consequences of that decision are. I am pleased to say that, more recently,
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Hampshire county council has improved that situation and it is doing much more to try to source its food from other alternatives.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): One of my pet subjects is that a lot of county councils still have their own farm estates and it galls me that one of the ways that we could make dramatic improvements in this area is to use those farm estates as the source for all food for educational institutions. However, that always seems to be too difficult and too expensive to achieve, which I find very disappointing.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Furthermore, one would see educational benefits from showing children how that food was produced. The issue relates to a fundamental theme that runs through all of the points that I am making, which is that there is a great opportunity for us to take a lead with British agriculture, sourcing these products locally wherever possible, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said.

The good news is that some schools have changed practice. The Humphrey Perkins high school in Leicestershire is now one of the first schools to serve only free-range food. However, if the Minister could perhaps have a word with officials in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to see if there is anything that we can do to encourage local education authorities to change their practice in this regard, I would be grateful.

I have spoken for much longer than I intended and I apologise for that. A range of animal welfare issues affects consumers, retailers and ourselves as politicians. I have raised a couple of specific issues for the Minister to consider, but there is an open door now for real progress in this area. I hope that this morning’s debate will be just a timely chance for us to take stock of where we are going on animal welfare and if, as politicians, we can use a light touch to help move animal welfare standards further on in a more positive direction, that would be welcome.

9.58 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate. He has raised some very important issues. Like him, I think that this is the first time that I have ever spoken on animal welfare issues in the House, although, unlike him, I did not see the recent television programmes on animal welfare that he mentioned.

I should probably start by outing myself, I guess, in that I have been vegetarian for nearly 27 years and vegan for 16 years, I think; the decision to become vegan, which, I think, I made in 1992, was one of those new year’s resolutions that I managed to keep. Obviously, therefore, I come to this debate with certain prejudices and I do not need to be convinced by watching the television programmes that others have been talking about.

Having said that, I very much welcome the interest that has been taken in this subject by people such as the celebrity chefs and the hon. Members attending today’s debate, and I also welcome the fact that the media have taken up the issue of the welfare of battery chickens. However, although it is great that the media is focusing on that one issue, it is only a small segment of some of the concerns that I have about animal welfare standards
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generally. There is a move towards industrial production of food; farming has become an industry. The sheer scale of production is enormous: as we have heard, 800 million chickens a year are produced in the UK. As that scale of production is replicated across the whole agriculture sector, I have real concerns about what that will mean for animal welfare standards.

I should say that I have no intention of getting anybody else to become a vegan, although a surprising number of my constituents are vegetarians. However, I hope that I can raise the issues of welfare standards and battery chickens, so that people can pick them up.

As we have heard, there will be a ban on battery cages from the beginning of 2012, but my concern is that enriched cages will still be permissible. If we look at the details, we see that such cages are only slightly larger than the battery cages that are legal at the moment. Although enriched cages have perches, the birds are still kept in very confined conditions, which means that they cannot fulfil their natural behaviours. We have gone a certain way down the road with battery cages, but the current alternatives are not particularly acceptable.

Barn eggs will, of course, still be legal. Although they are presented as an animal-friendly alternative, the birds can be kept in flocks of up to 16,000 to 20,000. Regulations state that there should be only nine birds per square metre, but studies have shown that as many as 15 birds can be crammed into that area. Birds often end up pecking each other featherless because of the distress caused by being so packed in. That is still a form of factory farming, even though the birds are not in cages.

Even with free-range eggs, there are concerns. The birds are housed in huge sheds, although they must obviously have outside access to be classed as free range. Often, the shed will have only a few small holes leading outside, and it can be quite difficult for some of the birds to access them, because of aggressive behaviour by other birds. Research by an Oxford university team in 2003 found that although free-range birds must, by law, be given eight hours’ access each day to the outdoors, fewer than 15 per cent. of the birds in very large systems, which hold up to 9,000 birds, could get outside in practice. We are therefore kidding ourselves if we feel that free range is the ideal solution and that we are meeting all the relevant standards just by classing something as free range. More than 75 per cent. of hens in the UK are kept in flocks of at least 20,000, so it is only the small producers who can guarantee that the welfare of free-range birds is being protected as it should.

There are other cruelties involved in mass production. Debeaking or beak trimming is carried out on a large proportion of laying hens, no matter what production system is used, and that includes free range. Birds are also fed artificial colorants so that their eggs have yellower yokes, and are required to produce more than 300 eggs a year, which is way more than a bird would naturally produce. As a result, the amount of calcium that birds must produce to make the egg shell means that they suffer from osteoporosis, although I do not quite understand the technicalities. Each year, about 2 million hens in battery cages die before the end of their natural lifespan.

Early-day motion 954 raises the issues brought up by the Jamie Oliver programme, including the gassing of the male chicks that are not needed. Two quite distinct strains of birds are produced in this country: those that
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are suitable for meat production and those that are suitable for egg laying. If the birds have been bred for egg laying, the male chicks will not be suitable as meat chickens and they are destroyed when they are a day old. The early-day motion rightly raises the issue of their being gassed, but other alternatives include a machine called an homogeniser, which minces the chicks alive. About 300 million male chicks are killed when they are a day old because they are no use to anybody.

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Lady spells out very clearly some of the problems with labelling food as outdoor, free range and freedom food, but I return to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. One way to address the issue is for consumers to demand better prescriptions for production, and people have done that. Does the hon. Lady agree that McDonald’s, in serving only free-range eggs, is perhaps moving in the right direction?

Kerry McCarthy: As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, I am reluctant to congratulate McDonald’s on many things, but the more that producers and retailers can do, the better, although I would question whether some of the free-range produce meets the standards that it is expected to meet.

I want briefly to skim through a few issues relating to other forms of food production. Some 35 million turkeys a year are bred for food and they are kept in similar conditions to chickens. Many of them also die from starvation, infection and disease before they are ready to be slaughtered for food.

The House has debated the inhumane production of foie gras. Geese are force fed until their livers are 10 times the size of that of an ordinary goose, which makes breathing and walking difficult. We are told that it is not possible to ban foie gras imports under current EU law, and we should address that. Another issue that I have taken up with the Minister is the zero-grazing of cattle, which involves cattle being kept totally indoors and not being allowed out to graze.

Last year, I was involved in a campaign with Viva!, a vegetarian charity in Bristol. The campaign was aimed at farrowing crates, in which sows are kept while they are pregnant and weaning their piglets. It is impossible for sows to turn around in such crates or to engage in any of their natural behaviour. Farrowing crates are used for about 80 per cent. of the UK’s breeding sows, and that, too, needs to be addressed.

I want to turn now to a slightly different issue. We are trying to do what we can to address these problems in the UK and the EU, but where do we go in terms of the standards that we expect other countries to adopt? It is illegal under World Trade Organisation rules to ban imports into the EU on the basis that they do not meet the EU’s animal welfare standards. Although we can phase out battery cages in the EU, we cannot tell the developing world that we will not import its goods because they do not meet our standards. We need to address that at an international level.

The issue is particularly important given the rising levels of meat and dairy consumption in the developing world, particularly in places such as China. China’s meat consumption has gone from an average of 4 kg per person 40 years ago to nearly 60 kg per person today. It is estimated that China will reach US meat consumption levels of 125 kg per person by 2031, which, I am told,
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amounts to four-fifths of current world meat production. I would like to know what we can do internationally to ensure that such meat production meets the standards that we expect in the EU. Even India, where meat consumption is traditionally low, is massively increasing its consumption of meat, and poultry production is one of the fastest-growing segments of its agricultural sector.

Finally, the environmental consequences of increased meat production and consumption are just beginning to be recognised, and the Minister has probably come across that issue in his day job. It takes 9 kg of cereal to produce 1 kg of beef, so there is a real issue about the amount of agricultural land that we would have to use to produce animal feed if we moved towards the patterns of meat consumption that I have outlined. Together with the move towards biofuels, that is something that we really need to address.

In that respect, there is also the issue of water use. On average, I am told, it takes about 180 litres of water to produce a battery egg, whereas the poorest people in India use an average of only 10 litres a day. A slaughterhouse in Brazil uses 10,000 cu m of water each working day, but 25 per cent. of the country does not have access to safe drinking water. There is a real question about how we address such issues internationally and require countries to meet our standards. On that note, however, I will finish.

10.9 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I could speak for a long time, but I shall not. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which has been brief, but nevertheless well informed and balanced, rather than hysterical. The problems highlighted by the television programmes to which he referred present us with challenges that are not easily solved. We all want the situation to improve, but there is a great potential for unintended consequences that could, in fact, make it worse.

There are no specific, legally binding requirements for the welfare conditions of chickens in this country, but we are moving towards EU regulation. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the problem is that in raising standards among EU colleagues, we risk allowing ours to fall. Strong welfare standards apply already to UK poultry, in the form of the red tractor scheme, which is a guarantee of high standards across the sector with regard to welfare, housing, feed, health and hygiene. The scheme includes requirements that birds should be given a decent amount of space and be tended by skilled staff. Those standards are independently inspected each year.

Mr. Roger Williams: Livestock production can be managed in different ways, but the key to animal welfare is the person responsible for those animals and the staff whom they employ. The difficulty with labelling is that anything can be claimed, but whether it is being delivered is another matter, and it depends on the staff.

Tim Farron: The difficulty with farming in general is that reduced margins for the producer mean reduced capacity to ensure that those doing the work—
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stockmen and others handling the animals—have the skills necessary to do their job well. The problem is that, in ensuring that standards are high enough, we might create an overbearing bureaucracy. One of the advantages of the red tractor logo system is that the standards are inspected independently every year without the need for an overbearing bureaucratic apparatus.

As we have heard, the RSPCA has pointed out that the dichotomy that is normally presented—battery farming versus free range—is often a false one. It should be commended for that. I am sure that many colleagues will agree that indoor poultry rearing can often be extremely humane and that, conversely, many chickens reared in nominally free-range circumstances live in extremely poor welfare conditions. As a cadre of politicians, our priorities ought to be to ensure high welfare standards for all animals, to enable farming to be viable and not unduly regulated, to safeguard our poultry industry, to ensure that consumers know what they are buying and to encourage them to buy produce that has been reared humanely.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and those made in a debate that I led in this Chamber less than 18 months ago, which have helpfully been incorporated in the debate pack, on the importance of requiring that labelling be honest, open and accurate? So much of it is misleading. An animal can be bread to slaughter weight and slaughtered in a foreign country, shipped to Kent—or somewhere like that—wrapped or subjected to a minor process, and then described as “UK produce”. That cannot be allowed, can it?

Tim Farron: I plan to cover that later, but I agree absolutely. It is vital that labelling is accurate and honest. One suspects that retailers—not least the all-powerful supermarkets—sometimes take advantage of the ambiguity in the system.

The UK is almost 90 per cent. self-sufficient in meat, poultry and egg production, which is an encouraging starting position from which to build on, given the Government’s stated concern about reducing food miles and ensuring food security. Any move to excessive and narrow regulation might easily prove counter-productive. Over the past few years, the volume of imports of poultry produce into this country has risen by roughly 10 per cent. each year. Clearly, one of the reasons behind that is that imports are often cheaper, largely owing to the fact that it can be cheaper to rear poultry in poor conditions. If we over-regulate in our desire for even better welfare conditions at home, we might simply add to costs to the industry here, thus making it less competitive, and therefore open the door to imports, the market strength of which sadly lies in sub-standard welfare conditions.

Mr. Drew: This is partly in relation to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy): if we go on like this, there will never be any change in the WTO rules, which quite simply are completely wrong. We should encourage countries exporting very cheap livestock to produce it for their own markets. That is how they will raise their standards. It is about time that we took on the WTO.

Tim Farron: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We must take action and consider the role of the supermarkets and the all-powerful purchasers in the market. The drive for larger profit margins leads to increased pressure for reduced costs, which affects livestock farmers of all varieties, not just those in the poultry sector. The poorer welfare standards that result from that drive for lower costs, which often leads to sourcing from overseas, is the key.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), supermarkets take advantage of the lack of clarity in labelling to exploit ethical demand without actually improving ethical standards. The position of the consumer is all important, but let us not understate the power of supermarkets in delivering what I hope that all of us in the House want achieved. It is clear that consumer pressure for better welfare standards and premium-priced eggs, poultry and meat is growing and that they want to buy free range. Interestingly, recent research has shown that consumers were about five times more interested in animal welfare standards in the production of food products than about the impact on climate change. I make no editorial comment about that—it is just an observation.

The top end of the market is a minority one, not least because, unlike the average television chef, most people whom I represent are on a budget and cannot afford to purchase at the premium end of the market—or at least not often. We must ensure that the debate on animal welfare in food production does not become the preserve of the chattering classes. If we focus simply on the premium end, we risk ignoring the 98 per cent. of poultry meat and 68 per cent. of eggs in this country that are not free range, but which often are, and certainly can be, produced decently and humanely.

The RSPCA is absolutely right to concentrate on the animal welfare standards employed in commercial farming, rather than on specific systems, and to develop the concept of freedom foods, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. It should be applauded for taking action that will help the vast majority of animals, not just those reared at the top end of the market. It is also right to press farmers to convert buildings to higher welfare standards.

Let me make a couple of brief political points. In light of that situation, the Government might like to reconsider their decision to abolish agricultural buildings tax relief, which will surely discourage farmers from developing buildings to meet the higher standards for which hon. Members have called. They might also wish to reconsider their excessive implementation of the nitrate vulnerable zones directive, which will add significantly to the costs to the poultry industry and put investment in facilities for higher welfare standards beyond their reach.

The movement towards higher welfare standards is led by the consumer. To that end, honest labelling is vital to ensure that we can make informed choices. Many shoppers trust British produce simply because it is British and they know that our animal standards are the highest in the world. It is an outrage that meat products from countries with worse welfare standards need only be moderately transformed or processed to qualify for the misleading label of “British produce”. In seeking to assist consumers to make the ethical choices
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that we increasingly want to make, it is crucial that the Government ensure honesty and clarity in labelling, and that high standards are maintained throughout the poultry sector—not just in an elite niche beyond the affordability of the majority.

10.20 am

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Thank you for allowing me to speak in today’s debate, Mr. Atkinson. I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who, unfortunately, cannot be present to speak on behalf of the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team. DEFRA is not my Department; I am a shadow Home Affairs spokesman. However, I focus on animal welfare in my job, so I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which gives us an important opportunity to discuss free-range issues combined with animal welfare. I shall make a number of observations on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Since the House last discussed the issue at length, several strides have been made on free-range and animal welfare issues. However, I am sure that Members of all parties will agree that there is still much to be done. One of my high priorities since becoming a Member has been to campaign for greater standards of animal welfare. Fortunately, in my role as shadow Home Affairs spokesman with responsibility for animal welfare issues, I have been able to meet many organisations that are engaged in the vital work of caring for an amazing variety of creatures great and small. I thank all those organisations for providing me with the information on which I shall base my comments.

The issue of free-range produce and the animal welfare associated with the industry has rightly been brought to the House’s attention on several occasions. Broiler chickens and egg-laying hens have received much media attention of late, and an update on the national situation and a thorough review of what the European Union is doing on the matter are long overdue. Consumer culture in recent years has shown increasing compassion towards livestock that is reared in humane conditions, which I certainly welcome. For the most part, it has impacted positively on animal welfare, particularly that of chickens, cattle and pigs in Britain.

According to the 2007 report by Compassion in World Farming, the biggest change in broiler meat among supermarkets involved a general shift towards better welfare, which we all welcome. Similar comparisons can be drawn with cattle and sheep, most of which are given some access to pasture, especially during the grazing season, and with pigs, with many supermarkets now refusing to sell pig meat that has been farmed with the assistance of sow stalls and farrowing crates. They are certainly positive steps forward, and credit is due not only to supermarkets and the media’s celebrity coverage, but to British consumers, who have exercised their right to buy produce involving high standards of animal welfare.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out in a similar debate in October 2006 that this is in fact a pan-European issue. It is all well and good attempting to promote free-range
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produce and to raise standards of welfare in the United Kingdom, but without the co-operation of the European Union, we risk alienating our farmers and forcing them to spend more and to forfeit competitive costs as they rear livestock to our own high standards of welfare. Meanwhile, our European counterparts undercut prices with no regard for the animals involved. That has been a problem for several years, and inroads have been made only recently.

I welcome the EU agreement of May 2007, which provided strict regulation concerning chickens that are reared for meat production, allied with the threat of action against anyone breaking the rules. Concurrently, the decision by some of our supermarkets to ban the import of low-welfare white veal and to sell only the high-welfare rose variety means that farmers do not have to send calves abroad. In turn, the animals forego exhausting and traumatic overseas transportation, while farmers have an incentive to produce high-quality but financially viable meat.

On free-range produce, another area in which improvements will be implemented concerns the 1999 EU directive on the welfare of laying hens. I am sure that hon. Members know that directive 88/166 sets out a ban on conventional battery hens from 31 December 2011. There is strong public feeling against that cruel practice and, once again, it must be tackled not only nationally, but Europe-wide. Concurrently, however, the replacement of the battery environment with enriched cages by 2012 does little to quell the moral questions that many consumers have about the industry. It is a sensitive issue, not least because of the conflicting arguments made by the RSPCA and the National Farmers Union about the cost of increasing space for birds. I understand the difficulty that the UK farming industry faces as it attempts to balance animal welfare concerns with the public’s demand for cheap food. However, I was disappointed, as I am sure that others will be, to learn that well over 50 per cent. of egg-laying hens in Great Britain are still of a battery variety, meaning that there has been no substantial reduction in their number since the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) spoke about the issue in 2006.

Industry figures that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) bought to light when speaking to a ten-minute Bill in 2003 showed that barn eggs cost only 8.5p a dozen more to produce, and that free-range eggs cost only 18.5p a dozen more to produce. Given that we consume about 180 eggs per person per year, that is a relatively small price to pay for ethical farming. In light of a reply to a parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I look forward to the European Commission’s report on the laying hens directive. It will be of great interest to not only myself, but—I am sure—a large majority of the public, who would like to know whether the UK will be prepared for the 2012 transition and whether it will offer protection to competitive British farming.

My final point relates to broiler chickens, which I mentioned earlier.

David Taylor: I might be intervening with regard to a point that the hon. Gentleman is about to make, but does he hope that the Minister will examine very
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closely the existing standards for broiler density? A sheet of A4 paper, which the RSPCA used to great effect in its weekend campaign, is the typical amount of space occupied by a 2 kg broiler chicken bred to slaughter weight. Some 100,000 of those chickens have been killed in the hour since this debate began—the numbers are 2.4 million a day, or 800 million a year. The standards are absolutely unacceptable, and if the broader British public were more fully aware of them, I am sure that they would press all politicians to raise standards much more quickly.

Andrew Rosindell: I certainly agree. The public are greatly concerned, but they have the power to purchase chickens that are bred differently. It is not only up to the Government and the European Union to examine the issue and to take necessary action that balances the needs of farmers and animal welfare standards. The public can vote with their feet and make their own decision about what they purchase and in which particular supermarket. I am sure that hon. Members know that broilers are selectively bred and reared for their meat, and that they weigh between 1.8 kg and 3 kg within just six weeks of hatching. That situation is horrendous when one considers that it would take five or six months for a chicken to reach that size naturally.

There are approximately 116 million broilers in the UK at any one time. According to a reply to a parliamentary question tabled last month by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), more than 679 million broiler chickens and hens were slaughtered in England and Wales in 2007. That is only a marginal decrease from the number in 2006, let alone 2003. We should be doing more.

The RSPCA’s 2004 report “Behind Closed Doors” was highly critical of the industry. It said:

    “The unnatural growth rate of broilers, together with the lack of space to move or exercise, encourages the birds to rest on the litter.”

The health and welfare of a bird correlates directly to the quality of the litter. Poor-quality litter can lead to painful, unhealthy and sometimes contagious conditions such as hock burn, breast blisters, skeletal disorders, lameness, heart failure, bacterial infections and bird flu, to name but a few.

Given that public concern for the welfare of such animals is at a high, I believe that the majority of consumers would be willing to pay a small cost increment to show their support for higher welfare and, in my opinion, to obtain better quality meat. It is commendable that the private sector has taken the initiative. The supermarkets have proved instrumental by stocking welfare chickens at reasonable prices, setting an example that the public sector can surely follow. We can only hope that with better EU co-operation we will see much higher standards domestically and internationally.

Britain has always proved to be a world leader in animal welfare and we should be no different in the matter of farm animal welfare. The steps that we have taken need to be furthered. Although the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 show our intent, our greatest difficulty still lies in raising European standards without alienating the British farming industry. At the risk of repeating myself, I should say that we need to liaise with our European neighbours on the matter and perhaps take more of a leading role, with the
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welfare of the industry, individual farmers and animals firmly in mind. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

10.32 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for allowing me so much time to respond to this debate. So far, at least, it has justified the House’s institution of Westminster Hall debates. It has been an extremely well-informed and well-researched debate involving policy issues that resonate with the many members of the public who are concerned about the matter, not least the daughter of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who is probably responsible for instigating this important debate. I hope that many members of the public will read the Hansard report. I wish that the newspapers would employ more parliamentary reporters, so that they could carry comments from debates such as this.

With all respect to the celebrities, Members of Parliament from all parties have been campaigning on the issue for many years, since before the celebrities discovered it—although, as has been said, the publicity that they can generate is welcome. However, I caution against the unintended consequences of such campaigns; the impact of the campaign on the quality of school dinners caused many parents to withdraw their children from school meals because they feared that the meals were bad, even after the school cooks had made them good. The point made in that respect by Unison, the public sector union, was strong. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on raising this important issue and giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.

I shall answer hon. Members’ questions and then outline the Government’s policy. In that way, I can ensure that I have responded properly to the debate, although I am not sure that I can guarantee to answer the questions in order. I begin with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy). I was dying to know which new year’s resolution she was not able to fulfil, but she should be congratulated. She made a number of important points. She gave figures on the number of kilograms of cereal required to produce 1 kg of beef. That is hugely important, because it is a major reason—along with the implications of human-made climate change—why food prices around the world are rising as world prosperity rises, particularly in the far east, and human beings consume more meat and less cereal.

My hon. Friend also asked whether higher welfare standards in EU policy would not simply open us up to cheaper competition from third countries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened to mention the World Trade Organisation. The Government and this country operate under WTO rules, which do not allow member countries to ban imports of like products—those that are essentially the same as domestic products except for the method by which they have been produced. Discrimination against like products is a restriction on trade not allowed under agreed exceptions to WTO rules unless the lower welfare standards practised in the exporting country gave rise to safety concerns under the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. That relates directly to the point made by both my hon. Friends. Of course, that is not to say that the UK Government do not promote changes in those areas,
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but there is a balance between consumer expectations and the Government actions that reflect them and the effect of protectionism on the needs of the developing world.

Mr. Drew: It is true that in the early days of common agricultural policy reform, the UK had clear objectives in raising concerns about animal welfare and the environment. Sadly, though, those concerns got lost in the wider competitive drive. Will the Minister assure me that the UK Government—as well as those of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, I hope—will ensure that they continue to argue the case with one voice that environmental and animal welfare standards are crucial?

Mr. Woolas: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is passionate about those issues and agrees strongly with that point—as is known, he is a vegetarian. He will be representing the United Kingdom on the European Union Environment Council; indeed, he attended one of its meetings yesterday. The forthcoming CAP reform talks present the opportunity to push further on that point.

David Taylor: The supermarkets have outsourced much of their poultry meat production to Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere. Will the Minister tell us what responsibility he believes they have to ensure that welfare standards, even the lowish ones set by the WTO, are observed by the countries concerned? When the Select Committee that I chair reported on that area of industry, I was astonished by the negligent and blasé way in which supermarkets said that they visited their production units in Brazil from time to time after giving notice and being told which units to go to: namely, those with the highest standards. The supermarkets are useless in that regard.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We have had various discussions with supermarkets and the National Farmers Union on that issue. As I shall discuss in a few moments, labelling and consumer information are extremely important and are at the heart of our policy. We believe, and there is consensus on this in the House, that informed consumer choice is the modern way. If there is an advantage to having large supermarkets that control large percentages of the marketplace, it is that such policy levers can be made more easily available. I say that because it is a fact rather than because I welcome it.

Let me answer hon. Members’ questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East asked about the evidence comparing welfare in free-range systems with that in enriched cages. Various studies have shown that each system has strengths and weaknesses, as she pointed out. Industry figures show that mortality continues to be significantly higher in free-range systems than in other systems.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about the research of the university of Bristol. That research, which was funded by DEFRA, found that the incidence of bone fractures over the life of a flock is reduced significantly in hens kept in enriched cages compared with those kept in barns or free-range systems. The LayWel research project, which is funded principally by
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the EU Commission, concluded that cage systems tend to provide a more hygienic environment with a low risk of parasitic disease, and that feather pecking is still a predominant welfare problem in commercial flocks in non-cage systems, with a prevalence of 40 to 80 per cent. The prevalence of cannibalism is lower, but up to 20 per cent. of flocks were affected in one survey, and up to 40 per cent. in another. The situation is not black and white. That brings me to the valid contribution that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who is no longer in his place, made when he intervened on the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He said that the skill, knowledge and intention of the stockkeeper is the most important factor.

Enriched cages provide more space for the hen, as well as a nest, a perch, and material to peck and scratch. In recent years, the design of enriched cages has improved in the UK and elsewhere, with larger cages and colony sizes that allow birds to perform many more individual behaviours. Larger colony cages have been trialled by producers, and productivity and welfare results are positive so far. That is extremely encouraging. A DEFRA-funded project considered the effect of stock density and cages on the health, behaviour, physiology and production of laying hens. Further research into enriched cages is taking place, including a study to compare the health and welfare of birds in different types of enriched cages.

Mr. Oaten: What will happen next regarding the DEFRA research? Does it simply help and inform the Department, or is there a specific Government response to it?

Mr. Woolas: I shall come to that point shortly. First, I should like to address hon. Members’ other questions. I was asked whether the EU Commission had any intention of changing the date of the new system’s implementation. The answer is no. I recognise the point made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), given his portfolio—there is a tie-over in animal welfare law. I was pleased to note that he is a full convert to the need for EU co-operation in that regard. He asked about the dates: there is no slippage in the implementation.

I was asked what the public sector food procurement initiative is doing to improve animal welfare. Our policy is to encourage public sector bodies to specify higher animal welfare standards. For that reason, we have developed a model specification clause that promotes farm assurance standards, including those of higher level schemes, such as freedom food. The model clause allows for bias when awarding contracts so that a higher weighting can be given to produce that meets higher-level standards. I was also asked about the PSFPI promoting the red tractor scheme. The Farm Animal Welfare Council considers that farm assurance schemes have resulted in greater focus on animal welfare. In the council’s view, even if that did no more than assure minimum welfare standards, the growing influence of regular audits required by farm assurance can only be of benefit to raising the awareness of both the public and policy makers.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his
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place, raised the important issue of stock density. The directive will provide a level playing field for broiler production across the EU. Stock densities in some member states are well in excess of 39 kg per square metre. However, stock density cannot be viewed in isolation. An Oxford university study shows that husbandry and management factors are, within limits, more important than stock density.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about planning and how it impacts on farms, and I am interested in following that up. Of course, we in DEFRA are not directly responsible for that, but if I could be furnished with further information on that, I shall take it up with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It seems as though there might be a blockage in the system or an attitudinal problem. He asked me to give him some encouragement before his meeting with the House authorities, and I am happy to put that on the record. I have a similar attitude towards the use of bottled mineral water. Perhaps he could raise that issue in his meeting. Thank you for allowing me that plug, Mr. Atkinson.

Let me lay out the wider policy issues. If there are specific questions that I have not covered, I hope that hon. Members will inform me of them so that I may follow them up. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has done much research for this debate on a non-partisan basis, and I should like to respond accordingly. The statutory framework under which we operate in England consists of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. As I have said, the Government do not accept that extensive free-range farming is automatically better than intensive farming, which is not inherently cruel or unacceptable in and of itself. It is important to recognise that poor and good welfare can be provided by both intensive and extensive systems. The stockkeeper has the most significant influence on the welfare of livestock. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who is a farmer himself, said, the most important factors are the stockkeeper’s skills, abilities and intentions, not the system in which animals are reared.

That view was reflected by the Government’s independent committee, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which produced a report last year on stockmanship. I urge hon. Members to familiarise themselves with it. It states that in any production system, the knowledge, skills, ability and attitudes of the stockkeeper are integral to the standard of welfare. Oxford university research—again, funded by DEFRA—investigating the complex relationship between the welfare of meat chickens and a range of stocking densities, concluded that husbandry, as well as management factors such as temperature and litter moisture levels, is, within limits, more important to animal welfare than density. I am not at all denying that density can be a part of the problem, but it is not the only part.

The Government spend £3.4 million a year of taxpayers’ money on research into animal welfare to try to ensure that the approach to animal welfare at home and in Europe has a sound scientific base. That money has supported a range of research, including research into the welfare of laying hens in different production systems, as we have heard. There is clear scientific evidence that conventional barren cages are detrimental to the welfare of laying hens. That is why the Government are so
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committed to banning their use across the European Union from 2012. On the other hand, the fact is that no scientific evidence available to us favours free-range systems over the other production systems that will remain legal after 2012.

Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses. Free-range systems can have the capacity to offer the hen more opportunities to display normal behaviour. However, as we have heard, there is evidence from both research and practical experience that free-range and barn systems can lead to higher mortality and increased occurrence of potentially painful fractures, and can involve a greater risk of feather-pecking, cannibalism and predation than the enriched cage system, which provides an increased space allowance, claw shortening devices, nest boxes and litter.

Both the FAWC report and a recent European Commission report recognise the benefit of enriched cages. The FAWC’s recent opinion on enriched cages concludes that

    “all commercial systems of production for laying hens offer some compromise in terms of the hen’s welfare. However, well managed enriched cage systems are able to offer the potential for an acceptable balance between the requirements for the hen’s health and welfare, and public health”—

which we must never forget, of course—

    “in combination with economic and environmental considerations.”

In forming that view, the FAWC considered the five freedoms. Although it considered that the enriched cage offers a severe challenge to the welfare of laying hens in terms of freedom to express normal behaviour, it recognised that freedom from hunger, thirst, pain, injury and disease are catered for as well or even better in a cage environment than in other commercial production systems. Similarly, the majority of hens in appropriately designed cages may be considered to enjoy more freedom from distress than is the case for many birds in other systems, particularly free range.

The debate over the benefits of one production system over another is complex indeed. Take meat chickens as an example. The different systems in which the birds are raised will involve different costs, different benefits for the welfare of the birds, different economic costs for the consumer and different environmental impacts. Extensive indoor and free-range systems using slow growth rates may have high welfare potential, but they may also lead to increased risk of exposure to injury, disease and environmental stress when compared with production systems that use higher stocking densities and modern, environmentally-controlled houses. This is a complicated area, and it is part of the bigger debate on agriculture, its environmental impact and its contribution to climate change.

Consumers are absolutely right to care about the welfare of animals raised for meat production, and the hon. Member for Winchester made his points with great force. Consumers need to be able to make informed choices about their food purchases and decisions that are right for themselves. Current labelling helps them by differentiating between chickens from, for example, different production systems. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale put it very well when he said that it is all
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very well for some of us to preach about these issues, but that we have to take into account the cost pressures on individuals.

Mr. Drew: I thank the Minister for giving way one last time. He has been very generous. Of course, DEFRA is going through its own problems with cost pressures, as he knows better than I do. Would he say something about the impact of animal disease on the huge area of animal welfare? It cannot be completely without coincidence that the two things need to be looked at in tandem. Clearly, there is a problem with animal disease, and perhaps we could bear down on it if we were to look at higher welfare standards.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes a telling and accurate point. If I may say so, his intervention has hit the bull’s eye. The costs of dealing with animal welfare have been taxing the minds of Ministers in DEFRA in recent weeks. We must balance our budgets, notwithstanding the above-inflation increase that the Treasury was able to allocate to DEFRA, which, in turn, resulted from the Government’s successful economic policies.

To return to the debate, it is not for the Government to tell people what to eat. I believe that there is consensus on that. It is important to remember in the midst of this debate that the UK has a higher standard of animal welfare today than it has ever had before. In fact, we have among the highest standards in the world. We have been at the forefront of implementing higher welfare standards domestically, and we have been active on European and wider international levels.

The UK took the lead in encouraging Europe to follow it in implementing a ban on the use of veal crates. They have been banned in the UK since 1990, and a ban across the EU came into force at the end of 2006. The UK stopped the use of close-confinement sow stalls in 1999, and the EU pig directive was adopted in 2001. It contains several provisions to improve the welfare of pigs: minimum space allowances, access to environmental enrichment for all pigs, and a ban across the EU on the use of sow stalls by 2013. Given time, I could mention other policy measures that we have taken across the EU and, more widely, internationally.

Animal welfare is an issue to which the public pay increasing attention. Hon. Members may be interested to know that it tops the list in DEFRA postbags. It is of concern not just to young people, although, as we have heard, that is especially the case, and it is one that the Government take very seriously indeed. We believe that we are moving in the right direction in terms of the balance of the different policies that are available. There are no simple solutions, and, as I have tried to explain, animal welfare depends on a combination of stockkeeping skills and getting the right balance based on scientific understanding. That is why we carefully spend taxpayers’ money on research. We wish to ensure that we base our policies on sound science, as well as carry public opinion with us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on securing this debate, and I shall pass on the points made in it to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).

 

Ends