I rise this evening to draw the attention of the House to the plight of animals which are exported abroad for slaughter, either immediately or after further fattening. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who was deeply angered by the revelations in The Sunday Times recently, in which Sunday Times reporters, in conjunction with inspectors from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, followed a consignment of sheep. They found that virtually every welfare regulation was flouted and that some of the unfortunate lambs, which had started their journey somewhere in Scotland, ended up in the south of France and some of them in Spain. As one fairly hard-bitten and seasoned RSPCA inspector said: "When you follow them for hour after hour after hour and see the steady deterioration in their condition, it makes your blood boil." It certainly makes my blood boil.
Worse still, I get a sense of frustration because this is not an isolated incident. Incidents such as this have been recorded meticulously by the RSPCA and by other organisations over the years. Some will recall that in the early 1970s, the position was reached where the Government of the day suspended export licences because of the deep worries that were felt about the welfare of animals, which are subject to enough stress in going from fairly quiet farms to markets, to ports, across the Channel and then on to an unknown and probably grim destination, as we all realise.
We still have a long way to go before anything like humane regulations are enforced. It is not enough to have good regulations on paper. They are worth nothing if there is not someone to enforce them and, clearly, that has been sadly lacking over the years.
What is worse is that the export trade of animals on the hoof appears to be booming—worse, that is, from the point of view of welfare. In 1988, well over 750,000 animals were exported in this way. Many of them were young animals, such as lambs and veal calves. If that continues, it is of grave concern to us all. However, the position is unlikely to remain the same. If anything, it could get worse.
I should like to widen my speech to consider 1992, the economic results of which we all speak about in varying ways, and the creation of an area in which there will be no exports, as it were, between member countries because we shall have one single market. Unfortunately, this will also apply to live animals, which are regarded as agricultural goods for this purpose. Many of the safeguards that we have, such as the stipulation that before the animals set out across the Channel they must be rested at a lairage for 10 hours, checked and given food and water, may no longer be able to exist.
That is a matter of grave concern and we shall need to look most carefully at the directive that will then cover the whole of Europe. In theory, that should be a magnificent opportunity to improve the situation for all animals throughout the Community, and therefore we should see a vast improvement. However, when I look at the record to date of how the directives have failed to be implemented, my heart sinks. We may lose what we already have, even if that is not marvellous, and instead have safeguards that are there in theory only. I urge the Government to put pressure on their European allies. We seem to be prepared to do it on other matters, so I hope that we will do it in the interests of animal welfare.
I suspect that the public will be outraged at the plight of horses and ponies if they are exported for meat. At the moment, that is not possible because of the minimum value order, which makes it uneconomic for people to export the animals. If that goes, something that was stopped many years ago—the export of animals of precious little value in money terms to the slaughterhouses of Europe—may begin again. I know that many organisations in addition to the RSPCA are especially worried about the matter and I believe that there would be an outcry from members of the public if this trade were to start again. As far as I can gather, we should be on very thin legal ground if we attempted to keep the minimum values order after 1992.
We should try to make the most of the opportunities that are offered. I should like to present to the Government the view of the British Veterinary Association, which has said for many years that animals should be slaughtered as near to the point of production as possible. If that principle, which is practical in the extreme, were introduced throughout Europe, animals would be spared some of the suffering, stress—and, at times, cruelty—that they have to bear as they are transported all over Europe by people who in many instances could not care less. That would be worth having as our goal. Whether our European partners would accept it is a matter for doubt, but it is nevertheless something for which the British Government should ask.
Failing that—as a second best—I suggest that we try to tighten up the draft directive on the welfare of animals in international transit. Above all, we need a proper inspectorate whose job it is to ensure that the rules of welfare are observed. No matter how good the rules are on paper, they will be worth absolutely nothing without that. I do not believe that we should throw away any of our existing legislation until the inspectorate has been set up. I shall not be content with any promises of an inspectorate being set up. I want properly trained inspectors to be there doing the job, especially at transit points—where animals are gathered at ports, where they are moving from one form of transport to another, at the point of disembarkation after a journey and at slaughterhouses.
What is more, we must be very careful about the detailed regulations. We can make a lot of difference by ensuring that the transporters are properly constructed. I am quite sure that we can lay down such rules in detailed directions if the will is there to do it. I hope that Euro-MPs will join hon. Members in Westminster in putting real pressure on the powers that be in Europe to ensure that that is done.
I greatly fear that if we do not ensure that those things are done, the plight of animals will be made worse rather, than better, following 1992. That would be an absolute disaster, and the British people would be outraged. As it is, I frequently receive letters and telephone calls from members of the public, including my constituents, who have seen distressing sights—for example, animals crammed into transporters as they are exported to Europe from my constituency of Plymouth. People write and ask why that is allowed. I cannot give them a satisfactory answer. It should not be allowed. When the Minister negotiates on our behalf in considering the draft directives in detail, I beg him to ensure that they are made watertight, because unfortunately that has not been the case in the past.
We should also consider closely the people who drive the animal transporters. So far as I can see at the moment, anyone can drive a transporter provided that he has a driving licence. I do not believe that anyone should be allowed to drive an animal or cattle transporter unless he has been trained in dealing with animals and has shown that he will treat them humanely. We should be able to remove licences because that would be an incentive to ensure that drivers carry out their duties.
The welfare considerations also make good economic sense—as is often the case. Much work has been carried out by veterinary surgeons into the condition of animals at slaughterhouses. It is clear that there is a great deal of waste meat if animals arrive damaged or bruised. The quality of the meat can also suffer if the animal has been placed under great stress prior to slaughter. My suggestions need not necessarily increase the cost of meat or reduce its quality. On the contrary, they should make good sense from that point of view.
In short, instead of a possible disaster in 1992, I hope that we make real efforts in this country to ensure that animals travelling throughout Europe do so in better conditions. I will want to monitor that very closely. I can assure the Minister and the Government that if we do not see the kind of reforms that we want, we will make the Government's lives a misery.
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) on choosing to raise a subject which is of constant public concern, but which has not been debated in this House for some four years. It is also most appropriate that my hon. Friend should raise the matter, because she has been a doughty champion of providing proper care and dignity for animals.
The Government regard the welfare of animals in transport as very important. My hon. Friend was right to threaten to make all our lives a misery unless the Government look after the welfare of all animals wherever we can. We regard animal welfare as terribly important and that is why we take considerable steps to ensure that exported farm livestock receive full care and attention while in our jurisdiction. I have in mind here animals for fattening or immediate slaughter, which we describe as "food animals".
Under our law, such animals must be rested for at least 10 hours at an approved export lairage, which must be within a reasonable distance of the port of embarkation. The animals must be inspected by a Government veterinary inspector for fitness to travel and food and water must be provided. In every case, the loading of animals is officially supervised into vehicles which must themselves have been approved for the particular task of carrying animals on roll-on/roll-off ferries. The Ministry offers advice on the conditions for loading and stowing those vehicles.
Once the animals have crossed the Channel, they are, strictly speaking the responsibility of other Governments, but we ask exporters for prior assurances about the onward journey. The main concern here is that arrangements are made for feeding and watering the livestock on the longer journeys. We require staging posts to be declared to us where journeys would take longer than 18 hours from the export lairage.
None of those measures absolves other Governments from checking that animal welfare during transport is in accordance with the existing directive on international transport. Enforcement must be their responsibility when animals are on their territory. My hon. Friend will understand that MAFF officials cannot, of course, follow journeys into other member states, but there has been close liaison with the French authorities. It has included the monitoring of some journeys, either by accompaniment or by other surveillance. On occasions when the RSPCA or others report on journeys, we pass details to the country concerned for its full investigation.
The recent article in The Sunday Times of 29 October, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, was a case in point. At this moment we are waiting to hear from the French veterinary services, but we took other prompt action. We are no longer issuing licences for sheep exports to the named premises in the south of France run by the gentleman who was featured in the article, pending French and our inquiries. I should like to make it quite clear that cruelty to animals in transit will not be tolerated. We will act against offenders where necessary and within our jurisdiction.
Exactly what restrictions are imposed by MAFF on the justification for the export of live animals in the first place? To what extent does the Ministry investigate whether the exportation of live animals is absolutely necessary, or whether it is merely at the whim of the person who is importing animals? What controls do we have over the quality of slaughterhouses in other countries? My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) made an excellent speech, and I agree with every word of it, but she did not mention the quality of slaughterhouses abroad, which are often awful compared with the conditions which, mercifully, we must endure here.
My hon. Friend has raised two good points. It is not possible for us to try to seek the intention of those who may want to export animals or those who may wish to receive or import animals into the Community. I may be skating on thin ice, but I suspect that it would be contrary to the treaty to try to make such interpretations. It is irrelevant to the means of transport and to the measures on which we insist. It is not relevant to know the end use of the animal, because we want to insist on the highest possible standards of care and transport for that animal, irrespective of the end use. We export pedigree animals—bulls and so on—to France and to other countries. We insist on the highest possible welfare standards, just as we insist on the highest possible welfare standards for sheep which may be exported for slaughter.
My hon. Friend's last point is absolutely right. We do not allow animals to go to Spain and Portugal, simply because they have not come up to the standard for slaughtering animals in slaughterhouses which the EC directive describes and which would satisfy us. There is a check. We do not physically check the slaugherthouses, any more than a Frenchman can check our slaughterhouses, but slaughterhouses in the Community are up to an acceptable standard, except for those in Spain and Portugal.
I shall give the House an example of the prompt action that we have taken to demonstrate that we will not tolerate cruelty to animals during transport. Our inquiries are now complete, following the tragic deaths of the 79 beagles while they were being conveyed to Sweden in September. My hon. Friends will understand that I cannot comment further tonight, in advance of possible proceedings against those concerned.
Returning to the Sunday Times article and the RSPCA trail of sheep to France, it was claimed that these were being sent on to Spain for slaughter. As I have just said, we specifically do not license exports of food animals to non-EC countries or to Spain and Portugal which have yet to implement fully the existing EC directives on international transport and pre-slaughter stunning. But we must realise that it is very difficult to police this control where animals are sent to destinations in France for further fattening. Nor are our restrictions related specifically to cruelty in Spanish abattoirs. Once the European Commission is content that the directives are properly implemented, we will be in hot water with the European Court if our exporters continue to be depraved of markets currently met by the EC competitors.
My hon. Friend suggested that we should aim, as an ideal, to have slaughter as near as possible to the point of production. I agree that that is an ideal, but the only practical control that we could effectively have on that would be a complete ban on animals over a long distance.
I fully understand the calls for a complete ban on food animal exports, related to operating a carcase-only trade, but this unfortunately is not a line we can pursue. First and foremost, such a ban would contravene the EC treaty, as my hon. Friend has suggested. There is already an export trade of carcases to EC countries, but a separate demand exists for fresh home-killed meat. The importers concerned need live animals and would simply go elsewhere for their supplies, perhaps even to eastern Europe. So it would be absolutely pointless for us to take a British unilateral stand only for the markets we had refused to supply to be taken up by animals imported from even further away, where welfare standards may be lower. There is no point in our ceasing to supply a market with our higher welfare standards only for that market to be flooded by animals from other countries which might have lower standards.
Compassion in World Farming has also called for animals to be elevated in EC classification from "agricultural products" to "sentient beings". It does no harm whatsoever to emphasise that living animals need special care. Indeed, we applaud this. But the Government take the view that our effort in Brussels is better directed at negotiating and achieving Communitywide safeguards that protect farm animals at all stages. The European Commission has been active recently in proposing direct new animal welfare controls. The proposed regulation on the protection of animals during transport is relevant to the subject under debate. The document would replace and go further than the existing EC directive on the protection of animals during international transport, introduced in 1977. As my hon. Friends will probably know, the directive in turn was based on the Council of Europe convention agreed in 1968.
We have circulated the new proposal very widely for comment in this country. The European Parliament is now directing its attention to the document which will be debated in Standing Committee here next month. The objective in the ensuing Brussels negotiations will be to ensure that all countries introduce and police the same high standards of welfare. We are encouraged in this by the proposed involvement of a Commission veterinary inspectorate to ensure uniform application throughout the Community. I hear what my hon. Friend has said, and we are as keen on it working and applying uniformly enforced standards throughout the whole of the EEC as is my hon. Friend. That is an important point.
It would be unwise for me to under-estimate the size of the task which faces us with these new transport proposals. In particular we must make sure that the domestic controls we have built up over many years are not replaced by diminished and unenforceable measures.
I am fully aware of the widespread concern in this country about the prospect of losing British controls, linked to minimum values, designed to prevent the exports of horses and ponies on the hoof for slaughter. My postbag has been bulging on this difficult point.
It may be helpful if I explain briefly what the arrangements are for exporting horses. I am sure that my hon. Friends are fully aware of them, but it may be helpful to put this on the record. The arrangements are immensely complicated, but they include export licensing, pre-export rest and veterinary inspection. The export of ponies and certain types of horse are prohibited if their value is less than that laid down in the Animal Health Act 1981. These categories require official valuation. The values were last fixed in 1978, and we approached horse interests and welfare organisations about two years ago. They were unanimous in agreeing that minimum values should not be increased.
Some people may still claim that horses continue to be exported for slaughter, despite controls. I disagree. We have no substantiated evidence of that. As we issue all the permits for horse exports and inspect certain categories of animal, we would expect to detect any organised trade in them.
I shall conclude that part by stating the minimum values. I shall not go into the detail on ponies, which is far too complicated, and I do not profess fully to understand it. The minimum values for a heavy draft horse is £715, for a vanner mule or jennet £495 and for an ass £220. Such animals must not be more than eight years of age.
The existing controls have been built up over many years following public concern over conditions in which horses were formerly exported. The legislation on horses dates from the 19th century while that on ponies was completed in the Ponies Act 1969, since consolidated in the Animal Health Act 1981. So the minimum values are purely national arrangements. It was therefore inevitable that they would be called into question during the completion of the internal market. It remains to be seen whether we can persuade other member states to take on similar controls throughout the Community. Whatever the precise means of control in future, however, we will insist on measures which fully protect the welfare of animals leaving these shores for slaughter.
My hon. Friend mentioned European Members of Parliament. There is great scope for my hon. Friends and all those who are concerned to lobby European Members on this issue not only to exert pressure on the British Government, who will be campaigning for the toughest measures possible, but to use European contracts and others in Europe who feel as passionately about this as we do.
The new EC transport proposals give an opportunity to negotiate a fresh regime covering the movement of animals throughout the Community. It is an important chance to provide effective safeguards for all animals which are transported, whether for slaughter, exhibition, breeding, pets, circuses or other purposes. My hon. Friend asked us to exert maximum pressure, and I can assure her that we shall do so.