I intend to make animal welfare one of my priorities in the United Kingdom presidency, as I made clear when I wrote to hon. Members on 27 February.
The Government are promoting action on animal welfare in the European Community, based on the high standards in this country.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on ensuring that Britain is at the forefront of those countries in Europe that are pressing for improved animal welfare. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that other EC countries emulate our far-reaching rules and regulations to ensure that there is a total ban on veal crates throughout the Community and that the transportation of live animals, particularly horses and ponies, inside the European continent is as stringently controlled as it is in this country under our domestic rules and regulations.
I am sure that, both on veal crates and pig stalls and tethers, the rest of Europe will have to come up to our standards. I am pleased that we have achieved what most people thought that we could not—we have stopped and will continue to stop the export of live horses and ponies. I congratulate all hon. Members on the support that they have given to the Government in fighting that battle. I do not believe that this is a nationalist issue. Horses and ponies in the rest of Europe must have the same sort of protection as they do in this country. I am pleased that the standards on the transport of live animals generally are approaching British standards and are no longer the low standards that once obtained.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that there is great concern about the quarantine restrictions being lifted on 1 April. Will he clarify the position on pets and dogs? What are the latest developments on foot and mouth in European countries?
We have managed to get the rest of Europe to come up to our standards, get rid of vaccination and introduce a slaughter policy in relation to foot and mouth disease. We already allow animals from countries that have the same policy as us, such as Ireland, to be imported into this country. When the rest of Europe reaches the same standards as us, the same rules will apply. Quite rightly, once we have won the battle to raise everyone's standards so that we all have the same high levels, we can have a single market. We have said clearly that we shall not accept changes in the rules on rabies unless we can have at least the same safeguards as we have today. But we are perfectly prepared to look at scientific evidence—we are not afraid of that. However, we will not make changes unless they benefit the United Kingdom.
Will my right hon. Friend accept the support and praise of all horse lovers for what the Government achieved when securing the continuation of minimum conditions for the export of live horses for slaughter? Will he, however, assure us that he will do all that he can to secure proper transport arrangements for live animals being exported, particularly horses? Will he further assure the House that the same strict safeguards and enforcement of rules on the protection and welfare or horses and other animals that apply in our country will apply in the EC area?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ensured at Maastricht that the British proposals on this matter were passed: first, all countries committed themselves to improving animal welfare, which was a major step forward never agreed between those countries before; and, secondly, in future, the European Court of Justice will be in a position to fine countries that fail to keep their obligations under Community rules. During our presidency we must extend the competence of the Community so that it can ensure that once animal welfare regulations are passed they are enforced—from Spain to Scotland and from Ireland to Greece.
Let me assure the Minister that Labour fully intends to use the opportunities presented by Britain's presidency to make sure that animal welfare is high on the agenda.
Why is the Minister so inconsistent in his approach to animal welfare? On 11 February, he told the National Farmers Union that he had no intention of taking further steps unilaterally, but on 27 February he put out a press release saying that he did reserve the right to act unilaterally. Can he explain that contradiction, or is he just a politician running scared of the electorate and trying to be all things to all people?
It is always dangerous when the hon. Gentleman reads only the first half of a sentence. I told the National Farmers Union that I did not believe that unilateral action would help, because if it is taken, the British housewife tends to buy the cheaper product from the rest of Europe and, therefore, we export animal welfare problems to the rest of Europe. I believe that we should not be nationalistic about animal welfare; we should care for animals in France and Germany as well as for those in Britain.
I said to the NFU and in my press statement that I reserved the right to take emergency action if, for instance, people in this country started to use coloured lenses for chickens, which would be outrageous—I would stop it before it started. That is a perfectly coherent position.