I congratulate the Minister on his large presence at the Dispatch Box. Why will he not give RSPCA inspectors the power of entry to factory farming premises? Is he aware that the RSPCA recently published statistics which showed a sharp rise in the number of convictions of cruelty to livestock, particularly to sheep and to cattle? That problem of cruelty could best he stopped by giving RSPCA inspectors the power of entry. If the Minister will not do that, will he instruct his own inspectorate to increase significantly its visits to farms so as to stop such cruelty?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has a fine record on welfare matters. He will know that those arrangements were rehearsed well when the Farm Animal Welfare Council considered the report of its enforcement group. The council recommended that the primary role for on-farm visits should be retained by the state veterinary service and that voluntary bodies should not be given a statutory role. If the hon. Gentleman or any organisation has any complaints to make in that respect, they will be investigated vigorously and speedily, and he should let us know at once.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. Is he aware that many of my constituents, ranging from Thai restaurant owners to proprietors of 25,000 acre estates, rejoiced in his appointment as he is the first Minister of food to know quite a lot about food. Will he deny the rumour in the popular press that he is about to exchange his usual breakfast menu of cold grouse and claret for Alpen and apple juice?
I offer my personal congratulations to the Minister. I am sure that his appointment will be welcomed on both sides of the House. Given that we have to have a Tory in that office, I suppose that it had better be him.
I thank the Minister for his constructive answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). Will he acknowledge that in intensive farming systems there is potentially a considerable area of abuse and that there can be great suffering? Does he accept that due to bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other health problems his own inspectorate, the state veterinary service, is overburdened with work and is unable to carry out the level of inspection that it has hitherto? In the short term, will the Minister consider employing private sector vets to carry out the necessary welfare inspections?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that any area of farming or husbandry is open to abuse. As he knows, we take such abuse seriously. I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's views to the attention of the state veterinary service. I will also write to him in greater detail.