We are funding research into the welfare of the sow and her piglets from farrowing to weaning. We are not yet able to recommend alternatives, because of the adverse effect on piglets.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Animal welfare groups take the view that farrowing crates are unnecessarily cruel, and look to the experience of other countries that look after farrowing pigs in different ways. Has my hon. Friend discussed with the industry ways of creating commercial incentives to look into more animal-friendly ways of looking after farrowing pigs, and to examine not only crates but other issues such as hard flooring and supervision at birth so as to improve both the care of pigs and the survival of piglets?
My hon. Friend raises a serious point. Of course we want to improve the welfare of farrowing sows, but I am sure that she will understand that farrowing crates are used because of the risk of sows rolling on piglets, and piglet mortality. We have been funding a range of research that has considered the points that she has mentioned. Unfortunately, although some of the prototype farrowing crates performed quite well in research conditions, in commercial conditions the mortality rate was nearly double the normal rate. We are funding research into the management of sow and litter in a free-farrowing environment, which includes early life programming, stress responses in the farrowing sow, and an epidemiological study of risk factors associated with pre-weaning mortality on commercial pig farms. All those studies are examining better ways of improving welfare, while recognising the commercial nature of the operation.
I hope that the Minister will take account of any new animal welfare measures in the pig industry in the context of the rest of the EU, and that we will not take any unilateral action. We are all concerned about animal welfare, but I hope that he will emulate the example set by the Conservative Government when I secured Europe-wide agreement on a timetable for the abolition of veal crates. It can be done—and if the Minister wants any tips I shall be happy to share some with him.
The hon. Lady will know that I too had some involvement in some of those campaigns at the time. She will also know that we have reached EU-wide agreement to phase out sow stalls and tethers across the EU, as has been done unilaterally in the UK—although we are disappointed that the phase-out date is 2013; we would have preferred a much earlier date. We have made it a priority to advance animal welfare issues on an EU-wide basis, and also to include them in World Trade Organisation talks.
I welcome the Government's general support for the new EU directive that requires the provision of straw and other natural products in pigs' enclosures to enhance their well-being. However, groups that campaign for animals are bitterly disappointed to hear that the Government are considering watering down the directive's requirements and substituting plastic footballs on chains for those natural products. Will my hon. Friend reconsider, and implement the whole EU directive without dilution?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we have no intention of watering down the directive. Some of the press reports that he may have read have been somewhat inaccurate; it is always a mistake to believe everything that we see in the newspapers. I can assure my hon. Friend that "manipulable materials" are such things as peat, compost substitute or straw, which pigs can manipulate, and which improve their welfare and the quality of their environment; things such as chains and balls are also included, but pigs can soon get bored with those. The directive covers a range of measures that are part of current good practice in the pig industry. We are pleased to see those standards being established across the whole EU. I assure my hon. Friend that we will not see pigs queueing up to join our Sunday league football teams.