Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 26th March 2013.

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Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Conservative, Portsmouth North 7:41 pm, 26th March 2013

This year we have an early Easter, though not so early, perhaps, that we needed to provision ourselves with chocolate eggs as soon as the Christmas decorations were down at Epiphany. As some supermarkets seem to have substituted Easter eggs, fluffy chicks and chocolate bunnies for tinsel and crackers at cock crow on 7 January, the animals of spring have been a common sight in our supermarkets for some time. But even though the weather continues to be distinctly wintery, there is no reason to give the real egg layers the cold shoulder.

The cause of hen and cock welfare is one raised with me by many constituents, particularly with regard to beak trimming and battery cages. Although inhumane battery cages were banned at the start of last year, and even though we are assured by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers that beak trimming will be banned in 2016, hen welfare is not a done deal, and we on the green Benches should take a keen interest, both for the sake of animal welfare and because our constituents increasingly expect to eat food that either was or is from an animal that was treated well.

At one time, consumers would not deign to notice what, if anything, was said about welfare on food packaging. Now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of well-known TV chefs, we want to know from where our food has come. Indeed, the term “higher welfare” has even found its way into the ingredients list of the king of school dinners, Jamie Oliver, and there is undoubtedly a culture in which it is considered poor form to offer for sale food that is lower welfare. In a January 2010 survey, twice as many people as in 2006 said that animal welfare informed their shopping choices—that made 19%, and I am sure that the figure would be higher today.

The previous Prime Minister’s GOAT—his Government of all the talents—might have been a tur laid to rest by the British people, but that was either the exception that proves the rule on our love of animals or an act of mercy that confirms it. It should be the proud boast of British farmers that no land does more to ensure the welfare of its animals, and the success of the ban on inhumane cages in this country is a case in point. There was concern that increased prices would lead to a drop in demand for eggs, but the reverse was true and the British consumer bought 5% more eggs in 2012 than in 2011.

Concern for welfare does not stop at the good treatment of hens during their working lives, and the British Hen Welfare Trust should be cock-a-hoop about its successful record since 2005 of re-homing 360,000 laying hens of pensionable age that were otherwise destined for slaughter. The British public should be applauded for their adoption of so many of those creatures, and those acts of mercy will, I am sure, continue.

Keeping hens is somewhat in vogue at the moment, despite the prospect of heartache. Many a hen keeper will be prepared for the early morning discovery of scattered feathers and an empty coup, but how many are ready for the emotional business of dispatching unwanted chicks? In “The Good Life” idyll one imagines several hens and a single proud cockerel, but one strutting coxcomb will lead to many chicks and what is to become of the male contingent with not a layer among them? I encourage people to consider homes for hens, but to think carefully about a coop for a cockerel.

Despite the positive step of banning battery cages, many British consumers might be surprised that 17 million hens are still housed in cages, albeit of an enriched variety. These birds provide the eggs that are sold as a constituent part of another product and then, despite the efforts of the British Hen Welfare Trust, sold for the table. The Government should consider the value of labels that would show the origins of eggs when used as an ingredient and when a chicken is an end-of-lay bird as a means of promoting high welfare standards. I also entreat the Government to stick to their plan to hold a thorough investigation into beak trimming in 2015. When we eventually head into spring, let us have no cock-ups on hen welfare.