Good morning. Before we begin, there are several housekeeping matters to which to attend. May I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution to the Bill? Copies are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments, because, as a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.
I hope that it goes without saying that hon. Members should ensure that phones, pagers and other electronic devices are turned off—I am sure that anyone in the Chair deprecates the rule of phones. I know that we do not recognise the Public Gallery, but I would appreciate it if those who are not there could also turn off their phones.
It is entirely up to hon. Members to take responsibility for any interests, pecuniary or otherwise, and to determine whether they believe it necessary to declare interests in any outside body. I say that because I propose to place on record the fact that I am president of the Conservative Animal Welfare Group, although I do not propose to allow that in any way to influence any decision that I take in the Chair. Any other Members who have similar interests that they want to place on the record may do so in a moment.
The Minister has told me that a letter from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on tail docking has been placed on the Table. That has been done with my consent; I believe that the more information that is available to hon. Members, the better.
Finally, for the convenience and comfort of Members, may I point out that any Member who wants to remove his or her jacket may do so, so long as I am in the Chair? I cannot speak for Mrs. Humble.
I beg to move,
(1) during the proceedings on the Animal Welfare Bill the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 am on Tuesday 17th January) meet—
(a) at 4.00 pm on Tuesday 17th January;
(b) at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on Thursday 19th January;
(c) at 10.30 am and 4.00 pm on Tuesday 24th January; and
(d) at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on Thursday 26th January.
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 11; Schedule I; Clauses 12 to 47; Schedule 2; Clauses 48 to 58; Schedule 3: Clause 59; Schedule 4; Clauses 60 to 63; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 pm on Thursday 26th January.)
I begin by warmly welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Gale. I look forward to steering the Bill through Committee under your guidance. As you have already intimated, you are president of the Conservative Animal Welfare Group, so you have some expertise in the subject, which can only be helpful during our deliberations. As you know, this is the first time that I have steered a Bill through Committee as a Minister, and I seek your help and guidance, and that of the rest of the Committee, to get through our business smoothly in the next fortnight.
I also welcome to the Committee the hon. Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and for Lewes (Norman Baker), who asked on Second Reading for a constructive and open dialogue with the Government in the remaining proceedings on the Bill. I believe that we have done fairly well so far, and I look forward to working with Opposition Front Benchers to place the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible. Finally, before I discuss more substantial matters, I welcome all members of the Committee.
We have provided for eight sittings to debate the Bill. We believe that that is an appropriate number, given the length of the Bill and the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of it. The Bill has already undergone pre-legislative and post-introduction scrutiny by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we made several improvements and amendments to the Bill in the light of that pre-legislative report. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did on Second Reading, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Select Committee, and particularly to its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for the Committee's deft handling of the process and its helpful reports.
I recognise that many of the Bill's provisions are of interest, and that some are controversial. Inevitably, we shall not always see eye to eye on some of the measures. I am, however, sure that the debates will be constructive and that the Committee will co-operate to cover all the necessary points in the time allowed.
First, I join the Minister in saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I agree with what he said about wanting the Bill to be enacted. It is a very opportune moment for us to discuss it, as it has many good points that the Conservatives want to be enacted, but we will do our very best in Committee to improve it if we can.
I also welcome the Minister to steering his first Bill through Committee. Historically, Ministers have tended not to budge an inch at this stage of a Bill's progress, but his comments about pre-legislative scrutiny reminded me that I served on that Select Committee and there was a concern because we were scrutinising not a Bill, but a draft Bill. That made a difference because the Government's intentions were not as clear as they would have been in a proper Bill. There were constraints on what the Committee could do, particularly in the very short time it had. However, the Government listened and improved the Bill and we will continue to improve it.
I do not have a very long or glamorous list of interests to declare, but I am a countryside member of the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance. I also have a number of chickens. That causes me a great deal of concern with regard to this Bill because a duty of care might be used against me. I worry about that all the time, as any animal lover should. I worry because what we want from the Bill is proper care for creatures. We do not want endless malicious or unpleasant prosecutions. I fear that that may happen unless we get the Bill right.
I also have three cows, two of which are pregnant, so I am braced to seeing my herd increase. Clearly my farming is very minimal. I have seven acres but they are now fully declared. I look forward to dealing with the Bill as the amendments we have tabled are considered. Their aim is either to probe in a constructive way and to tease out the details of what the Minister really feels or, in some cases, to try to improve the Bill for our constituents and all animal lovers across the United Kingdom.
There is one more point about which I do not want to antagonise the Minister, but I was given his letter as I walked in here today. As I understood the Government's position, they favoured the status quo on tail docking. That means that the onus has been on people who do not like tail docking to bring forward their evidence and arguments against the practice, and that has been done very effectively by all the non-governmental organisations. This letter suggests that the Government are much more ambivalent about the outcome than before. Therefore I am slightly critical of that shift in Government policy at this stage, but we can work with that as we get through the Committee stage.
May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale? With your considerable knowledge and expertise in this matter, I am sure that you will keep us in order when we stray from the Bill and will not allow us to introduce any red herrings into our discussions. I should also declare my interests. I am responsible for two protected animals but, given that they are cats, they would probably regard themselves as independent rather than protected. I also have an unpaid, honorary position with the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals.
I support the timetable motion. I also want the Bill to progress in the spirit of constructiveness and to emerge in the strongest and most coherent form. My colleagues and I will do our level best to achieve that. The Minister will know that some of us served on Standing Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). We were all impressed by his flexibility. He certainly held to the Government's position. He did not compromise, but he was also prepared to listen and to make amendments. As a consequence, the Bill was stronger in the end and he came out of it with considerable respect.
I hope and am confident that the same can be said of the present Minister at the end of our proceedings. I would ask him at some point to clarify how his party will deal with the issue of whipped or free votes. My party regards the Bill as a whipped Bill but there will be free votes on issues such as tail docking or electric shock collars or anything else that may come up. It would be helpful if the Minister could put on the record how he will deal with that. Will his colleagues have a free vote on tail docking?
Question put and agreed to.
Before we commence the debates, for the benefit of hon. Members who have not already served on Committees that I have chaired, I should point out that I take a fairly relaxed view of clause stand part debates. There are occasions when it is entirely proper and helpful to discuss a clause in the round at the start of debate on the amendments to it, rather than afterwards. If the Committee chooses to do that—and I shall determine whether it has done so—I will be perfectly happy on the clear understanding that if a clause stand part debate takes place at the outset, there will not be a clause stand part debate afterwards. Hon. Members cannot have their cake and eat it.