Animal Welfare

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 24th May 2006.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire 11:00 am, 24th May 2006

It is a pleasure to lead this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am on the Opposition side of the Chamber because of the defects of this room: only from here can one look straight into the eyes of the Minister to assess the reaction to the comments that one has made. The possibility of my having defected is roughly equivalent to that of Lord Adonis making warm and complimentary comments about community comprehensives.

I am glad to have secured this debate. Animal welfare is perhaps my highest personal political priority, and indeed this Government have a good track record on it in the legislation, regulation and changes that they have introduced since 1997. Nevertheless, there is more to be done in respect of laboratory animals and especially animal husbandry, which is at the core of today's debate.

The Government's position on the common agricultural policy is rightly to move away from direct payments to farmers, which reward them for production, towards setting incentives for the delivery of public goods. England is to be congratulated as the only one of the four devolved regions to have moved immediately to a system of decoupled payments to farmers under pillar one of the common agricultural policy, but it is difficult to reconcile that position with the proposals in the draft England rural development programme, which aims to deliver public goods, but in which the ability to make payments for better animal welfare has not been utilised.

The Government say repeatedly that the United Kingdom is the leading country in Europe on animal welfare, and I go along with that view to a considerable extent. If that is the case, however, the ERDP ought to present an opportunity to demonstrate that leading position in Government policy, and to provide further incentives to continue to improve welfare standards.

Let me review the background to opportunities for RDPs. New rural assistance measures were agreed by the European Union in June last year under regulation 1698. There are six elements in axis 1—membership of food quality schemes, food quality promotion, training, farm advisory services, investment in agricultural holdings and meeting Community animal welfare standards—and one in axis 2: payment for higher animal welfare standards. Under the European regulation, member state Governments can include those seven measures in their RDPs.

The first ever European animal welfare strategy was agreed by Farming Ministers as recently as January this year. It set down, for the first time, how the EU believes animal welfare should develop in the 2007-13 period, and the goals for the Commission and Farming Ministers. The strategy sets five areas of action, including updating minimum standards for animal welfare, introducing animal welfare indicators so we can measure progress and better informing animal keepers and handlers of current standards.

At the UK level, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set itself two public service agreement targets on animal welfare: PSA 5, to deliver a more competitive and sustainable farming industry, and PSA 9, to improve the health and welfare of kept animals. I strongly support both those targets. Additionally, strategic indicators relating to animal welfare are being developed in the DEFRA animal health and welfare plan and in the Curry commission plans. In other words, there is an overarching commitment at the European and domestic levels to drive forward improved animal welfare standards, and of course I welcome that.

So what features in the draft ERDP, which is currently out to consultation? It includes only one reference to improving animal welfare, and that one, which deals with training, has existed under pillar two opportunities since 1999. I am sad to say that DEFRA has apparently ignored measures central to the theme of making agriculture more competitive, which would provide crucial links with other opportunities while being measurable and providing value for money, which are both important characteristics.

There appears to be a manifest misunderstanding of animal welfare and what seeking improved standards can achieve, as there is no joined-up thinking between the animal welfare part of DEFRA and the team responsible for drawing up the ERDP, whose expertise appears to be in environmental measures only. Animal welfare has been ignored, even in areas where it could be easily incorporated. For instance, paragraph 47 of the draft lists

"innovation for marketing of high value products" as a priority, but it does not list any scheme or incentive to achieve that priority for animal welfare. That could simply be rectified by including the words "and those promoting higher welfare standards". I hope that the Minister will undertake to consider that point with a view to rectification or explain why DEFRA has decided to ignore almost all the measures available to improve animal welfare standards in that regard, in a misunderstanding of what improved animal welfare can deliver and a failure to match up with its own public service agreement targets.

Of course, we need to measure animal welfare objectively and assess outcomes before they can feature effectively in the ERDP. Measurable indicators and outcomes for animal welfare do exist. The EU is funding a €5 million academic project involving centres from the member states, including those in Scotland, Wales and England, to establish single indicators to measure good welfare, which will report in 2009 and form the basis of future EU legislation. It is an integral part of the Commission's action plan.

Indicators have been drawn up by Bristol university for pigs, cattle and laying hens and they are already used on Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals freedom food farms to assess welfare. I contend that objective measures exist that could be used to measure animal welfare improvements, ensure value for money and provide a goal-oriented approach. We are told that England is a continental leader for animal welfare, so let us see how the draft ERDP measures up against the RDPs of other countries.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

It is a pleasure to intervene on my hon. Friend. Does he agree that part of the problem is that at the time of the last European budget round, every country, including the UK, made some of the cuts from rural payments and at the expense of some of the changes that we need to see in the rural economy? Is it not right that the Government should reconsider those cuts and lead the charge to say that if the CAP means anything, it should mean a different CAP that will invest in the rural economy rather than on production subsidies?

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I agree. When DEFRA is seeking cuts and reallocating resources, it tends to concentrate too heavily on rural payments—a point that I shall refer to later.

I was considering how the ERDP measures up against other RDPs. With devolution, probably more than 50 RDPs will be drawn up in the EU. Most are still in consultation, but some have been announced and show how innovation can help. The Scottish RDP has three budget lines for encouraging animal welfare, including membership of an assurance scheme, completing a veterinary health plan and training. The response to those measures has been extremely positive, and they form the second most popular of all incentives given under the development plan.

The existing Welsh RDP has animal welfare measures such as payments to reduce stocking levels, membership of an assurance scheme, improving knowledge of animal welfare through training and investing through the farm improvement grant to improve welfare standards in holdings. Finally, it has measures to improve the marketing of farm products that adhere to minimum animal welfare standards. The consultation on the Welsh RDP highlights the animal welfare pyramid scheme and the intention to give incentives to farmers who enter into agreements committing to higher welfare standards than the baseline ones under agri-environmental schemes.

Finally, to deal with our third fellow country, the Northern Ireland draft plan has three measures for animal welfare, including marketing and processing grants and grants to change over to higher standards of animal welfare. In Germany, the RDP provides intensive grants for investment costs in nine sectors: laying hens, turkeys, pigs, beef and dairy cattle, broilers, suckler cows, goats and sheep—this sounds like a farming report—providing that higher welfare standards are met. Those standards include not exceeding stocking densities of 25 kg per square metre for broiler chickens, as opposed to the proposed 38 kg per square metre under the draft directive.

Another example is Austria, which recently submitted its RDP for agreement with the Commission and highlighted a number of ways to promote innovation and the marketing of higher welfare products. As a final exemplar, the RDP budget in France has rewarded farmers who have produced a higher welfare standard. The animal welfare measures that have been used have again included reducing stocking density, enlarging pig stalls, reducing live transport times and giving access to green pastures. Incidentally, all those measures have proved successful and—this is an important characteristic—cross over into promoting French produce.

I feel that the ERDP as drafted is unimaginative in comparison with many others in Europe and the UK, and that it risks putting English farmers at a competitive disadvantage. We would expect the draft ERDP to align closely with DEFRA strategy, would we not? So let us just see whether it does. One of the measures in the DEFRA animal welfare strategy is higher animal welfare incentives. The strategic policy driver is the sustainable food strategy PSA 9. What action is mentioned in the ERDP? None. The second of the four measures is a more competitive farming sector, as set out in the sustainable food strategy PSA 5. How much reference is there in the ERDP? None. The third of the four measures is sustainable farming, including animal health and welfare, which is again a DEFRA strategic priority, addressed in PSA 5. What reference is made in the ERDP? None. Fourthly, encouraging innovative approaches to farming, such as knowledge transfer, skills training and so on is part of the UK sustainable development strategy, in article 201. What ERDP action is there? Not none, but it is unclear whether any will be animal welfare specific. The ERDP as drafted is a poor match with the strategic drivers for animal welfare policy.

What other drivers are there? The ERDP has no measures for supporting animal welfare, yet there are many other drivers for improved standards that have economic implications for farmers. Many directives have started to phase out certain intensive methods of farming, such as 1999/74 and 2001/88, which phase out the battery cage system and sow stall respectively, and directive 1997/2, whose prohibition of the veal crate system is finally fully operational in member states. Itis important that we measure and ensure cost-effectiveness. All those changes have economic implications for farmers. They have all been costed, but the legislative drivers are currently missing from the consultation.

I conclude with the tightness of the budget, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Drew referred. For the ERDP, the provisional figures show that £1.48 billion of payments are committed for 2007-13, and that £1.8 billion is available. There is therefore still some scope, despite a cut of 22 per cent. for the pillar 2 budget, as announced and agreed in December 2005, which means that some €19 billion will not be available. There is a tight budget, but there are still some incentives that have win-win consequences for more than one issue, and which deliver measurable goals against the national agricultural strategy.

There is no section in the ERDP that shows howthe measures will have more than one positive consequence. I fear that no imaginative thinking has gone into establishing how that could occur. Naturally, any policy suggestions must be carefully costed if they are to be proposed as effective measures. The RSPCA has provided costed figures for four measures that have been proposed as indices for inclusion in the ERDP. I will only list those indices, and not indicate the nature of the costings. They are as follows: first, the animal health plan; secondly, training for stockmanship; thirdly, conversion of slatted floors to solid; and fourthly, improved forage for pigs. So there are clear economic data on which to base policy.

Do the public care? EU citizens regard animal welfare as an important part of rural development responsibilities. A recent survey showed that 88 per cent. of the public regard animal welfare as a priority issue of funding for RDPs. In the UK, protecting animal welfare was seen as the most important issue for the public under the RDP. Farmers also want the measures. They are not being dragged into this unwillingly. The review of the Welsh RDP scheme, Tir Mynydd, found that schemes concerning two of the three animal welfare objectives—stocking density and assurance—had the highest numbers of uptake of the seven options available. That is a small example to show that farmers are seeking such measures, and will warmly sign up to them.

What will the Minister say in a moment or two? Of course, he might now be tempted to say, "Well sit down and let me say it." He will probably argue that England already has excellent standards of animal welfare—I have not seen his civil service brief lying on a photocopier on an upper floor—and that further improvements will be delivered by the market. He may claim that English farmers already exceed EU baseline standards. In anticipation of those remarks, I ask him to address three key points. First, I ask the Minister, who has a highly urban seat—I know that he will get out a lot from now on—what is the evidence that farmers exceed baseline standards? Secondly, does he agree that there is a significant risk that the ERDP as drafted will disadvantage English farmers? Finally, does he agree that it is important that policy should continue to develop under his stewardship, with his talents, perception and energy, to demonstrate a commitment to higher welfare standards to join the pantheon of successes that we have proudly witnessed under this Government in the past nine years?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs) 11:16 am, 24th May 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend David Taylor on securing this debate, which is timely given the end of the consultation and the importance of animal welfare to the Government and all hon. Members present.

I am encouraged that our consultation on the priorities for the next rural development programme in England, which closed on Monday, has provoked a debate about the best way to use the funding available to tackle the challenges facing rural communities in England. In addition to the feedback that we have received from regional events during the consultation, I understand that at the last count we had received about 150 written submissions. Of course, we will carefully analyse those responses, and we will make our decision on the priorities for the next programme in the light of the comments received and my hon. Friend's remarks today.

In the consultation, we set out a number of key principles for the use of rural development funding. What I want to get across today is that one of the most important of those principles is that programme funding should demonstrably add value. I am sure that the budget available for the next programme will be limited, as budgets always are, so we must be aware of the need to spend money where it will have maximum impact.

We are still not clear exactly how much will be allocated to the UK, and we have yet to take decisions on what use to make of voluntary modulation and associated match funding. My hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) both asked about the December budget. I have received the RSPCA briefing on that issue, which I know other hon. Members have also received, but it does not take into account the fact that the budget is to be supplemented by compulsory modulation and the EU budget for rural development in the EU15. Because of that supplement, which must be co-financed by member states, we expect that the amount of EU funding available for the next RDP in England will be slightly higher than for current programmes. I want to correct any misunderstanding on that situation, because the briefing was perhaps misleading in that respect, although not intentionally, I am sure.

The key point to stress is that we acknowledge that December was the occasion for cutting a deal and, as my hon. Friends suggested, whenever a deal is cut there are compromises to be made, but we must not lose sight of the great victory that we won then: the review of the common agricultural policy in 2008 and all that that will mean for the pattern of spending in rural communities that we have piloted. We are establishing the approach and we are at the forefront in Europe in trying to pull money away from pillar 1 and into pillar 2 precisely on the areas of spending that we have all said are so important.

As my hon. Friends have highlighted, the framework for the next programme—the rural development regulation—is broadly drawn, allowing for a wide range of activities. That flexibility recognises that rural development needs vary across the EU. New member states may need to focus the available funding on achieving basic community standards, including those on animal welfare, but that may not represent the best value for money in other member states.

I take up the challenge that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire laid down in his three final points. I am happy to write to him on the first point: what evidence there is that farmers exceed baseline compulsory legal minimum standards of animal welfare in England. In my discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department who have responsibility specifically for animal welfare, I was assured that they are confident that many farmers in England achieve higher—in some cases substantially higher—standards of animal welfare.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I do not want to condensethe Minister's reply, but may I ask whether he acknowledges that in our fellow countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland those higher-than-baseline standards exist, but those countries have also found it possible within their own draft suggestions to incorporate animal welfare, which is incredibly difficult to value as a public good? I acknowledge that that is the case.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend leads me on to my next point. I recognise another point that was made clearly in the RSPCA briefing: in the programmes put forward in Scotland and Wales there are variations in emphasis. I stress that I believe that they are variations in emphasis and, in some cases, variations in decision. That is what I would seek to explain.

One should not be surprised—certainly not in this Chamber—that the outcome of devolution is that each part of the United Kingdom determines its own priorities and takes account of the evidence of need, farming practices and environmental circumstances that is specific to them. Our countries are different and our rural development programmes will be different. Exactly how we use the new programmes to support animal health and welfare objectives is, of course, one of the areas where there may be a divergence, not because we have a different view of the importance of the objective, but because we may have different ways of reaching it.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud in the House last week, we recognise the importance of good animal health and welfare standards in the farming industry, but we are confident that farmersin England achieve animal welfare standards thatmeet and sometimes exceed the minimum legal requirements. We therefore want to target the resources that we have not towards existing good practice, but on new ways of making agriculture more competitive and sustainable, through a focus on skills and innovation. In line with that approach, we proposed that we could use funding—

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

I shall do so in a minute. If my hon. Friend allows me to finish the point, he may find that it pre-empts him.

We proposed that we could use funding available under the next programme to provide increased opportunities for training and knowledge transfer aimed specifically at improving animal health and welfare standards. This is one area where we are clear that we want to use the funding that we have under the programme to improve good practice.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

After foot and mouth, specific moneys were put in to do the very things that the Minister is speaking about. Will he give a guarantee that there will be moneys in the new budgets that will do the sort of things that that foot and mouth money was supposedly there to do?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

It would be difficult to do that within the parameters of this debate, but I shall certainly write to my hon. Friend and elaborate on his point.

I think we all agree that we face major environmental challenges, such as protecting and enhancing biodiversity, protecting the quality of our waterways and mitigating the effects of climate change. The agri-environment schemes have a proven track record, but they must cover a greater proportion of farmland if we are to meet those future challenges. Aside from rural development programme funding, there are no alternative sources of funds available in sufficient quantity to meet those major challenges. Our focus for the next programme is therefore to sustain our commitment to environmental stewardship as a scheme that is open to all farmers.

My hon. Friends will recognise that the environmental stewardship programme and the funding that it will make available will have an impact on stocking levels—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said was specifically mentioned in other countries' programmes. The fact that that may not be specifically mentioned here does not imply that it will not be achieved.

We decided to focus on those key environmental challenges. An independent report conducted for DEFRA in 2004 found that the cost of a national animal welfare scheme was likely to be high due to various factors, such as diversity among livestock farmers, variability of welfare incidents and the need for assessment and monitoring. We decided not to divert our rural development funding away from that core environmental priority. However, we recognise that there are potential links between particular agri-environment measures such as stocking densities and animal welfare outcomes. Indeed, colleagues referred to the proposal made by the Welsh Assembly in its consultation to consider animal welfare issues in its forthcoming review of agri-environment schemes.

In England in 2007-08, we will review progressunder environmental stewardship. The RSPCA has considered how incentives for animal welfare could be provided under the rural development programme. It has done so in its report, "Into the fold", and that work will provide valuable input to our thinking, but to return to where I began, we must be able to demonstrate the added value of what we are spending. I am sure that colleagues will recognise that not only we, but the EU as a whole, have a significant amount of work to do on animal welfare and we must work together to take that forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire referred to the support provided under farm assurance schemes. Farmers who participate in food quality schemes generally do so either with a view to obtaining a price premium, when their participation is rewarded through the market, or because they need to do so to sell to a specific market, as is often the case with baseline assurance schemes and which is also rewarded through the market. The RSPCA's freedom food scheme is an assurance scheme that promotes high animal welfare standards and is a good exampleof what can be achieved without Government intervention. Given that fact and the high proportion of farmers who already belong to assurance schemes, we believe that relatively little additional public benefit would be gained from supporting such schemes financially through the programme for England. That has been our thinking. It is not that we think the schemes are not valuable ways of achieving animal welfare outcomes, but that we think we should put our money where it will achieve added value and where there is a market failure. In this case, we do not believe that to be so.

Encouraging innovation aimed at developing new markets and new value-added products is one way of helping to make our farming industry more competitive. That could include support for marketing on the basis of higher animal welfare standards, either alone or in combination with other innovative ways of improving farm competitiveness. We have proposed that support for such innovation could be an area of focus for the next programme.

I have been speaking about animal welfare in the context of the rural development programme, but I want to remind colleagues of the wider picture in England on animal health and welfare issues, which we feel is important, and our approach to addressing those issues. We are working in partnership with industry to promote wider use of a proactive approach to health planning on farms, including management of livestock diseases that have welfare implications. We are doing that by supporting a culture change in the industry with consistent messages and better communication about the benefits of a risk management-based approach at farm level. Our approach supports greater use of the farm health and welfare plans, to which the codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock refer.

My hon. Friend said that the proposals for the next programme are a missed opportunity as they focus on limited traditional areas and do not look widely enough at Government objectives—

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North


Sitting suspended.