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Caging of Farm Animals — Geraint Davies in the Chair

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:00 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 6:00 pm, 16th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 243448 relating to the caging of farm animals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to introduce the second petition in my time on the Petitions Committee. This petition, “End the cage age”, which was led by Compassion in World Farming and backed by a dozen other animal welfare non-governmental organisations, is another one held over from the last Parliament. The petition closed at the start of last September with 107,187 signatures. I remember that it was listed for debate, but another Brexit petition meant that it could not be debated. The then Minister, who is now in the Lords, was very disappointed, because he was keen to see some action on this. However, here we are. Better late than never.

The petition states:

“Across the UK, millions of farmed animals are kept in cages, unable to express their natural behaviours.”

That relates to the earlier debate on animal sentience. The petitioners

“call on the UK government to end this inhumane practice by banning all cages for farmed animals.”

That would entail bringing forward legislation to amend the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 and to phase out the use of sows in farrowing crates, individual calf pens, and barren and enriched cages for farmed animals including laying hens, rabbits, pullets, broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, pheasants, partridge and guinea fowl.

The Petitions Committee tries to do outreach on some of the petitions and it reached out to farmers ahead of the debate by posting on the Farming Forum website. There was not an overwhelming response, but everybody has other things on their mind now. Among the responses that came in were the following comments:

“Animal welfare is of paramount importance to farmers.”

“It is in farmers’
interest to treat livestock well.”

“It is a small minority of farmers that mistreat their animals.”

It is important to put on record that this debate is not anti-farmer; it is about ensuring that current standards are adhered to and showing that we can do better, as we know other countries have. We always ought to look at how we can move animal welfare forwards, not backwards.

There has been some welcome progress at the European level over the years. There have been EU-wide bans on veal crates and barren battery cages for laying hens, and a partial ban on sow stalls. As I am sure the Minister would tell us, sow stalls have been banned altogether in the UK, which shows that being in the EU did not stop us going further when we wanted to, although that is often used as an excuse. Animals have been recognised as sentient beings in EU law under the Lisbon treaty, which we have already discussed.

Cages continue, however, to be used on British farms, despite well-established alternatives that allow animals to express their individual needs and have been proven to be economically viable. If the UK wishes to maintain and enhance its status as a global leader in farm animal welfare as we leave the EU, we ought to follow the lead of those European countries that have already banned caged systems.

“End the cage age” campaigners found the Government’s written response, published when the petition reached 10,000 signatures—quite some time ago—hugely disappointing. I hope we will hear more from the Minister today than a repetition of that response. The Minister’s officials look saddened. I do not know if one of them wrote the response. I am sorry if that was the case, but we would like a more encouraging response today.

In their response, the Government suggested that the main determining factor in protecting animal welfare is

“good stockmanship and the correct application of husbandry standards.”

Caged systems, however, which prevent so many essential natural behaviours, mean that welfare will inevitably be very poor, no matter how good the stockmanship is. A sow confined in a crate in which she cannot turn around will suffer because she will not be able to exhibit natural behaviours, even with the best care and stockmanship.

The Government go on to say in their response that cages have already been banned

“where there is clear scientific evidence that they are detrimental to animal health and welfare.”

However, a wealth of robust scientific evidence demonstrates that enriched cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for sows are highly detrimental to welfare, yet they remain in use for millions of animals. I am still working my way through the Government’s response, which continues:

“Enriched cages provide more space for the birds to move around than conventional cages and are legally required to provide nest boxes, litter, perches, and claw shortening devices which allow the birds to carry out a greater range of natural behaviours.”

No one is arguing that enriched cages might not be better than an alternative, but that does not mean that they meet animals’ needs.

The reality is that hens confined in enriched cages still have only a little more space than an A4 sheet of paper per pen. These cages severely restrict many natural behaviours, including wing-flapping, running, perching at a reasonable height above the ground, dust bathing and foraging. Germany, Austria and Luxemburg have banned, or are in the process of banning, enriched cages. The UK should not lag behind, not least because the main supermarkets have already stopped selling eggs from caged hens or have committed to do so by 2025.

We could argue that if people can buy eggs produced to the welfare standards they want, it is down to consumer choice. What is the problem? However, when eggs started being stamped with method of production, it made a big difference in consumer patterns. That is why some of us are keen to see method of production on other forms of produce. However, many people would not make that choice, whether because of price, availability or lack of awareness. When eggs end up in other products, one does not know their method of production. Just relying on consumers to take the lead is not the answer.

On sows, the Government boast that the UK is ahead of most other EU pig-producing countries in terms of non-confinement farrowing, with 60% of sows in crates to give birth and the remaining 40% housed outside and free-farrowed, that is, crate-free. The Government said in their response:

“Research is on-going to develop and test indoor free farrowing systems under commercial conditions which protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”

Again, the reality is that several indoor free farrowing systems that give the sow freedom of movement while protecting piglets are already commercially available and in use in several countries including the UK, so I am not sure what research the Government are talking about. Indeed, systems designed and produced in Britain are being used in the UK, USA and Canada. Sweden, Norway and Switzerland have already legislated to ban the routine use of farrowing crates. Again, Britain should not lag behind the leaders in recognising the science and ending unnecessary suffering.

On calf pens, the Government said in their response:

“The UK unilaterally banned the keeping of calves in veal crates in 1990, sixteen years before the rest of the EU. However, as young calves are highly susceptible to disease, up to 8 weeks of age, they are permitted to be kept in individual hutches of a specified size with bedding provided, as long as they have visual and tactile contact with other calves.”

The organisations that support the “End the cage age” petition argue that, in reality, group housing from birth can provide health and welfare benefits for calves, provided that groups are small and stable, and that housing provides sufficient space and ventilation, and is hygienic and well managed. Cattle are social animals, and evidence shows that calves are much more stressed and fearful when housed individually, preferring to be housed with other calves.

On layer and broiler breeders, the Government said in their response:

“In the UK, the use of cages to house both layer breeders and broiler (meat chicken) breeders is prohibited under the UK’s farm assurance scheme standards.”

It is not compulsory, however, to sign up to a farm assurance scheme. Outside those farm assurance schemes, cages for layer breeders and broiler breeders are not prohibited.

The final example I will give is game birds. About 50 million game birds are purpose bred to be shot each year. The vast majority of those are pheasants. Around a third of that total are actually shot and about 3 million make it into the food chain. However, that is a debate for another day. There is a debate on driven grouse shooting—I do not think it covers pheasants and partridges—that we might just get around to having before the Easter recess. Again, that is a Petitions Committee debate. For the purposes of this debate today, however, I will not get into the ethics of that issue.

Breeding birds used to produce the birds that will be shot are often confined to raised metal cages that are placed outdoors for the whole of their productive lives. It is true that statutory welfare codes for game birds state that barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used. However, as I understand it, that is only a recommendation; it is not legally binding and it does nothing to discourage the use of such cages. Even the British Association for Shooting and Conservation called for an outright ban back in 2010, stating that

“the available space in such cages is so limited that the welfare of the birds is seriously compromised and the system does not conform, whether enriched or not, to the five freedoms which are the basis of the UK’s animal welfare law.”

In 2009, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs initiated a major study, costing more than £420,000, into whether cages could meet the welfare needs of game birds used for breeding. The report was not published until July 2015. I had completely forgotten how many written questions there were, and how much we had done to try to chase the Government, asking, “Where on earth is this report?” Of course, the study was commissioned by a Labour Government. Then, when there was a coalition Government, it just seemed to disappear entirely. As I said, it took until July 2015 for the report to be published. However, the eventual report was pretty disappointing, in that it did not examine the issue of whether cages could be justified; it just compared cages of different sizes and with different types of enrichment.

Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the Agriculture Bill, which currently awaits a date for its Report stage in the House of Commons. Clause 1 sets out a new system of farming subsidies, seeking to ensure that public money is used to deliver public goods. Those public goods include improving animal welfare, but the Bill is silent on what constitutes better animal welfare, or exactly what farmers would be rewarded for, although I think that we made it clear in Committee that farmers should not be rewarded just for meeting the current legal standards. They should be rewarded for going above that level, but then the question arises: how far above that level is worthy of reward? Many of us are keen to see that it is those farmers who are willing to go substantially beyond the legal minimum requirements of normal good practice, not only on preventing animals from suffering but in giving them positive experiences, who should be rewarded under the financial incentives in the new subsidies system.

To ensure that financial assistance supports genuinely higher levels of animal welfare, the Bill should provide that payments may only be made in respect of farms that enable animals to engage in their natural behaviours, as identified by scientific research. Farmers operating cage systems should not receive any support under animal welfare payments.

If the UK truly wishes to be the global leader in animal welfare, we need to take steps to end the cage age for more than 6 million animals that are confined each year. Several countries across the EU have already prohibited certain cages that we still allow in the UK. The UK needs to set an example and take an ambitious approach to increasing the number of animals farmed to higher animal welfare standards if it is not to be left behind.