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Caging of Farm Animals — Geraint Davies in the Chair

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:27 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 6:27 pm, 16th March 2020

I am very happy to participate in this debate, although I have a sense of déjà vu because, now that we have established and agreed that animals are sentient beings, by definition we should be repulsed by the idea of keeping them in cages when that is not necessary under any circumstances that I can think of. In the spirit of déjà vu, I want to once again thank Kerry McCarthy for her excellent opening of the debate.

Nothing captures the imagination, attention or strong feeling of our constituents more than the issue of animal welfare. It does not matter what aspect of animal welfare. Like other MPs, I get more emails about animal welfare than I do about any other issue that has ever presented itself in the five years that I have been an MP. Various important issues have come up, but nothing has prompted my constituents to email me more than the issue of animal welfare. The petition has garnered 106,000 signatures calling for the prohibition of the use of caging for animals. Ultimately, that is an animal welfare issue. We all want to see the highest possible standards of animal welfare that can be achieved and delivered for our furry friends.

As I have said to the Minister—this is another case of déjà vu—in the wake of Brexit, many people are concerned about what it will mean for animal welfare in the UK. SNP Members of the European Parliament backed the “End the cage age” campaign. The European Parliament voted to demand a new law to protect animals, and called on national Governments to roll back on intensive battery farms and to financially reward farmers who use pens instead of cages. We have heard much about that today. The European Commission was also asked by MEPs to introduce housing guidelines to ensure that imported animals enjoy the same welfare and food safety criteria as their domestically reared counterparts, as my hon. Friend Steven Bonnar indicated.

The bottom line is that it should never be acceptable to cause any animal unnecessary suffering. Again, we can all agree on that, because there is never a good reason for doing so. That is why the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 made it an offence. In addition, a consultation sought views on proposals to strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare legislation by increasing the maximum available penalties—something that, as I said, I have called for since being elected in 2015—and the use of fixed penalty notices.

The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill was debated at stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament only last week. Its provisions were referred to by Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as “exciting changes” that

“have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.

Importantly, the Bill will speed up the processes for making permanent arrangements for animals to be taken into possession to protect their welfare, and doing so will not require a court order.

Cages for animals feel instinctively wrong to me, and will to many people. Keeping animals confined goes against their natural instincts and seems evidently cruel. About 16 million animals are confined in cages every year in the UK. I am sure many owners believe that there is no detrimental impact and that they are not harming their animals, but this is a practice with which many of us are not, and should not, be comfortable. How many of us have seen pictures of these huge colonies of hen farms and instinctively recoiled? I know that I have. Although those animals may be well fed and kept clean, such conditions cannot make for a happy hen. How could they?

It seems that the real driver may be the attitudes and values of the consumer. If the Government will not drive change, consumers will. For example, the supermarket Morrisons broke cover a couple of weeks ago and became the first major supermarket to sell only free-range eggs. Morrisons is a commercial enterprise. It exists to make a profit, so the importance of that move cannot be underestimated, especially since that supermarket—as so many others still are—was formerly perfectly content to stock eggs laid by battery hens. Supermarkets make such changes based perhaps only on what matters to their customers. Certainly, it puts pressure on other supermarkets to follow suit, which in turn puts pressure on egg producers.

Ultimately, consumers will get what they want by driving change through exercising their choice. For example, 60% of all eggs laid and bought in Scotland are free range. Given that consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about what they eat, and the process of how it gets to their plate and how it is sourced, there is every reason to believe that that figure will rise. Morrisons is simply responding to that. Well done to Morrisons for meeting its goal to stop selling eggs from caged hens five years before its target of 2025.

The hon. Member for Bristol East said that waiting for consumers to drive change is simply not good enough on its own, and I agree. However, the carrot and stick together are important tools. About a year ago, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about microbeads. I remember saying that the real driver of removing microbeads from products was consumer concern. The move away from plastics by retailers is probably almost entirely based on what consumers are complaining about and what they want. The industry is following what consumers want—admittedly, more slowly than perhaps we would like.

Owing to consumer concerns, the chain McDonald’s did away completely with the use of plastic straws. McDonald’s delivered what its consumers wanted. Think of a big company such as Adidas. Normally, we would perhaps not associate such companies with driving environmental change, but at the end of the day they exist to make money and will do what their customers want. Owing to consumer concerns about the climate, Adidas now creates running shoes made entirely from ocean waste. Those are small steps by huge companies, but the consumer is king. If consumers exercise their power, they can drive really important and innovative change.

At the base of all that is the need to ensure that all living creatures, who have no voice of their own, are given the best care and the most compassionate consideration that we can afford them. That is why I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government invest £20 million annually in supporting animal health and welfare, and employing a highly skilled and qualified workforce, led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer.

The petition is timely, and a bit of a wake-up call. Increasingly, we as a society are becoming more concerned about the food we eat and the creatures around us, which can often be open to exploitation but which have no voice. We are concerned for our environment and we have a new-found respect for the natural world as it comes increasingly under threat.

We can choose to listen to the concerns or our constituents and work with them towards the ultimate goal of ending such practices as caging animals, or we can be dragged along by our constituents who, as consumers, will exercise their power to effect change. Being dragged along is never an easy prospect. It is always best to work with our constituents, and with the farming and livestock industry, to seek ways to improve the quality of the lives of our animals. We want our animals to be not just healthy but happy. I hope that the Minister will tell us what she thinks we can do better, and do more of, to try to ensure both the happiness and the health of our animals.