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Caging of Farm Animals — Geraint Davies in the Chair

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:37 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 6:37 pm, 16th March 2020

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Davies. I will not respond to that, but it is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair—I am not going to cluck. I thank my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy for speaking to the petition so eloquently. She brings her expertise and her tireless campaigning work on improving animal welfare to the debate, and as always made an excellent and thoughtful contribution. I will echo many of her comments.

I fear our numbers are slightly reduced because Members are, understandably, in the House for an important statement, but we have had some very good contributions. Steven Bonnar pointed out that the devolved Administrations always move ahead of Conservative Governments in Westminster. Not all Conservatives, of course, are culpable; Sir David Amess delivered a powerful speech. I associate myself with his comments about Compassion in World Farming and his account of the suffering endured by animals in farrowing crates, which should concentrate our minds.

There have been improvements over the past few decades, and some of the very cruel and restrictive caging systems have been improved. Part of that was done when we were members of the European Union. We played a leading role not only in securing our own improved standards, but in leading and persuading others across the continent. It is worth remembering that we helped to end the use of barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal cages for calves, and sow stalls for pigs. All those things were achieved because we were part of that bigger grouping—a role that we have sadly cast aside.

It is important to pay testament to the progressive thinking across our country, which has meant that we have often been ahead of those in other countries with such bans. However, I am sad to say that every year in the UK we still keep around 16 million farmed animals in cages and extreme close confinement systems, when we are well aware, as we have heard, of the significant detrimental impacts on animal welfare, and when viable alternatives are available.

The majority of farmed animals in cages are egg-laying hens, kept in the so-called enriched colony cages that replaced barren battery cages, banned by the European Union in 2012. They are of course an improvement, but that space is still too restrictive for birds to properly express many of their natural behaviours, such as wing flapping, dust bathing, and pecking and scratching. Regulations stipulate that those cages still must provide the birds with only 750 sq cm of space each, of which only 600 cm must be useable—barely the space of an A4 sheet of paper.

To reintroduce an anecdote I told in the Agriculture Bill Committee—which you, Mr Davies, were not able to enjoy—many years ago I was the welcome recipient of a rescue chicken that fell off a lorry nearby. Trevor the chicken was a great joy to me, but that transformation from a caged bird into one that could display all the natural characteristics and behaviours of a chicken—very quickly; it is astonishing how powerful nature is—was very telling for me, and it underpins many people’s concerns about welfare.

Of course, this issue is not just about egg-laying hens. Hon. Members have referred to the farrowing crates that cage 60% of our pigs. Although the sow stalls that keep pigs caged for the entirety of their pregnancy were rightly banned back in 1999, sows can still be caged in that way for up to five weeks at a time prior to birth and during the weaning of piglets in farrowing crates. During that time, the sow is quite often completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward, and cannot reach the piglets that are placed next to her for suckling. The scientific evidence that sow welfare is severely compromised in farrowing crates has been well established for many years, and we now know that keeping pigs caged in that way leads to bar biting, prevents them from carrying out natural behaviours such as nesting, and can lead to higher stress hormone levels, longer farrowing durations and higher stillbirth rates.

We understand the arguments from the industry about the need to prevent the death of piglets by accidental crushing; however, looking at the evidence, I think the arguments are shifting. There is plenty of robust research and combined studies to date that show little significant difference in the mortality of piglets in crated versus loose-housed systems. Alternatives exist, as has been explained, and I think we are moving in that direction. I fear the real issue is one of economics and costs, but that is the kind of issue that can be addressed.

We have also heard about the issues surrounding calf pens. Although veal crates are banned, young calves can still be kept in solitary caged hutches for the first eight weeks of their lives as soon as they have been taken away from the mother cow. The logic is said to be that young calves are highly susceptible to disease, but we also know that cattle are very social animals, and there is much evidence that calves are more stressed and fearful when caged individually in this way so soon after birth. Research shows that housing calves in pairs before weaning leads to a number of positive outcomes without compromising health or production, fulfilling their need for social contact while also apparently leading to increased weight gain compared with those housed alone.

As we have also heard, it is not only animals farmed for food that are still kept in cages. Around 50 million pheasants and partridges are mass produced in the UK to be shot, with large numbers of breeding birds confined for most of their lives in so-called raised laying cages that are left outside, exposed to the elements and to extremes of temperature.

Regulation is limited to a code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which recommends that entirely barren cages are not used. However, that code is not legally binding, and I fear it is too often flouted. Labour believes that we must put an end to the use of cages on our farms and in our production systems, and the strength of numbers supporting this petition demonstrates how popular that would be. I was struck by those figures: sometimes we see extreme numbers of people from certain places signing petitions and smaller numbers signing from elsewhere, but the people supporting this petition are well spread out across much of the country. I think that ending the use of cages is something that the British people would universally welcome.

Due to those welfare concerns and consumer demands for better welfare products, the main UK supermarkets have already made moves on this issue. As we have heard, Morrisons has done so, and in 2018 Tesco unilaterally introduced a requirement that all dairy calves on its supplier farms be reared in pairs or groups. The use of farrowing crates has also been identified by the British Veterinary Association as one of seven priority animal welfare problems relating to pigs, and both the Soil Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals already prohibit the use of farrowing crates under their labels. We have already debated how we move forward, but in our view, what is missing is considered Government action to step in and introduce measures to end the use of these caged systems on our farms, once and for all.

Simply leaving the burden of responsibility for making this change with individual consumers is problematic, because for so many people, price is still the key driver. We entirely understand that; we do not in any way condemn people who are forced to make choices because they are on limited incomes and, even if they would like to support higher standards, cannot afford to do so. We had this discussion in some depth in the Agriculture Bill Committee. Labour’s view is that we have to make it easier for people to make the right choice by excluding low-cost, low-welfare alternatives. There is clear evidence that if standards are lifted, industries respond and prices begin to settle, so this is a case in which we need clear leadership.

We in this country pride ourselves in leading on higher animal welfare standards, but sadly, other countries are moving ahead of us on this issue. Luxembourg has already banned enriched cage colony systems for egg-laying hens, and Germany and Austria are phasing them out. Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have already banned sow farrowing crates, and free-farrowing systems are being developed in other European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands. We recognise that such bans would need to be phased in, with proper safeguards in place to support the agricultural industry during that transition. Back in 1999, the Labour Government rightly banned sow stalls, and that had a clear impact on the domestic pig industry, so it is vital that Government help is there to support a switch to alternative systems.

It is also vital—this is a recurring theme—that we ensure that any home production of animal products produced to these higher-welfare, cage-free standards is not simply undercut and replaced by imports produced in countries that still use lower-welfare caged systems. That should be one benefit of our new-found freedom to take back control, so I encourage the Government to do so. This is why it is so important for the Government to put into law their promises that upcoming trade deals will not simply sell out our farmers by allowing lower-standard imports.

The Government know this is the right direction of travel, which is why we have been hearing some quite positive noises from them. Both the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Theresa Villiers, and the current farming Minister, Victoria Prentis, have said that the Government’s aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary. The Government’s belatedly released “Farming for the future”—one of my favourite documents, which lays out their plans for British farming post-Brexit—says that they want to establish an animal health and welfare pathway in partnership with farmers and stakeholders to improve animal welfare and health, including in relation to confinement. However, we feel this is all too vague.

The Government’s new Agriculture Bill, which we hope will soon be considered on Report, is the perfect place to introduce measures for supporting farmers in ending the use of cages. However, sad to say, the Government have so far rejected every one of our helpful amendments aimed at better promoting farm animal welfare and enabling the ending of cages and intensive farming practices. They have rejected amendments that would establish a stronger baseline for animal welfare regulation across the board; ensure that those receiving public money for improving animal welfare went above and beyond this baseline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East so eloquently explained; promote the conduct of research into the impact of highly intensive livestock farming practices on animal welfare; and give the Secretary of State the power to introduce a phased ban on sow farrowing crates and to explicitly allow farmers to receive public money for phasing out those crates.

What we need from this debate is rock-solid commitments that ending the use of cages on our farms is a true priority for the Government and proper detail on how they plan to achieve that through their farming policy. The Government have stated on numerous occasions their aspiration for the UK to become the global leader in farm animal welfare once we leave the EU, and if they were serious about that ambition, they could embrace a cage-free future now. I challenge the Minister to explain why this suffering should be allowed to continue, and why she thinks we should end the cage age one day, but not yet.