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Caging of Farm Animals — Geraint Davies in the Chair

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:49 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:49 pm, 16th March 2020

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system is currently being devised. I am very keen to include him as much as I can in the way we do that. Some of it might well be tier 1 funding, some might be tier 2, and some—though I doubt it—might even be tier 3, but I do not want to rule anything out at this point. It is really important that we keep an open mind, look at how the tests and trials are going, and then look at how the scheme is developed through the pilots. The point I am trying to make today is that it is certainly intended that public goods include animal welfare.

All hon. Members present can think of many improvements that we would like to see. For example, we might want to look at animal health improvements, such as reduced lameness in cattle and sheep, and at lower levels of antimicrobial resistance. We will focus on welfare enhancements that deliver the greatest impact and benefit, based on scientific evidence. I do not want to stray too far from the parameters of the debate, but it is helpful to continue to have such conversations as the system is devolved.

I want to emphasise that cages are not used in England to keep some of the farmed animals referred to in the petition—namely farmed rabbits, broiler chicken breeders, layer breeders and guinea fowl. It has been mentioned already that the UK unilaterally banned veal crates in 1990, 16 years before the rest of the EU, which eventually caught up. Conventional battery cages for laying hens were banned here in 2012. I am pleased to say that we already have a much larger free-range sector than any other EU country, and free-range sales represent about 67% of retail egg sales—not necessarily eggs incorporated into food—in the UK.

The Government are currently examining the future use of cages for all laying hens, and I welcome the commitment from our major retailers, with positive support from our egg producers, to stop retailing eggs from enriched colony cage production systems by 2025. I was interested in what Patricia Gibson said about Morrisons, and we obviously welcome its going further. The Government are also considering the use of cages for game birds, including the systems used for breeding pheasants and partridges. The hon. Member for Cambridge outlined how they are governed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its associated code of practice, which provides keepers with guidance. The Act and DEFRA’s code are enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West described farmers as big softies, and I should probably confess at this point that I have kept pigs in the past. They are one of my favourite animals—if a Minister is allowed to have favourite animals. My pigs were extremely free range, to the extent that they sometimes caused a nuisance in the village—the Agriculture Bill Committee heard a lot about that. As we heard earlier, the UK has led the way on improving pigs’ welfare by banning the keeping of sows in close confinement stalls in 1999. I am not in any way criticising that decision, but it is worth noting, as my hon. Friend did, that we were about 80% sufficient in pigmeat in 1998. The figure had fallen to about 50% by 2003, and it is currently about 56%. I am extremely keen not to outsource animal welfare issues to other countries.

The Government have made it clear that we remain completely committed to the ambition that farrowing crates should no longer be used for sows. Indeed, the new pig welfare code, which I mentioned earlier, clearly states:

“The aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”

It is important that we make progress towards a system that both works commercially and safeguards the welfare of the sow and her piglets, and that we do so as quickly as possible. The UK is already ahead of most pig-producing countries on this issue, with about 40% of our pigs living and farrowing outside. Good progress has been made, but there is more to do.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, DEFRA has funded research into alternative farrowing systems. The commercial development of farrowing systems and practices is not sufficiently advanced to recommend the compulsory replacement of all farrowing crates, but I am keen to work with the industry on this—using both carrots and sticks—because it is important to not simply move production abroad.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. The Government place great importance on the welfare of all our animals. The measures that I have set out demonstrate clearly the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to strengthen our high animal welfare standards. We are actively exploring options to do with the use of cages and will work with industry to improve animal welfare in a sustainable way. The provisions in the Agriculture Bill will help us to do that.