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House of Commons Hansard Debates for 4 Mar 1998 (pt 26)
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4 Mar 1998 : Column 1076

Welfare of Broiler Chickens

4.29 pm

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): I beg to move,

It is almost two years to the day since my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) proposed a similar Bill. I thank him for his endeavours, and I pay tribute to Lord Beaumont for his work in the Lords on this matter. I should also like to thank Compassion in World Farming, and its legal and political officer, Peter Stevenson, for their assistance, advice and encouragement.

To avoid any confusion, I should point out that two flocks of hens are reared in this country. One, battery hens, is reared purely to provide eggs. That involves birds being kept in small cages. I have seen this, and I was not terribly impressed by the system. The other flock is broiler chickens, which are raised purely for meat. Over 80 per cent. of those birds are kept indoors in captivity.

I propose the Bill because the only legislation on the matter--which, in my view, is totally inadequate--is the Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994. Although the regulations cover battery hens, cattle and pigs, there is no regulation covering broiler hens. This matter needs to be addressed and corrected. All we have at the moment is a Ministry of Agriculture code of practice which is inadequate in the way in which it addresses the density of birds on the ground and, according to the British Poultry Meat Federation--which is not sponsoring the Bill--is not adhered to and has no legal status.

There can be up to 40,000 birds in large sheds deprived of natural light. As long ago as 1992, the Farm Animal Welfare Council advised legally binding regulations, rather than leaving the matter to what is little better than self-regulation by the breeders.

The underlying problem is the selective breeding and rich diet feeding of the birds, which enables them to reach maximum weight in only six weeks--twice the speed of 35 years ago. This leads to endemic problems with the strength of the legs of the birds, and the failure to match the increasing body weight leads to crippling leg failure. Academic research has estimated that as many as 180 million birds per annum suffer in this way. The Farm Animal Welfare Council working group found such problems on practically every farm it visited.

Professor Webster, of Bristol university's veterinary school, has been particularly scathing after carrying out extensive academic research on the matter. It has been found that rapid forced growth affects the heart and lungs of the bird, and that the problem of dirty litter exacerbates the leg injuries. However, the British Poultry Meat Federation has objected to the wording of the clause in the Bill which refers to clean and dry litter.

I do not want to get bogged down in statistical nit picking. That has been used for many years in this House, and everywhere else, to try to cloud arguments. I will go no further than to refer to a judgment made last year by Mr. Justice Bell, who was dealing with the McDonald's libel case. He found that the overcrowding of the birds was "intentional and unnecessary", and, in his judgment, cruel. He found that the leg problems affected at least 7 per cent. of broilers. He also said that the welfare of

4 Mar 1998 : Column 1077

between 7 and 31 per cent. of the birds was compromised by leg problems. I am not too concerned whether the percentage is seven or 31--whatever it is, it is too much. Regulations are needed to eradicate this unnecessary and cruel system.

The judge also examined the issue of broiler breeders--the small number of birds that are kept only for breeding. As they are fed so intensively in the early part of their lives, they have, in effect, to be starved so that they do not become too weak to breed, which leads to intense hunger and great discomfort. The judge said that it was highly likely that the birds felt hungry in human terms, because they spent an inordinate proportion of their time foraging, and consumed large amounts of litter.

Finally and most damningly, he stated:

In his summary, he said:

He also criticised some aspects of slaughter, although I shall not refer to them, as that is not the subject of the Bill.

I have given a copy of the Bill to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, although he has not commented on it to me. I have also given copies to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals--which, when I have talked to it, seemed to be in favour--and to others. I urge all hon. Members, if they have not already done so, to watch the video produced by Compassion in World Farming, which shows graphically, far better than I could hope to describe, that the industry is barbaric.

The industrial spokesman of the British Poultry Meat Federation, Mr. Bradnock, did not invite me to visit any of the farms to which he referred. I accept that there have been improvements--largely because of public pressure; the public now perceive more clearly than ever before the

4 Mar 1998 : Column 1078

value of animal welfare--but the industry and its representatives have totally refused to endorse any of the Bill's provisions.

The Bill would ensure that

It would also ensure that the chickens have legs that are strong enough to bear their weight, so that they can live in comfort. Density needs to be reduced so that flocks can be thoroughly inspected at least twice each day--any chicken that shows signs of discomfort can then be dealt with humanely.

Another of the Bill's provisions is that the litter should be kept clean and dry at all times. I should have thought that all hon. Members would accept that--unfortunately, the poultry meat industry will not. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who is present, will introduce Government legislation, because, as everyone knows, ten-minute Bills have little chance of being enacted. Nevertheless, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Chris Mullin, Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Harry Cohen, Angela Smith, Mr. Terry Lewis, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Roger Gale and Mr. Nigel Jones.

Welfare of Broiler Chickens

Mr. Bill Etherington accordingly presented a Bill to protect the health and welfare of broiler chickens kept in indoor husbandry systems: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 13 March, and to be printed [Bill 136].

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not outrageous that we should have only 50 minutes left to discuss by far one of the most important parts of the Scotland Bill, because of the deliberate positioning of a long Government statement before it? Is there any way in which, in the interests of the House, the time can be extended?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but we are governed by a resolution of the House.

4 Mar 1998 : Column 1079

Orders of the Day

Scotland Bill

[6th Allotted Day]

Considered in Committee [Progress, 23 February].

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

Clause 81

Scottish Representation at Westminster

Amendment proposed [23 February]: No. 258, in page 37, line 32, to leave out from the word 'is' to end of line 33 and insert the words
'120 per cent. of the electoral quota for England.'.--[Dr Fox.]

4.41 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: clause 81 stand part.

Amendment No. 259, in clause 114, page 52, line 13, at beginning insert--

'Subject to subsection (3) below,'.

Amendment No. 260, in clause 114, page 52, line 17, at end add--

'(3) With the exception of an order relating to section 81, no order may be made under subsection (1) until each House of Parliament has approved any draft Order in Council which may be required to give effect to the first report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland to be submitted after 31st December 1997 under section 3(2) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.'.

New clause 6--Restrictions on voting rights of Scottish members of House of Commons--

'As from the day on which the Parliament first meets, no member of the House of Commons representing a constituency in Scotland shall be entitled to vote in that House on any matter certified by the Speaker as relating solely to another part, or other parts, of the United Kingdom.'.

New clause 16--Restrictions on voting rights of Scottish members of House of Commons (No. 2)--

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