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The Minister writes ...

The Agriculture Minister replies to the letter in Tuesday's `Independent' from the Director-General of the RSPCA, Peter Davies, which called for an end to the transport of live animals for slaughter - and a maximum eight-hour journey time as a fir st step towards that.

Dear Director-General, I welcome the chance to respond to your open letter to me about the rearing of calves and animal transport.

The raising of calves in crates, in the way it is practised in certain continental countries, is unacceptable to the Government. That is why it was banned in the UK in 1990.

As regards livestock exports, we must acknowledge two facts. First, I have received very clear advice that it is not open to us, under Article 36 of the Treaty or any other Article, to ban the export of live animals from the UK, nor to ban the export of calves possibly destined for veal crates. European Community rules regulate the conditions of such trade, and regulate the minimum permitted standards of calf rearing. This makes this a so-called "occupied field" in terms of European law, which precludesnational action unless this is specifically allowed (as is the case for our national ban on veal crates). Those who argue for a national ban on exports (I note that you do not, in your letter), have refused to come to grips with this fundamental point.

Second, no government can resile from its duty to enforce the law if people insist on their legal rights - in this case to export animals. The only way forward is for European law to be strengthened - that is by banning veal crates throughout the Community and by introducing journey limits Europe-wide. We are working hard to persuade others to do just those things. You know the difficulties as well as I: but we must all try harder. I shall not be able to achieve change in the Council unless my fellow ministers are under some pressure of public opinion in their own countries. I shall depend heavily on our welfare organisations working for change in public opinion on the Continent.

You also mentioned journey limits. We have discussed this issue in the past. The first priority must be to seek to establish the very principle of journey limits to slaughter. This has not yet been achieved in the Community. Once that principle has been established, we need to take the best scientific advice on what those limits should be. Current advice suggests that different limits would be justified for different species. Meanwhile, we are, as you know, strengthening significantly on 23 January those UK controls where it is open to us to take national action.

Nevertheless, the Government is wholly in sympathy with your wish to see the maximum opportunity for farmers to find markets at home for their animals so that unnecessary movement is minimised and as much as possible of the export trade is in meat (as ofcourse most is already).

I therefore respond warmly to your offer to join with the Government and the industry in seeking to develop such alternatives. At my request the ministry and the Meat and Livestock Commission have already been at work on this over recent weeks. We shoul d now jointly take this work forward, as well as the necessary work in Europe I refer to above.

William Waldegrave