Animal welfare remains a government priority despite the reported abolition of a key advisory body, farm minister Jim Paice has pledged.
His comments came after the Farm Animal Welfare Council was included on a leaked list of 177 bodies set to be scrapped under government austerity measures.
“We are not – very definitely not – talking about lowering any standards,” Mr Paice told the Conservative Party Conference on Sunday (3 October). “Far from it.”
The Tories and Liberal Democrats had agreed that the coalition government would seek to achieve the highest standards of animal welfare wherever possible, he added.
Standards would be science-led, said the MP for south-east Cambridgeshire.
“That is the best way of achieving something sustainable that you can be prepared to justify – both to those who think you haven’t been tough enough and those who think you have been too tough.”
The work of the Farm Animal Welfare Council was essential to that science, conference delegates were told at an RSPCA fringe meeting in Birmingham.
Mr Paice stopped short of saying the Farm Animal Welfare Council would be retained.
But he added: “I can assure you, despite all the leaks that you may or may not have read – and I shouldn’t be saying this but I am going to – that the work [of the council] will continue.”
The council’s scientific advice was invaluable in helping the government tackle any particular animal welfare issue, added Mr Paice.
“This government is absolutely determined to raise standards as high as we can,” he said.
“We want our farmers to do it voluntarily and we believe the vast majority want to do that as well – and can be trusted to do so.”
The government’s whole direction towards achieving better standards was to use encouragement, exhortation and trust, said Mr Paice.
“We are not a government that reaches automatically for regulation to change things. Regulation in our view should be the last resort rather than the first resort.”
Instead, consumers had most power when it came to improving animal welfare standards and the way livestock were reared, said Mr Paice.
“I will look at all other ways to improve animal welfare before I reach for regulation,” he said.
“Regulation hits all those who are doing the job properly before it hits the small minority, in most cases, who are not doing the job properly.”
This was why the government had appointed former NFU director general Richard MacDonald to review farming regulations and their enforcement, Mr Paice said.
“I don’t believe that simply coming down with a mass of paperwork and form-filling and inspections is automatically the best way of achieving what we are trying to achieve.”