Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development

Friday 24 May 2002


Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill:
Committee Stage
(NIA 8/01)

Members present:

Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr M Murphy
Mr Paisley Jnr


Mr J Given ) Department of Agriculture
Ms M Hood ) and Rural Development

The Deputy Chairperson: The Committee welcomes Mr Given and Ms Hood from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. As you know, the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill stands referred to the Committee following completion of its Second Stage in the Assembly this week.

The Committee Stage is a detailed scrutiny of the Bill’s provisions and will consist of three phases. The first phase, starting today, consists of policy briefing and evidence taking so that we can decide on possible areas for amendment. The Committee has sent letters to an agreed list of bodies asking for their views. A press release has also been issued, offering other interested parties an opportunity to make a submission. Once the first phase has been completed, we will move to formal clause-by- clause scrutiny and then produce a report.

The Committee will now hear your statement and then ask questions.

Mr Given: I presented the Committee with a paper earlier this week. I do not have much to add.

The Labour Party pledged some years back to introduce a Bill to prohibit fur farming. A private Member’s Bill to ban it fell by the wayside, so the Government picked it up, and an Act was passed for England and Wales, where fur farms existed. Scotland followed, although it does not have any fur farms, and we are now doing the same.

The Deputy Chairperson: Paragraph 13 of your written submission says that the decision to prosecute for the secondary offence of knowingly causing or permitting the keeping of animals for a prohibited purpose will be discretionary. What will be the criteria and who will decide when to prosecute?

Ms Hood: Are you referring to the explanatory memorandum or to the paper that was sent earlier?

The Deputy Chairperson: I am referring to the explanatory memorandum.

Mr Given: The Department will investigate if it believes that someone is, by proxy, allowing such practices to take place.

The Deputy Chairperson: Is it possible that people here are running fur-farming businesses that you do not know about?

Mr Given: It is possible, but it is hard to believe that such practices would not have come to our attention in one way or another over the past 20 years. If such businesses existed we would have been told because there are enough people around the country from the Department and the rest of the public sector for such activity not to be noticed.

The Deputy Chairperson: In many parts of the country, there are small businesses that very few know about. What would be your approach if you found that such a business had been around for a long time?

Mr Given: It would depend whether it had to be licensed — for mink or Arctic foxes. It is possible that the business could deal in fur-bearing animals that had not already been legislated for. Until this Bill becomes law, nothing can be done about such cases.

The Deputy Chairperson: Can you close a business that has been in operation for 15 to 20 years?

Mr Given: At the moment, it could be stopped if it was dealing with mink or Arctic foxes, because it would be operating without a licence. Beyond that, nothing could be done.

The Deputy Chairperson: Paragraph 20 mentions a lobby group in London that has been in constant contact with the Department about progress on the proposed Bill. Can you give us contact details of that group so that we can ask it to make a written submission to the Committee?

Mr Given: I cannot tell you off the top of my head, but the information can be made available.

Ms Hood: I may have details of the lobby group. It has not been in contact since it found out that the Bill was going through the Assembly.

The Deputy Chairperson: Is the Bill proposed for Northern Ireland an exact replica of the GB Act, and, if not, what are the differences?

Mr Given: I am not aware of any significant differences.

Ms Hood: The principles are exactly the same, but the GB Bill contains compensation clauses because fur-farming businesses existed there. Our Bill just has an enabling power to create a compensation scheme.

The Deputy Chairperson: Are the fur-farming businesses in GB licensed?

Ms Hood: GB had only mink farms. There were 13 licensed mink farms when the Bill came into effect in December 2000. I understand that there are no longer any such businesses in GB.

Mr Armstrong: Which animals can be used for fur production?

Mr Given: I had not thought of it in those terms, but it would be any animal that was produced, bred and slaughtered for its fur rather than for food. I may not have described that well.

Mr Armstrong: It is not just foxes and mink.

Ms Hood: There are others, including the muskrat, which is also known as the musquash, the chinchilla, and the fisher. The most common are the mink and the Arctic fox. There must have been Arctic foxes in Northern Ireland in 1988, as there was an Order on how to keep them.

Mr Armstrong: Are animals going to be named in the Bill, or will it be a broad spectrum?

Ms Hood: No.

Mr Given: It will be a broad spectrum.

Mr McHugh: It is difficult to ask the right questions to ensure that everything is covered. Members have questioned the need for a compensation clause in the Bill. How can we prevent people from temporarily moving from the South to the North and starting up farms? Will we be safe from that? How long would it take people to start up a new business and get compensation? We do not want to pay out any money. It only takes a legal technicality for that to happen.

Then there is the moral issue. Why are we allowing fur to be sold? Could there be any free-range mink running free and then being trapped?

Mr Given: I am not sure about free-range mink, and catching them would be difficult. Fur farmers would be carrying on a fur-farming business, and that would come within the ambit of the Bill.

The Bill cannot tackle the sale of fur. That is an issue for others. If we accept the public morality argument, we should promote the Bill and show that the practice of fur farming is not a proper thing to do in the United Kingdom. There are a few fur farms in the Republic and further afield, and I do not know if their legislation will go further. We can only spread the gospel of prohibiting the production of fur, and then the sale of fur will be less of an issue.

Setting up fur farms in the interim is possible. The Department will be telling farmers that fur farming is to be prohibited shortly and that no fur farms will be allowed.

Mr McHugh: Would they need a licence?

Mr Given: They would need a licence for Arctic fox and mink. Problems might arise if they started something else. In the absence of legislation we can only say that we are legislating to ban the practice and make it clear that no compensation will be given to anyone who sets up a fur farm. That would be a technical and legal point, and I hope that it does not come to that.

The Deputy Chairperson: One issue arises from the report’s information pack, which all Members received. London seems to be the centre of the fur trade. It is big business there, providing employment for many in clothing industries, et cetera. Will they not lobby strongly to try to retain fur farming? It is a major industry in the Netherlands, and we are part and parcel of Europe. Legislation affects all parts of Europe, as we know from beef and so on. It is free trade.

Mr Given: This is past the post in England and Wales; the legislation is in force. Whatever lobbying was done was overcome. The Act is in place.

The Chairperson: However, you would have to agree that the fur trade is a big business in the Netherlands. We are all part and parcel of Europe now. We can stop it here in some areas —

Mr Given: Sure, but if we stop it and present the right arguments, the European Commission may agree. It may take a while, but I hope that the practice will be banned across Europe.

The Deputy Chairperson: Conversely, we could introduce legislation that might not stand up in Europe.

Mr Given: That is correct and a chance that we must take. However, there is a public morality argument in the Treaty of Rome that we are setting our sights on as the basis on which we can bring this legislation into force.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I want to speak about organically raised mink. It must make a person feel better to know that her coat used to run around. If you shot one of those animals, there would not be much left of it. You would probably have to kill five times as many to make a coat. Getting to the serious point of the proposed legislation, is this a morality Bill or an animal welfare Bill? I am looking at paragraph 3 of your paper as I ask that question.

Mr Given: The Government across the water based their arguments on public morality, that it was not right to rear animals and kill them solely for their fur. It is reasonable to take wool or other material off a food-bearing animal and use that for clothing and so on. To that extent, it is not a welfare Bill. I do not know the standards that are required for keeping mink in England, but obviously standards exist. I am not aware of any cases in which those standards have been breached, though it may well have happened. Some people say that you must keep the animals in relatively small cages, and that is not acceptable on welfare grounds. Compassion in World Farming is advancing that argument in the Republic.

Mr Paisley Jnr: It is interesting to hear what the Labour Party did in England, but we are talking about what the Executive or the Minister here intend to do. Is this morality or animal welfare legislation?

Mr Given: It is an issue of public morality. There is no welfare issue.

Mr Paisley Jnr: It is definitely not a welfare issue?

Mr Given: We are banning something that we do not have, so we have never had a welfare problem. I am not sure why that thinking exists.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Your paper says that the ban is sought on grounds of public morality rather than animal welfare, although that too is a consideration. Then you give some instances of the reasons why animal welfare is a consideration. I want to be absolutely clear: is this a welfare or a morality issue? I will come to the point of my question in a moment.

Mr Given: It is a morality issue.

Mr Paisley Jnr: That is definite?

Mr Given: Welfare will only arise down the line.

Mr Paisley Jnr: It was spelt out clearly in the debate in the House on 21 May that this was nothing to do with animal welfare. The Minister’s own words were:

"this is not a welfare issue".

Mr Given: Animals are slaughtered every day for food. There is a welfare argument there.

Mr Paisley Jnr: We are not slaughtering mink —

Mr Given: If you were keeping mink and slaughtering them for their fur, there would be a welfare consideration. Welfare standards would have to be set.

Mr Paisley Jnr: There is nothing in the Bill that addresses welfare issues. It is a morality Bill.

Mr Given: That is correct.

Mr Paisley Jnr: It is important to know the nature of the Bill. A few matters arise from that, and because we are not concerned with animal welfare, I shall set some of them aside. You have answered my Colleague’s question about specifying animals. You say that you are not interested in specifying animals, that you want the Bill to be a broad brush, making it illegal to raise an animal for its coat. Would that apply to goats?

Ms Hood: No.

Mr Given: Not if they were being slaughtered for their meat.

Mr Paisley Jnr: If I became an entrepreneur and decided to create mink steak, could I raise them for that meat and sell the by-product of their fur?

Mr Given: I do not like the thought of that at all, although I imagine that you could.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I could.

Mr Given: I think you could. I would like to take advice on that question.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I would like to hear that advice, because it is an interesting matter. It might not taste nice, but the value of the fur might make up for the lack of sales of the meat.

In an answer to Mr Savage, you said that selling would become less of an issue. If we succeed in banning the raising of animals solely for fur, we might persuade the rest of Europe that what they are doing is morally wrong. I think that is a fair reflection of what you said. However, 164,000 people are employed in the fur industry in Europe. There are over 6,000 businesses and 129,000 retail outlets, so it is unlikely that a ban here will have a dramatic impact. It might make the product even more exclusive than it is now, more desirable and, therefore, more costly. That could be the result of our good and moral intention.

Mr Given: Is that a reason for not banning it on the grounds of morality? That is the intention of the Bill.

Mr Paisley Jnr: No. I am saying that the hope that it might make Europe take a moral stand is a vain hope.

Mr Given: There is only a little hope of that. I am not saying that the Bill will transform Europe, but we must do what we think is right. It may be that the Commission will take the matter up in due course. It may take many years, but that does not make it unreasonable for us to take that step.

(The Chairperson takes the Chair).

Mr M Murphy: I believe that the mink meat referred to by Mr Paisley Jnr is a delicacy in Japan. How can we overcome that? Has a licence to farm mink ever been granted here?

Mr Given: I think so. However, I have not been able to research that.

Mr M Murphy: Can we get that information?

Mr Given: I do not know. We can try.

Ms Hood: We would be going back a long time, to the late 70s.

Mr Given: We have been trying to find out, but we have not found the file.

Ms Hood: I believe that it was valuable. I presume that a licence must have been granted at some time.

Mr Given: Mr Paisley asked whether mink could be considered a delicacy. I do not know, but stranger things have happened. He suggested that the sale of the meat might become unnecessary because the fur is so valuable. If it came to the bit, we might have to learn to live with it.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Do you mean if it came to the bite?

Mr Given: We might have to legislate again. If the majority of the income generated by an animal came from the sale of its fur that might not constitute proper food farming.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Companies, such as the Lisburn Hide Company Ltd, cannot export beef, so its true market value is not known. If your information is true, the legislation could impact on companies that sell the by-products of animals, such as the hide, at a good price. If the hide became more valuable than the original product, that could put those companies out of business.

Mr Given: Can you explain that further?

Mr Paisley Jnr: You said that if a company were to raise mink on the pretence that it was for its meat, even though it was for its fur, it would meet the requirements of the Bill. You say that the law would need to be amended to ban the raising of mink for meat if the animals’ meat was not the main source of income. A result of the devastating BSE ban is that beef is not sold for its true value. However, companies such as the Lisburn Hide Company trade hide for a good price, so those companies would be badly affected if that loophole were closed.

Mr Given: I do not know what I could do about that. Cattle and sheep are killed for food. If it is decided that mink can be killed for food, the fact that its by-product is valuable is irrelevant. I am not sure how the desired end result could be achieved.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Neither am I. There is a problem with morality legislation.

Mr Given: I hope that that problem does not arise.

Mr Douglas: You said that welfare was not an issue; however, it is so on the mainland, where mink farming is commonplace. In the 1960s, the farming community here considered seriously the possibility of mink farming. The industry did not take off because mink, if they escape from farms, can have a serious impact on the welfare of birds and other animals. That is a problem on the mainland. I am not opposed to people wearing fur or fur farming, but I am concerned about the harm that mink can cause.

Mr Given: The welfare of other animals is a wider issue. I was referring to the welfare of the mink, but I take your point, and I have read about that problem.

The Chairperson: Clause 1(2) creates the secondary offence of causing or permitting another person to keep animals for their fur — for example, a person who grants a tenancy of land. Would a person who buys the animals for slaughter, or who is involved in the slaughter, be subject to subsection 2? Does it apply to someone who buys the animals after they have been slaughtered?

Ms Hood: Buying is slightly different from being involved in the raising and keeping of animals. The Department is trying to address that in the Bill. The Department has no control over what is bought in a shop; it is trying to stop fur farming at the source.

The Chairperson: Could subsection 2 apply to someone who buys fur?

Mr Given: That would be going too far. The crux of the subsection is that it can be applied either to someone who allows fur farming to take place, or who is involved in it. The Department could not take it any further. It targets the person who is involved in fur farming, or who allows it to happen.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Is that consistent? Although it may not be an offence to kill an elephant, and to possess, or to sell, its ivory in the country in which it was reared and killed, it may be so in many other countries. The clause deals with the same principle. If, according to the legislation, it is illegal to raise and kill an animal for its fur, surely it should be an offence to sell it. It should also, therefore, be an offence for the daddy of them all — the buyer — to purchase the product that is creating the demand for animals to be killed in the first place.

Mr Given: Those are a range of downstream offences — being in possession and selling.

Mr Paisley Jnr: That is why, perhaps, "morality legislation" does not work. Perhaps animal welfare issues should be addressed separately in a different Bill.

Mr Given: The Bill is intended to prohibit the keeping of animals, and does not address those downstream offences.

The Chairperson: The Committee must deal with the Bill. It cannot change it, because it is at Second Stage. That might not have been the case had the Committee been consulted earlier; however, it must deal with what is on the table now.

There is a conflict between morality and animal welfare. The Government seem to say that there is a moral question. The response to that moral question is similar to the Labour Party’s receiving money from the publishers of atrocious photographs, but rejecting funds from Gallagher’s on the grounds that it makes tobacco. To enter the realm of morality is to tread on dangerous ground; to try to legislate on grounds of morality leads one on to even more dangerous ground.

Mr Given: Despite the labels that are put on the exercise, its purpose is merely to stop people from keeping animals for the production of fur.

The Chairperson: Clause 2(5) permits a person who claims to have an interest in the animals to apply to the court in order to resist the issuing of a forfeiture order. That implies that those suspected of owning animals for fur farming would be notified, in advance, of the court’s intention to issue that order. Is the Department not concerned that that will allow the owner/breeder time to remove animals from the premise before the order is enforced?

Mr Given: I do not think so. There is always a risk that people will remove the animals, but the person will still ultimately be guilty of the offence of keeping them, irrespective of whether they are still there.

The Chairperson: Should there not be a provision to prohibit the removal of the animals as soon as the court announces its intention to make such an order? If the court rules to make an order, should that not be the time from which the animals’ removal might constitute a breach? That would avoid premises being found empty.

Mr Savage: That is important.

Mr Given: So you wish to make the removal of the animals an offence once a forfeiture order is in place?

Mr Savage: Someone might have been operating a business in Northern Ireland for some 10 or 15 years, without the Department’s knowledge? How could it stop him? Will he be deemed to have been trading illegally for 15 years? That point is very important.

Mr Given: He may not be trading illegally.

Mr Savage: No, but that will be the case once the Bill is enacted.

Mr Given: If such traders exist, we will certainly have to examine compensation arrangements, because their businesses will be closed under the new law.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Might the Department consider an amendment to clause 2(5) to prohibit removal of the animals once the court has announced its intention to make a forfeiture order?

Mr Given: We would be happy to consider an amendment if the Committee so wishes. Obviously, one would need more time to reflect.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Perhaps you could return to report your considered view.

The Chairperson: Clause 4 allows entry into premises to investigate the offence of keeping animals. Is there no power of entry for the secondary offence of knowingly causing or permitting the commission of that crime?

Mr Given: Clause 4 relates to the premises on which the animals are kept. Are you interested in the right to enter any other premises?

The Chairperson: I am interested in why there is no power of entry for the secondary offence of knowingly causing or permitting animals to be kept.

Mr Given: A power of entry would not help, since, in the circumstances you mention, I assume you would be looking for records. You could not enter the person’s private dwelling anyway.

The Chairperson: So there is no possibility of inspecting records or correspondence that might provide evidence of causing or permitting the keeping of animals?

Mr Given: Once you start on the premises where fur farming is being carried out, you can probably move on. It would be a question of the police securing a court order to seize records, whether kept on the premises or elsewhere.

The Chairperson: It seems a little loose, with ways of evading responsibility.

Mr Given: Are we back to the question of morality?

The Chairperson: Clause 4(7) defines premises as excluding a private dwelling. Is it the case that animals could therefore be kept for their fur in such a private dwelling?

Mr Given: Yes, in theory I assume that that would be the case.

The Chairperson: That is a very substantial loophole, and I should think it needs re-examining.

Mr Paisley Jnr: It is like growing your own clothes.

Mr Given: You are still not allowed to keep the animals. The fact that the definition of premises does not include private dwellings does not mean that you can keep fur-bearing animals.

The Chairperson: Yes, but who could enter to check if someone is keeping them?

Mr Given: Someone would be bound to let us know if that were going on.

The Chairperson: Clause 5(1) allows for a compensation scheme that will pay for losses incurred as a result of the Bill’s enactment. Will any of the 13 businesses in England and Wales be able to relocate to Northern Ireland between now and the Bill’s enactment and be compensated for their losses?

Mr Given: I was asked that question earlier. In theory, that is probably true. Having accepted the morality argument, part of the purpose of the Bill is to avoid the relocation here by people from England or elsewhere. If the Bill becomes law, that point will be legally interesting. One could tell anybody trying to relocate here that the practice is banned, or will be banned shortly, that fur farms will not be licensed in Northern Ireland, and that we would not be interested in compensating anybody. Doubtless lawyers could argue for a considerable time about how that would work in practice.

Mr McHugh: I am still interested in organic mink. Does the Department know how many mink or fox are in the wild? Before the introduction of the bounty scheme for foxes, there were fur-faming operations across the border that were almost as big as factories. Under the provisions of the Bill, could people continue to trap mink? The lifting of the bounty on foxes would have a detrimental effect on the welfare of other wildlife, including any mink that escape, because there are so many foxes.

Mr Given: Are there?

Mr McHugh: Yes.

Mr Given: I do not know how many are in the wild in Northern Ireland.

Mr McHugh: The number of foxes is phenomenal.

Mr Given: They are not causing the same problems as they did 20 or 30 years ago.

Mr McHugh: If they are not hunted and trapped, they must eat animals such as duck, pheasant and other wild birds. Given that impact on the countryside, could trapping as part of a fur business continue? Some are happy to do that.

Mr Given: That would be a small-scale business. You might call it a business, but it would be at the low end of a business operation.

Mr McHugh: Would those who keep a couple of those animals as pets be bound to release them?

Mr Given: The animals are slaughtered for their fur, and if people do that, they will be running an illegal business under the new legislation.

The Chairperson: Can the Bill be amended to the effect that once it is announced that the legislation will proceed, there will be a deadline beyond which nobody can start a business?

Mr Given: The legislation has already been introduced. I am unsure of how such an amendment could be tabled. I take the point, and I am happy to consider it.

Mr Ford: Given that you must make a compensation scheme in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), it is reasonable that you should state on the record that any such scheme would not include compensation for anybody who established businesses subsequent to the introduction of the Bill. Otherwise, every member of the Committee could rush out and establish a fur-farming business.

Mr Given: I would be happy to state that, and we established that point in April. The policy paper that went out to all and sundry states:

"No claims for compensation as a result of the ban will be considered for any business which has not submitted a licence application before the date of this letter."

Mr Paisley Jnr: Does that mean that a fur farmer must have a licence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?

Ms Hood: That is the case for the fur farming involving certain animals, such as mink and Arctic fox.

Mr Paisley Jnr: So, fur farming could not be added on to an existing business without a licence being obtained?

Ms Hood: No.

The Chairperson: Mr Given, will you consider the many points that the Committee has made today and advise us later of whether you intend to make any of the recommended changes?

Mr Given: Yes.

The Chairperson: The Committee must consult with other interested parties, but it wanted to discuss the matter with departmental officials first. Mr Given, would you keep in touch with the Clerk of the Committee and arrange to return to explain which matters you shall take on board, and why. It has been stated that no compensation will be made to parties who begin fur farming in Northern Ireland before the enactment of the Bill; it is important that that statement stand up in law.

Mr Given: No doubt the Clerk of the Committee will remind me of any points that I may have missed.

The Chairperson: We will give you a complete transcript of today’s proceedings, which may help.

Mr Savage: For the purposes of the Bill, do rabbits fall into the category of fur-bearing animals? I dined at a top restaurant in Europe recently — not at my own expense, I may add — [Interruption].

The Chairperson: This is on the record.

Mr Savage: One of the top delicacies on the menu was squirrel. In Northern Ireland, the grey squirrel has become a pest, and if nothing is done about it there will be no red squirrels left. There must be a grey area here. We must get the matter right, and the Committee will one day have to make a decision on it.

The Chairperson: I would be very chary about eating squirrels because of the information that I have read about them. They are vermin carriers.

Mr Given: The judgement is that if an animal is being produced primarily for food, its fur can be used as a by-product; otherwise, it cannot be used. The issue is not black and white; it is grey.

Mr Savage: That concerns me.

Mr Given: I am not sure how that can be dealt with.

Mr Savage: I am not sure, either. Someone will have to make a decision, some day.

Mr Given: The Department dealing with the Act will have to judge whether the animals are produced primarily for food or fur. The case for closing the enterprise or not would be based on that judgement. We would have to leave the outcome to the good judgement of the courts.

Mr Armstrong: What is your definition of "farming"?

Mr Given: That question is too hard to answer.

Mr Armstrong: In the light of recent changes, agricultural farmers are wondering how they are defined.

Mr Given: Fur farming is a production business.

Mr Armstrong: Some European countries are discussing the production of food along the canals, at ports and around multi-storey buildings. Is this the direction that farming is taking? Will it soon be carried out without land and agricultural holdings?

Mr Given: That may well be, but if the farmer is in the business of producing fur, he will not be allowed to operate.

Mr Armstrong: Fur production has nothing to do with farming.

Mr Given: It is a production.

The Chairperson: It is a business.

Mr Douglas: The paper that we received states that fur is perceived as a luxury item, whereas meat is a key foodstuff. Beef cattle have been used for centuries but mink, for example, have been used only in the last hundred years. That is a good argument.

Mr Given: In the next 1000 years or so beef or sheep might no longer be eaten.

The Chairperson: There would be no more scrapie, other than scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Committee may have further questions when you return with your final recommendations on what can be done with the suggestions that it made. Thank you very much.

The meeting ended at 11.22 am.

3 May 2002 (part vi)/ Menu / 7 June 2002