Brexit will finally allow us to end the suffering caused by live animal exports

Brexit will finally allow us to end the suffering caused by live animal exports

When she visited Parliament recently, the former news presenter, Selina Scott, described a Channel Four debate she had taken part in during the EU referendum in which she had pointed out that one of the benefits of leaving the EU would be that the UK would be able to ban live export of animals for slaughter. She later told The Times:

“To my great disappointment a groan went around the theatre, as if I had introduced a trivial irrelevance. Some even attempted to shout me down. What I knew, that the great and the good present did not, was that this subject touches the nerve of the ordinary Briton like few others. Next morning my email inbox was overloaded with messages of support.”

Concern about the suffering experienced by animals exported for slaughter dates back decades in this country. The campaign to ban live exports reached its height with the mass demonstrations of the 1990s; but all attempts to do this have been blocked by the European Court of Justice.

In 1992 the Conservative Government sought to restrict this trade and refused licences to export sheep to Spain. Their decision was challenged and ultimately overturned by the ECJ on the grounds that it was contrary to EU rules on free movement of goods.

Were it not for EU law, I believe that a ban (or at least drastic restrictions) would have been introduced years ago in the UK. But levels of concern about animal welfare differ across Europe. The public opposition to live exports we see in this country just isn’t replicated in enough of the rest of the EU to make it feasible to secure agreement on the change we need in single market rules.

Now that the UK has voted to Leave, we have the chance to make the decision here in this country on whether to prohibit live exports. But that will only be the case if we leave the Single Market. If we do not, we will remain subject to the restrictions which make a ban impossible today.

That provides a further important reason to respect the result of the referendum and create a new partnership with our European neighbours based on trade and cooperation outside the Single Market.

After I brought forward a Bill in Parliament on this issue last year, some people asked why the focus was on exports, rather than on the distance transported. It is certainly true that tough rules on the conditions in which animals can be transported are essential. But I believe that a key reason why exports attract such strong opposition is that once animals born and reared in Britain are sent to another country, we lose the power to control the conditions in which they are transported and slaughtered.

Many consider that this means failing to live up to our moral responsibility to maintain decent levels of welfare for animals bred in this country.

The objection to the export of live animals for slaughter or fattening is two-fold. Firstly, some countries in Europe have weaker rules on animal welfare than we do. Secondly, there is a real risk that the rules on transport and slaughter of animals which are supposed to apply across the EU are not effectively enforced in relation to animals which leave our shores.

Around 40,000 live sheep are exported each year. Long journeys can result in great suffering caused by overcrowding, high summer temperatures and injuries sustained en route. Reports by the organisation L214 have also revealed inhumane and illegal practices in abattoirs in France, the destination of many of these animals.

Around 3,000 calves are exported from Scotland to Spain. They are shipped to Northern Ireland, then taken by road to the Republic of Ireland, from where they are sent on a 20-hour sea journey to northern France. Finally they are driven all the way through France to Spain.

Once in Spain, it’s permissible for calves to be reared in barren conditions without bedding. This would be illegal in the UK where we apply tougher rules than the EU minimum.

So it is welcome news that the Government has signalled its willingness to act to place further restrictions on live exports, in line with a pledge in the Conservative manifesto. A Call for Evidence on how this might be done was published earlier this month. The options under consideration include a ban on exports for slaughter. So an end to live exports is now being actively considered at the highest levels of government.

Admittedly, there are still some important practical issues to be resolved. For example we need to ensure that a ban on exports doesn’t impact on trade across the Irish border. There is clearly a case for allowing what is essentially local trade between north and south to continue, but we need to find a way to ensure this does not become a loophole in the proposed new law, with animals exported to the Republic of Ireland and then onwards to more distant destinations.

Nor should we introduce rules which have the effect of prohibiting the transport of animals across the sea between the Scottish islands and mainland Scotland.

But none of these hurdles should be insurmountable and I very much hope that Michael Gove’s recent announcement on live exports paves the way for victory for those who have worked for so long to bring the live export trade to an end.

I first became involved in this campaign nearly two decades ago when I was an MEP, but for years it seemed that success would always be blocked by the EU. I only returned with seriousness to this issue when the vote to Leave finally opened up the opportunity to implement a ban and put an end to the unnecessary suffering caused by the live export trade. I will continue to work to try to achieve that goal.

Photocredit: Farm Watch