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Action for animals overseas would speak louder than words

Claire Bass, Executive Director | Humane Society International UK

6 min read Partner content

200 years since the UK’s first animal protection law, and one year since the government published its #ActionForAnimals plan, HSI/UK’s executive director Claire Bass asks, ‘does the government’s vision for better animal welfare extend beyond our ports and airports?'

At its third reading in the Commons on 7th June 1822, there were several objections to Richard Martin MP’s ‘Ill-treatment of cattle’ Bill. Although it sought only to prohibit wanton acts of deliberate cruelty, several of his fellow Parliamentarians were clearly concerned that the principle of the Bill would draw a line for animal protection that could not be erased, and a line that over time might well move in an unwelcome direction. Sir James Scarlett MP even warned that it could lead to the (clearly in his view) absurd situation whereby a penalty was attached to the live boiling of lobsters. Imagine.

Mr Martin, much like the animal advocates in the Commons today, respectfully acknowledged his honourable friends for their views and pressed ahead with his Bill regardless. That summer Martin’s Act joined the statute and became the UK’s – indeed one of the world’s - first animal protection laws.

Fast forward 200 years and this week the government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare is one year old, proudly launched as the UK’s ‘first ever action plan to improve the welfare and conservation of animals at home and abroad’. Complete with its own logo and hashtag (#ActionForAnimals), its publication quenched the thirst of many animal protection campaigners, following a long drought in Parliamentary progress for animals caused first by Brexit and then the pandemic.

So, one year on, would Richard Martin be dizzied by the pace of change and strength of ambition? How far down its list of ‘game changing’ commitments to protect pets, livestock and wild animals has the government got?

Progress in some areas is to be recognised. Last month the government delivered the long-awaited Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act, reinstating a legal principle lost through Brexit. Despite being a short Bill of limited judicial impact, Sentience had a bumpy ride through Parliament. Detractors (seated almost exclusively on the Conservative back benches) declared it to be unnecessary or dangerous, using anthropocentric arguments that could have been lifted directly from debates over Martin’s Cattle Bill two centuries ago, but the government held a firm line. The government also backed Jane Stevenson MP’s Private Members Bill to ban glue traps in England, which received Royal Assent in March.

In June 2021 the government introduced the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which will (amongst other measures) limit live exports and introduce additional controls – but alas not yet a ban - on the keeping of primates as pets. It passed its Commons Committee stage last November and was eventually dusted off in late April to receive a carry-over motion for the current session.

But then we come to consider progress on the government’s Action Plan intent to ensure that “Our work on animal welfare extends beyond our own borders” and the commitment in its January ‘Benefits of Brexit’ policy paper to ‘continue to raise the bar for animal welfare and [take] the rest of the world with us’. Here, we find ourselves struggling to match actions with words.

Failure to set clear red lines for animal welfare standards in imported products is like firing the starting gun on a race to the bottom

The delivery of such noble ambitions was almost entirely absent from the recent Queen’s speech. A skimpy re-commitment to a ban on hunting trophy imports (appearing for the fourth time in a Queen’s speech), with no associated Bill, is all the government has declared to have in its sights for the millions of animals suffering overseas to supply UK markets.

Two hundred years ago, Martin and colleagues did not occupy themselves with concern for the plight of animals thousands of miles away, but in today’s world of global trade this matters hugely. Failure to set clear red lines for animal welfare standards in imported products is like firing the starting gun on a race to the bottom.

Despite Defra’s Action Plan pledge to ‘ensure our high animal welfare standards are not compromised in our trade negotiations’, and its intent to ‘use our position as a global leader for international advocacy on animal welfare to forge new relationships with our trading partners…to promote high animal welfare’, in negotiating the UK-Australia trade deal, the Department for International Trade has delivered the opposite; tariff-free UK market access to goods from Australia that involve horrific animal suffering, including mulesing of lambs and hot branding of cattle.

Around 10million lambs suffer mulesing in Australia’s wool industry each year, a practice that’s banned in the UK

In their haste to seal trade deals, DIT and Number 10 have so far been selectively deaf to the chorus of calls from both animal protection NGOs and British farmers for trade deals to be negotiated according to a set of core standards for animal welfare.

And what of the government’s assertion that ‘Our departure from the EU has provided us with an opportunity to do things better’ for animals? HSI and our colleagues at other animal protection organisations have presented the government with no shortage of compelling evidence and ideas for opportunities to do things better.

Campaigns to ban the import of cruelly produced products overseas command significant (77%) public support. Following the UK’s departure from the EU single market, banning animal fur imports, (the Action Plan affirms fur farming was ‘banned on ethical grounds’ across the UK twenty years ago), has ‘Brexit benefit’ written all over it. So it’s surprising and confusing that that the government failed to harvest this very low-hanging fruit in the recent Queen’s speech, and close our borders to products from fashion victims whose suffering on fur farms investigations repeatedly expose.

In Defra Secretary George Eustice’s words “The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are.” Across the country, animal loving voters will be asking the question ‘what kind of people are we, if our government suffers from a myopia that prevents it from seizing popular opportunities stop being complicit in terrible animal suffering overseas?’.

Wherever animal suffering is taking place in the world, media and social media ensure that we have instant access to it. And with that knowledge comes accountability, particularly when UK imports and trade makes us complicit in fuelling such cruelty. The line that Richard Martin MP drew 200 years ago must now extend far beyond our shoreline.

To honour the anniversary of our first animal welfare law we urge the government to embody Martin’s progressive vision, prevail over dissenters, and turn words into actions for the millions of animals suffering overseas for British markets.

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