Confused about Brexit? Here’s what we’re doing to make sure animals get the best deal

Posted on 22 February 2018 by

Alyx Elliott

in the News and views blog

As the Government prepares to exit the European Union, our priority is to make sure that animal welfare laws are preserved, and where possible, improved.

There has been a lot of confusion and controversy in the news over the past few months about how Brexit will affect the lives of animals in the UK. Our Government faces the complex task of reviewing all the legislation we adopted as a member of the EU and deciding how to transfer this across into UK law.

The sentience debate

When it came to looking at the EU’s animal welfare legislation, the issue of animal sentience proved to be a particular sticking point – but not for the reasons originally reported in the press.

The confusion arose when MPs voted against a proposal to transfer into UK law a clause from the Lisbon Treaty that refers to animal sentience, known as Article 13.

This wasn’t because MPs didn’t agree with the concept of animal sentience (that animals are feeling beings that can feel pain and pleasure). It was rather because there was disagreement about how the principle of animal sentience could be built more widely into UK legislation.

However, on December 12th, the Government announced a draft Animal Welfare Bill, “to enshrine the principle of sentience in UK law, and to increase the maximum penalties for animal cruelty offences.”

Along with a number of other animal welfare charities, we submitted responses to the government’s inquiry and consultation about this new Bill. Here we set out our views about the wording of the Bill and how it would operate, and shared our recommendations for how to define sentience, what animals should be covered by the new legislation and what welfare needs should be taken into account.

A world leader in animal protection

These are all positive signs that the Government is taking its responsibility towards animals seriously. Indeed, in a ministerial statement released in November, Michael Gove set out his ambition to “make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals.”

A useful measure of progress towards such a goal is the Animal Protection Index (API), a ranking of 50 countries according to their commitments to protect animals. Developed by World Animal Protection and first published in 2014, the API ranks what animal protection laws exist, how they are enforced, and how animal protection is promoted in each country. The UK currently sits in the highest Grade A tier, alongside Switzerland, New Zealand and Austria. A key indicator these countries must meet to enjoy this status is the recognition in law of animal sentience.

This is why our API has been cited recently by ministers, who are concerned that by failing to transfer all the relevant policies from the EU into UK law we will risk losing our top position.

But while the API provides a useful indication of a country’s commitment to animal protection, its tier system is purposefully designed to stop countries quibbling over one or two points simply so that they can hold the position of ‘world leader’. In fact, if the Government does want to put its money where its mouth is in becoming the best country in the world for animal protection, there is much more that could be done.

That’s why World Animal Protection, along with 40 other animal charities, submitted a joint set of recommendations to the Government for exactly how they can maximise the opportunity for animals that Brexit provides.

Our report, entitled ‘Brexit – getting the best deal for animals’ lays out a comprehensive set of specific actions the Government can take in the Brexit negotiation process that will substantially improve the lives of animals.

What difference could this make?

The recommendations are far ranging, including ways to improve protections for animals on farms, in our homes, and in the wild. Here are some examples of how animals would be positively affected if the Government acts on our advice.

Animals on farms

There is huge room for improvement in the way both the EU and the UK currently treat farm animals. After Brexit, a new system of farm payments will need to be created to replace those that UK farmers currently receive from the EU. We’d like to see payments used to incentivise farmers to move to higher welfare farming methods. For example, payments could encourage the introduction of free farrowing systems for mother pigs that allow them to move around more freely. Payments could also help with introducing better conditions inside sheds for meat chickens, or provide funding to help increase the productivity of our pasture based livestock farms.

Animals in the wild

Brexit presents a big opportunity for the UK to close many of the loopholes that currently exist that allow wild animals to be brought into the UK, or taken from the wild and sold. Two key recommendations from the report are to introduce stricter rules around what animal species can be kept as pets in the UK, and to introduce legislation that will ensure the UK remains dolphinaria-free.

We firmly believe that wild animals belong in the wild, and that we shouldn’t be exploiting them for entertainment. These steps, if taken by the Government, would demonstrate that they are serious about protecting wildlife both at home and abroad.

Animals in the sea

There are a number of EU policy initiatives that help protect marine animals. After we leave the EU, we want to make sure that the UK is still engaging with these initiatives where possible, or putting in place our own versions to ensure ocean animals still receive the same protections.

For example, the UK has played a leading role at the International Whaling Commission to develop an Animal Welfare Strategy, which addresses issues around whales and dolphins becoming stranded or tangled in fishing gear.

After Brexit, we will also be encouraging the UK to increase its voice with the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) Committee on Fisheries. This Committee is currently working on policies to mark fishing gear so that when it is lost or abandoned it can be more easily traced to its owner.

Our priority is to protect ocean wildlife from the scourge of ghost gear, so we will be looking for opportunities to work with the government to tackle this hidden crisis.

What’s next?

Now that the report is published, we will be working hard to make sure its message is heard in Government. Our campaigns team are meeting regularly with politicians, and will keep inputting into any new legislation that could affect the way animals are treated. We will be seizing upon every opportunity to keep animal welfare at the top of the Government’s agenda, and will seek to work with the Government to help create an animal-friendly Brexit. We’ll keep you posted every step of the way. Sign up to our newsletter to receive our updates.

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