Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 4:02, 21 February 2024

My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of the Royal Veterinary College and the owner of two opinionated dressage horses, who have informed me that there is no way that they are getting on a boat, unless it is to travel to the Olympics.

This may be the Minister’s first full Bill in this House, so I welcome him to the joys of Second Readings. As he said, there is widespread support for this provision, so I hope that it will be an easy one for him to cut his teeth on. I thank him and the Government for progressing the Bill to prohibit the live export of specified British livestock for slaughter or fattening abroad. Live exports see animals crowded into vehicles—often the first time they are away from their mothers—on long, stressful journeys, causing them to suffer from exhaustion, dehydration and even death. As the Minister pointed out, those journeys can be very long; they go to Spain —a 60-hour journey—Bulgaria or Hungary. In some cases, journeys from the Republic of Ireland possibly go onwards to Middle Eastern destinations —although that is difficult to establish—where of course very different welfare standards exist. There is a strong case for banning the trade.

In the most recent year in which live exports occurred, between 25,000 and 50,000 sheep and calves alone were exported from Great Britain. The Bill will stop that inhumane practice. Although there have been no live animal exports from GB to the European Union since 2020, that is not due to any lack of wish for the trade to continue; it is mainly due to a lack of suitable post-Brexit border control posts in French and Belgian ports.

New border control posts are now being created or existing posts upgraded, and this could open the door to the resumption of the trade were the Bill not to be passed. The Secretary of State for Defra at Second Reading in another place confirmed that, given the demand from Europe’s slaughterhouses for livestock, and especially British sheep, as the Minister said, there is no reason to think that this trade would not resume at the first opportunity.

I therefore urge the Minister and indeed the House to progress the Bill swiftly to get it through all its stages before the election, whenever that might be. The Bill was introduced in the other place in December 2023 and has got to our House within two months. Let us keep up the pace that has already been set. This legislation was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment and a Labour 2019 animal welfare manifesto commitment. It has support from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and even the Scottish National Party put it into its manifesto in 2021. The public support it overwhelmingly, so let us get it done—oh dear; I am beginning to sound like a Conservative.

The Bill, however, could shine even more, and, at the risk of being seen to go against what I just said about the need for speed, the Government ought to be pressed to consider a very small and simple amendment to take secondary legislation enabling powers to allow Ministers to add other types of livestock to the list as defined in the Bill, should that need arise. It is a pretty rare event for me to urge Ministers to take additional delegated powers, but things happen. We have to recognise that the trends in exports have been volatile. In a 10-year period, for example, pig exports went from 30,000 to 600,000. We are seeing an increasing amount of alpacas and deer farmed; those might well be other species that we need to take swift action on, and it would prevent Ministers having to come forward with primary legislation. Giving Ministers the power to add other livestock breeds to the list would future-proof the Bill. Secondary legislation is much quicker; primary legislation would always be behind the curve if numbers of exports were rising. Therefore I ask the Minister to press on, but with that small and simple amendment.

There are of course other associated animal welfare issues surrounding animal transport standards, some of which need attention, but we must leave those to another Bill. I thank the British Veterinary Association and the National Farmers’ Union for briefings on these welfare issues. The European Union is beginning to increase and enhance its standards; let us not be left behind. As the Minister said, we have always had a strong pride in our high standards of animal welfare and we really do not want to fall behind Europe—but that is for another day.

There is huge support for the Bill, as I said, except from the National Farmers’ Union, the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the National Sheep Association. However, we should listen and respond to the points being made, particularly by the NFU, that it is vital that the Government, when pursuing trade negotiations with countries that export large numbers of animals for fattening and slaughter, ensure that British farmers are not undercut by imports that do not meet the higher standards achieved within the UK. Let us get this done so we can be even more proud of our humane approaches and standards, and end live animal exports for fattening and slaughter for ever.