Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:37 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Carrington Lord Carrington Lord Great Chamberlain 4:37, 21 February 2024

My Lords, I too welcome this Bill and its Second Reading. It has many admirable aims, which I fully support. I declare my interest as a farmer, including sheep farming, as set out in the register. I am also a member of the NFU, which has circulated a focused briefing on the issues, with which I largely concur. Like others, I am also delighted that this is the first Bill to be led by the Minister.

I fully support the overall objective of the Bill, and of other welfare legislation granted Royal Assent in recent years. This makes our country a world leader in the treatment of animals and is something to be rightly proud of. While the overall purpose of the Bill is very good, I have concerns about its unintended side-effects, which will directly hit farmers. They are already facing the perfect storm of reduced farm payments, inflation affecting inputs, and adapting to the most monumental changes brought about by farming policy since the Agriculture Act 1947. Their export markets and the flexibility of their businesses going forward will also be adversely affected. That needs to be noted.

The trade of exporting store sheep to the continent for fattening and slaughter, while never making up the majority of UK sheep exports, was still a valuable avenue for a number of farmers, particularly in the south-east of the country, accounting at its peak for around 10% of sheep exports.

One of the main points given in support of the Bill is that since December 2020 there have been no live exports from the UK. However, this is not because farmers have simply stopped doing it, but because of the lack of proper border control posts, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to administer all the post-Brexit checks. Reopening the store market for live export is not welcomed by the Government—nor by me—but export for breeding is encouraged. Therefore, will the Minister say what additional investment the Government are putting in to make certain that the shortage of border control posts with live animal facilities is addressed?

Surely having sufficient border control points in place and encouraging the export of animals bred and transported to a high welfare level will address the likely pernicious side-effect of this legislation if the border control posts are not in place. If they are not, there will be an increase in animals being exported to our erstwhile markets of France, Belgium and the Netherlands from east European and Australasian countries, which have a much weaker animal welfare protection system in place. Our priority should be overall animal welfare, which can be achieved by better investment in border control facilities, transport infrastructure and the exploration of welfare assurance schemes, as recommended by the NFU.

My final point is that a key reason why some farmers have in the past sent non-breeding exports across the channel is that those 31 miles are closer than the nearest abattoir in the UK, due to the number of abattoir closures, which has already been highlighted by the noble Baronesses, Lady Fookes and Lady Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Trees. It is estimated that number has reduced by one-third since 2014, including McIntyre Meats last week in the Prime Minister’s constituency. The unfortunate consequence is that some farmers undertake 200-mile journeys to abattoirs in the UK. While the Government’s smaller abattoir fund with £4 million available is a step in the right direction, it is unfortunately not enough, as was eloquently put by the honourable Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale when he said that it would

“not even touch the sides”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/23; col. 1187.] of his constituency, let alone the country as a whole.

With each closure of an abattoir, farmers must travel further afield, adding to journey times, stress and the cost of production, which is making some livestock businesses unviable. Also, most importantly, it has a negative impact on animal welfare, as the affected animals have to undergo these long journeys. That completely negates what the Government are trying to achieve, particularly, as mentioned in the Government’s manifesto commitment, to end excessively long journeys for fattening and slaughter by enabling shorter and less stressful journeys. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what additional support the Government propose to prevent the closure of abattoirs and to keep the sector viable. In particular, are the Government considering creating a working group to look at the 5% rule which governs the number of animals slaughtered without a vet being present, as recommended by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in 2021? Are the Government continuing support for the mobile abattoir pilot?