Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:44 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated 4:44, 21 February 2024

My Lords, I have a vivid memory of speaking at a meeting during the referendum campaign back in 2016. All sorts of speeches were made and grand ideas put forward, and then right at the end of the meeting a lady got up and said, “I don’t care about any of this. The only reason I’m voting to leave the EU is so that we can get rid of live animal exports for slaughter”—although I do not think she actually used the word “slaughter”. It was a vivid example of how people saw specific things in the referendum campaign that they knew the EU was doing that they wanted to change, and that was one.

I am disappointed in the way that the Government have taken so long to get this relatively simple Bill to come back. It is like a number of other issues on which the idea of taking back control seems to have frightened civil servants and Ministers, so it has taken a lot longer to get these things done.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the many Peers and Members of the other place who have campaigned on this issue for a long time and kept it in the public domain. I remember clearly that in 2012-13 there were lots of demonstrations in Ramsgate and Dover, when a lot of the public saw for the first time the horror of what was going on in some of those lorries, with sheep packed in them for the long journeys ahead. It is that kind of campaigning that has got us to this stage, and that is where the noble Baroness has played such a huge role.

Of course I will support the Bill but, as others have said, there are changes that could be made, and I would certainly like it to go much further. It is not acceptable, here in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom Parliament, that the Bill is not going to apply to Northern Ireland. I thank the Minister for reaching out after I had asked a question about this and having an interesting and useful meeting. I am not sure it was particularly useful in terms of changing things, but I accept that he has done his best in his role to listen to those of us who feel strongly that animal welfare should be a UK-wide matter and that ways could be found even at a late stage, in Committee, to ensure that the Bill applied to the whole country as a whole.

There is no good reason why the Bill could not have applied to Northern Ireland with an amendment clause making it clear that, when animals are exported to the Republic, a final destination must be stated when they cross over the border from Northern Ireland. The aim is to stop animals from being taken for long journeys in terrible suffering, but that will not have been achieved for the thousands of animals that will in future still be able to be transported from Northern Ireland, through the Republic and onwards into the continent of Europe and perhaps even to north Africa—much longer journeys than are happening at the moment.

As Sammy Wilson, the Member for East Antrim, said in the other place, it is a bit like Pontius Pilate; as long as the animals do not go through Great Britain, morally we can all sit back here and say, “Great, we’ve done it”, when in fact we have not changed the situation. As we all know and has been said, hardly anything has been exported over the last couple of years from Great Britain, but in all that time animals have been exported from Northern Ireland through the Republic of Ireland. It is a bit hypocritical, not from the Minister but overall from the Government, that they have tried to emphasise that Northern Ireland has been left out because of the Government’s deep concern about farmers not being able to take their cattle over the border to be fattened or to abattoirs.

On abattoirs, I absolutely agree that the ruination of small abattoirs by EU rules is also something that we should be able to act on. The £4 million sum is really very little, and that needs to be looked at.

This is not to do with protecting Northern Ireland agriculture or farmers. The truth is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has said, as in so many other areas of legislation now—we are going to keep hearing this—European Union law overrules UK law in Northern Ireland. The Windsor Framework/protocol is making sure that Northern Ireland is once again being treated differently from the rest of the UK. There was a manifesto commitment from the Government, and yet, again, we have seen that the Government have to kowtow to European Union rules.

Another area in which it has just been confirmed we are going to have differences—again, an animal welfare issue—came after assurances from the Secretary of State that pets travelling from England, Scotland or Wales to Northern Ireland would no longer have any administrative bureaucracy. We now discover specifically that they are going to have to be treated differently, and will have to apply for pet documents.

The Government need to accept that, if they really wanted to, they could change the Bill to make it apply to the whole of Northern Ireland. The Minister did not mention the WTO, but I am sure he will say in his wind-up that we could not make special exceptions for the Republic of Ireland and the cross-border trade, which is important and needs to continue, because the WTO would rule that it was not possible under the favoured nations treaty.

However, there is an exemption in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1994, which clearly says that one of its exceptions enables states to take measures

“necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health”.

There has been some legal opinion published which holds that Article XX, which enables states to act “to protect public morals”, is an even stronger basis for justifying trade restrictions based on animal welfare concerns. This has been used before, including in challenges in Canada, and it is set out clearly in the Explanatory Memorandum. So there is a way of doing it. It is not even as if we have to ask permission to do it. We can do it, and then if somebody wants to complain, we can take it up with the WTO if it tries to stop it.

I do not want in any way to hold this Bill up— I know that I would not be able to ever have a cup of coffee with the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, again if that happened—but there are one or two minor but very important amendments that we could debate in Committee and that the Government could accept, if they had the will. If this is not changed, and Northern Ireland cannot be brought into it, I hope that all those noble Lords who are so supportive of the European Union and think it is wonderful, and are also desperately keen on animal welfare, might perhaps decide that it would be a good idea to lobby the European Union to get rid of its rules, which allow this terrible, horrible trade to continue, right across Europe.