Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:53 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 4:53, 21 February 2024

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and to the Second Reading of his first Bill in your Lordships’ House. Obviously, on some of the issues in the Bill, I take a different view from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.

I want to talk from a Northern Ireland perspective, which may seem rather odd since Northern Ireland is not covered by this legislation, but there are very good reasons for that. The provisions in the Bill, as the Minister said, seek to prohibit the export of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and equines for slaughter, including fattening for subsequent slaughter, beginning in or transiting through GB to EU member states and other third countries. This in itself does not apply to Northern Ireland.

For practical, agricultural, trading, political and animal health reasons, that is the right decision. That fact was recognised by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place, on 15 January, when he stated, in response to the debate, that the Bill must not jeopardise the access that Northern Ireland farmers have to the Republic of Ireland. I hope that all noble Lords recognise the economic and trading importance of agriculture to both parts of Ireland and the fact that farmers and those involved in trading try to adhere to animal health standards.

There is another feature. The island of Ireland, both north and south, is treated as a single animal health epidemiological unit. That has persisted for many years because of the nature of the trade on an ongoing daily basis, to and fro. That is essential for the agri-food industry and its success. Agri-food on the island of Ireland is interlinked. Northern Ireland’s farmers have invested much time and energy in maintaining very good, world-leading animal welfare practices, including in how animals are transported. The farming unions in Northern Ireland would refute any claims or suggestions that anti-animal welfare conditions exist. I am also mindful of what the noble Lord, Lord Trees, has said, which is absolutely correct: with all these movements there have to be proper monitoring procedures in place. Much of that is covered by the fact that it is a single animal health epidemiological unit.

The bottom line is that Northern Ireland farmers need access to the markets. They need access to the Republic of Ireland and to mainland EU for live animals, particularly the sheep sector. Reference has already been made to this. In 2022, the last year for which statistics are available, 337,000 sheep moved from Northern Ireland to the Republic for slaughter and fattening, and about 3,500 cattle and 17,000 pigs were moved for slaughter. The dairy sector needs this avenue maintained for dairy-bred bull calves, as a limited market exists for them in Northern Ireland.

In 2018, in evidence to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry in the other place into live animals, the farmers’ union in Northern Ireland stated that the two agri-food industries on the island of Ireland

“are highly integrated and they move both ways … That two-way movement is a historic thing and it is essential”.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board also highlighted to that committee’s inquiry the importance of processing capacity in the Republic to the red meat sectors. For example, in the pig industry, sows go across the border for slaughter and then back again.

Cross-border movement is important not only for Northern Ireland’s trade with the Republic but with other countries. Calves from Northern Ireland destined for France are regularly transported through ports in the Republic of Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, have referred to the influence of the Windsor Framework. I am glad that the Windsor Framework is in place, because it will ensure that the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland is protected, as there will be the free movement of livestock for export purposes and for fattening and slaughter on the island of Ireland.

The Bill recognises that trade in live animals from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland should be allowed to continue—and I hope it will be. The Ulster Farmers’ Union and farming organisations asked for this to happen in 2018. Thankfully, this legislation recognises the need to leave Northern Ireland out of its provisions.

I have a question for the Minister about a more pertinent issue. We need to turn our attention to the EU proposals on animal transport that will apply in Northern Ireland. It is important that, in negotiations with the EU on behalf of Northern Ireland farmers, the UK Government ensure that the transport of live animals to the EU, with all the proper animal welfare conditions in place, is maintained. This is vital for the safeguarding and protection of our agri-food industry on the island, which is highly integrated. In that regard, can the Minister indicate what discussions have been held with the EU regarding the need to ensure that the transport of live animals to the mainland EU is retained? If he is not able to provide that information in his wind-up, can he write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library of your Lordships’ House?

I support this legislation. Animal welfare regulations and standards are vital to the agri-food industry, but equally important is the need to ensure that we have that free movement of animals for slaughter and fattening purposes on the island of Ireland. So, although I welcome the legislation, I am glad it does not include Northern Ireland.