Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:04 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 5:04, 21 February 2024

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate and to participate at Second Reading of this Bill. My interests are that I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the other place and served as an MEP for 10 years.

I am extremely proud of the high animal welfare conditions met by livestock producers in this country. Yet, as we have heard, there are no EU border posts currently in place, so it is impossible for our livestock producers to export, even for legitimate breeding purposes. While we admit breeding stock from the EU, with health checks conducted at the farm of destination, there are no reciprocal arrangements in place for British breeding stock going to the EU other than through Ireland, as we have heard. The Bill therefore seems to address a problem that does not exist—the live export of animals for fattening and slaughter—but fails to solve one that does, that of failure to export breeding stock. Can my noble friend the Minister say when the Government will address this? In the view of the National Sheep Association, it is a matter of utmost urgency.

I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for taking on this Bill as his first Bill and for his briefing with us on 30 January and subsequent letter, which I received today. I have some personal history with this issue. I was the Member of the European Parliament for the constituency which contained Brightlingsea, and exports came through that port when the Port of Dover stopped the movement of live animals in 1992. A vigorous campaign was mounted by a rather unknown organisation at that time, run by a mother and daughter, the embryo of Compassion in World Farming. The manager of the Port of Brightlingsea suffered attacks to his home and the town was overrun by visitors protesting about the transport of live animals on the ferries. I made a point of going to visit and board a ferry for myself, to see at first hand the comfortable conditions in which those sheep were transported— they were, frankly, superior to those enjoyed by foot passengers on many cross-channel ferries at that time.

It is important to note, however, that the live export of animals has always been a very limited and heavily regulated trade, as the maximum hours that animals can travel between resting periods, and feeding and watering intervals, are heavily regulated throughout the EU. Live exports of sheep and cattle—particularly sheep—were economically important to livestock producers in the north of England and Scotland for the same reasons as my noble friend and other cited regarding poultry exports, which will continue. They are of high value and meet the highest animal welfare standards, which is why our live exports of sheep were so welcome, particularly in France. The impact assessment gives the 2020 figures for exports of all livestock as 6,272 sheep for slaughter and 38,111 for fattening, with four goats for fattening—those four goats must have been very important.

The Bill raises a number of questions. Why is the ban not on a reciprocal basis? Why does it impact only producers in Great Britain? Why does it discriminate against our own producers in favour of EU exporters, in particular of breeding stock? I presume that some livestock comes from the EU to this country for fattening and slaughter purposes, no matter how small the trade —I ask my noble friend to confirm that. I would like to see an amendment from the Government to make this Bill work on the basis of reciprocity. Why is poultry excluded? The same welfare conditions should surely apply to poultry as to other livestock, such as sheep and cattle, particularly in view of the fact that they do not travel as well as other livestock such as sheep.

As we have heard from a number of speakers, the Bill contains a glaring loophole, referred to in particular by the noble Lords, Lord Trees and Lord Dodds. Livestock movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be permitted, which means that, under the provisions of the ban in the Bill, any animal could be exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and through the Republic of Ireland for onward export to other parts of the EU, entailing a much longer journey that undermines the key animal welfare provisions of the Bill. I understand that that route is currently the only one available for breeding stock.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, very eloquently described the importance of the agri-food industry to Northern Ireland. I would echo that: it is an extremely important industry to the whole of the United Kingdom. Given the fact that basic payments are reducing and the ELMS criteria are still extremely fuzzy, yet we face a rising need for food security, what is the government action plan for beleaguered livestock farmers, particularly in the upland areas of England, which were the source of much of the live trade in the past? Again, I understand that the figures quoted showed that, for every live animal exported, seven were in carcass form—so the vast majority of this trade will continue, but in carcass form.

A further problem that I ask the Government to address is the lack of a phytosanitary agreement with the European Union. There is a chapter in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards that has never come into effect. Does my noble friend not agree that it is extremely important, as others have stated this afternoon, that any import, whether from the EU or a third country coming via the EU, must match the same high standards that are applied in this country? This gap in regulatory agreement, together with the new controls at UK border posts, is causing grave concerns to farmers and consumer groups alike.

I understand that the new BTOM regulations that are coming into effect are moving the checkpoint some 20 miles from those envisaged in the port of Dover to Sevington. I would argue that that is a hostage to fortune and not conducive to effective checks on entry to this country on plant and animal health. Let us pause and remember the recent cases of ash tree dieback and horsemeat fraud, which should serve as a wake-up call for greater vigilance on imported foods, whether they are live animals for breeding purposes or plants and food products coming in through the checkpoint at Sevington. There is also concern about the reliance at sale and production points on environmental health and trading standards officers at a time when local authority budgets are under severe constraint.

I conclude by saying that no farmer has willingly exported a live animal for fattening or slaughter in recent times. I pay tribute—and I hope that my noble friend and the House will join me—to the very high standards that our farmers meet, as expected by UK consumers. I hope that the beleaguered livestock industry in this country will soon have some good news from the Government, and certainty as to what their future will be.