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READING election manifestos can be a mind-numbing experience and it seems fair to say that the General Election on May 7 is unlikely to be won on issues relating to animal health and welfare alone. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at the manifestos of the main political parties to see how much space they devote to the subject and how their policies compare. For the 2015 election, there is relatively little direct reference to animal health in the manifestos of the main parties, as was the case during the elections of 2005 and 2010. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. The situation today is certainly very different from that in 2001, when election campaigns were being waged in the midst of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis (and the election had to be postponed because of it), and in 1997, when political battles were being fought over food safety and BSE. Having said that, some of the manifestos for this year's election make reference to bovine TB, mostly by referring to the pilot badger culls, again demonstrating that, while eliminating TB requires a comprehensive approach, arguments about culling badgers continue to overshadow all of the other efforts being made.
For this election, comparison of the main parties' policies is complicated by the fact that, as the brouhaha surrounding the televised leaders' debates has illustrated, no one seems sure any more which the main political parties are. In addition, most of the media coverage over the past few days has focused not so much on individual parties' policies, but on who might be prepared to work with whom in a hung Parliament. Teasing out what all this might mean for animal health and welfare and for the work of the veterinary profession is difficult, not least because things will inevitably be affected by the parties' wider economic and other policies. The changing political climate in the UK presents more of a challenge for interested voters: if reading three manifestos was mind-numbing, reading seven or more is likely to result in total anaesthesia.
With much of the UK's legislation relating to animal health and welfare being based on EU legislation, a great deal will depend on the next Government's position on EU membership. The Conservative Party's manifesto promises an in-out referendum on Europe by the end of 2017, while UKIP would hold a referendum to leave the EU at the earliest opportunity. The Labour Party says it believes membership of the EU is central to the UK's prosperity and security and that it will work to change the EU in the country's best interests. The Liberal Democrats are also in favour of continued EU membership, as are the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party; the SNP goes so far as to say it would oppose a referendum on membership. Not unexpectedly, UKIP takes a tougher line on immigration than the other parties, although, interestingly, there is no mention in its manifesto of tighter controls on cross-border movement of pets.
All of the parties seem keen to protect the environment, support farmers and rural economies and ensure future food supplies (it would be hard to think of a party seeking election that wouldn't be), but the emphasis placed on these issues in the manifestos differs, as do the means by which all of these things would be achieved. The parties are also generally keen to support science, entrepreneurship and innovation, although again their manifestos reflect different priorities and differences in approach. Regarding higher education, the Conservatives pledge to ensure ‘the continuing success and stability’ of the reforms to university funding introduced by the Coalition Government while the Liberal Democrats say they would establish a review of university finance within the next Parliament to consider any necessary reforms. Labour says it will cut student tuition fees to £6000 a year, the Green Party says it would scrap tuition fees and UKIP says it would scrap fees for students taking degrees in STEM subjects on the condition that they pay UK tax and work in the discipline for five years after graduating. Plaid Cymru believes that, in principle, higher education should be free for all and says that it will continue to work towards that aim, while the SNP promises free university education in Scotland and support for the reduction of tuition fees across the UK.
Among various comments in the manifestos relating specifically to animal health and welfare, the Conservatives state that they will protect animal welfare and that they will continue to implement their 25-year strategy to eliminate bovine TB. Labour, meanwhile, says it will ‘build on our strong record on welfare – starting with an end to the Government's ineffective and cruel badger cull’. The Conservatives promise to give Parliament an opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act, while Labour says it will defend the hunting ban. The Conservatives state that, while they will always make sure the Food Standards Agency properly regulates the slaughter of livestock and poultry, they will protect methods of religious slaughter, such as shechita and halal. Of all the parties, the Green Party devotes most space in its manifesto to animal welfare issues, calling, among other things, for a move away from the intensification or industrialisation of farming, an end to the badger culls, an end to grouse and other ‘sport’ shooting, a review of dog legislation, and an end to animal experimentation.
Animal health and welfare should not be party political issues. However, they sometimes end up being so and they can clearly be affected by wider Government policies. It is interesting to see what the different parties have to say about the subject in their manifestos, but, with so much else at stake in this election, the pledges being made clearly have to be considered in the context of the wider policies on offer.