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WHEN developing key principles to underpin the veterinary profession's lobbying position on Brexit, the BVA's Brexit working group took the position that existing standards in the areas of interest it identified, which include animal welfare, should at least be maintained as the UK leaves the European Union (EU). A survey carried out by the RSPCA in October last year suggested that the UK public feels much the same, with 81 per cent of 1226 adult respondents stating that, after Brexit, animal welfare laws should be maintained at the same level or a higher level than at present.
An indication that the Government is aware of concerns that Brexit might adversely impact on welfare standards was provided by George Eustice, minister of state at Defra, during a debate in Westminster Hall last week. Giving an insight into the Government's thinking, he acknowledged that much of the current regulation of farm animal welfare and the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter in the UK was governed by European legislation, but reassured MPs that ‘nothing will change overnight’ as the UK withdrew from the EU. The proposed Great Repeal Bill would initially put all existing EU law relating to animal welfare onto a legitimate UK legal basis, and then, he said, ‘we will be free to improve that legislation over time’.
Mr Eustice was keen to highlight that Brexit could offer opportunities for the UK to help raise animal welfare standards elsewhere in the world. Currently, the European Commission coordinates the position of the EU's 28 member states in submissions to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). As an independent country, Mr Eustice said, the UK would be free to express its own views on animal health and welfare, and to make the case internationally for higher standards. It would also be able to share its scientific expertise to help other countries raise their standards too.
Saying that leaving the EU would allow the Government to deliver on a commitment to put animal welfare at the heart of the design of future agricultural policy, Mr Eustice reported that serious consideration was being given to the possibility of introducing incentives to encourage and support higher animal welfare standards and different approaches to animal husbandry to help reduce the reliance on antibiotics without compromising welfare. It was, perhaps, somewhat ironic that he then picked examples from three EU member states – Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany – to illustrate how such systems are already being used.
One issue raised by a number of MPs, and one in which the BVA has a particular interest, was method of slaughter labelling for meat and fish. The BVA believes that, while current legislation permits the slaughter of animals without prestunning, the products derived from animals slaughtered in this manner should be clearly labelled to allow consumers to make an informed purchasing choice. Several MPs in last week's debate called for improved labelling, citing EU legislation as a current barrier to achieving this. Mr Eustice, however, did not commit the Government to a specific course of action. Describing method of slaughter labelling as ‘contentious’, he referred to research being carried out by the EU on this issue and said that the Government was waiting to see what the next steps would be. The Government, he said, had always been clear that it did not rule out some kind of labelling for method of production or slaughter, but the issue was ‘complex’.
The impact of Brexit on the veterinary workforce is another of the key areas of interest identified by the BVA's Brexit working group. While not discussed in any detail during the debate, one MP, Mary Glindon, the Labour MP for North Tyneside, raised concern about how inspection regimes and enforcement would be upheld once EU regulations no longer applied. Saying that upholding standards was paramount, Mrs Glindon referred to a current shortage of ‘the suitably qualified veterinary staff who are needed to ensure that standards are being complied with’ and highlighted that the shortage might be made worse by restrictions on freedom of movement after Brexit. She also pointed to the value of EU membership to the UK's scientific and veterinary communities, saying it had provided access to research laboratories in other EU countries and allowed the sharing of best practice on issues such as disease management. Such links, she commented, provided an important means of upholding high animal welfare standards. Sadly, Mr Eustice did not set out how the Government intended to address these issues during the negotiations, nor how it would ensure that such links were sustained after Brexit.
The UK generally has a good record on animal welfare, and Brexit could offer the opportunity to lead by example in this area. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between raising standards and ensuring that the UK's agricultural industry remains viable in the international marketplace. MPs taking part in last week's debate warned that animal welfare should not be used as a bargaining chip in future trade negotiations and that ethical concerns should not be traded away in exchange for possible economic advantage in other sectors. The issues around Brexit are many and complex, but this is one area in which the veterinary profession is well qualified to make its voice heard.