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Votes in animal health?

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INTERESTED MPs have been heard to remark that they receive more letters from constituents on animal welfare than on any other subject. If that is the case, you wouldn’t know it from the manifestos of the three main parties fighting for votes in the General Election on May 5. Animal welfare barely gets a look-in in the three manifestos, and animal health doesn’t seem to feature at all. This is in contrast to the situation in the last two elections: the 2001 campaigns took place while foot-and-mouth disease was raging, while in 1997 political battles were fought over food safety and BSE. This time around, animal health issues are notable by their absence; indeed, the only disease from which political capital is being sought is MRSA infection in human hospitals.

Of the three main parties, the Liberal Democrats (slogan: ‘The real alternative’) devote most space to animal welfare, and they are the only ones to give it a section of its own. They promise to establish ‘an Animal Protection Commission, bringing all animal welfare matters under the responsibility of a dedicated, expert body, with the duty to make sure that animal protection laws are enforced and kept up to date’. They also intend to introduce a new Animal Welfare Act ‘to guarantee high standards of animal welfare across the board for farm livestock, working animals and domestic pets’ and to ‘close the loophole in existing legislation which allows people who have been banned from keeping animals still to own them if someone else has “custody”.’

Labour (slogan: ‘Britain forward not back’) says it will ‘introduce the Animal Welfare Bill as soon as possible in the new Parliament’. The Labour Government did, of course, intend to introduce the Animal Welfare Bill during the last session of Parliament, but it fell by the wayside as Parliament was dissolved.

The manifesto from the Conservatives (slogan: ‘It’s time for action’) is the briefest of the three. It notes that ‘Britain’s farmers operate to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world’ and that, in pressing for further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), they would ‘promote legislation to strengthen and update animal welfare’. As the party which ‘value[s] the diverse nature of our nation and believe[s] in defending traditional liberties’, they would also, if elected, introduce a Bill, and offer Parliament a free vote, to overturn the previous Government’s ban on hunting with dogs.

All three parties would like to see further reform of the CAP. Labour boasts of the reforms already achieved, noting that 2005 will be ‘the first year for decades when farmers will be free to produce for the market and not simply for subsidy’. The Conservatives want to make the CAP less burdensome for farmers and taxpayers alike. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, feel that that the CAP fails to protect the interests of rural communities, family farms and the environment. They would like to speed up reform so that the public funding available is used to provide public benefits such as improved public access and environmental protection, support for traditional farming and organic systems and new opportunities for agricultural products and local markets. All three parties want to see an end to export subsidies in the interests of fairer trade.

The emphasis in the manifestos differs but, perhaps not surprisingly, all three parties want to protect the environment and see thriving rural communities. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats claim to understand farming and rural communities better than Labour, with the Liberal Democrats suggesting that the Conservatives ‘represent the countryside for the privileged few’. Labour, meanwhile, says it will ‘continue to promote the competitiveness of the whole food sector and assure the safety and quality of its products’. All three parties argue that they will reduce bureaucracy and increase accountability in government, some more convincingly than others.

On higher education, the policies differ markedly. Labour sees a need for ‘a bigger, better higher education system’ and draws attention to increased spending on higher education and to the investment being made in Britain’s science base. It notes that ‘the alliance of scientific research and business creativity is key to our continued prosperity’ and draws attention to various initiatives aimed at encouraging enterprise. The Liberal Democrats promise to abolish top-up and tuition fees for students and also to scrap the Department of Trade and Industry, cutting away its ‘bureaucratic and wasteful functions’ and transferring its useful roles such as support for scientific research to a new Department for Education, Skills and Science. The Conservatives’ manifesto doesn’t specifically mention science. On university funding, it states: ‘We will restore real choice in higher education by scrapping fees and abolishing Labour’s admissions regulator. University funding will depend on attracting new students and so excellence will be encouraged. We will also help universities move towards greater financial independence by building up their individual endowments.’

Many vets will already have decided how they intend to vote in the election and, like most people, their decision is likely to have been influenced by many factors, not just those of direct professional interest. Nevertheless, it is worth reading the manifestos, to see first-hand where our politicians’ priorities lie. Taking a cynical view, one might conclude that they do not see many votes in animal health and welfare. Looking to the future, it seems there is a job to do in reminding them that the subject is important, and why.

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