With Brexit-day looming, important topics are being discussed. People are asking questions. What will happen to business after Brexit? What about the NHS? How will travel and tourism be affected once Free Movement has ended?
While the answers to these questions are certainly important, there are other questions being asked, many of which are struggling to be heard over the noise. What about animal welfare? Is Brexit going to be good or bad for its future?
Historically, changes to British animal welfare regulations have been restricted by our membership to the EU. This was touted by Leave campaigners before the referendum as a reason to exit the union, with Brexiteers arguing that the EU was responsible for implementing immovable regulations for the treatment of farm animals, which were not open to improvement.
However, with over 80% of our current animal welfare legislation implemented by EU law, there is a growing concern that Brexit could just as equally jeopardise the future of animal welfare in Britain, for the sake of trade and economic interest. With Brexit imminent, the welfare of animals is at a crossroads. Leaving the EU could either make or break its future.
EU animal welfare regulations
As it stands, the EU is responsible for 40 of the UK’s 50 animal welfare regulations, equating to 80%. Each of these regulations is focused on monitoring and improving the wellbeing of wild animals, animals in agriculture, companion animals and animals used in medical and cosmetic research.
The Lisbon Treaty is a binding agreement between all EU states which recognises that animals are sentient, able to experience pain and suffering. This treaty agrees that, as a result of this, all animals should be treated humanely and with compassion. The treaty is responsible for the basis of many of the regulations put in place by the EU to protect animals and minimise the stress and pain which is inflicted on them in each of the key environments.
Because of this, animal rights activists are focussed on ensuring that the UK continues to recognise animal sentience when it leaves the EU and is no longer subject to The Lisbon Treaty and other EU regulations.
The future of animal welfare needs to be secured and ideally improved after Brexit. However, hypothetical future trade agreements are causing many to be fearful of whether this will be the case.
For example, the USA has significantly poorer animal welfare regulations in place to regulate the living conditions of their farm animals; they still use conventional battery cages for chickens, give growth hormones to their cows and use traditional sow stalls to store their pigs. All of these factors result in a much poorer quality of life for animals, who are either forced to grow to unnatural sizes or kept in conditions in which they cannot take more than one or two steps forwards or backwards. These types of practices have been proven to cause significant amounts of stress in animals; with many suffering from a shorter life-span, fur/feather loss and anxiety-related behaviours.
Although leaving behind EU regulations will mean that the UK can alter their animal welfare regulations for the better, Brexit could also mean the opposite. If the UK becomes a key trade partner with countries like the USA which are not regulated, there is a risk that it will adopt some of these same practices. For those who are concerned about animal rights, this would mean that the UK is moving backgrounds in their approach to animal welfare as opposed to forwards.
With countries like the US as major trade partners, British farmers will need to compete with cheaper imports in order to avoid losing any profit at supermarkets after Brexit. With this in mind, most will be less likely to want to adopt new animal welfare practices at an extra cost; instead opting to cut costs wherever possible. Add this to the weakened pound predicted in the aftermath of Brexit, and animals will become part of the collateral damage in a situation where UK farmers struggle to stay financially afloat.
What’s more, according to a report written by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) this summer, the UK Farming industry is at great risk of losing very substantial parts of its workforce as a result of Brexit. According to the report, up to 40% of staff on UK farms are from the EU. This number is even more saturated in some sub-sectors, with EU labour contributing to as much as 58% on some poultry farms during seasonal peaks (such as turkey farms at Christmas).
Along with this, even more migrant workers contribute to skilled workforces such as veterinary staff. A House of Lords report titled ‘Brexit: Farm Animal Welfare’ found that a huge 90% of UK vets originated from the EU.
Leaving the EU risks alienating and losing significant amounts of EU talent and labour. This will jeopardise the future of animal welfare, by placing a strain on the services which are responsible for maintaining its future.
Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer, picked up on this point in his recent speech on ‘International trade post-Brexit’. “All I can say is that you’re essential,” Gibbens told the EU vets who are currently working in the UK, “there is no future position we can be in where we can operate without you”. Further to this comment, Gibbens also suggested that the Home Office add the veterinary profession to the Shortage Occupation List, to make it easier for British employers to non-UK hire vets after Brexit.
However, it is unclear what difference this will make to the future of the vet profession. According to the most recent immigration white paper, the strict procedures which were in place for employers offering jobs to non-shortage professions have now been dropped, leaving ‘in-shortage’ employers no advantage when it comes to visa sponsorship. What’s more, even if vets are added to the Shortage Occupation List, this will do nothing to help resolve the inevitable gaps which will be left in the industry.
According to the white paper, EU nationals arriving in the UK after Brexit will be subject to exactly the same visa regulations as non-EU migrants. This means employers will still need to make a Sponsor Licence application in order to sponsor EU work visas in the future – an expensive and timely process which not all recruiters can afford to take on.
As well as this, EU veterinary professionals will need to meet the minimum salary requirement of £30,000 pa in order to be eligible for a work visa in the first place. Even if some vets are able to meet this threshold, the same is unlikely to be said about other professions who are responsible for animal welfare in the UK. European farmhands, technicians, abattoirs and animal researchers, for example, will no longer be able to work in such roles in the UK, based on their average salaries.
With this, all UK farmers will be required to pay an application charge for every work visa they want to sponsor, adding a further financial burden to those positioned in the industry.
All we know now is that Brexit will spell the end of the current animal welfare regulations held in the UK. However, we do not know yet whether this will be a positive or negative for the future of animal welfare in Britain. While some, like David Bowles of the RSPCA have suggested that “Brexit offers huge opportunities to give animals a better deal in the UK”, it debatable as to whether the current government has any interest in doing so.
In November, an amendment to the Agriculture Bill was debated in parliament, which suggested a total ban on all imports of foie gras. Foie gras involves the force-feeding of young geese and ducks and its production in the UK has been banned since 2000. However, due to free trade laws, the UK is still able to import foie gras from places like France and it is served in many upmarket British restaurants.
Unfortunately, this proposition was not taken forward by the government and, while some are being hopeful about our new-found freedom over animal welfare laws, there is a concern that this is only a sign of things to come.
Since we can no longer rely on the EU for our trade and policies after Brexit, animal rights need to be fought for if we want to continue to evolve and treat our animals with respect and kindness.
This article has been written by Luna Williams, the political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service. This is an organisation which provides Brexit advice and visa application services in the UK