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What next for animal welfare in the UK after Brexit?

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Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been the subject of much attention following the outcome of the UK referendum in June.  It sets out the terms for a Member State to withdraw from the European Union.  Within two years of activating Article 50, the Treaties of the European Union will cease to apply in the UK, unless the period is extended by agreement.  Since the new Prime Minister has clearly stated that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we can reasonably expect the UK’s withdrawal to proceed according to the stated timetable.  Formal negotiations will concentrate on what happens next and on the future relationship of the UK with the EU. 

What next for animal welfare in the UK after Brexit?

In animal welfare terms, Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty (on the functioning of the EU) is also important.  Coming into force in 2009, this set out a new commitment to animal welfare throughout the EU.  It was the first EU Treaty to specifically recognise animals as ‘sentient beings’.  It commits the EU and Member States to paying full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting other legislation and customs, particularly in relation to religious rites and cultural traditions.

Article 13 provided confirmation of the EU’s clear and long-standing commitment to animal welfare.  This can be seen in the vast array of animal welfare regulations, directives and decisions which currently apply to farm (and other) animals in the EU.  These standards are generally considered to exceed national requirements in most non-EU countries and they also surpass the requirements of international standards such as those of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).  It is clear that animal welfare is a higher priority in some parts of the EU than in others and this has led to some enforcement problems in the past and difficulties in maintaining what is often referred to as a ‘level playing field’ between Member States. Nevertheless, EU legislation has put the welfare of farmed animals on an equal footing throughout all Member States - whether on the farm, during transport or at the time of slaughter. 

So what will happen to animal welfare in the UK after the Article 50 option is taken and we are no longer committed to the Lisbon Treaty or indeed to EU animal welfare legislation?

In theory, there could be a ‘bonfire’ of EU legislation in the UK and a much less regulated approach in future.  In practice though, the UK’s position will be determined by the terms of our future relationship with the EU and the remaining Member States, on the basis of trade agreements reached with non-EU countries for meat and livestock products and on the future requirements and preferences of our own UK consumers and citizens. 

It is clear though that the UK will lose its voice when new EU legislation is being discussed in future.  The loss from EU animal welfare negotiations of the UK – considered to be one of the most proactive countries in this regard - could have an adverse impact on the pace and scope of future animal welfare legislation at EU level. 

If the Government secures free-trade access to the EU’s single market for meat and livestock products, it seems inevitable that equivalent welfare standards would have to be demonstrated, through domestic legislation.  This would mean that key current areas of EU animal welfare policy would be retained through domestic legislation.  These would include space allowances for animals, controls on transport times and conditions and the continued ban of currently-prohibited systems such as conventional cages for laying hens and gestation stalls for sows.  There has been some speculation in the livestock sector that equivalent standards could be achieved in ways that are less onerous to producers and others in future. 

In establishing new domestic legislation in future, the UK could adopt standards which exceed those of the EU.  This would be a decision for the Government of the day as in fact it is now in many areas.  In recent years there has been a move against so-called ‘gold-plating’ of EU legislation within the UK because it can be associated with higher costs of production.  Differences in animal welfare policy and legislation have started to become apparent within the UK in recent years and this may increase in future, depending on the priorities of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The outcome of post-Brexit negotiations may be something other than ‘free trade’ access for the UK to the EU and so there could be different legislative outcomes.  A more-prescriptive or a less-prescriptive approach to legislation or enforcement could be taken in future, depending on the preferences of the Government.  Earlier this year for example, the present Conservative Government was considering more livestock sector involvement in relation to establishing and maintaining welfare recommendations for farmed animals.  This move was opposed by the Labour Party and after further consideration, it has been decided that the existing statutory welfare codes will be retained. 

For the vast majority of UK farmers, the ‘legislation plus’ standards of the industry’s voluntary quality assurance schemes and customers from the retail and other sectors will continue to set the pace for today’s high welfare requirements and future refinements.  Animal welfare and associated issues such as traceability and food safety already feature very highly in buyers’ specifications.  Whatever the negotiated outcomes with the EU post-Brexit, it seems unlikely that current minimum animal welfare legislation will be ‘watered-down’ in the UK. 

ADAS has a long track record of working with the UK Government, EU organisations and the commercial sector on animal welfare policy matters.  For further details, please contact the ADAS Brexit Policy Group at brexitpolicygroup@adas.co.uk or jason.gittins@adas.co.uk

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