Skip to main content

Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill (Instruction)

Volume 743: debated on Monday 15 January 2024

Bill to be considered in Committee

Before the House resolves itself into Committee, I draw Members’ attention to the instruction motion on the Order Paper, in the name of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, to allow the Committee to make provision for the whole of the United Kingdom. The motion is subject to selection by the Chair, and the Speaker has decided to select it. I call Sammy Wilson to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill, That the Committee have leave to make provision for the whole of the United Kingdom.

First, let me thank Mr Speaker for selecting this motion, and the Clerk for the help and advice that has been given. The reason for tabling the motion is that the Bill, as it makes clear, applies only to the export of animals from Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland, so an important piece of animal welfare legislation will not apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. A significant part of the UK will be excluded, because a significant number of animal exports come from Northern Ireland.

That exclusion is important, because the most likely source of exports of animals that will suffer as a result of long journeys is Northern Ireland. As a result of the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the Bill, animals can be taken from Northern Ireland, exported through the Irish Republic, taken on a 23-hour boat journey to the European mainland and then carried down to the south of Spain, France or further abroad. The degree of suffering that animals are likely to experience as a result of the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the Bill is very severe, yet the whole point of the Bill is to reduce animal suffering and ensure that live exports, which could lead to animal suffering, do not happen.

Let me remind the House what that journey entails. In a letter from the previous Minister for Agriculture in Northern Ireland, I was informed that when animals were taken from Northern Ireland on a 300-odd mile journey through the Irish Republic to Rosslare, there was no necessity to feed them at that rest point. They could be put on a ship for a 23-hour journey without being fed, and that still enabled the exporters to comply with EU safety regulations. I put it to the House that if the Bill is about reducing suffering for animals when it comes to live exports, then this is a huge gap that needs to be closed.

The Minister is likely to tell us that there are a number of reasons why this cannot be done. The first reason is that if we include Northern Ireland, a substantial number of exports from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic—and there are substantial exports—would be affected. If this instruction were accepted, there would be an opportunity for the House to consider an amendment, in the name of my party colleagues, to restrict the export of animals to the main destinations in the Republic of Ireland only, so it would not affect that trade. However, that amendment cannot be considered unless this instruction is taken by the House and Northern Ireland is included in the scope of the Bill.

The Minister is likely to argue that that would be contrary to World Trade Organisation rules and so there is no point even proposing such an amendment, but the Government should be testing this area, because even under WTO rules, exceptions can be made. Trade with certain countries or regions can be excluded on the basis of the impact on animal health and welfare. When tested, it might well be that the rule will prove ineffective, but at least by including Northern Ireland in the Bill and accepting the amendment, which can subsequently be debated by the House and voted on, that exception can be tested. The first argument—that there is no point doing this because any subsequent amendments could not work—is not true. The second argument—that it would stop exports to the Irish Republic—can be dealt with.

Another argument that the Minister has not used to date—I do not know whether it is because he does not feel it is politic, or because he does not believe it is important—is that under the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor framework, certain laws made in this House cannot apply to Northern Ireland. According to the EU, the reason for that is to safeguard the EU single market and ensure that no damage is done to it. I do not see how anyone could argue that the export of live animals from Northern Ireland to the EU single market damages the EU single market. It does not stand to reason.

Even though this is an unusual procedure, there is no reason why Northern Ireland cannot be included in the Bill. I point out to the Minister that, less than a year ago, this House accepted, without Division, a similar instruction in relation to Dáithí’s law on the transfer of organs for health reasons. It did so because there was support for it in Northern Ireland. I am not aware of any political party in Northern Ireland that would oppose the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the animal welfare legislation going through the House tonight.

I promised Mr Speaker that I would be brief, so I will conclude soon. I ask the Minister to accept this motion without Division. There is a logic to this. The Government have an objective of protecting the welfare of animals. A gap has been identified, and that gap can be closed. The inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill would reinforce the Government’s claim that Northern Ireland is fully part of the United Kingdom. Here is an opportunity for the Minister and the Government to show that that is the case. By including Northern Ireland in this legislation, we can protect the welfare of animals, which will be subject to extreme suffering as a result of being exported all across the European Union.

I hope that the whole House will accept that there is absolutely no case for excluding Northern Ireland on constitutional grounds, on the grounds of animal welfare, or on the grounds of the objectives that this Government have set themselves to protect animal welfare. I hope that the House will accept this instruction without any opposition, so that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom will be recognised, animal welfare will be protected, and the Government’s objectives will be achieved for every part of the United Kingdom.

The Minister has indicated that he would like to respond to the instruction at the end, so I will call him and any other Front-Bench speakers before then.

I, too, will be very brief on this matter. I have enormous sympathy for this motion of instruction. Just for the record, while we did actually suggest a motion of instruction on Dáithí’s law, it did not actually come to that point, because the Secretary of State intervened beforehand in a very sensible way.

We must recognise that Northern Ireland is part of a different legal framework and also a different context, particularly in relation to the large-scale movements on the island of Ireland. Indeed, the Ulster Farmers Union, no less, has made representations on the need to treat the issue on the island of Ireland differently from what is happening in Great Britain.

We also appreciate that the DUP wishes to table an amendment to make an exemption for movements on the island of Ireland. The difficulty is that, if we end up with a situation where this is not addressed at a European Union level, we will simply see re-exportation involving companies based in the Republic of Ireland, which will defeat the purpose that we are trying to achieve.

For this matter to be addressed, the answer really lies at EU level, with the Northern Ireland Assembly—hopefully restored—having a pivotal role in that regard and working very closely with local stakeholders, including the Ulster Farmers Union and local animal welfare organisations. I am conscious that the European Union is actively considering the issue. Perhaps I could ask the Secretary of State, when he responds, to comment on what steps the UK Government could take to support those wider efforts within Europe—I appreciate that, at least for now, we are not part of the EU—and how that can best be taken forward.

It is fair to say that the people of Northern Ireland care as deeply about animal welfare as our colleagues elsewhere in the UK, but we have to find a bespoke solution that addresses our very particular circumstances. We therefore have to proceed in that light. I appreciate that there are complications here, which require more work to be done. Thank you very much.

It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, which I have been watching carefully for some time. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union and as a landowner. Discouraged by the fact that the Bill is not UK wide, my party has tabled amendments, which as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, we trust the Government will accept. It is essential that animal welfare protection rules are UK wide. My constituents feel incredibly strongly about this issue. As my right hon. Friend has said, even with the EU’s tentacles wrapped around the issue, a Bill that is designed solely to enhance animal welfare should still apply to Northern Ireland. Our amendments to protect Northern Ireland and its citizens should be accepted.

The Minister and I, and others present, were on the same page on Brexit, and we both sought the same Brexit. Unfortunately, the Bill’s not being UK wide indicates that we were not recipients of the same Brexit. I know that the Minister appreciates our circumstances and why we tabled the amendments. For some, the search for an elusive “best of both worlds” for the framework highlights only that Northern Ireland is left with no legislator providing protection for animals. I am not sure which person is prepared to wash their hands of that responsibility. Having looked through my mailbox, I am not prepared, and nor is my party, to allow Northern Ireland to be omitted without challenge. This House is where legislative change happens and where the protection must be enshrined.

As is well known in this place, I represent the constituency of Strangford—a combination of urban and rural communities. As such, the impact on farmers is of great interest to me. It must be at the heart of all Government policy. The comments of the Ulster Farmers Union and the National Farmers Union are clear. I understand that the Minister will visit Northern Ireland shortly, and I suspect that these issues might become part of the conversation. I understand that his visit was supposed to take place this week, but other commitments prevented that. We look forward to welcoming him to my constituency and to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart).

When our farmers are expected, rightly, to implement a higher standard of animal welfare, it is essential that nations without such a priority are not allowed to undercut us in trade negotiations. That should be binding policy. Will our farmers be protected? Will there be difficulties, and undercutting, in trade negotiations? Those are key issues for my neighbours. I live in the middle of a farming community, among those who are involved in dairy, beef and sheep farming.

The Government have been quick to rectify differences in legislation between Northern Ireland and the GB mainland on matters—the Minister will know these examples; I am not pointing the finger—such as abortion, relationships and sex education teaching, the Irish language, and Dáithí’s law. The latter was accepted by us all, while the first three examples were opposed by my party, yet the Government seem content for divergence on this Bill, which concerns changes that affect each part of the United Kingdom. I struggle to understand that. I am a tad flabbergasted that on incredibly personal moral issues the Government can and will step in, yet in the realm of animal welfare they are content for two sets of rules to remain in place. For the reasons I outlined, perhaps that too can be explained.

It is essential that the legislation introduces a higher quality of animal welfare for the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so I respectfully, humbly and sincerely say to the Government that our amendments would make us all equally subject to the law, as we should be. I ask the House to secure animal welfare standards throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am a great believer—I have said this many times—that we are always better together. I say that to everybody, especially my colleagues from Scotland, because I really believe in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I believe that it is where we want to be, but we want to have the same laws. I want to be as British as the Minister. At this moment in time, I do not believe that I am.

I rise to support the instruction tabled by my colleagues and me. Northern Ireland’s industry takes the welfare of all animals seriously, and I have never shirked from enhancing the welfare conditions of animals, whether on the farm or being transported. Both are of high standards, and I know that our farming industry would refute any suggestion that the standards applied to live animal exports from Northern Ireland are substandard. However, there is always room and a desire, from both our farming community and the general public, to enhance our animal welfare standards, which are a priority across the United Kingdom.

If we remove a pathway for the fattening and slaughter of animals born on these islands, it is absolutely vital that the Government support investment in that aspect of the agri-food industry to increase capacity within that element of our food supply chain. Farmers are looking with suspicion at the direction of travel, which seems to want to drive down production in the UK through legislation that restricts elements of our supply chain, while at the same time we seek out trade agreements with third countries where animal welfare standards are barely an afterthought. On consistency, there is food for thought for the House and the Government.

To most people, our instruction is a simple ask: to see the laws made for GB apply to Northern Ireland in relation to live animal exports, while allowing the common-sense essential provisions for ongoing transit of animals to the Irish Republic. I note the comments by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and I believe them to be disingenuous as our amendments actually cover exports to the Republic of Ireland.

It is for this House to determine the rules for live animal exports pertaining to Northern Ireland, as we are part of the United Kingdom and this matter is not devolved. We are always told, “This is a devolved issue. Let the Northern Ireland Assembly decide on it.” The matter is not devolved and, as I have said, animal welfare is a priority for so many. This is our Parliament, yet the Government appear content to allow those with no democratic mandate to determine laws within a part of the UK. The Windsor framework and protocol leave us a place apart. I urge the Minister to accept, without a Division, this simple ask, which would allow us to stay aligned with the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate on the instruction. I should be clear at the outset that I do not intend to detain the House any longer than is needed, but I think it is important to say a few words on the instruction.

The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) is rightly proud of Northern Ireland’s history and heritage within our United Kingdom, and he will find no disagreement from Labour on that. I reassure him that I heard his concerns clearly and have a great deal of sympathy with the substance of his points. As we consider the instruction before the House, I want to be clear that this is an important Bill, and a Bill that would be strengthened by the amendments in my name on the Order Paper. The issues it pertains to are long overdue for attention and action.

There is not often much agreement between Labour and the Government, but we agree on this. Labour will not be able to support the instruction in the name of the right hon. Member for East Antrim, because if we accepted the instruction and the follow-through of its intent, we would put the United Kingdom Government at risk of breaching World Trade Organisation rules and guidelines, and that is not a situation we can be in. However much we may want to play politics, we need to put the people and trade of this country first, along with the Good Friday agreement.

I accept that the Democratic Unionists will be frustrated if the instruction is not approved by the House and that, without it, they will not be able to secure the changes they want, but given the nature of the situation, the instruction simply will not work at this time and on this issue. Therefore, if pushed to a Division, Labour will oppose it.

The instruction would need to be agreed if we are to consider certain amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) in Committee of the whole House. I am enormously sympathetic to his plight and arguments. I am grateful to him for meeting me privately last week to discuss his proposals, which seek to add Northern Ireland to the territorial scope of the Bill. In effect, his proposal is that the ban on livestock exports for slaughter would apply on a UK-wide basis, rather than GB-wide.

There is a crucial difference, as he is aware, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK with respect to the movement of livestock. Farmers in Northern Ireland routinely move animals to the Republic of Ireland for slaughter and fattening. Indeed, in 2022, around 3,500 cattle, 17,000 pigs and 337,000 sheep were moved in that way. The Bill must not jeopardise the access that Northern Irish farmers have to the Republic. That is a point on which I hope the right hon. Gentleman and I agree, as all hon. Members across the House would. His aim is to create a targeted exemption to the expanded ban: the prohibition would not apply to slaughter movements with an end destination in the Republic of Ireland. Unfortunately, that proposal is not an option that is available to us. That is because a range of international agreements and their core principles, including WTO rules, prevent discrimination against different countries in that way. Given that such a carve-out is not possible, extending the Bill to Northern Ireland would end all livestock exports for slaughter and fattening from Northern Ireland, including to the Republic of Ireland, and that is why the Bill is drafted in that respect on its territorial extent.

The Minister knows that eight exceptions are listed by the WTO where it is possible to target trade interventions, and one of them is on the basis of animal health. Does he accept that taking animals from the north of Northern Ireland through the whole island of Ireland, on a 24-hour boat journey to southern France or southern Spain without food, risks animal health and is therefore an exception that we should at least be testing with the WTO, but we cannot do that if we do not accept the instruction?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows from our discussions last week, I am enormously sympathetic to his view but, as he will be aware, those movements from the Republic of Ireland to the continent of Europe are a matter for the European Union. That is what we heard from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). My understanding is that the EU is looking at some of those rules as we speak. That is, of course, a matter for the Republic of Ireland and the EU, and we cannot in this House legislate for other nations.

If we were to transpose “Republic of Ireland” and “Belgium”, for example, other nations would challenge completely one nation being favoured above others. We could not say, “We won’t export animals for fattening or slaughter to anywhere in the world, apart from Belgium.” That would be challenged instantly by the international trade bodies, and we would lose in court—that is the legal advice I have been given—so the Government are not in a position to put forward legislation that we know is not legally sound.

I am enormously sympathetic to the view of the right hon. Member for East Antrim and, of course, I agree with him. I do not want to see sheep and cattle moved from Belfast all the way to Madrid. That is not what we want to see happen, but we do not have the power to stop that at this moment. That is why it is critical that we protect the Northern Irish economy. Extending livestock exports from Northern Ireland in that way would be devastating if we were to stop them moving to the Republic. I understand his desire for a modified ban to apply in Northern Ireland. However, it is just not possible under our international obligations, and making such a provision for the whole of the United Kingdom in this Bill is not appropriate at this time. I therefore appeal to him, respectfully and hopefully, to find a way to withdraw his motion, in the knowledge that we have enormous sympathy for his position.

Having listened intently to the Minister and to my friends on the Opposition Benches, and having served in Northern Ireland as a Minister and in other roles, my question is this: what is to stop—as we are trying to do—the live transportation of animals for slaughter going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and then going on? We are not preventing something that we are trying to prevent. I know the legal advice, but sometimes Ministers have to challenge the legal advice. I am not saying that the legal advice is right or wrong, but sometimes it has to be challenged. It clearly does not make sense if we can move animals around inside Great Britain and transport them to Northern Ireland, and then say to Northern Ireland, “You can’t adhere to the rules in the rest in the United Kingdom.” Do not get me wrong, I am very supportive of this Bill, and I do not want to jeopardise it in any shape or form, but there seems to be a conflict of interest between what we are trying to do as a Government and what we are succeeding in doing, which is alienating the farmers of Northern Ireland.

I am grateful for that intervention. It is important, first, to remember that we are talking only about animals being exported for either fattening or for slaughter. Under the phytosanitary rules of the island of Ireland, the movement of cattle, sheep or pigs from England to Northern Ireland will then incur a 30-day standstill within Northern Ireland before they can be moved to the Republic. That makes it not commercially viable to use that route to get to slaughter or to fattening. I hope that colleagues will understand with sympathy our frustration that we are unable to extend the rules to Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that the ban on using the Great Britain land bridge for live exports is one of the ways this Bill will provide big barriers to live exports continuing from Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend is right in that live exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic will be able to continue; that is good for the Northern Irish agricultural economy and we do not want to stop that trade. However, this Bill, when we get to debating the actual Bill, is about stopping those long journeys from GB into continental Europe. We have not seen those since Brexit, but we want to ensure that they cannot return in the near future.

Would the Minister term the conundrum posed by the Democratic Unionist party as one of the Brexit benefits that the Government have so often extolled the virtues of?

This Bill is genuinely a Brexit benefit: we are able to take control of our ports within GB and stop the live export of animals for slaughter or for fattening. That is a genuine Brexit benefit and one that I hope we can now start to debate. I hope the right hon. Member for East Antrim will withdraw his motion.