Overview (May 2023)
The wellbeing of animals, including their protection from abuse and harm is an extremely important issue, which is reflected in the Government’s new Action Plan for Animal Welfare.
My ministerial colleagues and I are prioritising animal welfare as an important issue for this Parliament, and I am glad that the Government has set out a series of ambitious reforms.
Since 2010, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has had a strong track record in reforms. This includes: a ban on the use of conventional battery cages for laying hens; mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses across England; a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses; the strongest ivory ban in the world; mandatory microchipping of dogs; and the modernisation of the licensing system for dog breeding and pet sales. I understand that Ministers have been working to add a new requirement for the compulsory microchipping of cats.
The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 raises the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. In addition, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 formally recognises animals as sentient beings in domestic and establishes the Animal Sentience Committee, consisting of experts within the field, to ensure that animal sentience is considered when developing policy across Government.
Further, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will introduce some of the world’s strongest protections for pets, livestock and kept wild animals. This includes a ban on keeping primates as pets and exporting live animals for slaughter and fattening. The Bill addresses puppy smuggling by reducing the number of pets that can travel under pet travel rules. This Bill will return to the House as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Animal welfare is not only a hugely important topic, but it is also incredibly wide reaching, and I have outlined my thoughts on some of the more specific issues below.
Animal cruelty (May 2023)
I am proud that the UK has consistently led the way on animal protections, and the Government delivered on its manifesto commitment to increase sentences for animal cruelty through the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021. This Act provides one of the toughest sanctions in Europe for animal cruelty offences, enabling tougher prison sentences for the most serious perpetrators of animal cruelty, from the previous maximum of six months to up to five years. I believe that this increase in sentencing will send a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated.
Animal testing (May 2023)
The use of animals in scientific research remains a vital tool in improving our understanding of how biological systems work in health and disease, and in the development of new medicines, treatments and technologies. I am assured that animals, including dogs, are only used in research when there are no suitable alternatives, and any tests are carried out under controls that keep suffering to a minimum. This is known as the last-resort principle, and I am opposed to animal tests where alternative approaches could be used.
Farming (May 2023)
Ministers are actively exploring options to phase out the use of cages, including the use of cages for laying hens. As outlined in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, the Government is committed to strengthening welfare standards and is examining the use of cages for laying hens and the use of farrowing crates for pigs. Ministers recognise the need to work carefully and sensitively with the pig and poultry industries, which are both currently facing significant challenges. Decisions on a future public consultation on this issue would need to be carefully considered due to these wider challenges.
Around 60 per cent of our hens are now kept in free-range systems, and a number of major supermarkets have pledged to stop selling eggs from the remaining 40 per cent of hens in colony cages by 2025. 40 per cent of our pigs are kept outdoors and outdoor farrowing systems are used for those sows. Ministers will continue to work with the poultry industry on improving feather cover and keel bone health, as well as reducing the practice of beak trimming.
Further, the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway will prioritise areas for additional improvement in the health and welfare for pigs, cattle, sheep and poultry. On pigs specifically, the Government will continue to improve biosecurity in order to control endemic diseases. On meat chickens, through the Pathway, producers are being encouraged to implement the Better Chicken commitment which would require the use of slower growing breeds and lower stocking densities.
Regarding foie gras, I am aware that the production of foie gras from ducks or geese using force feeding raises serious welfare concerns. This method of production has been banned in the UK for over 15 years following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which brought forward a legal requirement to provide for an animal’s welfare needs, such as supplying a suitable diet and protecting the animal from injury and disease. Under this legislation, it is a criminal offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal. I would like to assure you that Ministers are united in their commitment to upholding our high standards in animal welfare.
Hunting (May 2023)
The Government is committed to legislation to ban the import of hunting trophies from thousands of species. The Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill was introduced to Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill in June 2022. The Government fully supports this Bill, which will ban the import of hunting trophies from around 6,000 species, including lions, elephants, rhinos, and polar bears, delivering a key manifesto commitment on international conservation and animal welfare. I welcome that this Bill completed its Remaining Stages in the House of Commons on Friday 17 March.
Further, fur farming has been banned in the UK for 20 years, and there are already restrictions on some skin and fur products which may never be legally imported into the UK. The Government’s recent call for evidence to seek views and evidence on the current fur sector will be used to inform any future decisions on the fur trade.
Sale of Ivory (May 2023)
The sale of ivory is an abhorrent practice, requiring the killing of one of the world’s most iconic and intelligent animals, the elephant.
Elephants are one of the world's most iconic and treasured species and ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol.
The Ivory Act 2018 is one of the toughest bans on ivory in the world and I am aware that this ban came into force on 6 June 2022. It is illegal to deal in items made of or containing elephant ivory unless they meet the criteria for one of five narrow exemptions. The Government launched the digital ivory service on 24 February 2022, which allows people to register and certify exempted ivory items they would like to deal.
The Ivory Act showcases the UK as a global leader in animal conservation. If you break the law, you could be fined up to £250,000 or face up to five years’ imprisonment. The Act bans the dealing of items made of, or containing elephant ivory, regardless of their age, with five narrow and carefully defined exemptions: portrait miniatures; musical instruments; items with low ivory content; sales to qualifying museums; and rare or important items.
The ban also applies to importing to, or exporting from, the UK for the purposes of dealing. The ivory ban does not, however, affect the ownership of ivory items and I understand that Ministers have no plans for a Government surrender scheme.
Genetic technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (May 2023)
The Government is showing its commitment to agricultural and scientific innovation in the UK through the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act. The Act removes unnecessary barriers inherited from the EU to enable the development and marketing of precision bred plants and animals, which will drive economic growth and position the UK as the leading country in which to invest in agri-food research and innovation.
The Act creates a new, simpler regulatory regime for precision bred plants and animals that have genetic changes that could have arisen through traditional breeding or natural processes. It will also introduce two notification systems for research and marketing purposes, where breeders and researchers will need to notify the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of precision bred organisms. It will establish a new science-based authorisation process for food and feed products developed using precision bred organisms.
I am assured that the Food Standards Agency will only authorise products for sale in the first place if they are judged to present no risk to health, do not mislead consumers and do not have lower nutritional value than their traditionally bred counterparts.
While there is great potential for increasing innovation, the Government recognises the need to safeguard animal welfare in the new regulatory framework. That is why Ministers are taking a step-by-step approach, enabling use of precision breeding technologies with plants first followed by animals later.
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act is consistent with the science and also the approach taken by many international partners around the world that have already legislated in this way. I welcome that this Act received Royal Assent in March 2023 and is now law. I am aware that up to £30 million is being invested to drive forward the use of precision breeding technologies, which builds on the £8 million already invested over the last five years.