Ukip wants to ban non-stun slaughter. Photo: Getty
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Ukip's position on halal and kosher meat is about stoking division, not animal welfare

Judging by Ukip's poor show on wildlife issues in the European Parliament, its latest proposal is more about exploiting xenophobia than protecting animals.

Another week, another controversial Ukip policy. This time, Ukip has rocked the boat by announcing that it would outlaw religious slaughter for halal and kosher meat that requires animals to be killed without being stunned. Conveniently, and perhaps not coincidentally, the policy announcement came on the same day as shocking footage emerged of sheep being horrifically mistreated at an abattoir in Yorkshire, in complete contravention of animal welfare standards and Islamic practice.

Ukip justifies its proposed ban in terms of animal welfare, referring to the need to put the "ethical treatment of animals" above the beliefs of religious groups. This is all well and good, and as it happens it is something I agree with. Yet Ukip deliberately uses divisive language that sets the "silent majority" against minority Jewish and Muslim communities.

It is worth remembering that as well as revealing shocking mistreatment of animals at a Halal abattoir, Animal Aid also uncovered appalling abuse in a number of other abattoirs that did use stunning, including footage of animals being punched in the head, burnt with cigarettes and given electric shocks.

Moreover, when Ukip talks about upholding the "UK's compassionate traditions of animal welfare", I assume it isn't referring to its desire to reintroduce fox-hunting, which, let's remember, involves a pack of dogs tearing a frightened animal to pieces. One cannot help but suspect that the party's proposed ban on religious slaughter is more about courting anti-Islamic sentiment and the far right vote than standing up for the ethical and humane treatment of animals.

Ukip's sudden concern for animal welfare rings particularly false when you consider its dreadful record on animal welfare issues in the European Parliament. Just take the fight against wildlife crime and illegal poaching. Last January, Ukip MEPs voted against measures to protect elephants and crack down on the illegal ivory trade. And when a few months ago I invited MEPs to co-sign my letter to the European Commission demanding an EU action plan against wildlife crime, I received 82 signatures from across the political spectrum yet not a single one of Ukip's 23 MEPs voiced their support.

Ukip has also voted against an EU ban on importing seal fur, with Ukip MEP Roger Helmer claiming that dumb seal cubs deserve to be killed and that, "it's mawkish, sentimental and unhelpful to adopt a Bambi attitude to animals".

So I would argue that Ukip's latest proposal has more to do with the politics of division and fear than animal welfare. Like most people, I was sickened by the footage of animals being routinely abused in slaughterhouses. I want to see a lot more being done to clamp down on this cruel treatment. That is why I'm calling for stricter enforcement of EU animal welfare laws that specify animals slaughtered without pre-stunning should be spared any avoidable suffering.

Improving the treatment of animals can be done without stirring up tensions or singling out particular communities. This is a problem for all of us, and the best way to address it is by working together, across Britain and across the EU.

Catherine Bearder is the Liberal Democrat MEP for the South East. She tweets at @catherinemep

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation