Why Michael Gove’s proposed ban on exporting live animals won’t “take back control” of animal rights

The debate around live animal exports suggests the government’s post-Brexit vision of animal welfare is driven as much by self-interest as compassion.

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The phrase “take back control” has a forceful, almost bullish ring to it. But its appeal also lies in a promise of replacing present EU regulations with kinder, more humane practices. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated, perhaps, than in the debate around the export of live farm animals for slaughter abroad.

Last year, 20,000 sheep are reported to have left the country for slaughter in the EU. The National Farmers Union says that present EU rules mean these journeys need not be considered a health and welfare issue “if properly controlled” – and that it is working to “further enhance and regulate” the existing standards in the event of Brexit.

Yet animal welfare groups disagree. To them, only an outright ban  (something currently prevented by EU single market ruleswill fully safeguard animal welfare. 

“It’s unacceptable and completely unnecessary that live animals are exported and transported over long distances for slaughter or further fattening,” says Dr Marc Cooper, head of the RSPCA’s Farm Animals Department, which has been calling for a ban “for decades”.

Furthermore, many animals end up in countries where protections are far less well developed than our own. “Once they leave the UK, we have no control over the conditions in which they are kept or slaughtered. We cannot allow this to continue,” warns Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).

In this light it is surprising that the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has issued a call for evidence on "a potential ban on the live export of animals for slaughter" – but not for a ban on export for both slaughter and fattening.

Such a compromise risks pleasing neither farmers nor welfare groups. According to CIWF, the proposed ban “does not go far enough”, while the National Farmer’s Union would like to see the government deliver the “full” new live export scheme they’ve proposed, and thus avoid a ban altogether.

So why has Gove gone to the effort of picking his way, like a wild mountain goat, through this thorny subject?

His official statement stresses the government’s recent turn towards animal-friendly policies; “All animals deserve to get the respect and care they deserve at every stage of their lives.”

But if animal welfare his is aim, why not go the whole hog with the ban?

One reason suggested by Conservative MP Steve Double in the recent debate, is that animals exported for fattening or breeding have a higher value than those sold for immediate slaughter, and so “are usually far more cared for”. But this argument hardly guarantees control of animal welfare at all stages of farm to fork.

The appeal of a half-ban on live animal exports becomes clearer, however, in the context of managing the logistical chaos that could descend on the export industry post-Brexit.

The need for new border checks and certifications if Britain leaves the customs union could create long delays at ports and borders, according to a recent parliamentary report on the post-Brexit trade in food.

The British Meat Processors Association told the report’s authors that Dover and Holyhead may be unable to cope with the likely amount of border clearances involved without new investment and support. Meanwhile the RSPCA raised concerns that leaving the EU could mean loss of access to the web-based veterinarian certification tool used exchange information and to aid enforcement.

These problems will, of course, remain in the case of a partial ban. But if more animals are “transported on the hook, as meat, not on the hoof,” as the British Veterinary Association President has so bluntly put it, then there will be less live animals to process, which could help reduce delays.

In this context, Gove’s decision to take back control of animal welfare after Brexit exposes the fault lines in the government’s wider Brexit project: its terms will be better defined by compromise and necessity than by compassion and consistent argument.

Whatever Gove decides, this is a debate that matters greatly to the rest of the world. So far, only New Zealand has implemented any kind of live export ban, yet the welfare abuses are widespread and harrowing in the extreme. Just this week, Guardian analysis showed Australian regulators have let multiple mass animal deaths during transport go unpunished or opposed.

“This issue is being considered in a number of other countries, and at an EU level, so the UK taking a lead on this could provide a much welcome stimulus to those discussions,” says CIWF’s Philip Lymbery. In this respect, any ban on live exports is to be welcomed. In terms of maintaining the rhetoric of “control”, however, only a full ban will do.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.