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The potential impacts of Brexit on welfare

Would a no-deal Brexit lead to compromised animal welfare standards?

13 March 2019, at 9:30a.m.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by a majority of MPs, it would appear as though the UK is heading for an abrupt departure from the EU. Animal welfare activists have long petitioned against a no-deal Brexit as fears mount over extra regulations, increased border delays, extortionate export tariffs, food “rotting in the fields”, medicine shortages and slackened animal welfare standards. Exacerbating matters, a brutal consequence of no-deal is that there would be no “implementation”period to smooth over the transition.

The UK is racing against the clock to ensure some 12,000 EU regulations are transferred into UK understanding before Brexit, including 80 percent of the EU’s animal welfare legislations covering farm animals, wildlife, companion animals and research. With Brexit now fast approaching, the BVA warns that all these laws must be converted by 29 March 2019 or risk animal welfare standards “evaporating”.

The UK boasts some of the highest food hygiene and welfare practices in the world. However, a cause for concern over animal welfare is born out of the UK’s future trading terms with countries beyond the continent.

The casualty of a trade deal with the US could drive UK farmers out of business: foreign producers who exercise unethical methods offer significantly cheaper meat. Farmers may be inclined to resist any further expensive welfare reforms or may lobby for relaxed regulations, just to stay competitive within the market. US Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, has already stated that the UK would have to adopt American standards in a US–UK trade deal, while only days ago, the US’ agri-business sector appealed to Washington to stand firm against the UK’s regulatory “barriers”. UK ministers, with little place left to turn, could cave to such demands, paving the way for chlorine washed chicken and hormone pumped beef and pork to be sold on British supermarket shelves.

Once the UK is listed as a third country in the EU’s eyes – a process which the National Farmers’ Union found could take as long as six months – the demand for Official Veterinarians (OVs) who oversee the trade and hygiene of animal produce will rocket. UK Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, estimates a no-deal will require 225 percent more OVs to sign off Export Health Certificates for trading purposes.

With the removal of veterinary roles from the UK’s Shortage Occupation List in 2011, Free Movement stepped in to supplement the shortages. Statistics from the RCVS show that most of the UK vet profession are either of EU origin or graduated from an EU university, including 22 percent of academic staff who train undergraduates, 45 percent of vets who work in governmental services and 95 percent of OVs who work in public health critical roles. Prior to the EU referendum, a 2015 BVA survey showed 40 percent of practices took over three months to recruit – or ended up withdrawing their vacancy entirely. In a follow-up survey in November 2018, shortages in veterinary surgeons and nurses accounted for workforce shortages of 11.5 percent and 7.6 percent respectively.

Combating skills gaps and existing vacancy shortages at a time when OVs are required the most will only be hindered by the government’s post-Brexit immigration plan. The December 2018 Immigration White Paper hints of a seasonal agricultural pilot which will welcome no more than 2,500 non-UK workers to support the farming industry, which is a drop in the ocean to the 60,000 staff members the Farmers’ Association claims it hires every year.

For the majority of migrant abattoir staff and veterinary graduates, the Tier 2 Visa salary requirement of £30,000 will exempt them from working in the UK altogether. The BVA claims that this could lead to a “near total wipe-out” of vets in UK slaughterhouses. Yet without a “significant increase in the UK’s veterinary capacity”, Defra claims it will “be unable to process the increased volume of export health certificates it expects if there is a no deal.”

While Brexit does offer the UK a unique opportunity to improve the welfare of animals such as banning live animal exports, advancing produce labelling, banning cosmetic animal testing, tightening on illegal and exploitative pet trading and incentivising good animal welfare practices for British farmers, it is expected that the UK will mostly be at the mercy of the World Trading Organisation, which is unlikely to reciprocate such measures.

Time is ticking for the government to extend its commitment to the welfare of animals. Despite Defra championing its latest trade deals with 15 countries as a success, it still has a further 139 to go before 29 March. It’s a depressing outcome for UK farmers, vets and animals. Irrespective of the UK’s trade negotiations, without a revised immigration system or streamlined alternative to recruit dedicated workers across the veterinary and agricultural sectors, shortages and delays will only grow, sacrificing the welfare of animals with them.