Neil Hudson is a Veterinary Surgeon and University Teacher, and was the Conservative candidate in Edinburgh South in 2010 and Newcastle North in 2005.
Animal welfare, farming and Brexit need not be mutually exclusive. That is the message coming out loud and clear from the new Johnson administration. This was confirmed when the Prime Minister in his first speech on the steps of Number 10 referred to “our amazing food and farming sector” and said, “let’s promote the welfare of animals that has always been so close to the hearts of the British people.”
Oliver Heald articulated this month on this site that the Prime Minister needs to maintain our record on animal welfare. I very much agree, but would argue that already he has made his intentions clear that farming and animal welfare are a big priority for his administration. As a veterinary surgeon, I firmly believe we have the best farmers and the highest standards of animal welfare anywhere in the world.
It is frustrating that the media and opposition politicians keep plugging the myth that this will somehow be compromised by Brexit. There is no reason why these high standards should not continue after we leave the EU. Indeed, there is much scope for our standards to be upheld and ultimately for the UK to drive up standards in our trading partners as we go on to secure trade agreements.
Theresa Villiers has a full in-tray and indeed faces big challenges, but they are surmountable. Pressing issues include the live transport of animals for export, veterinary manpower needs, disease surveillance, tariffs on agricultural products and possible surpluses of produce.
The new DEFRA Secretary inherits a department in good order from Michael Gove. He put the department at the centre of government and achieved some great things (for example, introducing a new Agriculture Bill and the Animal Welfare [Sentencing] Bill). As a former Northern Ireland Secretary, she understands the importance of trade across that particular border. And as a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, she has long been an advocate of transporting ‘on the hook not the hoof.’
The live transport issue is solvable; it needs to end, but this needs to be done pragmatically, when the farming sector has adapted to allow the farming of animals involved to be used for food in this country. For example, we need to encourage the rearing of dairy bull calves locally and encourage more usage of less popular cuts and types of meat in this country so that UK animals can be born, reared and slaughtered locally. That way the drive for live export will be extinguished.
The issue of veterinary manpower shortages (pre- and post- Brexit) is being addressed, both short and long term. On his last day as Home Secretary, Sajid Javid approved the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation that vets be restored to the Shortage Occupation List.
This means it will be easier to address recruitment needs. To put this in perspective, each year currently 50 per cent of new registrants to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons are from EU countries, and over 90 per cent of vets working in the UK meat hygiene sector are from other EU countries. Long-term, we need more vets, but in recent years we have seen a new Vet School (University of Surrey) and next year Keele/Harper Adams is taking in its first cohort of students to their new Veterinary School.
There has been much scaremongering in recent days that in the absence of a deal, thousands or indeed millions of farm animals will be slaughtered. This is just not going to happen. Do we really expect that the EU and UK will sit back and allow this to take place? Having witnessed those sorts of scenes when I was a Temporary Veterinary Inspector in the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis I am sure that common sense will prevail to avoid this; deals will be made, food and milk sold, animals looked after.
There has also been talk about chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being the price to pay for a trade deal with the USA. Michael Gove, when DEFRA Secretary, stated that welfare standards won’t be reduced, and chlorinated chicken won’t be allowed in the UK. I am sure this will still be the case now, considering his role in Brexit planning. The Prime Minister may well have his ‘Love Actually’ moment with the US President, but I don’t think it will be over chicken or beef.
He has also shown that he genuinely believes in these priorities of food, farming and animal welfare by some eye-catching ministerial appointments. I have already mentioned Villiers. Also in her department is the re-appointed George Eustice, who knows more about agriculture than everyone on the Opposition benches put together. Also in DEFRA and DfID is Zac Goldsmith, another champion of animal welfare, and a patron of Conservative Animal Foundation (as incidentally is Carrie Symonds).
I am confident that the Government is on the case with these important issues and, contrary to much of the coverage, I believe that our gold standard animal health and welfare can and will continue. With strategic thinking across Government in departments like DEFRA, International Trade and the Home Office this can be achieved. All the signs so far point to this being a very joined-up government. Indeed, if we grasp the agenda, Brexit can be a real opportunity for us to drive up these important standards across the world.