RSPCA special report: Reminding governments of their duty of care to animals

Neil Parish discusses how a British politician can drive up improvements in animal welfare. Published in Total Politics magazineMany people are bemused when they discover my interest in animal welfare. They find it contradictory that a farmer should care about the cruel and unusual treatment that people across the globe subject animals to. This is a huge misunderstanding of the mentality of farmers in this country. Like me, most farmers would be horrified to discover that livestock they had reared had been subjected to the treatment suffered by cows and pigs that are not stunned properly or are unfortunate enough to meet their end at the hands of someone who simply wants to make their last moments alive miserable for their own amusement.I have had plenty of experience of promoting animal welfare during my time in the European Parliament. As president of the Parliament's inter-group on animal welfare and chairman of the agriculture and rural development committee, I was in a very good position to drive up improvements in animal welfare such as preventing the export of British horses to mainland Europe where they are destined for human consumption or meeting Chinese officials to discuss the cruel practice of bear bile farming.Animal welfare issues are often seen as barriers to progress by many decisionmakers as they impose additional costs and regulations. Because of this, you really do have to make a nuisance of yourself. This is necessary if you are to remind government of their duty to uphold and protect the welfare of animals.One of the fundamental weaknesses of current legislation is proper food labelling and customer choice. The British public have shown time and again that, when given the choice, they will buy ethically and buy responsibly. The problem is that they are often not given the choice. Customers are unaware of the country the animal came from, nor indeed the conditions it was kept in. This lack of choice came to a head with the recent revelation that major supermarkets have been selling halal meat without any labelling informing consumers that they are consuming meat from an animal that has not been not been painlessly stunned before slaughter. I fully accept that there has to be exceptions to the usual animal welfare standards for religious reasons but it should be labelled as such. By keeping people in the dark with such matters, they are unwittingly supporting the inhumane slaughter of animals. The problem is not just confined to Britain. In France, half of sheep slaughtered each year are not stunned before they are killed, in compliance with Islamic dietary requirements. This is an area in which British politicians in Westminster and Brussels can make a difference. We need to ensure that the rest of Europe meets high standards of animal welfare and, indeed, the rest of the world. Another area of concern in Europe is the treatment of broiler hens whose eggs are to be used to produce powdered or liquid eggs, which are used in the manufacture of cakes and confectionery. Producers whose eggs find their way onto our supermarket shelves are subject to high welfare standards and are usually labelled as such for marketing purposes. This is not so for powdered and liquid egg produce. There isn't the same level of transparency for customers as there is in free-range eggs from a supermarket. I would like to see this change.Some of the work we are doing on the associate parliamentary group on animal welfare revolves around the rules in England and Wales that govern breeds of dangerous dogs. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 prohibits four types of dog: the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. But it is not the species that is banned but the 'type'. This means that whether a dog is considered dangerous, and therefore prohibited, will depend on a judgment about its physical characteristics, and whether they match the description of a prohibited 'type'.This is highly problematic. I do not think that this adequately takes into account the way in which the dog has been raised or treated by its owner. Dogs owned by gangs are often used as a legally-held weapon and deliberately mistreated to maximize their aggression. Breed-specific legislation is clumsy and does not hold irresponsible dog owners to account. Recently the Scottish Government brought in a Control of Dogs Act (Scotland) which is more focused on the behaviour of the dog, both in public and in private, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that we in England still have.