Brexit: what does the trade agreement mean for animal welfare?
A blog by David Bowles, our dedicated Head of Campaigns and Public Affairs.
After four years, two Prime Ministers, two elections and with only seven days remaining until the UK left the EU, a Brexit deal was finally agreed on Christmas Eve.
Here at the RSPCA, we always looked at the Brexit issue through the lens of what it would mean for animal welfare. As with every complicated issue, there were both opportunities and threats from Brexit, which we consistently pointed out once the Referendum result was announced.
Threats included the scale of the issue, the threats from no deal and the impact of farm deregulation. While opportunities also existed, for example, the opportunity to end live transports. So, what do the 1,279 pages of the deal, or to give it the full name - the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) - actually mean? And does this mean Brexit is finally done?
We have read all those pages so you don't have to - here's our analysis...
It's better than no deal
Having a deal was always going to be better for animal welfare than leaving without a deal. No deal would have meant high tariffs being imposed on our trade in food, agricultural goods and pet food - leading to disruption on exports, particularly for those EU reliant sectors.
For instance, a collapse in sheep meat exports may have driven a crash in sheep prices, resulting in welfare problems across the sector. It would have also disrupted imports - particularly products such as eggs where we relied on the EU for those imports, where the welfare standards matched our own.
We would then have had to look elsewhere for our imported food. Yet, of the countries we were talking to as prospective partners, the USA, Canada or Australia, all had lower welfare standards than us. It would have fired the starting gun on the biggest race to the bottom for welfare standards that the UK had experienced.
So the deal is to be welcomed. But, as the previous position had been no tariffs and no borders, it's the only free trade agreement that has ever been signed that increases, not reduces, paperwork and tariffs
Six areas to judge Brexit's impact on animal welfare
Here are the main opportunities and risks to come out of Brexit's trade agreement. First, the good news:
1. Tariffs and taxes: No tariffs mean we shouldn't be pressured to buy lower welfare products
Most importantly, especially for food and the farming industries, is the agreement for no tariffs on primary food and farm products. We can continue to export sheep meat without 60% taxes to the EU, as well as import eggs from Spain without 30% tariffs, which would all drive up prices. This is very positive and should prevent us from having to search for cheaper products produced to lower standards in other parts of the world.
2. Divergence from poorer EU standards: Opportunities for better farm animal welfare standards
The UK wanted the ability to diverge from European animal welfare standards. We achieved this and have acted quickly to show the benefits. For example, ending the live exports of animals. Sending live sheep and calves on never-ending journeys around the continent was always an anachronism. It resonated with the public and was the only animal welfare issue discussed in the Referendum.
The English and Welsh Government's consultation on ending live exports is due to close this month and is something that would not have been possible if we were still a member of the EU.
There are other positives too. We can now also extend the mandatory method of production labelling from just eggs to informing consumers how their meat chickens, pigs and milk is produced. Another consultation is expected in the coming few months.
We can start to draw up new baseline standards for dairy and beef cattle and raise standards in the pig industry by, for example, ending sow stalls. Even more importantly, the trade agreement gives a provision to stop the UK from being undercut by cheaper imports of food that would be illegal to produce in Great Britain.
Then there's the money. We have already agreed to divert the £2.4 billion of farm subsidies that England currently pays its farmers based on the size of their farm to how they can improve animal health and welfare and the environment.
This starts this year and, although it will take around eight years to fully deliver, it's the biggest shake-up in farming for 70 years. It is hoped that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will also produce similar schemes.
Now for the bad news...
3. Paperwork: An increase in forms could mean that animals could be unnecessarily held up at ports
The deal has seen an increase in form filling. Whether it's moving Welsh lamb to France or taking your dog with you on holiday to Northern Ireland, there will be more forms to fill out and this could inevitably lead to more queues at the ports.
It's still too early to judge, but reports of 25% of lorries not having the right paperwork at channel ports show the scale of the issue right now. We need to ensure that it doesn't impact on those live animals being legitimately transported across borders, such as racehorses going to the Derby. More paperwork also means more vets are needed to sign all those forms...
4. Qualifications: No agreement could mean a shortage of vets
There has been no agreement on recognising qualifications, such as those needed for veterinary practice. This means that British welfare charities may not be able to send their vets to Greece to neuter cats and it may also stop European vets from coming to the UK to work and sign all of that additional paperwork.
In some sectors, this is a major concern - for instance, 95% of vets working to enforce our welfare standards in abattoirs are EU nationals, as are a significant percentage of those working in establishments using animals in research and testing.
5. New data: A second database could lead to increased and duplicate animal testing
The UK is going to have to replicate the EU's chemicals database, as the agreement made with the EU does not allow for continued access. This will mean manufacturers and suppliers of chemicals having to set up new processes, renegotiate data sharing agreements and re-submit data dossiers into a UK-only system.
The cost of doing this has been estimated to be £1 billion and it will take years to do. More significantly, we're concerned that this (along with the absence of any agreement between the UK and EU to recognise test data produced in each other's jurisdictions going forward) could lead to increased and duplicate animal testing.
6. Divergence from EU standards: As well as standards being raised, they can also be lowered
The Government can not only raise animal standards but they can lower them too - as shown by the announcement this month to consider allowing gene editing of farm animals in England.
Here at the RSPCA, we oppose this practice for ethical and animal welfare reasons. Plus, it's still an unpredictable technology and in some cases has been shown to have unintended consequences. It's also not a good look for a Government aspiring to have the highest standards of animal welfare in the world.
In conclusion, Brexit brings both opportunities and threats
In summary, as with all negotiations, there are opportunities and threats. We must also remember the deal is less than a month old, and in many areas (such as fisheries, data acceptance and mutual recognition of qualifications) further negotiations are required that could take years to agree. Brexit is by no means complete.
The trade agreement is also only as good as its enforcement. With twenty new committees and four new processes to assess compliance, it could take decades to bed down. But one thing is clear - the RSPCA will be there to fight for Britain's animal welfare standards and to ensure that politicians make good on their promises for the UK to have the highest welfare standards and to continually improve these.
The trade agreement sets up a specific forum for organisations such as the RSPCA to make its case and we will use this and other mechanisms to make a success of Brexit for the animals.
As always, thank you for your continued support and campaigning efforts but know that our work is far from done.
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