Brexit and the future of animal welfare

Deregulating trade while curbing immigration would lead to a sharp decline in animal welfare.


Two years of negotiations have dragged by to lead up to this pivotal point of Brexit badminton across the Channel.

Theresa May has narrowly passed the Withdrawal Bill through cabinet, amid resignations. But the 27 EU states are yet to finalise their verdict and the Labour opposition and the DUP can still vote it down. Anything could happen. Brexit nonetheless rumbles ahead, and the UK is heading towards leaving EU – irrespective of whether there is a deal or not.

Activists and campaigners are therefore becoming increasingly worried for the future of animal welfare in the UK and what policies will stay standing when the government itself is on its last legs.

Welfare legislation 

According to the government’s draft White Paper, there are 12,000 EU regulations in full force in the UK.

The EU is renowned for its innovative, pro-animal welfare stance. It’s no surprise that 80 percent of current animal welfare legislation in the UK is implemented by the EU, including the regulation and safety of chemicals for animal testing as well as the protection of wildlife, farm animals and domestic companions.

Article 13 (title II) of the Lisbon Treaty sees animals as ‘sentient beings’ and observes that the suffering or distress of animals should be diminished as much as possible.

Not only did the UK government first reject Article 13 last year, but translating all these laws across adequately – and within a ticking timeframe – is proving increasingly difficult since these laws rely on European upkeepers and organisations of which the UK will no longer have access to come March 2019. 

Once the UK is out of the EU trading bloc, the gates of opportunity swings onto the US. Keen to strike a US-UK partnership, the UK is faced with the double-edged sword of worsening trade laws with the EU or adapting the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) book of rules in which standards fall short of the EU and UK’s bar.  

Trading rules

Many Westminster MPs have strongly opposed the idea that a trade deal with the US would see a decline in food hygiene, quality and animal welfare.

Yet the US administration are stern in dictating the trading rules in that the UK must eliminate its “unjustified sanitary or phytosanitary restrictions”.

As a result, the Home Office have failed to write-up any legally binding commitments that uphold food hygiene and humane animal treatment post-Brexit.

Depending on the outcome of the latest Brexit and cabinet squabbles, if the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – who finds the WTO model and terms favourable – steps up the Prime Minister’s podium, horror stories of chlorine washed chicken, ractopamine riddled pigs and hormone enhanced beef hitting British shores may be closer than we think. 

If the UK’s imports are slacking in hygiene and welfare practices, the UK farmer is tasked with the impossible burden of remaining competitive in the market during a time when a plummeting pound only serves to boost the attractiveness of cheaper and unethical imported meat.

Declining workforce

To avoid profits suffering at the supermarket, farmers will be inclined to lower their current standards and resistant to adopt initiatives that evolve the welfare of farm animals. It’s a lose-lose situation: either the farmer struggles to stay afloat or the animals become the collateral damage.  

Exacerbating an already dire situation for farmers in the UK, animal welfare is not the only consequence of a badly dealt Brexit.

According to a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report, the farming industry is at a great risk of losing substantial chunks of its workforce. On some farms, up to 40 percent of staff originate from the EU which can rise to as high as 58 percent on poultry farms during seasonal peaks such as turkey farmers for Christmas.

In a bid to alleviate strain, Environment Secretary Michael Gove plans to launch a two-year Agricultural Scheme that would allow up to 2,500 migrant workers into the UK each year and for six months at a time. However, many farming organisations claim the scheme is just a drop in the ocean at filling the 60,000 horticultural and agricultural workers the UK employs from overseas every year. 

Even higher numbers of migrants work in abattoirs and as vets. A House of Lords report on ‘Brexit: Farm Animal Welfare’ found 75 percent of abattoir workers and 90 percent of vets in the UK are EU nationals.

Visa requirements 

However, little has been done to ease recruiters’ concerns as the British Veterinary Association (BVA) warn a severe shortage of Official Veterinarians could be on the horizon post-Brexit. The BVA warn that when the UK’s trading rules change, more Official Veterinarians will be required to supervise imports and exports and sign health certificates for live animals and animal products.

Nigel Gibbens, Chief Veterinary Officer in the UK expects that the volume of products requiring veterinary certification could increase by 325 percent. The shortage of vets is such an oversight that the BVA are urging the government to place vets on the UK’s Shortage Occupation List. 

However, the UK government are aggravating the situation. Since EU settlers in the future will receive “no special treatment”, it is expected that they will be subjected to current visa rules and immigration.

EU farm workers, abattoirs, technicians, animal researchers, scientists, therapists and care takers, will require a Tier 2 Visa to work in the UK. The problem with this is that the majority of these skilled professions fall short at reaching the £30,000 minimum income requirement of this visa category.

For those that do earn past the threshold, migrants can be refused entry once the 20,700 annual cap has been reached. Farmers will also need to fill out a Sponsor Licence application and issue certificates to every non-UK worker they employ, piling on additional financial and administrative strain. 

Inhumane practices

Activists may try and encourage the British consumer to invest in locally sourced and ethically produced meat, but when food banks are rising and poverty is spreading, unethical food practises fly under the radar. The British public have not stopped buying chicken from discount supermarkets despite the hundreds of deaths and food poisoning cases caused by campylobacter every year because it’s cheap.

Oxfam’s latest report, the ‘Barcode on Food’ echoes similarly that cheap food comes at a cost: the produce that the UK currently receives doesn’t always uphold humane practices. The exploitation of workers is rife, yet Aldi, Asda, Lidl and Whole Foods who continue to peddle poverty and injustices through their supply chains are booming in business. 

David Bowles, Head of Public Affairs at RSPCA claimed: “Brexit offers huge opportunities to give animals a better deal in the UK”, which it does if the government can adequately write up and heighten its laws.

However, when a government dares to call its concrete-grey Autumn Budget environmentally “green” because of its initiative to plant a few trees alongside its billion pounds worth of road infrastructures, and when that government can barely agree on whether the cruel practice of fox hunting should be allowed, all hope is lost for the safety and welfare of animals.

On top of this, when immigration is curbed and access to dedicated workers is stifled, the situation for the UK’s voiceless and defenceless creatures is even bleaker.    

This Author 

Olivia Bridge is a content writer and political correspondent at the UK’s leading Immigration Advice Service