Nick Palmer wants to avoid the traps on animal cruelty

One of the traps for the new Labour leadership is the notion that politics in Britain today is entirely about deficit reduction. How to do it? How fast? How much? Yes, we need to have an intelligent and balanced response to the Tory-Lib Dem government’s cuts frenzy, but Labour victories have always been based not just on good management but on policies to make our society better.

One element of the 1997 victory was the separate New Life for Animals manifesto, which set out a long list of ways that Labour would make Britain more compassionate. The best-known reform was of course the hunting ban, but arguably the animal welfare act 2006 will change the life of animals in Britain more deeply, because it makes it possible for future government to introduce easily-passed secondary legislation on everything from circus animals to pet markets. It was the first comprehensive animal welfare legislation for 96 years.

And, yet, the impetus from1997 in this, as in other areas, gradually dwindled. The 2010 Labour manifesto said precisely nothing concrete about animal welfare, as though we felt that the matter had been dealt with. Obstinately, though, it remains near the top of the list of issues that constituents raise with MPs, and it is one of the issues which actually shift votes on its own: lifelong Tories voted Labour in 1997 because of New Life for Animals.  My Conservative successor as MP for Broxtowe is openly irritated by the constituents who pester her on everything from whale-hunting to the ill-treatment of caged farm animals; why do they not concentrate on tax cuts for businesses like normal people?

The first of the leadership candidates to take this seriously is likely to get a warm reception from many members. It doesn’t require a significant spending commitment, merely a little more focus. Some suggestions:

Review the operation of the hunting ban. The hunting ban is one of our achievements and more effective than is reputed, which is why the countryside alliance is so keen to see it reversed. However, some hunts are systematically evading it and enforcement is patchy.

Work to reduce the number of animal experiments. The number of animal experiments rose by 37% during Labour’s term of office, with over 3.6 million animals used in 2009. Comparatively few experiments are directly into treatment for serious human illnesses; and even where they are there are often real questions about their scientific reliability. Increasingly, there are good, inexpensive alternatives available which the home office could encourage. Companies often say that they go through the motions with safety tests that they know to be unnecessary, simply because of over-conservative regulators.

Take a lead in promoting better conditions for farm animals. As one of the world’s leading trading blocs, the EU is in a strong position to take a lead in reducing the intensity of factory farming. Britain should be leading the community in pressing for better conditions. The success of free-range eggs and increasing consumer demand for high-welfare standards in food shows the real interest in improvements – and Labour can take an ethical lead by responding to it.

Ban performing animals in circuses. The outgoing government was poised to introduce a ban on this medieval spectacle. The change would only need secondary legislation under the animal welfare act, yet the Tory-Lib Dem government appears to have quietly buried the idea.

There is a strand of left-wing opinion that dismisses concern about animals as a distraction from the real job of “protecting the human”, as the Amnesty International slogan puts it. But why should we accept this false choice? It is easy to see the same pattern of maltreatment of vulnerable humans and animals: economic exploitation by the powerful and indifference to genuine welfare.  Amoebas are probably only able to consider one thought at a time: those of us with more than one cell should be able to pursue cruelty and exploitation in all its forms. Is that not, ultimately, what brought most of us into the Labour party?

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010. He is now Director of International and Corporate Affairs for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

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4 Responses to “Nick Palmer wants to avoid the traps on animal cruelty”

  1. James Ruddick says:

    Excellent and important.

  2. John Eastwood says:

    “Ban performing animals in circuses. The outgoing government was poised to introduce a ban on this medieval spectacle.”

    Why? I see little evidence that circuses mistreat animals, or that it is in some way cruel.

    Its not like they are indulging in dog fighting, most circus animals are highly trained and intelgent “pets”, and I suspect enjoy performing…

    All you would achive is the banning of a small and increasingly rare from of traditional childern’s entertainment, without doing any good to animal welfare atall.

    I used to work in farming. Frankly, the best thing that could happen is a repeal of every peice of animal welfare legislation the last labour government enacted. The problem with this sort of legislation is it is written by people who know nothing about how farming actually works, nor anything about what actually is cruel to animals, and who certainly totally fail to understand the law of unintended consiquences.

    Before I’m accused of being from “big industry farming” I’m not. I hate and dispise battery hen produces, caged meat production etc. BUT, the last labour government wasn’t doing anything to solve those problems. No, they were too busy loading small family farms with un-implentable rules about livestock handling and tracking, and frequently bankcrupting them by withholding subsidy payments for technical breaches of rules. This is dispite small farms almost always being the most humane and careing about their livestock, and it generally being kept in the best conditions…

  3. Brian Corbett says:

    The Hunting Ban was a class-war piece of legislation which achieved nothing in animal welfare terms.

    The local Hunt has 40% more riders and around 50% more foot-followers than before the ban and the number of foxes hunted and killed has, if anything, risen over that period.

    It was bad legislation, right from the outset, and it’s repeal would be A Good Thing.

    Those who no nothing about village and small-town life (and those who live and work in the countryside on a daily basis) should keep out of it.

    Don’t legislate about what you neither know nor understand.

  4. Nick Palmer says:

    Brian: my father tried hunting and decided it was cruel; my uncle hunted regularly and marched with the Countryside Alliance (he admitted it was unpleasant for the fox but thought the sport was too wonderful to stop). So my interest in it has nothing to do with class war. Nor is it about maximising fox numbers. It’s about preventing unnecessary suffering, especially when it’s just for sport. I agree with you that ban is not sufficiently effective, though…

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