In which Mina da Rui quizzes our Medway parliamentary candidates on animal welfare issues, and analyses their responses..
Instead of our regular style of iFAQ, we’ve tried something a little different this week. There’s plenty of interesting subjects we know little about, and unlike Michael Gove, we are now sick of experts. As such, every now and again, we’re going to ask people who know particular subjects to pose questions to our politicians and analyse their responses. For this first edition, we invited Mina da Rui, former Animal Welfare Party candidate, to pose questions to our Medway parliamentary candidates on, well, animal welfare issues. Their responses, along with Mina’s analysis are below..
Which elements of your party’s manifesto (or your own, if you are standing independently) or recent track record do you think to make voting for you a good choice for anyone with ethical concerns for animals, both as individuals and as species?
Alan Bullion, Liberal Democrat (Gillingham and Rainham), highlights tougher penalties for animal cruelty perpetrators (increasing max. sentencing to five years in prison) and cites Lib Dem commitments to ending the illegal importation of pets through better regulation of online sales, ‘significant cutting’ down on animal experimentation and allocating more resources to ‘clamp down’ on the illegal trade of wildlife and its byproducts – oh, and of fish. While the instinct to punish animal abusers and deter potential ones through tough penalties is a knee-jerk reaction for many of us, scholar Justin Marceau has some very progressive thoughts on why that’s taking the problem the wrong way round, as animal cruelty comes in many forms, and by stigmatising some while tolerating others, we are making it harder for ourselves as a society to think logically about these things and work on overall systemic change. Bullion’s resolutions are however clearly thought through with care and could still bring some benefits to the welfare of animals.
The Green candidates who responded, Geoff Wilkinson (Chatham and Aylesford) and Sonia Hyner (Rochester and Strood) took a notably holistic approach to this question, recognising, in Wilkinson’s words, ‘both accidental and deliberate’ man-made disruption to the lives of ‘many other species’. Wilkinson emphasises the importance of raising public awareness and suitable legislative protections to further ‘the rights and needs of animals’ and takes a bold stance as he echoes his Party’s outlook: ‘The prevailing assumption that animals can be used in any way and for any purpose that benefits humankind is not acceptable to the Green Party, and we are the only major party that will give this issue the resources and priority needed.’
Equally bold in her commitment to animal welfare improvements, Hyner cites the Green manifesto’s ambition to ‘transform our relationship with animals’ and enshrine sentience in law, making it a criterion for decision-making in ‘relevant government policy’, and acknowledges ‘the systematic mistreatment of animals’. It remains to be seen what Westminster can be convinced to see as ‘relevant’ to animals, however. Virtually all policy affects animals, and if their interests are not recognised as primary criteria in all decision-making and bolstered by high potential for implementation and enforcement, perhaps supported by a concept of ‘respect by design’ (or something a bit snappier-sounding, any spin doctors in the house?).
Hyner’s stance presents the particularity, shared by her fellow Green respondent Wilkinson’s, that she considers different modes of animal abuse jointly – the ones which are still commonly deemed acceptable, like factory farming, entertainment and experiments, and the ones stigmatised as fringe events, i.e. companion and domestic animal abuse, for instance. Of course, the perspectives outlined by our two Green respondents are still based on a balance of interests tipped towards human benefits and enjoyment, as they do not seek to ban either the exploitation of animals altogether, or their killing when economic interests are deemed to override them. That is not to say these candidates’ commitments are not at the most progressive edge of the spectrum among the main parties, which the Greens have worked hard to become part of. Many powerful vested interests – industry lobbies placing heavy pressure on policymaking, for instance – and psychological barriers in most voters’ busy brains all getting in the way of large parties feeling secure enough to offer truly radical change for members of other animal species.
While the evidence increasingly shows that badgers are not the key issue in bovine tuberculosis, their mass killing for the benefit of those keeping and buying products from mass-farmed cows is, if anything, intensifying. The Green Party, presumably having done their research, want to end this massacre. The Party tolerates other forms of intentional killing of wildlife where humans have tampered with ecosystems so much that population control of non-humans is requires, but insists on humane methods carried out by ‘trained professionals’, which admittedly would have a marked impact on the lives and deaths of many wild animals, who often die in unspeakable agony for the purpose of attempts to fix the damage done to ecosystems. Hyner proposes banning snares, finding ‘no place for these instruments of torture in our countryside’. The Green Party, explains Hyner, is broadly opposed to all forms of hunting and commercial shooting.
Other policies mentioned by our Green respondents include tougher rules on the transport of exploited animals and banning live exports, ending the use of some animal species in research and a commitment to eventually see all animal testing banned (good, because science – real science – shows that most animal experiments are anti-science at best, to be fair). ‘We will work’, adds Hyner, ‘to minimise all stress causing practices during the “production” of animal based food products’.
Greens are not known for seeming overly concerned with putting/keeping Britain on the map, especially compared to more conservative political entities still fuelled by feverish visions of empire, yet there is no doubt that if such bold approaches came to be implemented, the UK would see its reputation for innovation, inclusiveness, respect and holistic thinking – as well as animal protection standards per se – rise dramatically in relation to just about any country in the world. Just about.
Peter Cook, independent (Gillingham and Rainham), deplores the recent repeal of the only legal provision explicitly recognising animal sentience and a move back towards legal fox hunting. His perspective seems to emphasise community and individual efforts in line with ‘love of animals’ as a hallmark of British culture, and is proud of his own commitments in support of ‘AK Pet Services, a local business owner who offers safe transport of pets to vets, the Cats Protection League and the PDSA.’ This is not a very fleshed out stance on animal protection and welfare policy, admittedly, but being a one-man party comes with some limitations on how thick a manifesto one can draft, after all. Going out on a limb, we can probably assume Cook favours the recognition of sentience and its taking into account in policy, and law-abiding would-be wildlife abusers staying at home to pet their hounds on Boxing Day.
Roy Freshwater (Rochester and Strood) is especially concerned with the farming conditions inflicted upon hens and, as part of UKIP’s commitment to ‘tak[ing] back control of animal health and welfare legislation’, which Rob McCulloch Martin (Gillingham and Rainham) also cites, wants to see all UK egg production being free-range and organic.
Both of our UKIP respondents emphasise their party’s pledge to ban non-stun slaughter and McCulloch Martin evokes the introduction of strict labelling and importing rules on products from the bodies of ‘ritually slaughtered’, non-stunned animals.
In your eyes, what is the most urgent issue in terms of animals’ interests in Medway and/or in the UK, and why? If you have more than one issue in mind, do tell – all the more impressive.
No Conservative candidate seemed to have any views to express on animal issues, but Peter Cook (Gillingham and Rainham) is here to fix that for them, reminding us, in his words, that ‘the Conservative animal sentience bill states that animals feel no pain’ when science and plain common sense tells us otherwise – which makes sense if, as Cook suspects, ‘Tories treat people worse than animals, for which they have no respect either’. At this stage, however, Cook might want to have a bit of mercy in his statements. After all, he says a hallmark of a civilised society is ‘how we treat vulnerable people’. Well. It’s no big stretch to imagine our current leaders might feel a tad vulnerable right about now.
In all seriousness, by recognising the deep and broad implications of not recognising sentience, Cook signals a genuine commitment to the valuation of sentience in policy.
Freshwater (Rochester and Strood) has a thing or two in mind, you know, trifling matters, like this: ‘UKIP would end factory farming where animals are kept in confined and unnatural conditions for the whole of their lives.’ Considering most animals alive (and dead) in this country spend their lives being exploited under such conditions, this is a pretty weighty statement to make. ‘All farm animals should have space to move around and have a natural environment whilst they are alive’, he adds. This is the point where I invite you to pause and consider the fact that this should even need to be stated, all the more so as a fairly bold aspiration.
McCulloch Martin (Gillingham and Rainham) takes particular issue with – shocker, I know – EU legislation, which he deems responsible for the ‘inhumane practice’ of live exports. His key idea is to maximise UK food production, ‘to minimise transport of animals and reduce pollution’. Freshwater also sees membership of the EU, which he denounces as having ‘lax and unenforced law’, as a cause of much poor welfare endured by UK famed animals. He wants to see tougher animal welfare monitoring put in place, including ‘funding for local abattoirs […] to be inspected by Council Environmental Health Officers. UKIP will also, says the Rochester and Strood candidate, seek expert guidance to ‘promote more healthy living by reducing meat in diets and promote more healthy diets including vegetarian and vegan diets’. Of course, if everyone stopped eating animals, we could skip straight to this part, and not have abattoirs to monitor, animals transport to their deaths to monitor, or labelling to demand to indicate whether the animal was able to turn around in their crate or was killed with a favoured weapon.
Labelling animal products with information regarding the life and death of the animal in the package is also an important issue to Wilkinson (Chatham and Aylesford), who laments that ‘most people are happy to turn a blind eye to what they are eating, where it comes from and how it was killed. […] Only when this is discussed openly people will review their relationship with “meat”.’
Strict labelling, suggests Wilkinson, should also apply to products tested on animals, which he hopes will be followed by a ban on ‘harmful’ experiments. It’s a strange thing that we should be concerned with animal testing but not animal ingredients in anything from cosmetics to household products, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, a policy dear to Wilkinson’s heart is banning puppy farming and ‘greater controls on breeders’, especially for ‘designer breeds’, among which many dogs ‘spend their lives struggling for breath or collapsing from overheating because people want them to look a certain way to match a celebrity’s dog’. I had to cite that cry from the heart verbatim, sorry editors.
Hyner’s (Rochester and Strood) emphasis is on protecting the coastal wildlife and ecosystems that we in Medway are lucky to be surrounded by, particularly with ‘our multiple SSSI, Ramsar, SPA and MCZ designated areas in and around the estuary’. It is probably safe to assume that Hyner, if elected, would not support heavy pressure on councils to build more of the same unaffordable and unsustainable housing, as she has little love for ‘the mass house building in both Rainham and on the Peninsula’ due to their negative impact on marshes and other ecosystems.
Lib Dems, pledges Alan Bullion (Gillingham and Rainham), will update animal welfare codes to improve animal health and welfare standards. That is certainly something that needs doing – you can take my word for it or read all those FAWC reports and DEFRA guidance documents yourself, dear reader.
Bullion has no love for any ‘dilution’ of welfare standards threatened by potential new trade deals, but what constitutes ‘meeting the required standards’ is not defined by the Lib Dem respondent. So here’s hoping he’s willing to set that bar sky high. Bullion supports a ban on caged hens, which has been in place EU-wide since 2012 – but I assume he means the import of caged hens, not their domestic production.
Given that animal agriculture causes more than half of greenhouse gas emissions as well as being an ongoing environmental and public health disaster, do you support redirection of agricultural subsidies towards the production of plant-based foods and policies supporting a shift towards plant-based diets? Why?
Bullion (Gillingham and Rainham) looks to New Zealand as a norm-setter, with its ‘policies directed towards reducing harmful livestock emissions and methane’, suggesting incentives for farmers to curb emissions – by which I assume he means subsidizing a transition towards producing plant-based foods, which solves that problem in one fell swoop.
As mentioned earlier, UKIP does support ‘healthy living and reductions in meat in diets’ and the promotion of vegetarian and vegan diets, says Freshwater (Rochester and Strood). The candidate also evokes ideas to reduce the discarding of fish and other forms of waste and pollution due to animal agriculture. McCulloch Martin (Gillingham and Rainham) wants to see families be educated and empowered to make healthier choices, ‘including increasing plant-based food’, and states that UKIP would’ support food manufacturers and farmers who respond to these changes […] for more healthy living within communities and families’.
This is something Wilkinson (Chatham and Aylesford) has given quite a bit of thought to, as he’s himself dabbled in reducing his consumption of animals. As he rightly points out, ‘in the UK, over a billion farm animals are slaughtered for food every year’, mostly in intensive farming conditions, which he wants to see phased out, partly through ‘mandating that alternative plant-based options must be offered on all menus’. I agree with him on one point (well, among others I suppose) – wait till you find out how tasty an animal-free diet can be and it’ll seem like an individual no-brainer more than a matter of policy.
Hyner (Rochester and Strood) is also full of ideas, like ending ‘factory farming, taking animals out of cages and putting them back into fields and, where appropriate, woodland’. By reducing the volume of cheap animal flesh available, she hopes its ‘overconsumption’ can be reduced – ‘which in turn would benefit animals, environment our health and by default reduce the stress on our precious National Health Service’.
Cook (Gillingham and Rainham) is not going to mince his words about this: ‘we absolutely must make radical lifestyle changes if we are to turn our fate. This means changes to the whole system of food production. In my work with Imperial College London, human ingenuity knows no bounds and we have the means to produce insect and plant based foods that will make us healthier and also kinder to mother earth.’ I mostly know Imperial College for trying to hide its poor treatment of the primates it keeps for experiments, but the intention is laudable, apart from switching exploitation to different species (in this case insects). Insects may have a sense of self and the ability to feel pain, among others – human ingenuity has some bounds yet, so it isn’t ethical to start new exploitative industries to farm animals who may well suffer, and more to the point of this topic, any animal-based food will have to have fed the animal before feeding you, which is always inferior in productivity to plant-based food. The good news is we won’t need to resort to eating maggots to solve world hunger, and Cook and his colleagues can reserve their ingenuity for really exciting things.
I hasten to add that Cook knows better anyway, as he states that ‘we can live perfectly well on vegetables, fruit, grains, pulses etc. – and probably better lives.’ He sees ending ‘our obsession with meat production […] rather like stopping smoking’, a change that will require the participation of communities and mechanisms to support change – this ‘is one area where I favour government intervention over leaving it to the market’. He condemns ‘cruel’ intensive animal agriculture for not allowing farmed animals to exhibit natural behaviour, which results in stress and in turn in increased rates of antibiotics being pumped into these individuals to make up for their failing immune systems, especially given ubiquitous poor hygiene and high population concentrations. This then lessens risks associated with antibiotic resistance – for humans too.
Whether you are in favour of or against any particular shade of Brexit, what opportunities do you see to improve the lives of non-human animals?
McCulloch Martin (Gillingham and Rainham) sees plenty to talk about in the prospect of a UKIP-led Brexit, like improving education of teachers and pupils on how animal bodies are made, killed and processed. He sees UKIP’s support for plant-based diets as a gateway to changing farming practices and improving animal welfare. He also supports tougher punishment of extracurricular animal cruelty in farms and slaughterhouses.
I’ve already mentioned above some other UKIP commitments as described by Freshwater (Rochester and Strood).
Less impressed is Wilkinson (Chatham and Aylesford), who sees our continued EU membership as ‘the best way to secure animal rights is to remain and reform the EU’, but is ready to make the best of the opportunities Brexit could theoretically entail to raise, rather than lower, standards. She adds: ‘I genuinely fear that the Conservatives would be happy to sell animal rights down the river in order to secure trade deals. The idea that we could accept US chickens that have been so badly treated they have to be washed in chlorine is simply sickening on multiple levels’.
Hyner (Rochester and Strood) has one last word – the Green Party’s position on animal issues can be found here.
Cook (Gillingham and Rainham) takes a bit of thoughtful distance on it all: ‘as with all habits, compassion begins with our children. All parents should help their children to understand that we are better people when we care for others, whether they are human beings or animals. Brexit has hardened many people’s outlook on the world outside them and we are not better for it. People are fundamentally good if they are allowed to be and we must rebuild a kinder society that looks outside itself for the greater good. I must say that Rehman Chishti did propose a bill for microchipping cats so they can be reunited with their owners. I fully support his initiative in this area and would like to extend the scheme to people such as Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab, so that we could track their movements regarding their Brexit activities.’
Finally, Bullion (Gillingham and Rainham) sees the potential for banning live exports as a possible ‘bonus’.
The notion that animals’ interests will in any way be enough of a priority if Brexit goes ahead is sadly slightly fanciful, which means a wholesale reworking of the current system is unlikely. Non-humans are the most invisible of the invisible in our society, and I will be delighted to be proven wrong if they are not ignored in Brexit and left without the small hope of having sentience enshrined in law. Animal welfare policy expert and veterinarian extraordinaire Steven McCulloch has just published a paper on the implications of tomorrow’s vote, if any reader wants to sample some better writing than mine. Thanks to the candidates who took the time to respond – best of luck to them all, and may we all hold our future representatives to account on behalf of those who can’t.
Mina da Rui is a Medway based law student and member of the Animal Welfare Party. She stood for the party in Medway in the 2019 local elections.