Eamonn Ives: No, Brexit will not threaten all creatures great and small

In certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue.

In case you hadn’t yet noticed, the United Kingdom is currently negotiating its leaving of the European Union. Whilst we do not know exactly where the country will end up after the 29th March next year, it is almost certain that Westminster will have the opportunity to legislate on policy issues which for decades it has offshored to Brussels. Nowhere is this more apparent than with respect to environmental law – of which roughly four-fifths stem from the EU.

This has, reasonably enough, put the proverbial cat amongst the metaphorical pigeons of the environmental lobby. Notwithstanding the fact that just about all of them lament Brexit, it is unsurprising that they regard the country’s vote to leave as a threat to existing standards. When anything could happen, expecting the worst might be an instinctive response. One area in particular which has attracted a considerable amount of attention is that of animal welfare regulation.

Such anxieties are, at the very least, understandable. One cannot deny that there exists a contingent of Brexit supporters – some of whom wield significant political clout – who would happily see current welfare standards watered down. However, I also believe that those fears are somewhat misplaced and overblown, and that in certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

One of the most exciting aspects of Brexit is the fact that it allows the UK to do away with divisive and much bemoaned Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This byzantine framework for awarding public money to farmers and land-owners based largely upon nothing more than the amount of land they manage has a whole host of drawbacks – none less so than the consequences many, Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike, believe it has had for British biodiversity.

Mercifully, the Government has committed to replacing the CAP. In a move inspired by a report published by Bright Blue last year, future payments look set to be made to recipients for the public goods they deliver. Importantly, things which increase animal welfare (such as measures which reduce antimicrobial resistance – a threat to animals and humans alike) were singled out by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, as a possible public good which could be rewarded under the CAP’s successor. Thus, the policy rethink which Brexit fundamentally symbolises, played out in this instance as the re-evaluation of funding priorities, could easily lead to improved animal welfare in Britain.

But potential animal welfare gains triggered by changes to agricultural policy do not stop there. If one considers where the majority of animal welfare abuse occurs, an obvious starting point would be with animals which are reared for their meat. Whilst this is not to tar every livestock farmer with the same brush, examples of animal abuse in the industry are undeniable, and are now frequently appearing in the national media as reporting improves.

And yet, society is today closer than ever before to being in a position where it could virtually eliminate all such suffering. Cultured meat, more commonly known as lab-grown meat, has, of late, made great leaps forward in terms of its commercial viability. The costs associated with producing it have fallen exponentially: one start-up which was producing cultured meat at $325,000 per burger in 2013, had it down to a mere $11 just two years later. Venture capitalists and philanthropists are flocking to invest in cultured meat, with industry figures believing it can become cost competitive in just a couple of years’ time.

So where does Brexit play into this? Unfortunately, the EU gives me little reason to think that it will embrace this potentially game-changing technology with the open arms anyone who is interested in animal welfare (and indeed climate change, biodiversity, and much more else besides) might wish it would. The EU’s long-standing opposition to genetic modification, and more recent hostility towards the much less controversial ‘gene editing’, means that one can be forgiven for being pessimistic about the EU forgoing the hyper-precautionary mindset which it has displayed in the past.

Furthermore, given that we know how successful the farming lobby has been in capturing the EU (at its peak, 71 per cent of the EU’s total budget funded the CAP), there is again good reason to believe it could act as a formidable stumbling block to the EU affording cultured meat a favourable regulatory regime. Already, the European farming lobby has mobilised the European Court of Justice to ban plant-based alternatives from using ‘dairy style’ naming words for cheese and milk substitutes: what’s not to say they won’t do the same for cultured meat?

For the arguments expressed above, I believe that the UK’s leaving of the EU does not jeopardise animal welfare – far from it. Brexit gives the UK a golden opportunity to rethink the frameworks which underpin agricultural and countryside management, to the betterment of animal welfare. It also permits the Government to prevent some of the most flagrant examples animal abuse.

Finally, whilst admittedly unclear at present, if we do indeed witness the same proclivity from the EU to regulate against the innovation of cultured meat as demonstrated with respect to gene editing and genetic modification, being outside of that regime can only be positive for animal welfare.

God Speed The Plough

One of the pleasures of being a PPC is the opportunity to visit many venues in the run up to Remembrance Day on Sunday. Last week I had a look around the Flower Festival at St Sabinus’ Church, Woolacombe. Many of the exhibits struck a chord – I, after all, grew up on military bases […]

One of the pleasures of being a PPC is the opportunity to visit many venues in the run up to Remembrance Day on Sunday.

Last week I had a look around the Flower Festival at St Sabinus’ Church, Woolacombe. Many of the exhibits struck a chord – I, after all, grew up on military bases and appreciate from the inside out the sacrifices women, men and children make in service to their country. The embroidered cards with faded handwritten messages, sent back and forth (yes, some French ones sent home to girlfriends from the front line) were especially poignant.

However, one flower display stood out, and that was the tribute to the Women’s Land Army. “God Speed the Plough” honoured the vital work of women undertaken whilst the nation was at war.

The Women’s Land Army was originally set up in 1917 but then dissolved after the First World War. It was reinstated in 1939 as a voluntary service, and then conscripted women from December 1941. “Land girls” did a variety of jobs on grain, stock and dairy farms, including deployment in an anti-vermin squad (‘rat-catchers’).

WLA members were paid directly by the farmers, and it will come as no surprise that they were paid 10 shillings less per week than men.  Numbers peaked in 1944, with 80,000 women serving their country on average 48 hours a week with no holiday initially, though the Land Girls Charter in 1943 introduced one week’s holiday per year.

My husband’s family were farmers in Landkey and I am acutely aware of the role that farming has always played in the lives of North Devonians. The work done by The Women’s Land Army in both wars meant that, whilst our troops were away fighting, these hard working and brave women toiled in the fields to make sure that the nation could be fed. This was key to Homeland morale, as well as being an enormous, practical part of the war effort.

In this year we are celebrating the centenary of the end of the First World War, as well as the centenary of when some women first got the vote, I cannot think of a more fitting example than the Women’s Land Army of the debt we owe to all those women who helped achieve both.

* Kirsten Johnson is the PPC for North Devon and Day Editor of Lib Dem Voice.

Brexit will allow us to write a tailor-made agriculture policy to improve animal welfare and our environment

When I took up my post as the RSPCA’s Chief Executive in August, one of the first documents in my in-tray was a briefing about how Brexit will affect animal welfare. I suspect for many people, they have never simply thought about how Brexit impacts animal welfare. When asked, 80% of the public said they […]

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When I took up my post as the RSPCA’s Chief Executive in August, one of the first documents in my in-tray was a briefing about how Brexit will affect animal welfare. I suspect for many people, they have never simply thought about how Brexit impacts animal welfare. When asked, 80% of the public said they do not want to see welfare standards watered down.

But with 80% of our welfare laws made in Brussels, of course Brexit hugely impacts animal welfare. And for no animals is this more true than for farm animals.

Brexit is the defining event for farming and farm animals in the UK in a generation. Last month MPs debated the Government’s suggested independent agriculture policy. Amazingly this was the first debate on agriculture policy since 1947, before many of the current intake of MPs were even born, although one MP followed his grandfather in discussing the policy. Since 1973, it’s been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that has defined British farming.

No matter how you voted, we can all agree that the CAP has not delivered the best outcomes for British farmers and farm animals. Why? Because as its name suggests, it is common to 28 countries but is not specific to any of them. It remains a policy that spends 80% of its money – your money – solely on ownership of land. The more land you own, the more money you get. You are not even expected to produce much, and only have to comply with the baseline legal standards.

The CAP has certainly not delivered animal welfare in the UK. Although funding for animal welfare has been around since 2007, budgets are tiny: 0.5%. In England, no funding has ever been provided for animal welfare schemes. It’s not surprising that in England the CAP has resulted in negative impacts on both the environment and animal welfare. By failing to support higher welfare systems it creates conditions allowing more intensive, lower welfare farming methods to flourish.

Brexit allows us to move away from this approach, tailor our own agricultural policy based on our own world-leading animal welfare standards and properly recognise and encourage British farmers who want to follow better systems for their animals.

The Government’s new approach to farming, set out in the Agriculture Bill, is a system based on public money for public goods; public goods which crucially include animal welfare. A first, big step forward. In some areas, British farmers already farm to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but in others they have fallen behind. They need a leg up to make improvements to their farms to deliver higher standards of animal welfare.

They also need the consumer to know this which is why we support – and the Government are looking at – mandatory labelling of how our chicken or beef got to our plates. We know this works. Mandatory egg labelling has made a huge difference to the numbers of free range eggs as consumers vote with their wallets.

We can do so much more. Brexit also provides us the opportunity to deliver this on a wide range of issues, including banning live animal exports, improving how we slaughter farm animals and reducing the times taken to transport animals from the farm to the slaughterhouse. No longer will our hands be tied by European rules. I hope that the Government is prepared to seize this opportunity with both hands. The signs are good so far that they are.

However, Brexit is not all sunlit uplands for British farmers and their animals. It will only work if we ensure we are not undercut by cheaper imports produced from less humane standards – in other words we need to keep our high standards, not lose them to other countries. The great unknown that is our future trading relationship with the rest of the world. As we approach B-Day it is absolutely essential that any future trade deals the UK strikes keep our standards intact by not allowing cheap, less humane imports to undercut our farmers. We must approach trade deals with the same standards we enforce domestically. We must ensure that these trade deals have language in them relating to animal welfare. We cannot allow the drive to become an international trading nation to undermine our animal welfare standards and threaten the livelihoods of British farmers. And it’s not just us saying this. Voices from across British agriculture – including the NFU – agree.

It’s been heartening to hear ministers from across Government commit to protect our animal welfare standards as we leave the EU. They must now deliver on these excellent intentions. High welfare standards will be an integral part of the appeal of British food and vital to the British competitive farming. The animals, farmers and consumers alike demand it.

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Brexit provides the opportunity for a revolution in the construction industry

Many people seem to think that innovation in construction is something that happens as a matter of course. From Palaeolithic caves to living in Neolithic mud brick houses; from Greek lintels to Norman arches; and from massive stone walls to slender steel frames, improvements in design, content and material efficiencies are a signal feature of […]

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Many people seem to think that innovation in construction is something that happens as a matter of course. From Palaeolithic caves to living in Neolithic mud brick houses; from Greek lintels to Norman arches; and from massive stone walls to slender steel frames, improvements in design, content and material efficiencies are a signal feature of progress over time. While it appears that living conditions improve naturally as history moves forward, in reality progress requires conscious human intervention to challenge and change the old, less efficient, less imaginative way of doing things.

And yet, the construction industry is stuck in the past. Over the decade to 2016, the National House Building Council Foundation confirmed that a constant 85% – 92% of new housing has been constructed using traditional brick/block masonry construction, a labour-intensive mode of building that has ostensibly remained the same for centuries. Essentially, clay raw material is dug from the ground, formed in moulds, placed in kilns and fired into bricks, these are transported by lorry across the country where armies of labourers work for weeks and months, in sun and rain, to place one on top of another.

There was a brief period, post-war, when new prefabricated techniques were almost commonplace. According to Chartered Surveyors, Peter Barry, between 1945 and 1955 “around 20% of new housing was system-built, amounting to some 500,000 units, with a further 750,000 units being constructed between 1955 and 1970”. However, sixty to seventy years later, we still sanctify the “wet trades” – sticking block upon block, slapping plaster on it and painting it by hand.

In 2010, at the height of the recession, there were 1.2 million construction labourers engaged in laborious processes. Surely, if innovation is required, here is a good place to start. But we have to recognise that if such an innovation revolution is to happen, then it is not going to be painless. As a vociferous opponent of Thatcher’s assault on the miners in the 1980s, I still realise that the transformation of the construction industry is going to have to be as radical if it is to be meaningful. Until then, we’ll continue to read reports that bemoan the lack of innovation. “It’s time to modernise the construction industry”, says the 2016 Farmer Review. You don’t say!

Brexit could be the one significant spark to help generate the innovative construction sector that we all need. It should, and must, force the construction industry to innovate.

In the UK, around 7% of construction workers come from other EU countries and 3% come from outside the EU. The Office for National Statistics reports that London’s construction sector relies on 28% of workers in London coming from EU countries, and 7% migrant labour from outside the EU. Of the EU workers, the majority are from central and eastern Europe, while 10% are Irish. Even though the Farmer Report cites an extant decline in the construction labour force due not to Brexit, but demographics (there will be, it says, a “20%-25% decline in the available labour force within a decade”), it is reasonable to assume that Brexit may indeed result in a shake-out of foreign workers labouring on sites across the country. But this needs careful assessment, not knee-jerk reactions.

Polish plumbers do not relish sticking their hands up the U-bends of the British public for the rest of their days when they could be employed back home laying much needed infrastructure; not all Romanian labourers are content to shovel gravel on the driveways of East Cheam when they could be building houses in their home towns to create a better quality of life for their children. The success of EU free movement has created a flow of poor people desperate to make something of themselves away from home, but not all enjoy the menial lifestyle that they have to endure to achieve it. It takes skilled and semi-skilled labour away from where it is needed.

Of course, like the characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, working abroad for short stints to amass some cash is a legitimate sacrifice for many. But many migrants will not be sad to leave their badly-paid, labour-intensive, shift-working existence crammed in the modern-day tenements of North London, provided that there are opportunities elsewhere. This is not a legitimisation of “a tough immigration policy” (as Brexit ought to provide the chance for a more liberal immigration policy), but a chance to improve working conditions and modernise a Dickensian industry. Industry needs will change and the consequence should be to allow people to make their own decisions rather than be driven by capital flows and an iniquitous labour market.

But if Brexit makes it more difficult to recruit menial manual labour (and there is nothing yet to say that it inevitably will), then this could provide the stimulus for innovative change. “Cheap labour” and “labour intensive” are the hallmarks of developing countries and nothing to be proud of. Mechanisation and investment in the next round of productive forces are important for the development of society through the liberation of workers from common drudgery.

The Independent recently described Brexit’s potential impact on the farming sector. By withdrawing the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and the looming threat of restrictions on cheap, exploited Bulgarian and Romanian crop-pickers, there ought to be a drive for efficiency and innovation. One picker describes starting work at 5am until late afternoon earning £500-a week for six weeks of six-day work. Meanwhile, The Economist reported that “Brexit will force a change in farming that could change the face of rural Britain” and after reading about the paltry wages, we might add, “for the better”. Of course, it might simply increase the price of strawberries and seasonal vegetables. It might be that farming industry will refuse to play ball and British grapes will literally wither on the vine post-Brexit. But it should present an opportunity that can and should be seized. Cheap labour contents itself with a lack of innovation – why invest in machines when you have thousands of expendable workers willing to slave for a pittance? This is something that we ought not to condone.

Drawing the analogy back to the construction industry, the same opportunity prevails. Just as machines may pick crops, so machines may spray paint houses. Factories might make mass housing. Machines might 3D-print homes.

Of course, maybe construction costs will rise. Indeed, maybe construction workers’ wages will rise (surely no bad thing). But maybe, all those prefabrication and modern methods of construction innovators – who for years have not been able to get a foothold in the market because of the closed shop of the labour-intensive, old-fashioned construction industry – will suddenly find that they are being listened to. Suddenly “creativity” – the lifeblood of architecture – may be allowed to flourish. This could be the basis of a rational construction industry.

Obviously, none of this will happen if we perceive Brexit as a danger. But it is equally true that Brexiteers need to see this as a challenge. It is not a done deal. Innovation requires conscious planning for results to mean anything. Simply shaking up industry doesn’t mean that industry will respond positively or progressively. It requires political will. As the Egan Report said exactly 20 years ago: “We are issuing a challenge to the construction industry to commit itself to change”. Let’s seize the day.

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31 October 2018 – today’s press releases

It’s Halloween, and the Press teams on either side of Offa’s Dyke are still working away… Don’t Let Down Welsh Farmers – Welsh Lib Dems Following the closure of the Welsh Government’s Brexit and Our Land consultation, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have urged the Welsh Government to carefully listen to the views of farmers and […]

It’s Halloween, and the Press teams on either side of Offa’s Dyke are still working away…

Don’t Let Down Welsh Farmers – Welsh Lib Dems

Following the closure of the Welsh Government’s Brexit and Our Land consultation, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have urged the Welsh Government to carefully listen to the views of farmers and ensure farmers are not let down as they begin to consider their response.

The Welsh Government’s proposed model for supporting farmers and land managers after Brexit involves removing any aspect of direct support and instead focusing on promoting economic resilience and public goods.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat response to the consultation called on the Welsh Government to listen to Farming Unions and introduce a system that retains a strong aspect of direct support.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Rural Affairs Spokesperson Mark Williams said:

Farmers are the backbone of rural communities and it’s essential the Welsh Government creates a farm funding scheme that secures the future of Welsh farmers and all the supply chains they support.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have a proud history of understanding and standing up for rural communities and today is no different. We will continue to fight for the farming support system our rural communities need.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Agriculture Spokesperson Cllr William Powell said:

Welsh farmers face immense uncertainty surrounding their futures after Brexit, as they still don’t know what access to European markets they will have or whether their funding will be protected long-term. It is essential the Welsh Government do all they can to provide much needed reassurance and the climate of certainty so vital for business planning.

We urge the Welsh Government to listen to the FUW, NFU Cymru and TFA and change course. The Welsh Government must maintain a strong element of direct support in their future farm funding schemes to protect the future of Welsh farms. Our food security and our precious natural environment depend upon it.

People’s Vote could not be disregarded without a constitutional crisis

Responding to comments by Sir David Natzler, clerk of the House of Commons, that a vote on a ‘People’s Vote’ would still have “considerable political force”, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said:

Whether a parliamentary vote on a ‘People’s Vote’ amendment was legally binding or not, the PM could not disregard the result without a serious constitutional and democratic crisis.

The Tories are trying to claim the calamitous Chequers Deal or catastrophic No Deal are the only two options available. This is not true.

A People’s Vote is the third most sensible and consensual option, and if Parliament votes for one, the people should be granted one! Only the Liberal Democrats are united in fighting Brexit.

Moran demands transparency on Leave donations channelled through NI

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran used Northern Ireland Questions today to urge the Government to change the law to ensure full transparency and scrutiny of Leave campaign donations given to political parties in Northern Ireland.

Current laws only require donations from July 2017 to be published, meaning details of who donated £425,000 to the Democratic Unionist Party that was spent on pro-Brexit advertising in the Metro does not have to be disclosed.

Speaking in the chamber today, Ms Moran asked the Government why they were “ignoring the recommendations of the Electoral Commission” to backdate transparency of donations to 2014.

Following the exchanges, Layla Moran MP said:

It really beggars belief that the Government is allowing political parties in Northern Ireland to mark their own homework and decide whether or not details of their donations should be made public.

The law already allows for details of donations to be backdated to 2014 and the independent Electoral Commission has urged the Government to do just that. It makes you wonder if the Conservatives and their DUP partners have something to hide.

With the Leave campaign under investigation by the Metropolitan Police, people in all parts of the United Kingdom have a right to know who donated money to the Leave campaign.