The new prime minister, Liz Truss, has a funny relationship with animals. She says she’s a cat lover, but she has previously called for the return of foxhunting.
As a former environment secretary, she should be aware of animal sentience – the capacity non-humans have to feel emotion, pain and suffering. But as a Tory leadership candidate, Truss held up a vision of a neoliberal administration that she was convinced would appeal to the party faithful.
Now, as part of that single-minded deregulation mission, she looks set to embark on the greatest betrayal of people and animals anyone could ever have imagined. At a stroke, the new prime minister is reportedly set to arrogantly ditch reforms that would have eradicated the suffering of thousands of animals in the UK and abroad.
Party insiders believe she will axe the Kept Animals Bill, which bans primates as pets, tackles puppy smuggling and gives livestock greater protection from dangerous dogs. It also bans live exports.
Years ago, I joined protesters at Dover docks who were horrified by how sheep were crammed into lorries in the most appalling conditions, for hours on end, without water, only to be shipped abroad for slaughter. In 2019, at least 6,000 animals were exported this way – a monstrous toll of misery. As outrage snowballed, even Boris Johnson spoke out against live exports. The ban was pretty much the only benefit of Brexit. Now it looks set to be sacrificed on the great altar of Truss free-market capitalism.
But it’s not just animals that will suffer. Some people have spent literally decades working to achieve the reforms in the bill, and to have that thrown back in their faces is more than frustrating – it’s offensive.
To make matters worse, the Kept Animals Bill was probably only days or weeks away from becoming law. The day it was due to be debated in parliament became that of the Queen’s funeral, and the chances of Truss reviving the bill seem remote.
Given that a live export ban was promised in both the Tory manifesto and the party’s grand animal welfare action plan, scrapping it is an enormous, symbolic breach of trust – and a disaster for progress.
Truss showed her colours in 2016 when she tried to dump statutory farm animal welfare codes. Her idea fizzled out, but now she has rewarded Mark Spencer, one of the MPs who this year blocked measures to halt elephant torture abroad, with a job in Defra. You couldn’t get much more farcical.
Then there are the foreign deals she negotiated as trade secretary that fund cruelty that would be illegal here. Instead of helping the UK to become more self-sufficient in food, she signed up to financing systems that use 48-hour transport, barren battery cages and sow stalls among other things.
Boris Johnson, together with Zac Goldsmith and before that Michael Gove, achieved more than any previous government for non-human creatures: introducing compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses, increasing sentences for cruelty to five years and banning the ivory trade. A lot remained to be done – especially after Jacob Rees-Mogg sabotaged bans on fur and foie gras – but credit at least where it’s due. It’s clear that sacking Lord Goldsmith, who was perhaps just too effective for the new PM’s liking, is a taste of what’s to come.
After all, even George Eustice, a former environment secretary not especially beloved of animal rights supporters, admitted he had difficulty in getting Truss “to recognise the importance of animal welfare in particular” in trade talks.
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Hard-right Tories are ideologically opposed to banning things, but they fail to understand that often things are banned for good reasons. After all, we no longer send children up chimneys or let people carry guns in the UK.
In the current climate, however, the future for all sorts of animals looks bleak in Truss’s Britain. Campaigners for their welfare are counting the days until the general election in the hope of ousting this tin-eared leader. Three quarters of respondents in one survey wanted more laws to improve animal welfare and prevent cruelty, not fewer.
As Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International UK, puts it: “Animals are so important to the electorate, and will matter at the ballot box; [it is] mystifying if Downing Street fails to see that.”
It’s hard to believe Truss actually wants animals to suffer, but unless she pulls some surprises out of her hat, she’s doing an extremely good impression of it.