Labour pledge to curb live animal exports

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Demonstrators at Brightlingsea, in Essex, clashed with police again yesterday as the Government came under increasing pressure to ban live animal exports, and the Labour Party made proposals that would in effect kill the trade.

Twenty-five people were arrested at Brightlingsea, and dozens were injured as police forced a passage through the 800-strong crowd to allow trucks laden with animals destined for Belgium to enter the port. Sue Wheeler, head of the local protest group, was among the people arrested.

Richard Otley, 27, chairman of the British Association of Sheep Exporters, was the main focus of the protesters' anger. They saw him in one of the lorries and began hurling eggs at the cab. They had previously complained that Mr Otley had made V-signs and other gestures to the crowd. Essex police said his presence was not conducive to good order.

Elliot Morley, Labour spokesman for animal welfare, said the party would bring in a licensing system for hauliers to ensure exporters with convictions for cruelty would be prevented from transporting animals to the Continent. At present, several livestock exporters have convictions but continue to trade.

Labour also pledged to press for a Europe-wide maximum journey time of eight hours rather than the existing 24. In the long term it wants animals re-defined under the Treaty of Rome as "sentient beings" rather than "agricultural products". The party alsopledged to toughen the enforcement of the existing welfare provisions and to ensure animal handlers are properly trained.

Mr Morley said the aim of the licensing proposal was to drive "cowboy" exporters out of business. The eight-hour limit on journeys would eventually "make it uneconomic to transport animals for slaughter long distances across Europe" without interfering with the transport of breeding and show animals.

David Muir, spokesman for the Anglo-European Livestock Exporters Association, said they would fight the proposal for an eight-hour journey limit and the redefinition of farm animals as sentient beings. He said Continental veal producers, in particular, depended on British animals, and together with the Association, they would ensure that any restriction of the trade would be vigorously fought in Europe.

Mr Muir said the association was in favour of a licensing system, but "it won't be possible to get those proposals through Europe. . . A licensing system would be against European law because it's against the law to limit trade in any way."

But, Mr Morley said, Labour was willing to fight for its proposals in Europe. "We think there has simply been no political will to even begin hampering this trade. All the Government has been doing is wringing its hands and hiding behind European law."

Animal welfare groups welcomed Labour's proposals. Mark Glover, spokesman for Respect for Animals, said: "It's time that this country took a moral lead on these issues even if we have to face the consequences."

At Shoreham, in West Sussex, scene of another lengthy campaign against the trade, 100 people, including the comedian Spike Milligan, gathered in driving wind and icy rain to demonstrate against the shipment of live animals. Their patience was rewarded when Shoreham announced that no more livestock would be export from the port.

At Swansea, legal moves were under way to remove animal rights' protesters who have set up a makeshift camp of tents and bonfires at Swansea airport. Earlier in the week, protesters at the airport forced back a convoy of lorries. Phoenix Aviation is expected to resume livestock flights to Europe from Coventry airport within the next two days. Protesters have vowed to fight the trade, and the local council is involved in legal moves to force Phoenix to stop the flights.