Why prospects are gloomy for animal welfare under next Tory prime minister

Candidates have been silent on Tory party promises such as banning live exports, fur and foie gras and adverts for elephant torture

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 19 July 2022 12:02 BST
Rishi Sunak wants to have Mark Spencer - who blocked elephant protection laws - as environment secretary
Rishi Sunak wants to have Mark Spencer - who blocked elephant protection laws - as environment secretary (Save the Asian Elephants)

He was the leader whose mission was to get Brexit done at all costs – even if that meant ditching EU legal protections in a raft of areas including the environment.

So to those working to improve the perilous state of animal conservation and welfare, it came as a welcome surprise when Boris Johnson turned out to be something of a reformer.

Who would have thought the self-styled clown would be such an asset? Mr Johnson promised in 2019 to use Brexit to champion animal welfare, and under his watch, the government banned ivory sales and glue traps, increased jail terms for cruelty to five years from six months and introduced spot fines.

It was a start, but long-awaited legislation outlawing imports of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies, as well as banning adverts on grisly elephant-torture theme parks was on the verge of being passed into law when it was derailed by right-wingers, among them Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Spencer.

Experts in animal welfare and conservation are now pessimistic about the prospects for reform no matter who takes over from Mr Johnson, because the leadership hopefuls have all either attacked animal protection or voted against environmental measures.

Now the leadership candidates have been warned of the importance of honouring promises, amid fears that improvements will hit a brick wall without Mr Johnson in post. Eco-minded Conservatives and campaigners alike are pressuring the five remaining would-be party leaders to pass legislation already drafted and to make good on the party’s grand pledges made in the Conservatives’ manifesto and in last year’s ambitious animal-welfare action plan.

A source close to the government told The Independent: “Boris was a fatally flawed prime minister but under the influence of his father, wife and Zac Goldsmith [animal-welfare minister], he went further than any previous Tory leader when it came to tacking climate change, biodiversity protection and animal welfare.”

Some 27 organisations, including World Animal Protection, have written to the candidates - Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, and Kemi Badenoch are the four left standing - asking whether they will uphold the action plan pledges, ranging from a live exports ban to protecting standards from cheap imports, and phasing out cruel cages and sow stalls.

So far, there have been no responses. But a look at the candidates’ approaches and track records offers clues.

Conservationists and animal protection supporters most of all fear a Sunak win as he has reportedly promised the job of environment secretary to Mr Spencer, a farmer thought to view new animal protection steps as a low priority. Together with Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Spencer blocked a Bill which would have banned adverts for theme parks in Asia that use torture methods on elephants. Both men later refused to take part in public debates on why they did so.

None of the remaining four Tory leadership candidates have responded to questions about whether they will uphold animal protection pledges
None of the remaining four Tory leadership candidates have responded to questions about whether they will uphold animal protection pledges (ITV)

Ms Mordaunt and Ms Truss have both previously joined Mr Spencer in voting to cull badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis.

And Mr Sunak has previously passionately defended driven grouse shooting, saying a ban would “harm the rural economy and damage wildlife”.

Lord Goldsmith made clear his concern over a Sunak government, tweeting: “Mark was the biggest blocker of measures to protect nature, biodiversity, animal welfare. He will be our very own little Bolsonaro. Grim news for nature. But great news for political opponents.”

On the other hand, Ms Mordaunt, who has four Burmese cats, has given off mixed signals. In 2013, it was reported she called for food labels to show the origins of ingredient eggs and called for a thorough investigation into painful beak trimming.

But a government insider who has worked with her said that in trade negotiations her department wanted “everything on the table” which was problematic for upholding UK farm welfare standards.

Former environment secretary Liz Truss has dismissed the idea of a tax on meat, the food that contributes most to climate change, branding research showing it would save lives as “claptrap”.

And in 2016 she caused uproar when she tried to scrap statutory codes on farm animal welfare standards, replacing them “industry-led” guidance – in effect downgrading oversight of welfare.

Truss promoted UK pork markets in an unusual manner

In the end it didn’t happen, but the proposal alarmed the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and opposition parties.

In 2014 Ms Truss called for the ban on foxhunting to be overturned, calling the Hunting Act a mistake, in line with Jeremy Hunt, who had pledged to bring back foxhunting if elected. None of the other candidates has said they support the ban.

“I would not feel comfortable supporting anyone in favour of foxhunting,” Sir Roger Gale, patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation told The Independent.

“But there are forces within the candidacies who are not as sympathetic to animal welfare as I am, so realistically there’s no point my saying I won’t support them if you don’t back these issues.

“When we’re down to two candidates, the party and the country at hustings may find itself in a position to ask searching questions then and animal welfare will come up.”

Lord Goldsmith said: “The candidates have a mixed record on animal welfare. Some have no real record at all, so we are unlikely to see an animal welfare champion in No10.

“But what colleagues and I are very much hoping is that the candidates will at least indicate their support for seeing through the commitments we made in the action plan for animal welfare.

“Expectations have been set, and in politics as anywhere it matters that promises are honoured.”

But other hints at the would-be prime ministers’ attitudes to the natural world may be gleaned from their voting records on measures to prevent climate change.

According to Theyworkforyou.com, Mr Sunak has voted against them 12 times, including a proposal to cut permitted carbon emissions of new homes and plans to eliminate most transport emissions by 2030.

Ms Mordaunt has voted against climate measures 15 times, including requiring ministers “to have due regard to the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 when taking actions including setting up agricultural subsidy schemes”. But she backed climate proposals four times including in 2012 supporting a new Green Investment Bank, which was set up that year.

Ms Truss has voted 16 times against climate protection - including the same way as Ms Mordaunt on net zero targets for farm subsidies, and not to require a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” in proposals for financial assistance under a UK Internal Market Act. She also voted against calls “to rebuild the economy so that it works in the interest of the many, not just handing out rewards to those at the top”. But she voted for climate measures three times, including reforming the energy market to cut carbon emissions.

Liz Truss wanted to hand over standards regulations to the industry
Liz Truss wanted to hand over standards regulations to the industry (Animal Equality)

Ms Badenoch has voted five times against, including on transport emissions, net zero and a climate and nature emergency statement. Mr Tugendhat voted 13 times against climate proposals similar to the others, plus he voted against requiring a strategy for carbon capture and storage for the energy industry.

More recently, during the leadership campaign, foreign secretary Ms Truss has also vowed to ditch green taxes.

To conservationists’ delight, a ban on imports of the fins cut from live sharks – another action plan promise destroyed by government infighting – was this week salvaged from the wreckage by a Labour private member’s Bill, which the government says it will support, meaning it is likely to pass.

Like elephant protection, this ban, aimed at protecting shark populations from extinction, had also been vetoed by right-wing Cabinet members, ironically on the grounds of being “unconservative”.

But hopes are fading for rescuing other changes set out in the action plan and manifesto. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that ends live exports and pet primates and tackles puppy smuggling has since been on the backburner since its second reading.

The Animals Abroad Bill, which outlawed imports of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies, as well as elephant cruelty adverts, was scrapped, to the great dismay of those trying to ameliorate mass suffering abroad.

The action plan promised to consider phasing out cages
The action plan promised to consider phasing out cages (Getty Images)

It’s thought the chances of the Bill’s revival are slim, with expectations of a single-minded focus on the economy, defence and the NHS whoever is the next PM.

Just like a shark fin ban, hopes for hunting trophy imports action now rest on a private member’s Bill.

The government will also face pressure to cut trade ties with the Faroe Islands over their mass slaughter of dolphins.

Dominic Dyer, a leading animal-welfare campaigner, said: “None of the candidates has a strong record in this area and there is a desire to be seen to move away from the Carrie and Boris years when people like me had access to power to influence this agenda.

“I expect they will try to avoid falling into a trap on foxhunting, but I see no drive to follow through on wider commitments within the Animals Abroad Bill, for example.

“The priority will be the economy and moving away from climate change and biodiversity commitments that might be seen to slow growth and push up inflation further.”

Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International UK, said: “In terms of their ambitions for better animal protection, we’ve so far heard nothing from any of the candidates that gives us cause for hope.

“But candidates should be mindful that 72 per cent of Conservative voters want the government to pass more laws to protect animals from cruelty, so setting out commitments and ambitions for animals should prove popular when it comes to the members’ vote.

“Candidates’ attitudes to animals, as vulnerable members of our society, could help them appeal to those looking for compassion and humanity in our next prime minister.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in