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Ministers accused of betrayal after animal welfare bill scrapped

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25 May 2023

By Helen Catt & Kate Whannel, BBC News

PA Media

A bill aimed at banning live animal exports and introducing powers to tackle puppy smuggling has been dropped by the government over fears it would be forced into a vote on hunting.

Environment Minister Mark Spencer said measures in the Kept Animal Bill would now be delivered in different ways.

He told MPs he had to scrap the bill because Labour were going "to play political games".

However, one animal charity has accused ministers of "an astonishing betrayal".

Claire Bass, a senior director at the Humane Society International/UK, added that the bill "needed only a few more hours in the Commons to succeed, so parliamentary time is clearly not the real issue here".

She added: "The real reason, Whitehall sources tell us, that the bill has been dropped is because of concerns that it could act as a vehicle for uncomfortable debates that the government does not want held on polarising issues such as hunting with dogs."

In a letter to Conservative MPs, which the BBC has seen, the Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said that Labour had intended to widen the scope of bill to include hunting which, she said, would "likely stoke unnecessary tensions and campaigns".

Hunting is a deeply divisive issue within the Conservative party. Some Tory MPs would like to repeal the ban on hunting - while others would like to strengthen it to include trail hunting.

Trail hunting is legal and sees dogs and riders follow an artificial scent along an agreed route. The League Against Cruel Sports has argued trail hunting still results in the chasing of foxes and is a "smokescreen" for hunting.

Labour backs strengthening the ban on hunting but said it had "no plans" to add any such amendment to this bill.

A Labour source suggested the government was more concerned about a challenge coming from its own backbenches.

It would have delivered on Conservative 2019 manifesto commitments to end the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter, tackle puppy smuggling and ban the keeping of primates as pets.

Making a statement in the House of Commons, Mr Spencer said the government would be implementing these measures individually before the next election, rather than in one piece of legislation.

He said the government was committed to delivering on its pledges, adding that the new approach was "the quickest and surest way of doing so".

'Better than nothing'

Several Tory MPs who have campaigned on animal welfare issues said they had been given assurances by Mr Spencer that the manifesto commitments would be passed before the end of this Parliament, but they have expressed some wariness.

Henry Smith, the MP for Crawley, said he would be "looking to make sure that happened".

It has been suggested the measures outlined in the Conservative 2019 manifesto will be reintroduced through a combination of Private Members' Bills - which are brought by backbench MPs but would be supported by the government - and statutory instruments, a type of legislation which often cannot be amended.

There is frustration that the bill has been pulled at such a late stage - reintroducing it as separate pieces of legislation will take longer.

Conservative MP Tracey Crouch said it was "better than having nothing" but added that there had been "an unforgivable delay on the whole bill, which is completely unacceptable".

Another Conservative MP, Theresa Villiers, said she felt a "sense of frustration and disappointment".

'Shilly-shallying'

Opposition parties and animal charities have also expressed concern.

The RSPCA said: "We are frustrated and disappointed that, despite overwhelming public support, the government has delayed and delayed and has now broken up the bill, leading to yet more uncertainty and lost time. While politicians dither, animals suffer."

Labour's shadow environment minister Alex Sobel said the government was "too weak to deliver its own legislation and it is animals who will suffer", while the SNP's Kirsten Oswald accused the government of "shilly-shallying".

Mr Spencer defended the government's record, pointing to action it had already taken on animal welfare, including making microchipping mandatory for dogs, banning the use of conventional battery cages for hens and banning commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens.

He noted that no live exports had taken place in the UK since 2020, but government legislation would "ensure this becomes permanent".

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