Diary of a Parliamentary Intern – Gabrielle Laing
Updated June 2019: Gabrielle Laing, Parliamentary Intern for Lord Trees, has contributed a number of diary entries to Vet Record from 2018. Here, we have selected some of her diary highlights, covering the period February 2018 to June 2019.
Agriculture and environmental bills
As logistics for Brexit slip onto the ‘back-burner’ of day-to-day business here in the Lords, we have been spared some time to look to the future.
At the moment we are in an unusual position with both new agriculture and environment bills being laid, something that could be transformative in the UK. As a vet, I am inherently drawn to problem solving – and the much-maligned EU Common Agricultural Policy definitely has room for improvement. Being a One Health fan I’m also excited by the opportunity to do some ‘big picture’ thinking about how these fundamental pieces of legislation might be joined up. But how do we get it right?
It’s the civil service, and Defra in this case, that does the majority of the leg work putting a bill together (which is the draft version of legislation before it is passed into law). The bill is then proposed by the government through its ministers and both the Commons and the Lords chambers then have a chance to make suggestions for improvements.
"Vets have diverse and useful skills, so I would argue that we would likely make very helpful lobbyists should we choose!"
When it comes to agriculture and environmental bills, obviously Lord Trees is able to comment from his own professional perspective, but it is also beneficial to hear what others think and to offer to raise issues on their behalf. This is where lobbying comes in.
I grew up thinking lobbying was a dirty business, after the cash-for-questions scandal of the 1990s. The term ‘to lobby’ actually derives from UK parliament where, historically, ‘influencers’ would gather in the central lobby to await their MPs or peers as they left the debates.
My experience of lobbyists has been positive. They look to inform representatives of a perspective they feel it is important to understand and, in a world where the unexpected impacts of policy can be damaging, their advocacy is welcome. A well-informed lobbyist – although perhaps not impartial – can offer insight into what could otherwise be an unfamiliar area, or suggest novel ways in which legislation might be changed to achieve a particular objective. Members of the public can ‘lobby’ their MP about a local issue or, more frequently, advocates or ‘public affairs’ teams at charities or companies will be charged with getting their message to the right people.
There are undoubtedly some conflicts of interest, but if we continue to strive for evidence-informed policy as far as we can, then this bias can hopefully be mitigated. Vets have diverse and useful skills, so I would argue that we would likely make very helpful lobbyists should we choose!
The past few months of Brexit turmoil have seen the BBC Parliament TV channel get higher ratings than MTV, and my friends and family routinely ask me for any insider insight into what will happen next. But in truth I’m as much of an outsider as anyone else.
Mercifully, as Lord Trees is a crossbencher in the House of Lords, we have been spared the party politics that has plagued the Commons. However that doesn’t mean we have escaped Brexit, as the less glamorous ‘logistics’ of a Withdrawal Agreement or no-deal contingency planning need a lot of parliamentary time.
With all the media attention, it’s easy to forget that the Withdrawal Agreement only deals with the UK’s transition out of the EU. The House of Commons has so far failed to find an acceptable compromise and we risk dropping out of the EU in a no-deal scenario. In a no-deal situation, all the legislation currently governing the UK that makes reference to the EU or European bodies, such as the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) for example, will cease to apply.
This has left us dealing with a long list of statutory instruments (SIs) that amend our legislation so that there is no mention of the EU!
"In a no-deal situation, all the legislation currently governing the UK that makes reference to the EU or European bodies, will cease to apply"
Defra has more SIs than any other government department to lay before parliament to ensure our laws are operational outside the EU. When Defra feels an alteration to the legislation is minor it can lay it as a ‘negative SI’, which means that it doesn’t have to have a full debate in parliament. A sifting committee - the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee - will assess these negative SIs and decide if it is an acceptable way forward.
Unfortunately, many of these have been rejected and therefore the amendments must be debated before being passed into UK law. These rejected SIs, along with the positive SIs (where the government acknowledges that a substantial change in policy requires a debate), have been keeping us very busy! Swapping ‘EU’ for ‘UK’ may sound simple, but it has left us ‘science-bods’ trawling through complex legal wording trying to understand if the simple wording change will alter the functioning of the legislation.
In response to a written question from Lord Trees to Defra, Lord Gardiner (the Defra minister in the Lords) confirmed that his department has had over 100 SIs laid before parliament in preparation for a no-deal EU exit. Recently, good progress has been made and, as of early March, 63 had been passed so relatively few are still waiting to be laid before parliament.
My two-year internship ends this summer, which means that the internship is open for applications.
One Health and Brexit
A possible silver lining to Brexit is the opportunity to transform the system of financial support for agriculture in the UK (although as agriculture is a devolved matter, it’s a matter for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately). The CAP is mostly comprised of subsidy payments based on land owned with ‘rural development’ top-up payments. It was worth over €4 billion to the UK in 2015.
Reform of CAP is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the health of people, animals and the environment. Any new policy must consider countless perspectives and avoid unintended consequences – without being so narrow or bureaucratic that it can’t adapt successfully to each region, sector or year.
The UK has lower agricultural productivity than many of our European neighbours and vast variation in the proportion of our farms that rely on income from CAP payments. For example, 90% of the income of grazing livestock farms comes from CAP direct farm payments, compared with 10% for poultry farms. We have excellent food safety, but struggle to control endemic diseases on farms. And we have a population that’s keen to visit our beautiful farmed landscape, but poor transport links for the rural communities living there.
If reform is needed and, as environment secretary Michael Gove has said, ‘we’ll use ‘public money for public good’, we must decide on our priorities. This means balancing the tension between enhancing standards and producing enough food (at the right price) to feed ourselves, while at the same time avoiding exporting poor welfare or environmental standards to other countries.
The solutions to these challenges lie beyond legislation. As vets and consumers we have our own priorities. We all have some power to affect positive change to improve health for all, for this and future generations.
The rise of animals being slaughtered without having been pre-stunned led Lord Trees to table a question on this emotive topic.
Non-stun slaughter methods are used by some Muslim producers for halal meat and by the Jewish community to produce kosher meat.
If we focus on sheep, the last survey of halal slaughter (in 2013) found that the majority (63%) were given a ‘reversible’ stun before slaughter. However, any animal undergoing Shechita slaughter to produce kosher meat will not have been stunned and it is estimated that around 70% of meat from these animals enters the mainstream supply chain, unlabelled as such.
At the moment, several assurance schemes, including Red Tractor, Soil Association and RSPCA Assured do not accept any meat from non-stunned animals.
"The welfare risks of mis-stunning do not outweigh the benefits of stunning"
There are some difficulties around measuring levels of pain and consciousness in animals at slaughter, which further complicates the debate.
Having reviewed the evidence, I feel there’s a much stronger argument to support the use of stunning to render animals insensible (and free from pain or distress); stunning does not adversely affect the final meat product, and the welfare risks of mis-stunning do not outweigh the benefits of stunning.
My front line is arguing for legislative change and I appreciate that it is much easier to act as the opposition than it is to be the one providing solutions. I hope that we can cooperate with compassion and understanding to find a solution that meets our shared goals of protecting and upholding animal welfare.
March 2018 - part 1
An amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill taking the Lisbon Treaty’s idea of recognising animals as sentient beings (and therefore requiring the state to pay due regard to their welfare), was originally defeated by the government in the Commons in November 2017, to much public outcry.
The government reacted by rushing out a draft animal welfare Bill, which was then heavily criticised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. With so much Brexit legislation competing for a finite amount of parliamentary time, there is now a high risk that any new legislation won’t be in place before the end of the implementation period.
An amendment to the withdrawal Bill could solve this problem (albeit temporarily), but it was clear last week that the government wasn’t keen to accept one.
The Brexit minister kindly agreed to meet to discuss the amendment but, at the last minute, changed the time preventing Lord Trees attending his weekly crossbench meeting (where support can often be garnered). The meeting with the minister offered no concessions, not even a commitment to a timeline for the new Animal Sentience Bill.
Immediately afterwards, Lord Trees met with the Labour, Lib Dem and Green peers also named on the amendment, and collectively decided they had little to lose by pushing for a vote (division).
Finally the long-awaited debate began. There was a mixed response, generally in support of animal welfare, but raising some nuances of legal wording.
It was an exciting wait as peers filed through the lobbies to cast their votes. The result was not in our favour –169 content to 211 not content with our amendment. We were obviously disappointed, but this won’t be the end of the battle!
March 2018 - part 2
Before last week’s agreement with the EU over a transition period that will see the UK retain access to the single market and be able to agree (but not immediately implement) trade deals with other countries, there was a risk that the UK would have had to enter a period of trading governed by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
WTO rules are an agreed set of trade rules that aim to ensure fair-trading and establish biosecurity measures between the 164 member countries. They protect against discriminatory trade by forbidding any country from setting import standards that favour its own domestic market...unless it can be considered to be for the ‘public good’.
"I feel there’s a much stronger argument to support the use of stunning to render animals insensible"
A ‘public good’ (as far as I understand it) is a commodity or service which is available to everyone, such as defence, clean air or street cleaning, for example.
Speaking at the recent NFU conference, the environment secretary Michael Gove said that as animal welfare is considered a public good, the UK could reward farmers for having high standards.
Following Lord Trees’ question on the recent increase in number of animals slaughtered without having been pre-stunned, the all-party group for animal welfare (APGAW) held a special session on labelling of animal products to discuss including the method of production and slaughter.
It was widely agreed that more transparent labelling was the right direction to take, but that any proposals needed to be fair to all. From here, APGAW will look at options for what measures or methods should be included on the labels with a focus on welfare outcomes rather than just inputs.
To avoid simply shifting the problems elsewhere, and, with one in four adults eating out each week, it was felt that processed foods and restaurant meals also needed similar labelling.