Animal welfare must not be allowed to slip down the political agenda in negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, supporters of World Horse Welfare were told at the charity’s conference in London on 31 October 2018.
Former MP and Conservative party communications director Tim Collins addressed concerns that a no-deal Brexit could have major adverse effects on the welfare of horses and other domestic species by causing long delays at UK ports for animals being transported to and from Europe.
He argued that regulations on livestock movements would be one of the issues affecting animal welfare that will be dealt with during negotiations with the European Commission. However, animal charities, the veterinary profession and general public must keep up the pressure on UK ministers to ensure that welfare is treated as a priority.
Tim urged his audience to remain optimistic that there will be positive outcomes for the UK equine population under the future arrangements. He argued that they should ignore the concerns in the press that there will be insufficient time to reach a satisfactory agreement before March next year.
The speaker, who now runs the communications consultancy Vico Partners, insisted that the apparent failure of Theresa May’s government to thrash out a deal with its EU partners was not something to be overly alarmed about.
It helped to apply some historical perspective – on four occasions in the 1950s and 60s, Britain was unable to reach agreement with its neighbours on joining the European Community. Negotiations can take years to complete – two decades in the case of Estonia, which applied to join the EU in 1991, was accepted in 2004 and completed its transitional membership arrangements in 2011, he said.
It was very likely that Britain would continue to work with the EU in some form of temporary membership agreement after 2019 – “nothing lasts as long in politics as a temporary arrangement”, he said, pointing to the reintroduction of income tax in 1803 as a short-term measure introduced to help defeat Napoleon.
Tim maintained that completing discussions on an agreement for leaving the European Union was less important than the quite separate deal that must then be reached on any ongoing future relationship. Animal welfare standards would be part of those discussions and charities like World Horse Welfare have an opportunity to influence the debate.
He believed that in last year’s general election the Conservative party got on the wrong side of the animal welfare debate over issues such as the ivory trade and fox hunting, and that this partly accounted for its poor performance in the poll. Both main parties had taken account of this factor and so “when welfare organisations bring up concerns over animal welfare, you will be pushing against an open door”, he said. “Don’t let them marginalise you, if you campaign on these issues you deserve to prevail – and you will do.”
However, another speaker warned that the scope for animal welfare charities to shape the political landscape was being compromised by a number of negative trends.
Joe Saxton, founder of nfpSynergy, a research consultancy for the charity sector, argued that recent scandals, like those surrounding the sexual behaviour of Oxfam field workers in Haiti and financial irregularities at the Kids’ Company children’s charity in the UK, have damaged the reputation of the whole charitable movement.
Along with all the other charitable organisations, the animal welfare bodies must work at restoring public faith that any money donated would be used appropriately. The economic climate for all charities was becoming increasingly difficult – years of austerity has reduced the support available from central and local government and new legislation on privacy has harmed their ability to raise funds from the public. “It has been estimated that the General Data Protection Regulations which came into force earlier this year have shrunk the number of names on our databases by about 75 percent,” he said.
Joe argued that the charitable sector was facing problems that do not affect mainstream commercial organisations and could not depend on a sympathetic hearing from government. “We do not fit in with the ideologies of the two main political parties in this country – the Conservatives think what we do is the responsibility of business and Labour thinks it is the role of the State.”
Meanwhile, charities have to be very careful about how they are perceived by the public. “They want us to be effective and professional but at the same time, we have to avoid coming across as being too professional. They don’t like it if they think we are spending too much of the money donated on staff salaries,” he said. “Also, the general public is happy that charities are involved in political lobbying but they don’t want us to be spending too much money on it.”