Monday, 18 April 2011

Why responsible legislation is needed on animal welfare

Like other parliamentary candidates, in recent weeks I have been inundated with e-mails from charities, voluntary groups, lobbyists and constituents who all seek to either persuade me of the merits of their own visions for Scotland, prioritise their particular concerns or ask me to sign pledges pertaining to specific policy commitments.

I like to hear from these groups, and they are adding something to the democratic process by seeking views from candidates which can be used to both inform their members/supporters and hold elected representatives to account. Often these organisations have their own well-considered and informed manifestos which contain ideas and concerns that should be translated into government priority but rarely find it into the pages of party manifestos or the politics pages of our daily newspapers.

I’m usually happy to offer my support to groups and individual lobbyists who have taken such time and care to prepare an argument and present their case to our aspiring politicians. There are some notable exceptions, but most of the e-mails and manifestos I’ve received have been highly responsible – the fact that they’re politically non-partisan also makes them a little more refreshing and intellectually honest than those issued by political parties.

The vast majority of communications have been about either health issues, the environment or animal welfare. As a health campaigner and a Green Liberal Democrat, it perhaps isn’t surprising that I should easily relate to requests to pledge support for health improvement or action to protect the environment and combat climate change. Animal welfare, however, is an issue I don’t generally give a lot of thought to but when I gave some of the complex issues some serious consideration I became more convinced that this is an area that any incoming government must take a lead.

Organisations such as the BUAV (there are others) are concerned with ending the use of animals in experiments. Ah yes, that old chestnut. Other groups have asked for my views on protecting Scotland’s seal population and sentencing for those who abuse animals.

I’m generally not one for speaking out on this issue. While like every reasonable person I’m opposed to animal cruelty there are people with a great deal more expertise than I have and, to be frank, I’d rather leave the scientific arguments to them. However, having seen evidence suggesting that laboratory testing on animals remains unacceptably high and that certain types of animal cruelty are actually increasing, I’m going to speak out.

As a former medical student I simply don’t accept that the scientific community today has much need to conduct experimentation on animals. There are usually alternative - in fact superior - media for such experiments. There are already in existence several humane alternative technologies and although these do need to be further developed, I am confident they will be.

I would actively advocate outlawing any animal experimentation other than on those rare occasions where there is clear, clinically-based evidence that the more humane technologies are inadequate. There is clearly no need to be using animals in experiments involving cosmetic products. Such use of animals is not only unnecessary but unspeakably cruel. There should also be increased transparency and accountability as far as academic research bodies are concerned; however, ultimately we need to be moving away from animal experimentation altogether.

That is not the moralistic view of an “animal rights activist” but the considered perspective of someone who cares deeply about improving clinical research. I simply don’t see why science has to be so inhumane.

Why is there a need for groups like BUAV to exist in the 21st century? Probably because the Scottish government has shied away from legislating on animal welfare issues, favouring instead subtle encouragements and financial incentives (which have their uses as well as limitations) over more direct intervention.

More concerning was the headline in Saturday’s Herald: “Law sanctions slaughter of 1300 animals”. It appears, if The Herald is to be believed, that the government has sanctioned the slaughter of 1300 seals under a law designed to protect fish stocks. The Seal Protection Action Group argues that the law, which permits killing as a last resort, is being abused by an industry more concerned with profits than responsible methods of controlling predators.

I am surprised by neither the actions of fish farmers or the SPAG. Having lived in the Hebrides, I am more than familiar with how seals are perceived by those with fishing interests! What surprises me is the ease by which is has been possible to gain a licence to slaughter seals – 66 applications have been granted including a fish farm that hasn’t even been completed yet. In spite of this, the government – which issues the licences – is on record as stating that non-lethal methods of control are being by-passed by some trigger-happy fish farmers.

It seems the provisions of Marine (Scotland) Act, which stipulates that a number of alternative measures should be tried before use of lethal force against seals, are being ignored by some. Others appear to be going through the motions simply to “evidence” that such measures have proved unsatisfactory. One marine biologist is quoted as saying that seals are being shot “not as a last resort but simply because killing is the easiest solution” while outraged Green Party co-convenor Eleanor Scott suggested that an “outdated and brutal regime” should be banned. “The scale of the killing spree is a surprise even to us”, she explained.

I don’t always agree with Ms Scott but on this issue I do. Not only does this “killing spree” suggest that fish farmers are unimaginative when it comes to pest control it also highlights how ineffective the Scottish government’s attempts at promoting the welfare of seals have been. Legislation designed to protect seals while satisfying the concerns of supermarkets and the fishing industry has had unintended consequences about which we should all be concerned.

I am pleased that Labour and the Lib Dems are critical of the government's handling of the matter. The two parties are, according to The Herald, opposed to the killing of seals “except as a last resort [and] only if [the seals] posed a serious threat.” A serious threat? What exactly does that mean? We’re talking seals, not al-Qaeda...

How do you start to legally define the levels of “seriousness” posed by seal threats?

Any incoming government has an opportunity to make real steps forward as far as animal welfare is concerned. I have no doubt that none of our politicians believe unnecessary animal suffering is acceptable, but change must be driven in a more considered and responsible way with a little more thought given to unintended ramifications. In the meantime, I wish groups like BUAV and SPAG every success with their respective campaigns.

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