On Tuesday, I went to Westminster to meet the Farming Minister, Jim Paice, together with our local MP's, Laura Sandys and Roger Gale. The fact that four senior Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs officials, who are responsible for various aspects relating to the trade in live animal exports, were also present, shows just how seriously this issue is being taken by the Government.
During a lengthy discussion, we were able to raise all the questions asked by protesters over the last few weeks and to robustly challenge whether everything possible was being done to ensure the welfare of the animals passing through Ramsgate. We specifically asked whether there was a case for enhanced enforcement.
Disappointingly, it would seem that the trade does generally comply with current regulations and the scope for changing these is virtually non-existent. The rules concerning the welfare of animals during transportation are laid down by the European Commission and, as a result, member states cannot unilaterally change them.
The safety and suitability of the vessel Joline is overseen by HM Coastguard, who have, on occasion, prevented it sailing. It seemed to me that everyone present wants to see an end to live-animal exports but feels powerless to stop it. Clearly, the issues raised by protesters are being addressed; one of the inspectors present had recently accompanied a shipment on the Joline in a force four wind, but reported that welfare rules had not been breached. Also, over 50 per cent of the lorries passing through Ramsgate had been subjected to inspection at some point.
There are some small rays of hope, however.
Officials are presently investigating the possibility of passing the cost of licensing, inspection and enforcement on to the operators. This could be quite considerable and would help to make the trade unprofitable, which may be the best way of stopping it. Further, the EU is shortly due to report on its review of regulations governing the welfare of animals during transportation.
The best news though is that Laura has secured an adjournment debate in Parliament, next Monday, when this bad business will be subjected to very public, national scrutiny.