By Eve Mitchell
UK Government silliness just took a big hit. Thank goodness.
Those of you with long memories will know about ongoing UK plans to let business regulate itself. From the Business Focus on Enforcement, to the Red Tape Challenge, to the current Cutting Red Tape project, it’s pretty much the same story: The government asks Big Business if it would like less enforcement of fewer regulations, and, no surprise, Big Business says, “Yes, please!”
When Big Business says, “Erm, maybe…,” alarm bells go off.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) hatched a particularly worrying wheeze: Scrap important, but admittedly outdated, statutory codes used to police animal welfare on farms and let industry replace them with its own guidelines. Defra claimed this would improve compliance. Seriously. It’s bad enough in itself, but if animal welfare responsibilities were palmed off to the meat industry, who knows what they’d come up with next?
The plan started to unravel early. Lots of people agreed updated standards would be good, but many wondered how tough industry would be on itself – watered-down guidance and/or slack enforcement might look like improved compliance, but it’s really just giving factory farms an easier ride. The British Veterinary Association suggested that meat industry input would be valuable, but government should facilitate the process. The official agriculture research and development board also wanted industry to have a strong supporting role, but agreed Defra should be in charge.
Forced to admit there was no consensus on how to proceed, Defra seemed determined to get the industry-led scheme it had cooked up. Defra even held a special workshop because, amazingly, even the livestock industry needed “reassurance” that the plan was going to work and Defra’s support would continue. After the workshop, Defra claimed several livestock sectors were “keen”. It seemed more like coaxed, maybe even a little bulldozed.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) was first in line. It developed guidance that was due to come into force on 27 April, revoking the existing codes on poultry welfare. Other sectors, like beef or lamb, would follow. As late as 31 March BPC told me it couldn’t share the new guidelines until launch day. So things were on course, but no one could check to see what the new guidelines said or how they compared to the existing codes until they were gone. Hmmm…
Then, just days before D-day, Defra dumped the plan “in light of views raised”. Maybe it had something to do with comments from Parliament suggesting, “Defra should give serious consideration to the concerns voiced.” The opposition accused the government of trying “wash its hands entirely” of its responsibilities. If the codes are out of date, the government should do its job, not get the meat industry to do it.
As a nation of animal lovers who want a safe, humane food system, we need tough laws and strict enforcement, not industry-led guidance of debatable legal certainty. Regulation is not “red tape”. Government should not be a partner with business. It should regulate business for the common good.
Whatever caused the backpedalling on this one, I’m glad, but it was too close for comfort. It’s just a shame it took so much time, and tax-payer money, for Defra to come around to what everyone else knew was just common sense.
We need to keep an eye on them.
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