The Scottish Government’s track record on animal protection since the Holyrood elections two years ago has been mixed at best.
It started with confusion when the new Government was formed and animal welfare appeared to be omitted from the list of Ministerial responsibilities. It took a Parliamentary Question to establish where responsibilities lay. Since then, it has been a case of two steps forward and one back, culminating in the bizarre and unnecessary decision to weaken Scotland’s tail-docking ban for puppies in June.
The hostile and confused response to this weakening of animal welfare standards from Scotland’s dog-loving public, along with Theresa May’s outspoken support for fox hunting, which is widely considered to have damaged her General Election campaign, demonstrated an important principle: protecting animals from cruelty is popular with the electorate. This might seem obvious, and it is demonstrated time and time again by public polling on animal welfare issues in Scotland and across the UK, but for those who move in political and media circles it is easily forgotten. Whilst those who are involved in practices such as fox hunting are a small minority, they are usually represented by powerful and well-resourced lobbies, making the status quo the easy option for Governments.
The question is, has the SNP-led Government woken up to the opportunity that progress on animal protection represents for them?
In many respects, the Programme for Government suggests that they have and that the tail-docking vote marks a low water point. For starters, there is a substantial section in the Programme dedicated to animal welfare, and there are a number of welcome and progressive commitments. Here’s the five most significant:
- Puppy farming is high on the agenda, with a commitment to a communications campaign and, in the longer run, improvements in how dog (and indeed cats and rabbits) dealing and selling is licensed.
- We finally have movement on compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses, with a consultation promised. We are delighted with this as it closely follows our petition calling for this to happen.
- The Bill that will prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses will be passed by Holyrood this year, and new licences will be developed for the use of wild animals used in other forms of entertainment.
- The maximum penalty for the most serious animal cruelty offences will be increased to five years’ imprisonment and fixed penalty notices will be introduced for lesser offences.
- Wildlife crime and grouse moor management is high up on the agenda, with commitments to new resources for Police Scotland, strengthening penalties, and re-confirming an inquiry into grouse moors.
This is all good stuff. But, there are big caveats and significant omissions that would lead a critic to conclude that the Scottish Government is still attempting to pursue a veneer of progress that does enough without causing upset, rather than bold, far-reaching progress that would make Scotland a leader in animal protection.
For example, there are serious omissions. The most obvious and politically important is the continued refusal to commit to banning fox hunting in Scotland, effectively, once and for all. Instead the Scottish Government is limiting its ambition to implementing the report by Lord Bonomy. This would deliver regulated hunting in Scotland rather than a ban.
We are also concerned that the language around some of these commitments suggests a lack of ambition. Last month the English Government committed to CCTV “in every slaughterhouse in England in all areas where live animals are present”. Compare this to the Scottish Government commitment to consult on “the introduction of compulsory video recording of slaughter at abattoirs”. Spot the difference? To be effective, CCTV needs to cover every part of a slaughterhouse, not just the slaughter area. It could be an accident, or it could suggest reluctance and an intention to do the minimum – we will see.
All in all, the Programme for Government ia big step forward, and it suggests that we have the opportunity for significant progress on animal protection in Scotland over the coming years. If this opportunity is to be taken, however, the Scottish Government needs to be bold and invest in and prioritise progress in this area. Not only is this the morally right thing to do, but I have no doubt that it will be warmly welcomed by the