MPs have approved a ban on exporting livestock for slaughter and fattening, amid warnings that a loophole could be created by Northern Ireland’s exclusion.
The Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill seeks to prevent cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses being sent to the continent for slaughter from Great Britain.
But it will not extend and apply to Northern Ireland, with the UK Government saying this is to ensure Northern Ireland farmers have unfettered access to the UK and Republic of Ireland markets.
Attempts by the DUP to ensure Northern Ireland was incorporated in the Bill, including a bid for the export ban not to apply to the Republic of Ireland, failed on Monday.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) told the Commons: “As a result of the exclusion of Northern Ireland from this Bill, animals can be taken from Northern Ireland, exported through the Irish Republic, taken on a 23-hour boat journey to the European mainland, and then carried down to the south of Spain, France or indeed further abroad.”
Mr Wilson recalled visiting a slaughterhouse while on a motorbike holiday through the Alps and France.
He said: “I hadn’t spoken to anybody who could speak English for about two weeks and I noticed a lorry with a Northern Ireland registration number on it.”
Mr Wilson added: “I thought there’s somebody from Northern Ireland, I’m going to follow that lorry and when it stops at least I’ll have somebody I can talk to – I find somebody who speaks English, my sort of English that I’ll understand.”
Mr Wilson said the lorry stopped at an abattoir and unloaded sheep that had travelled from outside Ballymena, County Antrim.
He said: “This Bill will still leave that route open and the objective which the Government is seeking to achieve will not be achieved.
“And it’s ironic that we’ve got a Bill about animal welfare which ignores the main source of concern about the transport of animals across the continent of Europe.”
Mr Wilson said he wished the Bill well, adding: “I hope that it won’t be a loophole.”
Environment minister Mark Spencer said farmers in Northern Ireland routinely move animals to the Republic of Ireland for slaughter and for fattening.
MPs heard about 3,500 cattle, 17,000 pigs and 337,000 sheep were moved in this way in 2022.
Mr Spencer told MPs: “This Bill must not jeopardise the access Northern Ireland farmers have to the Republic.”
Mr Spencer said World Trade Organisation rules would not allow the UK to favour one nation above another in that way, adding: “We would lose in court is the advice that I have been given.”
He added: “To try and put forward legislation that we know not to be legally sound is not what the Government is in a position to do.
“And I’m enormously sympathetic to (Mr Wilson’s) view. And I agree with him, I don’t want to see sheep and cattle moved from Belfast all the way to Madrid.
“That is not what we want to see happen, but we don’t have the power to be able to stop that at this moment in time.”
He said it would be “devastating” for Northern Ireland’s economy if farmers there could not move their livestock to the Republic of Ireland for slaughter and fattening.
He expressed his “frustration” that “we are unable to do this”.
The Government has previously said the Bill is only possible now the UK has left the European Union.
There has been no live export of livestock for slaughter since Brexit, experts have said, pointing to practical barriers including EU checks and a lack of suitable border posts, as well as resistance on the part of ferry companies to facilitate the trade.
Elsewhere in the debate, Labour suggested extending the livestock ban to include alpacas, llamas and deer.
Shadow environment minister Ruth Jones said: “It is about future-proofing the legislation and making it fit for purpose.”
But Mr Spencer said the Government has received “no evidence” that a ban on other species is “at all necessary”.
The Bill received an unopposed third reading and will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date.