The government has been accused of an “astonishing betrayal” after scrapping its flagship animal welfare bill over fears it would be forced into a vote on hunting.
Farming minister Mark Spencer confirmed the long-awaited legislation – aimed at banning live animal exports and introducing powers to tackle puppy smuggling – will not progress through parliament.
The Conservative 2019 manifesto promised to bring in new laws to protect animal welfare, including tougher sentences for animal cruelty.
Mr Spencer insisted these commitments will be kept by introducing the measures individually before the next general election – expected by the end of 2024.
He also announced the launch of a new animal sentience committee, and a consultation on new financial penalties of up to £5,000 for those who commit offences against animals.
But campaigners and Conservative MPs have lashed out at the decision to abandon the bill – which had already suffered long delays since it was first introduced in June 2021.
Mr Spencer blamed “scope creep” and Labour for the decision, saying the legislation risked being extended “far beyond the original commitments”.
However Claire Bass, of Humane Society International/UK, said the bill “needed only a few more hours in the Commons to succeed, so parliamentary time is clearly not the real issue here”.
“The real reason, Whitehall sources tell us, that the bill has been dropped is because of concerns that it could act as a vehicle for uncomfortable debates that the government does not want held on polarising issues such as hunting with dogs.”
In a letter sent to Conservative MPs seen by Sky News, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said Labour had intended to widen the scope of bill to include hunting which would “likely stoke unnecessary tensions and campaigns”.
Ms Bass called scrapping the bill “an astonishing betrayal of both animals and public trust”.
She added: “Vital protections for dogs, calves, sheep, primates and other animals have been sacrificed today at the government’s altar of self-serving political convenience.
“We’ll of course back delivery of these commitments as private members’ bills, but this is a high-risk strategy, and indicative of the low priority the government now evidently places on animal welfare.”
Hunting has been a divisive issue among Conservative MPs, with some wanting to relax the ban on fox hunting and others wanting to strengthen it to include trail hunting, which is legal.
Labour wants to strengthen the hunting ban but said it had no plan to add such an amendment to the bill.
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said pulling the plug on the legislation “is further proof that you can’t trust the Tories to deliver on animal welfare”.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, made up of influential Tory figures including Carrie Johnson and Zac Goldsmith, called the decision to scrap the bill a “missed opportunity” to enhance protections.
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Chris and Lorraine Platt, co-founders of the group, said: “Almost 14 million people elected this government on a platform which promised to deliver for animals. More recently, the continuation of this bill was promised by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 2022 during his leadership campaign.”
The RSPCA’s director of policy, Emma Slawinski, said the bill has “overwhelming public support” and “while politicians dither, animals suffer”.
Conservative MPs also aired their “frustration” in the Commons, with former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers telling Mr Spencer: “I’ve campaigned for more than two decades for an end to the live export of animals for slaughter.
“Can I really appeal to the minister and the wider government – bring us a new bill, let’s get on with this, let’s ban this cruel trade.”
The Animal Welfares Bill would have introduced a number of animal welfare measures, including:
• Tighter pet transport rules to stop ‘puppy smuggling’
• A ban on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening – and the UK would have been the first European country to do so
• A ban on keeping primates as pets
• More powers for police to stop dogs harming animals
• Stricter rules for zoos
Mr Spencer said the bill “risked being extended far beyond the original commitments in the manifesto and the action plan” accusing Labour of being “determined to play political games by widening the scope of this bill”.
However shadow environment minister Alex Sobel said if every department chose that approach “the government would have to scrap every bill”.
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“Oppositions are here to oppose and if a government can’t handle basic scrutiny it calls into question their ability to govern at all,” he said.
Mr Spencer insisted the measures will be taken forward “individually during the remainder of this parliament”.
He said: “We’re committed to cracking down on puppy smuggling, we will ban the imports of young, heavily pregnant or mutilated dogs, and we will be able to do this more quickly with a single-issue bill than the secondary legislation required under the Kept Animals Bill.
“And we are committed to banning the keeping of primates as pets and will do this by consulting before the summer recess on the primate keeping standards, and they will be applied by secondary legislation being brought forward this year.”