Monday, May 30, 2011

Is the EU stopping the government from banning wild animals in circuses?

Much of the work we do here relates to animal welfare. Whether it's long distance transportation of horses, minimum standards for animals used in medical testing or a ban on the import of seal products, most of the groundings for animal welfare rules are done at European level. However, national governments obviously still have a big role to play in protecting the rights of animals.

Recently the UK Parliament has been debating a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. Clearly it is cruel and unnecessary to make animals such as elephants, lions and tigers perform in circus shows, and a recent poll showed that nearly 90% of the public would support such a ban.

The Tory-led government, however, doesn't seem to want to stop this outdated practice. Junior environment minister Jim Paice claimed that introducing a ban would not be possible because it would go against the European Services Directive. This is another despicable example of the government blaming Europe for 'stopping' them from doing something, when the truth is they just don't want to do it. The government also claimed there was a legal case against the Austrian government who have already banned wild animals in circuses. When Labour MEPs asked the European Commission whether this was true they replied stating "the Commission is not aware and certainly not involved in any legal proceedings in Austrian national courts trying to lift this ban." Whilst the Commission said that in theory the ban could be against the Services Directive they went on to clearly explain that a ban could "be justified by overriding reasons of public interest. Animal welfare and animal protection are among the reasons that can justify such a restriction."

It is not acceptable for the government to use the EU as a shield for difficult questions they don't want to answer. Currently we're finalising European legislation on food labelling, and I'm calling for mandatory country of origin labelling for meat and fish when used in processed products such as pork in sausages, beef in lasagne, and chicken in premade sandwiches. Shoppers need this information if they want to choose products which use meat that hasn't been transported too far and comes from somewhere with decent animal welfare standards. However the UK government, acting within the European Council, is opposing my plans for labelling meat in processed foods now and is instead trying to delay the process for years, if not decades. I'm sure when asked why such animal welfare measures are not being supported they will blame "Brussels" instead of owning up to their own responsibilities.

It is time for the Tories to engage responsibly with Europe, and I hope that when the wild animal ban is debated in Parliament next week the government will finally admit that there is nothing stopping them from introducing it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ken Clarke's comments reveal a dangerous attitude in the Tory Party

Ken Clarke's comments yesterday feed into a worrying trend in the way the right view victims of sexual abuse. Ken answered the statement "rape is rape", with "no it's not" and proceeded to say there is "serious rape" to which other offences, including date rape, do not belong. He may be known for his blustering style but this is completely unacceptable. Not only is it highly offensive and upsetting to the victims of rape but it also plays into the mindset that some victims of sexual abuse are real victims, and others are just lying or exaggerating. Ken Clarke says that he wants to minimise the distress for a victim when they take their attacker to court. However, if the victim feels they have to prove that their terrible experience really was "serious", it will discourage them from coming forward in the first place. Already 60% of sexual assaults go unreported.

Ken Clarke was not the only Tory politician to make offensive comments about sexual abuse this week. Nadine Dorries, defending her campaign to teach young girls abstinence, said that a strong 'Just Say No' message would mean that less child abuse would take place because currently victims "don't realise that that was a wrong thing to do". The message she is sending out is disgusting. We must not lay any of the blame for child abuse on the child; it is not the child's responsibility to tell their abuser that what they are doing is wrong. Furthermore telling a girl (both Nadine and Ken forget about the many male victims of sexual abuse) that she should 'just say no' will only increase the feelings of guilt and shame that victims already feel.

What we should be doing is protecting and supporting the victims of sexual abuse in every possible way, but this does not seem to come naturally to the Conservatives. Last year the EU passed a new Anti-Trafficking Directive to combat human trafficking, a cross border issue which is best solved at a European level. Several hundred thousand people, including many children, are trafficked in the EU every year and forced into the sex trade. The directive increases penalties for human traffickers, gives better victim support and allows traffickers from abroad to be prosecuted in the UK. However the Tory-Lib Dem government opted out of the directive, saying that there were already enough measures to tackle human trafficking. Only after sustained pressure from charities, NGOs and Labour MEPs did the government finally opt in this March.

The Conservatives need to wake up and deal with the realities of sexual abuse in a sensitive and effective way. What we must not be doing is giving the impression that these crimes are not serious or that the victims can be blamed in some way. When a policeman in Canada told a group of students that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised" I was encouraged to see that thousands of women across the world took to the streets to protest. I hope David Cameron was listening because his party needs to change their outdated and dangerous attitude fast.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Do you want to know where the meat you buy comes from?

Today's story in the Guardian about fish labelling raises some important issues.

I am working closely on the Food Information to Consumers legislation which is currently being negotiated between the European Parliament and EU governments. We start the next round of negotiations next week in Strasbourg, and one of the things I will be fighting extremely hard for is country of origin labelling for all meat, and all meat and fish when used in processed foods. EU rules already mean that consumers have a right to know where the beef and fish they buy comes from, but I want to see that extended to all other meats, including pork, lamb and chicken, as well as country of origin labelling for meat and fish when used in processed foods. Under the current system a company can choose to promote a product such as a chicken sandwich processed in the UK as British, when in fact the chicken comes from Thailand. This is misleading and unacceptable.

Unfortunately the Conservative-led coalition and Tory MEPs did not support my amendments to improve origin labelling for meat in processed foods now and want to delay the measures for another five years. Negotiations will be difficult but I have the support of most of the European Parliament and it's something that I'm not prepared to compromise on. Consumers want to know where meat comes from for a whole range of reasons, including sustainability, animal welfare conditions, and the environmental impact of transporting meat halfway across the world.

Of course, even if we get the European rules right we still have work to do to help environmentally minded consumers make good choices. In terms of fish I think the idea of supermarkets developing a traffic light system for sustainability is an excellent one. The traffic light scheme for nutritional values has proved to be easy to understand and popular, and has been something I have been advocating at European level. For other types of meat consumers need to know how animal welfare standards differ across the world. How many consumers know, for example, that all countries in the EU comply with the same European animal welfare regulations, which are some of the best in the world?

Consumers want to know more about the food they buy, and we have to make sure that policy makers, retailers and producers work together to give useful and transparent information.