British people care about animals. Ask any MP and they will tell you that animal-related issues almost always top their inbox. So I was delighted, a few months ago, as a new member of the Petitions Select Committee, to lead a debate in the House of Commons, in response to a petition calling for a ban on the sale of fur in the UK, signed by around 110,000 people. When I agreed to do that, I did not anticipate the attention it would gain – tens of thousands of people would watch it online.
The issue of selling fur in this country has been argued over for two decades. Back in 2000, parliament banned fur farming in England and Wales, and that was extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2002. The then Labour minister, Baroness Hayman, said that: “The Government believes that it is wrong to keep animals solely or primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur. In the Government’s view, fur farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life.”
For huge numbers of UK citizens, that was true then, and is true now. However, since then, we have inadvertently continued to fund fur farming internationally, importing more than £670 million of animal fur according to estimates by Humane Society International, which has campaigned so powerfully on this issue. In effect, we now outsource the problem – we have banned fur farming on our doorstep, but by allowing imports, we remain complicit in animal suffering.
Animals in fur farms are too often forced to live in terrible conditions. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare say very clearly that: “Current husbandry systems cause serious problems for all species of animals reared for fur.”Animals such as foxes and minks are suited in their natural habitat to roam far and wide – when these animals are farmed for fur, they can be kept in small cages less than a metre in diameter. It is not a case of “out of sight, out of mind” – while we still allow imports and sale of fur in the country, we are still culpable.
There is overwhelming public support for a fur ban. This February, YouGov published a poll which showed that nearly 7 in 10 people, or over two-thirds (69 per cent), of the public would support a ban on the import and sale of fur in the UK. There is a significant majority amongst both Labour and Conservative voters, too – the issue transcends party political allegiance.
And that reaches beyond the UK. I had the pleasure of meeting a Finnish Member of the European Parliament, Sirpa Pietikäinen, who leads the cross-party inter group on animal welfare – she assured me that there is growing and widespread support, not just in Brussels but across even countries that have been more traditionally sympathetic to the fur trade.
Banning the sale of fur is possible, through mechanisms in both European Union trade treaties and under World Trade Organisation rules, which allow import bans “necessary to protect public morals”. That has been used by the European Parliament and Council to ban trade in seal products in the EU. A challenge to that ban (from Canada and Norway) fell when the WTO permitted the ruling as a proportionate measure “necessary to protect public morals”. That important case indicates we have the freedom to define, with proof, what our interpretation of ‘public morality’ is. Crucially, as the UK has no domestic production of fur, a UK fur import ban could not be viewed as disguised discrimination or protectionism, referenced in the RSPCA’s submission to the EFRA Select Committee inquiry into the fur trade: “As the UK has a ban on fur farming, an import ban on those products could be applied to meet the WTO tests.”
Significant and sustained public objection to fur could be demonstrated by the decades of opinion polls, alongside the massive public response to the Fur Free Britain campaign, currently at almost half a million signatures.
The EU banned cat and dog fur in 2008; New Zealand prohibits mink fur imports; India bans imports of the fur of several species; and Sao Paulo adopted a fur farming ban in 2014 and an import and sales ban in 2015. Designers such as Gucci and Versace have adopted fur free policies, as have high street retailers such as Topshop and House of Fraser. Britain has a chance to lead the way within Europe and across the world, and become the first country to ban fur sales. That is what the public want, and it is the right thing to do.