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Blog: The Internal Markets Bill: implications for trade in low-welfare animal products

Fur coats on clothes rack

The Internal Markets Bill seeks to promote frictionless trade and avoid regulatory divergence between parts of the UK after the Brexit Transition Period ends and EU law falls away. In this blog, Advocates for Animals paralegal Sam March discusses what this means for local bans on products such as fur or microbeads and potential future restrictions on trade in products that either involve or cause harm to animals.

What is the Internal Market Bill?

Although the UK technically left the EU at Midnight on the 31 January 2020, virtually nothing has changed yet in terms of the laws governing the free movement of goods and services. This is thanks to a “Transition Period” which was agreed upon in the Withdrawal Agreement, under which the UK essentially remains bound by EU law.

On 31st December, this “Transition Period” ends and EU law begins to fall away. Hundreds of powers previously exercised at EU level will flow directly to the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast, potentially giving these administrations more power than they have ever had before.

The powers enjoyed by these devolved administrations are contained in the acts of devolution; a series of acts passed between 1998 and 2006. These acts came into force over two decades after the primacy of EU law in UK law took effect in the UK under The European Communities Act 1972. This means that, for as long as there has been devolution in the UK, integration and frictionless trade between the home nations has been ensured by the same free-trade laws that govern integration and frictionless trade between the member states of the EU.

Without some new legislation, a power surge to the devolved legislatures after December 31st could seriously impact the way goods and services are traded between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland: each of the home nations would be free to set their own standards or even enact protectionist regimes, thus creating new barriers and additional costs and uncertainty for businesses.

In response to this risk of regulatory divergence, the UK Government is promoting The UK Internal Markets Bill (“the Bill”), which it claims will “protect our highly integrated market by guaranteeing that companies can continue to trade unhindered in every part of the UK after the Transition Period ends”. It seeks to do this by giving force to the UK’s own version of the kind of market access principles that govern free trade between unions such as the EU. Of particular importance is the principle of “mutual recognition”. Essentially, if goods can be lawfully sold in one part of the UK, they will be able to be lawfully sold in other parts of the UK.

Why is this relevant to animal law?

One approach that animal advocates have often taken to advancing animal protection law is to push for trade bans or stronger regulations on products that are either dangerous to animals or wildlife, products which directly involve harming animals during their production or products which indicate low welfare standards. Nationwide advances in laws that protect animals and their environments are often slow and hard fought, so sometimes progress has to be made incrementally through regional or local measures. For instance, at the level of a devolved legislature, The Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (Scotland) Regulations 2018, criminalised the manufacture and supply of rinse-off personal care products which use microbeads as an ingredient in Scotland. At the local authority level, clause 38 of Islington Council’s Street Trading Licence Conditions included “products containing real fur” from the list of goods that cannot be sold in Islington market. The fear for animal protection groups is that the mutual recognition principle would invalidate these kinds of measures, or render them ineffective.

What will The Bill mean for local measures that restrict trade in lower welfare products?

The good news is that the Bill does not seem to interfere with the kind of powers that have been used by individual local authorities to adopt this kind of progressive measure. This is because the Bill only seems to apply to trade barriers in “parts of the UK”, and whilst Islington market would be ‘part of the uk’ in every day usage, it seems fairly clear from the way sections s.4(2)(b) and s.15(12) are drafted, that there are only four “parts” of the UK for the purpose of this bill: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It seems unlikely that the Bill would prevent, for instance, a hypothetical local council from amending the lease for shops in a council-owned covered market to prohibit the retailing of live decapod crustaceans.

The risks for animal protection appear instead to lie in the effect that the bill will have on the devolved legislatures and England (the home nations). The bill prevents an individual home nation from enforcing “relevant” statutory requirements against products originating from another home nation wherein such requirements do not apply. Unless a statutory requirement can be brought within an excluded category, it will be “relevant” if it a) prohibits the sale of goods (or amounts to or results in one in practice); and b) is “within the scope” of the mutual recognition principle. A requirement will fall within the scope of the principle if it relates to the characteristics of the good, presentation, labelling, certification, registration, approval, authorisation, inspection, assessment, documentation, production (explicitly including the rearing, keeping and slaughtering animals) matters relating to the identification of animals (such as microchipping) or “anything else which must or must not be done to or in relation to the goods before they are allowed to be sold”.

There are a limited number of categories that can be exempted from the mutual recognition principle above specified in an exhaustive list in Schedule 1. This includes:

  • Threats to human, animal or plant health; This would have limited use for welfare or the health of individual animals. This is about prevention of diseases which poses “a serious threat” to the health of humans, animals or plants.
  • Unsafe food or feed; This relates to food or feed that poses a serious threat to the health of humans, animals or plants
  • Public health emergency; meaning a situation reasonably considered to post “an extraordinary threat to human health in the destination part”
  • Chemicals; this is an exception limited certain goods covered by the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (retained EU law);
  • Fertilisers and pesticides; this is an exception limited to goods covered by certain retained EU law pertaining to fertilisers and pesticides;
  • Taxation; the principles do not prohibit tax/rates/duties/charges;
  • The relevant requirement has effect in more than one part of the United Kingdom.

The list is exhaustive, and does not include the welfare of individual animals, or even environmental protection: therefore a trade ban on low welfare goods, such as fur, microbeads, live lobsters, chlorinated chicken, non-stun slaughtered meat, is unlikely to fall within the limited exceptions above.

England, for example, could ban salmon farming in England, but it could not stop Scottish salmon producers from trading their products in England. In fact, an attempt to enact such a ban would simply mean Scottish manufacturers would be free to inundate the English market, with no local competition.

The only other exemption relates to trade bans, standards or other statutory requirements which pre-date the Bill or are changed after the bill becomes law, but without any change to its substance. This suggests that Scotland’s existing prohibition on microbeads in personal hygiene products would stand and continue to apply to products containing microbeads even where produced in another part of the UK. However, it would seem that an attempt to roll out the restriction to new uses of microbeads would not be possible.

Were devolved countries able to implement tougher measures whilst in the EU?

Market access principles are not new to the UK and have been effective at the EU level for decades. However, in EU law, broader categories of exceptions could justify restrictive measures on certain goods, notwithstanding that they may be lawfully produced and sold in other states.

Except where a product or industry falls under a specific harmonization directive, Art 36 TFEU ensures that EU free movement laws do not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit which are justified as necessary and proportionate on grounds of public morality, public policy or public security; the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants; the protection of national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value; or the protection of industrial and commercial property. These exceptions are somewhat broader and leave more room for debate than those that would come into force in the UK under the new bill.

As well as the Art 36 exceptions, these types of trade bans can also generally be exempted using the approach set out in the “Cassis de Dijon” case (Case 120/78). This case clarified the general rule, similar to that being introduced by the UK Internal Markets Bill, that products sold lawfully in one Member State may not be prohibited from sale in another. However, in EU law, where a requirement would prohibit such a sale, the Member State could justify the prohibition if it was necessary to fulfil a “mandatory requirement of the state”. Such requirements include the effectiveness of fiscal supervision, the protection of public health, the fairness of commercial transactions or the defence of the consumer. Unlike the list in The UK Internal Markets Bill, this list is not exhaustive. In Case 302/86, which concerned a mandatory system of returnable containers for beer and soft drinks in Denmark, the list of exceptions was held to include the protection of the environment. This may explain how Scotland has been able to enact its ban on microbeads in cosmetics. In Case C-219/07, the Court noted that the protection and welfare of animals can also be a legitimate objective in the public interest. It also stated that the importance of this objective was reflected, in particular, in the adoption by the Member States of the Protocol on the Protection and Welfare of Animals, annexed to the Treaty establishing the European Community. Given the narrow categories of exception under the proposed UK bill, it does seem like it will be more difficult for individual home nations to justify unilaterally-imposed progressive bans.

Final Thoughts

The end of the Transition Period could be an opportunity to see more progressive animal protection laws coming out of the UK than even before. As the UK will no longer be bound by the markets access principles at the EU level, it could use this opportunity to enact higher standards or more stringent bans that were not permitted under EU free-trade laws. Recent reports suggest fur sales could be banned after the Transition Period ends under plans being considered by the Department for Environment. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto also claimed that the UK would be able to ban live animal exports after Brexit, although it did not go as far as making a pledge to do so. It would be a shame if, just as the UK is faced with an unprecedented opportunity to raise standards, its new internal market was structured in a way that incentivised a race to the bottom between the home nations.

Getting Advice

This blog post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact info@advocates-for-animals.com

We are grateful to everyone who contributes to the Advocates for Animals blog. Blogs should not be taken as legal advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the firm

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