Live animal exports decision to cost Thanet up to £1.5m
Thanet District Council is facing up to a £1.5m damages claim after taking the “moral and political” – but hasty and legally unwise – decision to close the Port of Ramsgate to live animal exports for five weeks.
A top judge said that, although it was possible to “sympathise” with the council, which had long wanted to stop the deeply unpopular trade, it had acted beyond its powers and in flagrant breach of European Union free trade rules.
The High Court’s decision opens the way for three Dutch meat businesses – Barco De Vapor, Onderwater Agneaux and Johannes Onderwater – to win substantial compensation for the suspension of their trade through the Kent port in September and October 2012.
Thanet suspended the trade the day after a shocking incident in which two sheep were drowned and 42 had to be destroyed. Ramsgate was at the time Britain’s only hub for live sheep exports and 45,000 lambs were to be shipped to France for the Muslim festival of Eid.
Mr Justice Birss said Thanet, as port authority, was obliged by law to keep the port open to lawful trade and knew full well that it had no animal welfare remit or power to impose any kind of ban on livestock exports.
He added: “The safe operation of the port was not the reason the ban was imposed.” Thanet had “wanted to ban the trade from Ramsgate port for a long time” and its true motive was a “moral and political” one.
“The real objective of the ban was simply to stop the shipment of livestock through the port, effectively on a permanent basis, because of animal welfare concerns. There was no other reason for the ban,” he said.
The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency – not Thanet – had responsibility for ensuring animal welfare, and the judge ruled that the council’s action “was a serious breach of a fundamental element of the EU Treaty”.
He concluded: “The animal export trade is not popular. It involves activities that are highly distasteful to many people. However, the law does not exist only to protect the interests of the popular.
“I have found that Thanet District Council did not have the authority to impose the ban. It was a disproportionate decision, reached in haste without separate legal advice, and breached a fundamental element of the rules governing free trade in the EU. In my judgment, the council is liable to pay damages to the claimants.”
The three Dutch exporters put their losses as a result of the ban at around £1.5m. However, the exact amount of compensation due to them will have to be assessed at a further court hearing, unless agreed before then.
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